Most of us take what we know about the cosmos for granted, but these facts were born from the findings of hardworking individuals who asked big questions and dug deep. While there have been several astronomers throughout human history, a few were able to blend science with philosophy. Learn about the philosophical approach of famous astronomers who gave us a panoramic orientation of how we fit into the cosmos.
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”— Carl Sagan
Humans have looked to the skies for millennia. Fascinated by its alluring mysteries, they wanted to bring meaning to distant worlds in a dark cosmic void.
A few took a much closer look and enhanced our knowledge of the universe. These exceptional scientists hailed from many disciplines and dedicated much of their lives to clarifying the heavens and the laws that govern them.
Most of us take the information we have about the cosmos for granted. The fact that Earth rotates around the sun, a tiny star in the Milky Way galaxy, or that we belong to a family of eight planets called the solar system seems obvious now.
But these facts were born from the findings of hardworking individuals who had the ingenuity to ask big questions and dig deep. They dared to break existing paradigms and even risk their lives in the pursuit of truth. In doing so, they transformed our understanding of the universe and our species.
While there have been many astronomers throughout human history from various cultural backgrounds who contributed to the existing pool of knowledge, some stick out because they were able to blend science with philosophy.
These famous astronomers explained space phenomena with great precision and gave us a panoramic orientation of how we fit into the cosmos. These giants upon whose shoulders we stand remind us of our sublime connection to the stars.
What is cosmology?
Cosmology is a branch of metaphysics and physics that deals with the nature of the universe. The term is commonly associated with the branch of astronomy related to studying the observable universe. The theories and doctrines describe the universe’s origin, structure, and space-time relationships.
Thomas Blount first used the term cosmology in his 1656 dictionary “Glossographia.” It appears again in 1731, used by German philosopher Christian Wolff in his “Cosmologia Generalis”. Cosmology comes from the Ancient Greek words ‘kosmos,’ meaning ‘world,’ and ‘logia,’ meaning ‘study of.’
Some topics that cosmologists tackle include the laws of physics (examples: thermodynamics, quantum field theory,) universal origins, structure, fate of the universe, and several branches of philosophy (examples: epistemology, philosophy of science, and mathematics).
However, cosmology has expanded beyond physical and mathematical data confines. For those of us whose eyes glaze over when we look at Kepler and Newton’s laws of mass, period, and distance, or Galileo’s Wave Equation about Photons, there is another facet of cosmology that is much more palatable, even enjoyable.
Understanding the philosophy of cosmology
Cosmology extends beyond the foundational scientific elements of astronomy – it also involves the philosophical contemplation of the universe. It is investigated by famous astronomers, scientists of all stripes, philosophers of space and time, and metaphysicians. For this reason, cosmological theories may include both scientific and non-scientific propositions.
Religious or mythological cosmology are beliefs based on religious, mythological, and esoteric traditions and literature of creation myths and eschatology; the study of final events in world history or humankind.
For instance, Christianity and other monotheistic religions, like Judaism and Islam, believe in a sovereign and transcendent God who created the universe and maintains its existence. The world exists through supernatural intervention, which Newton referred to as “not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.”
A polytheistic religion like Hinduism states that different gods played a role in the creation of the universe. Those who follow Vaishnavism believe Vishnu created Brahma and ordered him to further create the universe. While those who follow Shaivism believe Lord Shiva is the creator and Bhagwan or god is formless.
The modern use of metaphysical cosmology takes a more philosophical and religious approach. Like religious cosmology, it covers the totality of space, time, and other phenomena and addresses questions about the universe that lies beyond the scope of science. However, it uses philosophical methods like dialectics, a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view on a subject.
Modern metaphysical cosmology includes questions like:
- Does the universe have a purpose? What is the reason for its existence?
- What are the origins of the universe? How did it come into existence?
- What is the cosmos made of? What are the main material components?
- How do we know the totality of the universe? Do multiverses exist?
Because there’s an overlap between the questions asked by philosophical aspects of cosmology and those posed by theology, astronomy and space exploration have increasingly been compared to religion.
The spiritual experience of space exploration
Think back to a time when you had an intimate encounter with the cosmos. Perhaps you were stargazing in your backyard, viewing the rings of Saturn through a telescope, watching a movie in a planetarium, or marveling at images of faraway multi-hued galaxies on NASA’s Instagram feed.
These experiences tug at something more profound than a scientific understanding of these entities. It awakens a primal part of being that gravitates toward the holy and mystical aspects that permeate our existence. Much like religion, it evokes a feeling of awe, reverence, and humility.
In an article, Ross Anderson makes a comparison between space exploration and religion:
“Its priests, figures like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, extoll its virtues in what sound like sermons. In its iconography, astronauts are like saints that ascend into heaven and extraterrestrials are like gods—benevolent, kind, wise, capable of manipulating space and time.”
The idea of viewing space exploration as a religion dates back to the early twentieth century with the Russian Cosmism movement. Space mania migrated to the United States after World War II when German scientists shared their views on space travel.
While Americans initially saw space travel as fantasy, they gradually embraced it. In later years, they came to view distant worlds with reverence, becoming the most ardent cosmists in the world. It invigorated their efforts to send human-crewed space flights and pour themselves into space exploration.
Individually, we stand to benefit significantly from taking on a cosmic perspective on life. By developing a relationship with the larger universe and understanding it, even on an intuitive non-granular level, we can appreciate our existence in the universe and do everything we can to make the most of our lives.
By developing a deeper understanding of universal laws, you’ll feel a profound connection with something larger than yourself. You’ll experience the universe as intelligent and harmonious, and feel supported by its high vibrations. When connected to this cosmic flow of energy, you’ll feel encouraged by a sense of belonging.
Famous astronomers and their philosophies
Over the centuries, astronomers from all over the world have helped people understand what they see in the night sky. Each one made discoveries that played a vital part in piecing together the puzzle of space phenomena. These scientific findings in cosmology were invaluable in understanding the physical components of the universe.
Scientists are commonly thought to be atheists – studies show that four-in-ten scientists say they do not believe in a god or a higher power. While they don’t believe in a specific theology, there is often some philosophical crossover with science.
The awe and reverence one feels when one contemplates the enormity of the cosmos are the same emotions evoked when we reflect on god and the heavens.
Some astronomers, though not religious, evoke this sentiment in their discourse about space. These four famous astronomers have inadvertently shaped the philosophical view of others:
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)
Born in Italy, Galileo Galilei made groundbreaking discoveries using a telescope he modeled to magnify objects twenty times more than they did in the past. His upgraded observational tool helped him discover the rings of Saturn and the four primary moons of Jupiter, now known as the Galilean moons.
Galileo also made discoveries that revolutionized astronomy and confirmed the heliocentric system developed by his predecessor Nicolas Copernicus. However, his opposition to the view that the Earth was at the center of everything led to a reformation against him. Religious authorities were displeased because his theory was contrary to accepted scripture.
The Roman Catholic Church convicted Galileo of heresy, and he found himself embroiled in an ongoing struggle to defend science from religious prejudice. The Inquisition forced him to deny his views and condemned him to house arrest for the rest of his life.
In a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, Galileo expressed his frustration with authorities who supported Biblical authority and disregarded scientific evidence. He wrote:
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.”
Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)
Carl Sagan served as a professor of astronomy and space sciences, and the director of Cornell University Laboratory for Planetary Studies. Some of his many scientific discoveries include explaining the seasonal changes on Mars and the high temperatures of Venus.
Sagan is also known for playing a pivotal role in making astronomy popular and mainstream. His most significant contribution is the TV series, “Cosmos,” in which he broke down complicated topics in astronomy in a compelling way that drew millions of viewers.
His charismatic teaching style and enthusiasm influenced people around the world. Sagan was a master at weaving science with evocative story-telling, which inspired millions to open their minds to the cosmos. Even though his narratives of the stars reflected science-based realities, he was immensely successful in invoking curiosity and kindling wonder.
Sagan did not want to be labeled an atheist because he was open to the possibility that science could one day find evidence to prove a higher power, even though he thought that the likelihood of that was small. He considered spirituality as something that happened in the material world that evoked a sense of awe.
In his book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan” writes:
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018)
Stephen Hawking was a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who made many significant insights in the field of cosmology. He proposed that, as the universe has a beginning, it will likely also end. He also suggested that it has no border or boundary.
Despite being considered one of the greatest scientific minds since Einstein, many of Hawking’s books and lectures are focused on educating people about the universe they live in. His work in theoretical physics and cosmology greatly impacted how we view space today.
Although Hawking had a motor neuron syndrome associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis from the age of 20, he was resolute in his mission to advance space research.
Like other scientists, Hawking was an atheist, saying that the miracles of religion aren’t compatible with science. In an interview, he said, “Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation.”
In this final book, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions,” he writes:
“I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.”
However, Hawking did acknowledge that the existence of the laws still leaves the door open for religions to answer a pertinent question: how the universe and its laws began.
Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958 – present)
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, cosmologist, and one of today’s popularizers of science. He appeared in television shows such as “NOVA ScienceNow” and hosted the TV miniseries “Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey.”
As a communicator of science, he inevitably encounters questions about spirituality and religion. In an interview with “Big Think,” he said that he’s often “claimed by atheists,” but he’s more of an agnostic.
Tyson describes spirituality as “a feeling you would have that connects you to the universe in a way that it may defy simple vocabulary.” He also claims that we are all made of stardust and that we should celebrate it because “what could be nobler than the Universe living with us all?”
“I bask in the majesty of the cosmos. I use words, compose sentences that sound like the sentences I hear out of people that had revelation of Jesus, who go on their pilgrimages to Mecca,” Tyson says. “We may think about the Universe in intellectual terms but if it touches an emotion, we are having a spiritual encounter with the Universe.”
Our ventures to understand the universe are far from over. As science advances, we’ll make new discoveries and come up with new theories or prove something different from what was once believed.
The cosmos still offers many questions and harbors so many unknowns; who knows what future astronomers will find and if there will be any overlap with spirituality. Astronomers can blend science with the metaphysical, which will elevate humanity to its most exalted form.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: How do science and astronomy impact your spiritual beliefs? Which famous astronomer has had the most influence on you?
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