The Solar Eclipse: The Lesson of a Lifetime?

“What could be more clear or obvious when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity or superior intelligence?” Cicero

Upon his discovery of gravity, Isaac Newton himself thought that the concentric motion of the planets around the sun was simply too uniform, and too wonderful, to be the result of chaos or chance.  It is a position which is taken up by many theists. When marveling at the design, regularity and beauty apparent in the universe, some argue that this is evidence enough for a God.

Any Reptonian who has graced the ERS department should be able to tell you how very weak this inductive argument is. The conclusion that an all-powerful, transcendent super-being is the reason or cause behind this design is possible at best, a sociological construct designed to placate the masses at worst. Further to this, answers closer to home have been offered up by scientists such as Darwin and Dawkins: nature is all there is, there is nothing more to it.

Before we even engage with those issues of logic, the sensory evidence on which teleological arguments rest can be seen to be defective.  Our five senses purport to give us ‘knowledge’ about the world in which we live, but they are often at fault. Philosophers have disregarded their reliability and doubted the truths they trick us into believing.  As anyone who has seen The Matrix will agree, it’s a risky business relying on knowledge based in experience.

But on Friday the 20th March, the last day of the Lent Term, blessed (or just lucky?) with ideal sunny conditions, an astronomical spectacle unfolded before our eyes. It was not only physicists in the Science Priory who ventured outside and looked to (but not directly at!) the sun to be filled with awe and wonder, but much of the school.  We found ourselves wholly reliant on our sensory perception, and relishing in it. But was this wise?

When an A-block ERS lesson coincides with a solar eclipse, it is important to prepare. I spent a few frantic hours gathering equipment from kind colleagues so that I might fashion a binocular viewer to project an image of the eclipse onto a cardboard box (something involving a whole roll of duct-tape and uncannily reminiscent of Blue Peter). My group and I were to go outside, set it up and observe. My unusually small class of seven grew to an astronomically (!) large seventy-plus as the moon cast its eerie shadow over the village.

Total eclipses are rare in the UK, and the next time we will be able to observe the birds heading to roost at the untimely twilight will be in 2081, and the next total eclipse visible from the Isles is in 2090. With all this in mind, I found myself writing on the board ‘The Solar Eclipse: a lesson of a lifetime’. Of course we will marvel at the event, why shouldn’t we? Surely this is a learning opportunity not to be missed; chance to discuss whether nature’s grandeur is evidence of a divine creator.

Many philosophers would worry about our empirical data. Plato argues that it is mere folly to believe we can know anything about the world around us. He wrote in The Republic that as sensory beings we are all prisoners, chained from birth watching an intricate shadow play before our eyes whilst holding the false belief that experts in things we observe should be revered as wise. As we gather, rather aptly it seems, to see the largest shadow it is possible to cast on our globe, what we observe around us might be just like the lunar shadow we were standing in: an image, an illusion, a dark half-truth so unlike the moon itself. So, is what we experience so very far away from the way things really are? Descartes thought it was imperative to disregard all we purport to ‘know’ and start again from ignorance; the senses are untrustworthy and what we see is up for debate.

If we can place our Cartesian doubts to one side for a moment; even if what we see corresponds to an ultimate truth or things-as-they-are-in-themselves, does our transient world provide much evidence for a God? It is by no means perfect, evil and suffering occur in abundance and, for some, even the compensation of eternal life in paradise does not seem to offer much comfort or convincing proof that God exists. For others, however, the natural world is a religious experience. William Blake’s famous lines about seeing the world in a grain of sand, or heaven in a wild flower put forward an aesthetic argument for God: the sheer beauty of this planet is enough evidence for His existence. So when we have the chance to marvel at our insignificant size and wonder at the light of the Sun being usurped by the power of the Moon, that must be an important moment in which to meditate on the goodness of God reflected in his creation. Or, at least, to put agnostic scepticism to one side and imagine; what if…?

Science is so often typified as all that which is at odds with religious belief. It has been the go-to for many of my pupils this year when critiquing theism: “But Miss, there is no need for God, there is evolution; But Miss, there is no need for God, there is the Big Bang; But Miss, there is no need for God, there is the Higgs boson”. Whilst all remain fine reinterpretations of the evidence, such a dichotomy is false. Science and faith can be friends; the solar eclipse can be evidence of the existence of God.

John Polkinghorne, the English theoretical physicist and Anglican priest holds that the odds of life are far too fine to argue that the Universe came about by chance. If we examine just one factor among many we can see how unbelievably improbable it is that life exists. In order to sustain life, the difference between expansive and contractive forces in the expanding cosmos needs to be just right. This depends upon an extremely fine balance of the total energy, the odds of which are 1060:1 or,

1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000:1

To use a sporting analogy, this is equivalent to taking aim from Earth and hitting an inch-wide target at the farthest reaches of the observable universe. I know that our Hockey reputation is stellar (!), but it’s pretty clear that you would fare better with a bet on England to win the Rugby this year.

Essentially then, the odds are stacked against chance. For Polkinghorne, the existence of God seems the more likely option. Can this be certain? Never; that’s the rub with inductive arguments. But to dismiss it out of hand does seem unfair or even unwise in the face of science.

So, if you are around in 2090 for the next total eclipse, or perhaps when you next look up to the sky to contemplate the heavens, consider fairly the different conclusions for the origins of what you observe. Whichever conclusion you decide to draw will always be a matter of faith and, similarly, God will always remain a possibility.

< Here’s the eclipse lesson >

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