The Invention of Science by David Wootton is a dense, thought-provoking, and encyclopedic account of the Scientific Revolution. The book is an intellectual history, focusing mainly on the mental paradigm shift that the Revolution brought to Western Civilization. How man thinks about the natural world post-Revolution is not the same as how man thought before it, and this shift in how we conceive the world has been so complete that we easily take it for granted. The Scientific Revolution represents a change at the level of our instinctive habits of thought. Dr. Wootton documents this shift in depth and with a clearly immense knowledge of his subject.

Dr. Wootton’s chapter on the impact of the telescope was especially fascinating. Here I want to summarize his argument in that chapter, and then do something that Dr. Wootton does not: Connect the impact of the telescope on Western man’s mental outlook to the representation of God in the book of Job.

To put the main point simply, the traditional Christian and medieval conception of the universe, as one tailored specially for man, was fatally undermined by the telescope. But God’s confrontation of Job already provides a perspective which might have called this man-centered conception into question anyway if properly appreciated.

How Did the Telescope Change Things?

By the end of the 17th century there was a whole array of new scientific instruments, but none “had an impact comparable to that of the telescope: originally intended to serve as a simple tool in warfare and navigation, it transformed not only astronomy but also how human beings envisaged their own significance.”[1]

In the medieval conception of the cosmos, earth was at the center of a series of spheres, like a gigantic onion, with the different layers serving as homes for the “wandering stars” or planets (including the sun and the moon), and the outermost sphere holding the “fixed” stars. All these spheres turned around each other like a huge mechanism. In this model, earth at the center and below the “lunar sphere” may be the crudest, heaviest, and most impure region and element, farthest from God’s dwelling place beyond the stars, but this was still a cosmos that was undeniably earth-focused, self-evidently created as a capsule designed for man’s habitation. To be clear, this heavenly spheres model was not invented by the church and was not exegeted out of the Bible, but the church adopted it along with all educated people as congenial to the creation account in Genesis and to God’s obvious special interest in humanity. It was the accepted science of the day, and the church blessed it. True, in the century prior to Galileo, Copernicus had proposed a sun-centered model, but by Galileo’s time this theory had not really caught on yet.

It was when Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens that the medieval theory really began to crack.

First, Galileo found that there were mountains on the moon. This implied that it was a world not unlike our own, and was not the pure and smooth heavenly body that the old system assumed it to be. More significantly, by 1610, Galileo had discovered that Jupiter had moons of its own—four of them that he could see. So here at least were some objects in the heavens that did not revolve around earth. Then, when he found that Venus had phases and thus was a solid, earth-like body that also revolved around the sun, the game was up for the old system. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory from the previous century had definitively displaced it. That was all well and good, but Copernicus had not had a telescope, and Dr. Wootton highlights a more profound and subtler point about what the telescope itself meant. This was the simple fact that by it, Galileo “had seen something where, before, there was apparently nothing at all to see.”[2] The implication, intuitive to us today since we have never lived in a world without high-powered scientific instruments, is that the universe may not in fact be fashioned with accessibility to human sense-perception as a primary consideration. As Dr. Wootton says, “[B]y expanding our range of vision, the telescope . . . made it easier to recognize the limitations of our sensory apparatus when deprived of artificial aids.”[3]

Moreover, with Galileo’s confirmation of mountains on the moon and the recognition of Venus as a solid body, the thought naturally occurs of seeing the earth itself from the perspective of deep space, and two ideas forced themselves onto Galileo’s contemporaries with jarring plausibility: “there might indeed be other inhabited worlds, and space might indeed be infinite.”[4] Dr. Wootten even points to Francis Godwin’s “The Man in the Moone” (published 1638), a story about a moon voyage in which the moon is found to be inhabited, as the beginning of science fiction in English.[5] By the end of Galileo’s century, “every educated person,” says Dr. Wootton, “was familiar with the idea that the universe might be infinite and that there were probably other inhabited worlds.”[6]

The thing to note about all this is the impact that this possibility had on human consciousness: Maybe humans are not that important. “The result was a quite new sense of the insignificance of human beings,” Dr. Wootton says, and man could no longer be seen as “the measure of all things,” as had previously been rather literally the case. Measurements such as the foot and the mile had been based on human anatomy and human paces. Galen, the second century physician, had said that the human hand “was the proper measure of hot and cold, damp and dry, soft and hard.” Even time in day-to-day life could be measured by the time it took to say Paternosters or Ave Marias.[7]

What the telescope did was undermine the longstanding and orthodox Christian conviction that as the universe was made as a habitation for man, it perfectly corresponded to him and his needs, despite the inconveniences introduced by the Fall. Lenses themselves were not new. There had been magnifying glasses and spectacles for a while, but these merely corrected defective human sight and were not needed by properly working eyes. But the telescope revealed a whole universe outside of normal human perception entirely. It suggested that man was not the measure of all things, that the universe was not necessarily formed as a perfect fit for man, and that size and scale were rather arbitrary.

Soon after all this, but in the same century, microscopes would have a similar effect in the opposite direction: Organisms were found to exist that were every bit as complex as human beings, but were too small for the naked eye to see. As Dr. Wootton puts it, “Even Kepler and Pascal, who wanted to think of themselves as inhabiting a universe made by God for man’s salvation, found that they had no choice but to recognize that the universe was so vast, and the tiniest creatures in it were so exquisitely detailed, that it was either infinite, or might as well be.”[8]

Cyrano de Bergerac, a writer from the 17th century, who was also a materialist and atheist, was insistent on the apparent implications of what these new tools were revealing. He took it to be nothing but the baseless pride of humanity who

persuade themselves, that nature hath only been made for them; as if it were likely that the sun, a vast body . . . had only been kindled to . . . plumpen their cabbages . . . How, must it be said, because the sun measures our days and years, that it hath only been made, to keep us from running our heads against the walls? No, no, if that visible deity [the sun] shine upon man, it’s by accident.”[9]

So the medieval universe of nested spheres, with earth and humanity comfortably at the center, and the intuition that came with it that man was the measure of all things and the focus of creation, could not long survive these new instruments. Today, when we look up at the stars, we don’t have the sense—as a medieval person would have—that we are looking literally up through turning orbs into the purer realms of angels and finally God’s heaven itself. Instead, we have grown up with picture books and science documentaries that remind us that our planet is rather small, orbiting a quite average star in a vast sea of an incomprehensible number of other stars, forming an incomprehensible number of galaxies, and likely trillions of planets spread over distances so vast that for all practical purposes, it might as well be infinite. Human beings don’t seem to have any special place in such a universe, except in our own inflated egos.

The Telescope and Job

The medieval cosmos does make biblical sense. In the Genesis account, man is pictured as the pinnacle of creation, after all. But the new, post-Galileo attitude is equally at home with another strand of biblical thought: the creation as represented in the book of Job.

Through thirty-seven painful chapters, Job suffers, wishing for an opportunity to plead his case before God. The story has a lot to teach us about suffering throughout these chapters, but one of the main lessons appears when Job gets his wish and God finally speaks. The confrontation is not exactly gentle. It is essentially a litany of rhetorical questions that have as their thrust one basic point: The universe, Job, does not revolve around you.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4)

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” (38:16-17)

“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?” (38:34)

These questions go one and on, and are intended to make Job feel his smallness. Some of God’s questions seem to have an even more specific nuance, for example:

“Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man”? (38:25-26)

Or,

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the does?” (39:1)

The point here seems to be that there is much of creation that does not exist for man’s sake in particular. Things happen where no man is, and where no one but God will ever see them. Creation exists for God. Man participates in it as one of its parts, and is even given dominion over it, but should not assume that it is all about him, or that it is all even relevant to him.

The invention of the telescope highlighted this reality in a way that humanity had not yet experienced, or perhaps properly appreciated. The eighth Psalm does contrast the vastness of the heavens with the smallness of man, but the real focus of that Psalm is not man’s smallness, but his dominion. In Job, we have a vision of the universe as strange, and not especially congenial to its human inhabitants. It is a vision that the telescope abundantly reinforces, and perhaps it was a reinforcing that has been good for us.

On the other hand, it seems indisputable that today we have swung too far into a kind of nihilistic cynicism. Dwelling too much on the knowledge that earth is a pale blue dot in a vast sea of galaxies can lead to a sense of meaninglessness, but that is not the intention of Job. We need a healthy embrace of the vision of man given to us in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, but we need not be surprised to learn that there is far more to creation than we have ever imagined. Why would we be surprised? God, not man, is the one who imagined and spoke the universe into being.

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Notes:

[1] David Wootton, The Invention of Science, p. 245.

[2] Ibid., p. 220.

[3] Ibid., p. 243.

[4] Ibid., p. 230.

[5] Wootton asserts that Godwin was “a crackpot,” for what it’s worth.

[6] Ibid., p. 234.

[7] Ibid., p. 235.

[8] Ibid., p., 243.

[9] Ibid., p. 242. Wootton is quoting Cyrano’s 1687 work, “The Comical History.”

The featured image is a detail from “Newton” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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