Reflections in Cosmology 3: Anthropomorphic, Anthropocentric and Anthropometric Universes

Our earliest ancestors conceived of an anthropomorphic universe – a universe made in the image of human beings. The Sun and Moon, the wind and clouds, the rocks and trees, all were imbued with spirits that had human traits.

As the ancients discovered more about the natural world and its workings, their universe turned into one that was anthropocentric – human beings were at the centre of the universe. We were special. The Universe was created for us. This view has been undermined in the last five centuries by the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. Earth is but a planet orbiting a typical sun among hundreds of billions of suns in the Milky Way, which itself is a typical spiral galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. We human beings share a common ancestor with all life on Earth. We are made of the same atoms that form the rocks and the seas – most of them forged in the cores of exploding stars.

Does this mean that we are no longer significant? Have we lost our special position in the created order? Some would think so. But as a man of faith, I believe not. Whatever it may be, we still have to contend with the fact that we live in an anthropometric universe – a universe observed and measured by human beings (and whatever intelligent beings there may be out there).

For those lost in the vast and apparently meaningless modern universe, there is comfort in the realization that all universes are anthropometric. The Medieval universe was made and measured by men and women, although the medievalists themselves would have hotly denied the thought. The modern universe with its bioelectrochemical brains pondering over it is also human-made. Like the Medieval universe, it will inevitably fade away in time and be replaced by other universes. The universes of the future will almost certainly differ from our modern version; nevertheless, they will all be anthropometric because ‘man is the measure of all things’ entertained by man. The Universe itself, of course, is not human-made, but we have no true conception of what it actually is. All we know is that it contains us – the dreamers of universes. ~ Edward Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe

The universes of modern scientific cosmology, in pursuit of objectivity, are devoid of us humans. Yet we are a part of the Universe, and our role as observer is still not fully understood, particularly in light of quantum mechanics – where the act of observing actually changes the object or process under observation. Post-modern philosophy also provides a timely critique in pointing out that absolute ‘objectivity’ does not exist, even in science.

Possibly the world of external facts is much more fertile and plastic than we have ventured to suppose: it may be that all these cosmologies and many more analyses and classifications are genuine ways of arranging what nature offers to our understanding, and that the main condition determining our selection between them is something in us rather than something in the external world. ~ Edwin Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science

Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning. ~ Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy

Through humanity, the Universe becomes aware of itself...
Through humanity, the Universe becomes aware of itself...

The question remains – Why are we even capable of measuring and understanding the universe at all?

Human beings form a vital part of cosmology and represent the Universe perceiving and thinking about itself ~ Edward Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe

There are two locations where general hints of the divine presence might be expected to be seen most clearly. One is the vast cosmos itself, with its fifteen-billion-year history of evolving development following the big bang. The other is the “thinking reed” of humanity, so insignificant in scale but, as Pascal said, superior to all the stars because it alone knows them and itself. The universe and the means by which that universe has become self-aware – these are the centres of our enquiry. ~ John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science

One cannot study cosmology without having a religious attitude to the universe. Cosmology assumes the rationality of the universe, but can give no reason for it short of a creator of the laws of nature being a rational creator. ~ Edward Milne, Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God


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