Our View of the Universe

Map of Christian Constellations from Harmonia Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In our modern 21st century world, we often seem to take for granted that we have a fairly complete understanding of the physical laws governing the Universe and that we have, with a few exceptions, explained the way things work in the Cosmos. We sometimes look back at the Ptolemaic view of our world with amusement, which placed the Earth at the center of it all. Many of the conceptual ideas about the nature and structure of the physical universe in the medieval world seem almost quaint now, and illustrations like the one above often included signs of the Zodiac and other mythological references which gave the Universe a much more mysterious and esoteric character.

A current exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles takes a look at the medieval view of the universe in “The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts.” A recent review in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Saenger (April 19) highlights a few of the items on display, one of which caught my eye as an interesting starting point for appreciating our own view of the Universe.

“The Sphere, Newly Translated into the Vernacular,”c. 1537 – Johannes de Sacrobosco (1195-1256), England, “Sphaera volgare novamente tradotta,” Image from manuscript courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

“An Astronomer,” is an illustration from a medieval astronomy textbook written by Johannes de Sacrobosco, from an edition published in 1537 entitled, “Tractatus de Sphaera.” Photo: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

According to a description on “https://apps.carleton.edu/museum/”

“This volume is an important medieval astronomy textbook originally published ca. 1230, which demonstrates the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, theory of the universe in which heavenly bodies orbit around the earth. Sacrobosco’s text was in use for centuries; between 1472 and 1650, over 60 editions appeared in several languages. The frontispiece illustration presents the astronomer himself in monk’s robes. He is surrounded by the instruments of his discipline, including the quadrant and astrolabe, drafting tools, and – in the top border, an hourglass and pocket sundial for measuring time.”

Image credit: NASA / Hubble team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/farthest-galaxy.html.

We may view these medieval ideas with some amusement today, particularly since we know well from the advanced tools in Astronomy that we now have available to us, like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to make a “quantum leap” in our understanding, but even some 800 years ago, when Sacrobosco articulated the Ptolemaic view, it was generally accepted that their view was accurate and explained what they observed quite well. As the currently dominant species on the planet, we may believe that we are now in possession of a comprehensive and accurate view. No other known species has appeared to even approach such capabilities as Homo sapiens thus far, and our capacity for a richly textured subjective experiential awareness today appears to have advanced far beyond our predecessors.

What is so clearly different about most every other known species on Earth is that no matter how gifted they are in their perceptual or cognitive talents, it does not appear that any of them possess our comprehensive, penetrating, and complex awareness of our limitations and gifts. There are a few with exceptional perceptual talents that far exceed our own, and several species with many similar capacities that seem to indicate at least some level of awareness, but as yet, nothing truly indicative of a human-like consciousness.

This is not to say that we are somehow better or more important than any other species, only that our experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our ability to express it, and contemplate it, and influence it, and to deliberately and purposefully alter the world as a result of it, is not evident in a clearly discernible way in any other part of nature. There are a great many species on our planet with amazing perceptual differences from us, and which can perform at levels no human could hope to do, and you are right to appreciate these differences, and not to suppose that just because we have an apparently significant cognitive advantage, that we always get it right or do things better. One look at the totality of the human presence in the world and it is clear we often make mistakes, in spite of that advantage.

What is even more revealing, in my view, is not only our inclination to associate meaning and purpose to many of our experiences, but that we tend to dismiss many of the experiences we have as being chance and circumstance, when there truly is meaning and purpose to be gleaned from them. Deepak Chopra once wrote in detail about human life at the cellular level, and spoke eloquently about how our cells and systems within our bodies are often telling us things that we ignore or dismiss as indigestion or something, when in fact, our human cells, evolved over millions of years, have not as yet evolved enough to doubt their own thinking. Our human cognitive system sometimes seems to embrace doubt where there should be none, and, at other times, moves confidently into circumstances where doubt would be of genuine value. The benefit bestowed upon us by higher cognitive capacity, can also prevent us from perceiving the value of the natural world, and from embracing the perceptions of our fellow creatures, whose instincts are not mitigated by doubt.

It is my view that our richly-textured, experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our development as a cognitive species, as significant as our advances have been, may appear equally “amusing” to our descendants 800 years from now. Our evolutionary endowment, achieved as cognitive temporal beings in a physical universe, in no way guarantees our continued dominance, and unless we expand the realm of what we consider possible, we may not achieve the level of understanding necessary to sustain our existence here on Earth.

As much as I have studied and contemplated the richness, diversity, and astonishing complexity of the human brain, and as clearly as one can conceivably comprehend it in context of life on Earth, our human consciousness has not only pointed out our perceptual limits physically, but provided humanity with access to an awareness that transcends the physical universe, opening up our hearts and minds and spirits to a richness beyond perception.

7 thoughts on “Our View of the Universe

  1. Hmmm….yes indeed. Just as in the 19th Century they believed they had come to the end of physics, I suspect our understanding is still woefully inadequate. Will humanity survive? Does it matter? Probably “no and no”…but perhaps that is a little pessimistic. In any event, it is still good to be alive and to wonder the mysteries of the universe (or multiverse).

    1. Anthony,

      Perhaps, as you say, that is a bit pessimistic. What I sometimes do when I need a bit of reassurance in this regard is to spend some time expanding my exposure to a variety of additional sources and viewpoints. It does require us to make a deliberate effort to seek out those other voices or to consult other available ideas expressed in both current and ancient contexts, but there are many such opportunities throughout the literature of humanity across the millennia, many of which can inspire and uplift given the opportunity.

      I have always been intrigued by the early volumes of both history and science, and the illustrations which accompanied them clearly inspired me to undertake my own efforts at illustrating my ideas from a very young age. There are many ways to become inspired and to broaden your perspective, and my posting was intended to suggest just one of those ways.

  2. Hello jjhiii24,

    We share a lot in common and, like you, I have explored the subject of consciousness, how man came to conceive one universal God, the beginning of the universe, and our opportunity to travel into interstellar space.

    Do visit my website at http://www.nicholasginex.com. I wrote three articles that you may enjoy reading and perhaps comment on. They are:

    Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?
    Everything Has a Beginning – Even the Universe
    Extraterrestrials Have Bases on Our Moon


    1. Nicholas,

      Thanks for the link to your blog. I have visited there a few times already. Our views of the subject do have some areas in common and some that we do not share, but it is important to share our ideas either way.

      I believe my interests are much more specific generally speaking, and you have a very broad view which is open to interpretations which I do not share, but I encourage readers to consider all points-of-view when exploring the universe.

      Regards…John H.

  3. Hello John,

    I noted the words of Rene Descartes in an extract dated 1619:

    “It may seem surprising to find weighty judgements in the writings of the poets rather than the philosophers. The reason is that the poets were driven to write by enthusiasm and the force of imagination. We have within us the sparks of knowledge, as in a flint: philosophers extract them through reason, but poets force them out through the sharp blows of the imagination, so that they shine more brightly.”

    Rene compared the writings of poets as being weightier in judgement than philosophers because their knowledge is driven by enthusiasm and force of the imagination whereas, philosophers construct their thoughts based on reason. This comparison is unfair to applaud the writings of poets as being weightier (more significant) than philosophers. Although a poet is driven by the senses of the wonderful world we live in, it is logic of the philosopher that has caused the development of the greatest discoveries, such as electricity, ohms law, communication by radio, TV and phone, and the great advancements in science, space travel and quantum physics.

    Philosophers love to think, whereas poets love to express their impressions of the world and life around them. Poets direct their thoughts to the beauty around them and the wonderful feelings between themselves, other beings, and the organic world of trees, butterflies, the chirping of birds, the stars, etc. They are very impressionable of life around them and are sensitive to the feelings that the outside world invokes within them.


    1. I recognized the quote from Descartes’ “Olympian Matters,” and agree in principle that poets often have a different approach to writing, and do often express themselves through the prism of beauty, feelings, impressions, and by virtue of a poetic sensibility, which philosophers aren’t necessarily employing in their own expressions of reason and logic. In Descartes’ day, “philosophy,” and “philosophizing,” included what we now consider to be scientific reasoning. The modern day philosopher is constrained to a much greater extent by the highly technical specialization in all the sciences, and is often relegated to “abstract reasoning,” in their attempts to explain or otherwise expand upon the scientific view. What is especially challenging is when the modern scientist insists that everything can be explained by science alone, and then to subsequently infer that philosophy now relies on a similar foundation to that of poetry. Whenever our current science reaches some limit to acquiring additional knowledge, or cannot seem to cross over a particular threshold, philosophers often press on and speculate.

      In Descartes’ “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” probably written around 1628, his rule twelve states:

      “Finally we must make use of all the aids which intellect, imagination, sense-perception, and memory afford in order, firstly, to intuit simple propositions distinctly; secondly, to combine correctly the matters under investigation with what we already know, so that they too may be known; and thirdly, to find out what things should be compared with each other so that we make the most thorough use of all our human powers.”

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