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The View from Space Print E-mail
By Michael Baruzzini   
Wednesday, 07 August 2013

The world of science news, commentary, and blogging has recently been quite interested in a photo released by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), showing the Earth as seen from the Cassini probe, which is currently orbiting the gas giant planet Saturn.

At first glance, the picture strikes me as a scene out of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The gas giant looms in the foreground, lit from behind, from our perspective, by the light of the Sun, which it is blocking out. In fact, blocking out the Sun is a crucial element of this image. Removing the Sun’s overwhelming glare allows us to see, in the far distance, a tiny sparkle – the  planet Earth, 898 million miles away. This image, taken on July 19th, is in fact only the third picture ever taken of the planet Earth from the outer solar system.

It’s not inappropriate that I’m reminded of a movie known for its striking visual artistry (whatever else you may think about it). In their description of the image, the NASA/JPL team notes that the image of the Earth is only one small part of a larger mosaic of images which, when combined together, will show the entire span of Saturn’s rings. Of the images, JPL’s release notes, “some were taken for scientific purposes and some to produce a natural color mosaic.”

In other words, some parts of the image aren’t for science, they are for show – for art. Science is, in a sense, akin to art, in that the best of science is a pursuit of beauty, often of an intellectual sort, but often even of the visual kind as well, as seen in this new image from Cassini. The pursuit of truth and beauty is one of those leisured things that is good for its own sake.

Back in 1990, the probe Voyager 1 took the first image of Earth from deep space, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles – still the record distance for a photo of the Earth. In the image, the Earth is seen as a tiny blue speck in the vast blackness of space.

This “Pale Blue Dot” image has become something of a sacramental amongst scientific skeptics. Carl Sagan immortalized it in a book of the same title, writing:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

                                            

Sagan’s reaction is typical of those who find in science a process of dethronement and disenchantment of previous “naïve superstitions.” But of course the older Christian and even the ancient pagan conceptions of the cosmos weren’t quite that simple. While man’s unique calling was of course central to the Christian vision, his physical location on Earth was never accorded so much significance, being thought of as, at best, a middling place between Heaven and Hell.

Yet despite the sense that our place was fallen and incomplete, there has also been in Christian thought and sentiment a sense that our station in the universe was a place of some beauty, a reflection of the glory and providence of God.

As Sagan perceived, modern scientific knowledge of the cosmos reinforces the sense that the Earth is a rare jewel. Whether this jewel is a fluke, a random chance, or a providentially provided home, however, is not something that can be decided simply by viewing a photograph. Like all art, it may expand the experiences from which we draw, but we also bring to it many philosophical presuppositions.

Thus I think that it is chiefly as art that we must consider the true importance of such scientific images: as God’s art, Who made the solar system, and as man’s art who made the devices that can explore space and return these images to Earth.

These pictures are delightful, in the more philosophical meaning of the term: they cause us to rejoice at what is. Although he interprets them in the dim and shadowy light of his bleak philosophy, the skeptic is nevertheless moved by these scientific images because they do truly contain beauty.

Thus, despite their common misuse, the Christian should not be too quick to dismiss these pictures. They may well be used in facile attempts to undermine the Christian view of the world; but our response should not therefore be to reject them entirely, any more than Christian artists reject art because it, too, is often put to perverse uses.

Instead, our challenge is first to learn how to intellectually counter the skeptics’ arguments by pointing out the flaws in their reasoning. More importantly, however, and perhaps the more difficult task – considering the ample rhetorical skill of the skeptical popularizers – we  must learn how to teach the world to look at these images not with the eyes of despair, but with the eyes of faith.

Because the eyes of faith see something that is truly there – and not to be missed when science masquerades as philosophy.

 
Michael Baruzzini is a freelance science writer and editor who writes for Catholic and science publications, including Crisis, First Things, Touchstone, Sky & Telescope, The American Spectator, and elsewhere. He is also the creator of CatholicScience.com, which offers online scisnce curriculum resources for Catholic students.
 
 
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Comments (10)Add Comment
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written by ib, August 07, 2013
I have to say, after reading a couple of the "New" atheists books and watching a few debates between Christians and "New" atheists, I find myself entirely bored with them. By and large the "New" atheists display ignorant of anything beyond their one little postage stamp of a specialized, bureaucratic, unreflective corpus of abstractions that they mistake for facts. They generally have never reflected on the larger abstract structures of what they are doing (e.g., the nature of mathematics and why it seems to work in enlivening their abstractions), and how these structure fit into the broader scope of human activity. Instead they assume without reflection that they already are in possession of all that matters and can dispense with anything outside of their system(s) of ideas. In truth, most of them belong to the philosophical tradition of Idealism, in which abstract notions dictate the real and not the other way around.

As Chesterton once said with respect to the ideal of Progress (which even today wants to impose itself as a prophetic guide to the future):

“My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.”

I admit that I feel much the same about the "New" atheists. They bore me in their myopia. Give me the much more rigourous Vienna Circle any day!
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written by DeGaulle, August 07, 2013
"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

A rather posturing, self-important, and dare I say, deluded opinion?
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 07, 2013
« Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie. » says Pascal – The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. On which C S Lewis remarked, “We are inveterate poets. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality--the sublime. Unless this were so, the merely arithmetical greatness of the galaxy would be no more impressive than the figures in a telephone directory. It is thus, in a sense, from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to over-awe us. To a mind which did not share our emotions, and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument from size would be sheerly meaningless. Men look on the starry heavens with reverence: monkeys do not. The silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal*, but it was the greatness of Pascal that enabled them to do so. When we are frightened by the greatness of the universe, we are (almost literally) frightened by our own shadows: for these light years and billions of centuries are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myth, falls upon them.”
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 07, 2013
"...our challenge is first to learn how to intellectually counter the skeptics’ arguments by pointing out the flaws in their reasoning."

True, but I wonder how much the deficit resides in their capacity to appreciate the beautiful. My sense is that the closer you live in concert with the Creator, the better one is able to see the beautiful.
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written by Grump, August 07, 2013
Sci-fi writer Arthur Clarke, an atheist, once said, "Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering."

The vastness of the seemingly infinite cosmos gives no answer but the imagination never ceases to conjure possibilities. Jesus said he had "other sheep." One wonders if there may be another "earth" somewhere in the universe where its "Adam and Eve" did not succumb to temptation and where all beings are perfect.
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written by Dennis Larkin, August 07, 2013
Sagan's comment is moronic. If shown an overhead view of Notre Dame Stadium on game day from the Goodyear Blimp, nobody would be able to identify my spouse or child, among all those others, for whom I would give my life. But given long enough, I would find them, and I would give everything for them. Sagan was a moron. Was, because Sagan is dead and canot answer for his idiocy.

Sagan was offended by "the scandal of the particular." So much the worse for him.
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written by Howard Kainz, August 07, 2013
To turn Sagan upside-down: If we are alone in the universe, perhaps the whole shebang was made for us.
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written by jason taylor, August 07, 2013
"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

Until one realizes that without someone to appreciate the vastness the universe is just nothing. It takes a creature with a soul to say the universe is majestic.
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written by ib, August 07, 2013
@ Howard Kainz
Aha, the anthropic principle ... definitely worth a mention!
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written by Tony, August 07, 2013
As always, Chesterton understands. Here is his poem, "The Holy of Holies":

"ELDER father, though thine eyes
Shine with hoary mysteries,
Canst thou tell what in the heart
Of a cowslip blossom lies?

‘Smaller than all lives that be,
Secret as the deepest sea,
Stands a little house of seeds,
Like an elfin’s granary.

‘Speller of the stones and weeds,
Skilled in Nature’s crafts and creeds,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds.’

‘God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim,
Filling all eternity--
Adonai Elohim.’

The words of Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed." And again: "The Kingdom of God is like the leaven that a woman kneaded into three measures of flour."

And Saint Paul: "For God chose things of naught, to bring to naught the things that are."

The most astounding thing in the universe that we know of, is a single act of the human will -- even the act of looking up to the stars, for the sheer beauty of it all. Nothing else in the universe can be weighed in the balance with it. Saturn is but a speck, by comparison with the mighty universe of a single human thought.

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