The View from the Center of the Universe

Joseph Hilbe
Book Title: 
The View from the Center of the Universe
Book Author: 
Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

The View From the Center of the Universe is quite different from most volumes on cosmology. Its goal is not primarily to present an overview of contemporary scientific cosmological thought, but rather to urge readers to adopt a type of naturalistic religion.

The View From the Center of the Universe is quite different from most volumes on cosmology. Its goal is not primarily to present an overview of contemporary scientific cosmological thought, but rather to urge readers to adopt a type of naturalistic religion. The authors believe that ancient societies and the people in them benefited from cosmologies -- synonymous with their religions -- that made them central to the cosmos. Such centrality conferred social solidarity, meaning, and an emotionally satisfying story of the origins of the world and society.

This relationship between the cosmos and society changed with the emergence of monotheism and later with the 17th century scientific revolution. Currently, most educated individuals think of the universe as a vast impersonal repository of galaxies, stars, planets, and comets. Mankind is no longer central to existence, but rather a tiny speck in the cosmos. You and I live on a small planet encircling a medium-sized and aging star -- one of some 100 billion in our galaxy alone. And our galaxy is but one of some 100 billion galaxies situated in the observable universe - which is itself thought to be a small section of the universe as a whole. Moreover, if we in fact live in an eternal inflationary universe as envisioned by Alan Guth and many other scientific cosmologists, our universe -- the one emanating from the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago -- is just one of an infinite number of universes.

The authors - Joel Primack, Professor of Physics at the University of Santa Cruz in California and his wife Nancy Abrams, a lawyer by trade, but science writer by avocation - want us to discard this impersonal view of the universe and of our relationship with it. They yearn for us to once again find in the cosmos the source of human meaning and purpose.  How?  By rediscovering our centrality. 

To make their case, they point out that human beings are half-way in size between the Planck length (10^-33 cm) and the cosmic horizon (10^28 cm). Humanity exists half-way from the birth of the sun and its predicted demise, and so forth. But of course there are a great many human-cosmic relationships in which mankind is in no sense the half-way point or center. Strangely, the authors argue that the Milky Way is at the center of the universe. They think this because all galaxies appear to be receding from us, or rather, from our Local Group, no matter what direction we look. But this would be the case for intelligent beings observing other galaxies from any location in the universe. We are not in fact, even though we may be appear to be, at the literal center of anything.

Although the authors want us to return to the mindset of the ancients with respect to the cosmos, they don’t want us to become polytheists. Nor do they want us to abandon empirical science in favor of mythology or belief in a transcendent Abrahamic God. Instead, they emphasize the importance of creating a society that both reveres and engages in science, so that scientific cosmology might someday serve as the basis for a natural religion.

They fully realize that many people still think in pre-scientific terms. Perhaps a majority of those living in the US, or at least a majority of Christians, believe the universe and Earth were created by god some six thousand years ago. Such people love the technological comforts that science has given us, but often disdain the knowledge behind the technology. In any event, the authors see that in order for cosmology to become the religion of the future, it must be recast in terms of easily communicated symbols and metaphor in order for the “masses” to accept it.

They also believe that our current mentality, in which scientific advances have outstripped normative thinking, and which separates human values from nature, may be leading our species to extinction. We know a great deal about the world, but not what to do with it. They argue, sensibly, that we need to conserve natural resources; we need to attune ourselves as individuals and as a world-wide society to the long-term needs of our species.  Seeing ourselves as central to the cosmos, or at least as an integral part of it, may help inspire such a shift in perspective.

But it's a stretch to suppose that many in the US will abandon their current other-worldly religious beliefs for a cosmological religion, at least any time soon. This is a society of American Idol and Brittney Spears, not one to revere the universe, however artfully it’s symbolized and even if it’s human-centered. It is highly unlikely that most Christians will abandon their belief in a personal afterlife in favor of a more abstract unity with nature. The desire for personal immortality is too powerful, especially in a society so steeped in individualism.

Still, this book has a natural audience. Members of groups wishing to conjoin science and religion (an increasingly popular endeavor) will likely find it stimulating. They will appreciate the information provided about cosmology, which the authors do a good job in presenting, as well the images and symbolism throughout the text. And the thesis about our cosmic centrality will likely appeal to many not bound to traditional religion. However, most scientists and people of a more skeptical bent will likely want to pass on it, reserving their reading time for books like Vilenkin (2006) and Greene (2004). 

- Joseph Hilbe, 9/06 

References and related readings

Capra, Fritiof (1975), The Tao of Physics, Boston: Shambala Publications.
Davies, Paul (1984), God and the New Physics, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Goswami, Amit (1995), The Self-Aware Universe, New York: Tarcher.
Greene, Brian (2004), The Fabric of the Cosmos, New York: Random House.
Kafatos, Menes and Robert Nadeau, (1990) The Conscious Universe, New York: Springer-Verlag.
Lidsey, James (2000), The Bigger Bang, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mctaggart, Lynne (2003), The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe, New York, NY: Harper.
Randall, Lisa (2005), Warped Passages. New York: Ecco.
Smolin, Lee (2000), Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.
Stenger, Victor (2003), Has Science Found God, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Vilenkin, Alex (2006), Many Worlds in One, New York: Hill & Wang.
Webb, Stephen (2004), Out of This World, New York: Copernicus Books.