Pascal and Kepler vs. Edward Dolnick

In his book “The Clockwork Universe”, Edward Dolnick argues that the development of science in the 17th century led to man losing his place of primacy in the universe.

“Mankind had long taken its place at the center of the cosmos for granted. The world was a play performed for our benefit. No longer. In the new picture, man is not even the pinnacle of creation but an afterthought. The universe would carry on almost exactly the same without us. The planets trace out patterns in the sky, and those patterns would be identical whether or not humans had ever taken notice of them. Mankind’s role in the cosmic drama is that of a fly buzzing around a stately grandfather clock.”

Dolnick might see himself as “a fly buzzing around in a stately grandfather clock” but the same cannot be said for the 17th century scientists he writes about.   Their discoveries had exactly opposite effect on them.   Kepler’s study of the night sky led him to view the universe as a vast and wonderful book created by God for man to read,

I may say with truth that whenever I consider in my thoughts the beautiful order, how one thing issues out of and is derived from another, then it is as though I had read a divine text, written onto the world itself … saying: Man, stretch thy reason hither, so that thou mayest comprehend these things”  Johannes Kepler

Likewise, Blaise Pascal believed the vastness of the universe was intended to make man marvel at the omnipotence of God which is the exact opposite of Dolnick’s ‘fly in the clock’ allegory.

Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full lofty majesty, let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light up the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself to be no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament. But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further; it will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them.

The whole visible world is only a imperceptible dot in nature’s ample bosom, No idea comes near it; it is no good inflating our conceptions beyond imaginable space, we only bring forth atoms compared to the reality of things. Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought. (Pensee 72)

Pascal did not conceive of man “as an afterthought” but rather as the pinnacle of creation, with a mind capable of thinking about the universe.

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.  There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him.  But even if the universe were to crush him, Man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying… the universe knows nothing of this.  Let us strive then to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.  (Pensee 347)

As awe inspiring as the universe may be, there is something even more wonderful and mysterious – the mind of man.  Pascal believed that man has a responsibility to think correctly about God, himself, and the universe – this is what distinguishes him from the animals, and it is the foundation of morality.  Modern science doesn’t get this.  But Pascal and Kepler did.  Dolnick does them both a great injustice.

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