Should the idea that the earth in general and humans in particular enjoy a special place in creation hold any water in modern times?
No. Not a chance.
Most earthly religions believe in the centrality of man in creation. The three Abrahamic religions; Christianity, Islam and Judaism, believe in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God that created all that exists. These three religions believe that Man is his greatest creation.
The three Abrahamic religions have influenced the general outlook of humans in a more widespread manner than any other before them. They have influenced views, beliefs, customs, academia, art and governance the world over for ages. These religions are nearly 2 millennia old, they may be excused for having an earth-centric view of creation. In fact the entire geographical setting of the Quran, the Bible and the Torah is earth, with vague and amorphous mentions of heavenly realms. Earth is central to these religions.
For a thousand years or so, the Catholic Church officially held the Ptolemaic model to be the map of the universe. It was a geo-centric model with the earth at the centre sorrounded by the spheres of the heavens. It was very convenient for the Catholic Church because it left plenty of space outside the spheres for heaven and hell. Anyone who went, or taught, against this accepted model would be deemed a heretic and probably put to death. It also officially held that the earth was flat and the great Galileo was put to jail for showing that this was not so.
Ironically, It was a Catholic priest and astronomer, Copernicus, that showed that the earth was not in fact at the Centre of the universe.
After copernicus showed that the earth wasn’t at the center of creation and it was part of a larger universe, the local Milky Way galaxy was thought to encompass the entire universe. It took nearly half a millennia for legendary Astronomer Edwin Hubble to show that the many observed nebulae were actually huge galaxies far away and separate from our home, the Milky Way galaxy.
Incidentally, it was another Catholic priest and Mathematical Physicist, George Lemaitre, who while expounding on the works of Hubble and Einstein, stumbled on to the Big Bang theory. This is the most factually and empirically sound theory of creations there is.
Now let me set the tone. I will start with the vastness of space in particular, and the universe in general.
The sun is a type III main sequence star on the Orion-Cygnus arm of a spiral galaxy called the Milky Way. It is located 26,000 light years from the galactic center of the Milky Way. It orbits this galactic Centre once every 250 million years. The Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across. The galaxy has anywhere up to 400 billion stars just like the sun. It has up to 50 times more stars than there are human beings on earth. There is nothing special about our sun; it is a very, very, very ordinary star.
The nearest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri. It is not visible to the naked eye. It is 40 trillion kilometers or just about 4 light years away in the star system alpha Centauri . I know, that doesn’t sound like much. Or does it? A light year is the distance travelled by light in a calendar year. A light year is used to measure astronomical distance. It is roughly 10 trillion kilometers in length . The distance between the Earth and the sun is roughly 150 million kilometres.
For context, this is how much bigger a trillion is than a million. 1 million seconds is 11 days. A billion seconds is 32 years. A trillion seconds is 32,000 years.
Here is how far 4 light years is. If the sun was the size of a snooker ball, the earth would be the size of a speck of dust 6 metres away from the sun at that scale. At that scale, Proxima Centauri would be a marble 1500 kilometres away in Addis Ababa. The middle star in Orion’s Belt, alnitak, which is nearly 1,400 light years away, would be a beach ball located nearly twice the distance between the earth and the moon.
The average distance between two stars in a galaxy is 5 light years. If you placed four bees on the four corners of the USA, they would have a much higher chance of collisions than stars in a galaxies.
So the Milky Way has 400 billion stars. It may sound like much but our nearest spiral galaxy neighbour, Andromeda, has over a trillion stars. The largest known galaxy weighs in at just over a hundred trillion solar masses. The Milky Way is part of the local galaxy neighborhood, which is in itself a part of the Virgo galactic super cluster. The Virgo galactic super cluster is part of the larger Laniakeia (immeasurable heaven) galactic supercluster containing hundreds of thousands of galaxies. Laniakeia is part of the Pisces-Cetus galactic filament. A galactic filament is the largest known gravitationally bound structure in the universe.
There are approximately 2 trillion galaxies like the Milky Way in the observable universe. There are more galaxies in the observable universe than there are stars in the Milky Way. The Milky Way is a very, very, very ordinary galaxy.
The observable universe, the part which we can theoretically observe, is 93 billion light years across. No one knows how far out the universe stretches outside of the observable universe. It may be infinite or it may be finite. It may be part of an eternal multiverse. It is impossible to know.
The universe as currently observed is 14 billion years old. If you shrunk the entire timeline of the universe into a calendar year, with the Big Bang occurring at 00.01 a.m on the 1st of January, anatomically modern humans beings would appear at 11:59:55 on the 31st of December and would be extinct by 2 January.
There are anywhere up to 2 trillion trillion or 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe and trillions of trillions of Planets just like the earth. Could the momentary inhabitants of an Infinitesimally small rock orbiting a very, very, very ordinary star stuck in a forgotten corner of a very obscure galaxy claim to be the piece de resistance of creation? Is it plausible in the 21st century, with all that we know now, to believe that Human beings are the crown jewel of creation?
No, I find that highly implausible.
I will close out with the words of the great Carl Sagan when he saw a photo of earth taken by the voyager spacecraft at nearly 6 billion kilometres from earth;
“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there — on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light . . .”
— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994
Are we even alone to begin with? We will talk about that in another publication.