Is human life on Earth special or not? According to the popular narrative, science continues pushing humanity off any supposed pedestal—a process that began when Nicolaus Copernicus promoted a heliocentric solar system. Noted astrobiologist Caleb Scharf’s recently-released book, The Copernicus Complex, deals with this question.
In full disclosure, I have not read the book, but it is definitely on my list. Even so, the discussion surrounding the book highlights a few significant points.
In his review of The Copernicus Complex, astrophysicist Mario Livio states, “All the astronomical discoveries made since Nicolaus Copernicus demoted Earth from its position at the centre of the universe have continued to erode humanity’s perceived physical significance in the grand scheme of things.”1 He then lists a series of findings that show that Earth resides nowhere near the center of the galaxy or universe or multiverse. Furthermore, the physical makeup of all life, including humans, represents just a small fraction of the stuff that comprises the universe.
On a historical note, the “demotion” by Copernicus misrepresents the widely held picture of humanity’s place in the universe at the time. Today, we view “the center” as a location of honor, but in Copernicus’ time it was believed that the center was the lowest point in the world—the basest, universal pit.2 Thus, by moving Earth from the center, Copernicus actually promoted our home to a more honored position.
If the universe (or multiverse) is all that exists, then humanity ultimately stands as a highly ordered yet fleeting configuration of atoms that will quickly disappear in the increasing entropy of the universe. Yet even though it appears that Earth and humanity have no physical significance, it seems almost everyone clings to the belief that we humans are special. As we survey the universe, we observe that life exists on a thin boundary between order and chaos. The solar system’s order is at the mercy of random motions. Earth’s climatic and geophysical conditions teeter on the brink of destroying the planet’s capacity for life but ultimately enhance its habitability. Such findings make it reasonable to conclude that the universe was designed for life to exist.
If a transcendent being (like the God of the Bible) is responsible for this fine-tuned design, then humanity’s specialness ultimately flows from the value God bestows upon us. The Bible makes this point explicitly. Genesis 1:26–27 tells us that God created humans, and only humans, in His own image! Our physical makeup and location have no relevance to our specialness.
Livio concludes his review, “Notwithstanding our physical insignificance, the human mind is significant. Why? Because all the discoveries described in this book, from the subatomic realm to the multiverse were made by us.” This observation makes sense if humanity exists for a purpose—but raises important issues if God does not exist. If the physical universe is all that there is, why, then, can we think about and understand a universe that cannot think about us?
- Mario Livio, “Astrobiology: Cosmic Prestige,” Nature 512 (August 28, 2014): 368–69.
- Dennis Danielson, “The Great Copernican Cliché,” American Journal of Physics 69 (October 2001): 1029–35.