"Space," says Douglas Adams in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.” It is so big that it may, in fact, be infinite, without borders or limits; a notion that seems utterly beyond human comprehension.
According to Carl Sagan, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. . .we know that we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” Or, as British astrophysicist, Arthur Stanley Eddington, suggests; “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine - it is stranger than we can imagine.”
The immensity of the universe, and humanity's small place within it, makes philosophers of everyone. Poets and scientists, farmers and priests, both ancient and modern, have looked up at the stars and wondered about gods and aliens. “Who are we?” asks Carl Sagan. “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” At the heart of all this wondering is one essential question: “Are we alone?”
Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Clarke was speaking about the possibility of life on other planets, but his proposition applies equally to the existence and nature of God as it does to that of ‘spacemen’. In the mind of some astronomers and philosophers, the two are intrinsically linked.
Michael Shermer, for instance, includes the following passage in his book, ‘Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design’:
“Finally, from what we now know about the cosmos, to think that all this was created for just one species among the tens of millions of species who live on one planet circling one of a couple of hundred billion stars that are located in one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies, all of which are in one universe among perhaps an infinite number of universes all nestled within a grand cosmic multiverse, is provincially insular and anthropocentrically blinkered. Which is more likely? That the universe was designed just for us, or that we see the universe as having been designed just for us?”
This point was also made by the brilliant theoretical phycisist, Richard Feynman: “It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”
Comedian George Carlin expresses the same idea rather more simply: “If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.”
Not everyone agrees with these sentiments. To many, the majesty and precision of the universe is a clear sign of a Creator, and a proclamation of humanity’s worth. Deepak Chopra says, “There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.” To C. S. Lewis, the universe also has a purpose, however unclear. He says, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
But can humanity ever know the universe? English author Eden Phillpotts suggested that “The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” Einstein, of course, doubted that would ever happen: “Only two things are infinite,” he said, “the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.”
According to Carl Sagan, “The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.” It is what it is and not what people might wish it to be. “There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self,” says Aldous Huxley.
There is so much humanity does not, and cannot know, given limited human reasoning. Even the great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has done more to remove God’s ‘necessity’ from creation than any other scientist, suggests that “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”
More answers will come, of course, but surely not all. Nearly two thousand years ago, Seneca proposed that “The time will come when diligent research over periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden...Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memories of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate. Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.”
In the end, the quest to understand the universe dispenses with science and reason, and falls back on philosophy and religion. Lao Tzu states, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” It must be doubted whether the universe can ever be truly understood by any other means, and maybe that’s for the best. Douglas Adams once more, from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide”:
“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”