“God set the world in the very spot it occupies and no other. . . by divine reason, although no human reason can comprehend why it was so set, and though there was no merit in the spot chosen to give it the precedence of infinite others. . .“ City of God, XI:5
Iliad. Check. Odyssey. Check. Now I’m plowing through The City of God, every sentence of which is like an essay question on a philosophy exam. Augustine was correct at the time he wrote the statement above (5th century) but it may no longer be true. Human reason may now comprehend for the first time why this world was “so set”–that is, placed exactly where it is in our galaxy–and there may be considerable merit “in the spot chosen to give it precedence of (over) infinite others.”
In Nature’s Destiny, Michael Denton writes, “Ironically, our relatively peripheral position on the spiral arm of a rather ordinary galaxy is indeed rather fortunate. If we had been stationed in a more central position–say, near the galactic hub–it is likely that our knowledge of the universe of other galaxies, for example, might not have been as extensive. Perhaps in such a position the light from the surrounding stars could well have blocked our view of intergalactic space. Perhaps astronomy and cosmology as we know these subjects would never have developed.”
There are many advantages to our galactic perspective. From where we are positioned, the relative sizes of the sun and moon are the same. This makes for perfect viewing of the sun’s corona during a total eclipse of the sun. If the moon were closer or larger, it would completely block out the sun; if it were smaller or further away, the edge of the sun would be too bright for us to see the corona.
Gonzalez and Richards give other examples in The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, pp. 141 ff. For instance, we can see to the center of our galaxy and, because there is less gas and dust here than there, we can also see distant galaxies. We are located among a small collection of the nearest ones. Other spiral galaxies, especially those presenting us with a nearly head-on view, “teach us much about the overall structure of our home galaxy. . . We can map its structure from the inside. . .”
We can also compare ours with other kinds of galaxies, like irregular and elliptical ones: “Observers in [an irregular] galaxy would have an even more difficult time making sense of their neighborhood. . . We occupy the best overall place for observation in the Milky Way galaxy, which is itself the best type of galaxy to learn about stars, galactic structure, and the distant universe simultaneously; these are the three major branches of astrophysics” p. 151.
Thus the earth provides the perfect platform for telescopes probing the rest of the universe. “Our planet is exquisitely fit not only to support life but also to give us the best view of the universe”(dust jacket). Maybe we’re beginning to glimpse the reason why we are not at the center of the universe–but someplace which can provide even more satisfaction for our inquiring minds.