3.5 The cosmos
Based on principles proposed by Plato and Aristotle, developed by astronomers in Greece and Arabia, and completed in the fifth century by a Syrian monk - who claimed it owed much to a dialogue between St Paul and Dionysius the Areopagite - the model answered the questions men and women have asked since the beginning of time.
Who are we?
How did we, the world, the sun and the stars, come into being?
What supports us all) what is our purpose, and what will become of us when we die?
Because the answers which the model offered were so widely accepted we know what Aelred at Rievaulx and Francis at Assisi saw when they looked up at the night sky and contemplated the colossal drama of universal existence. True to men's physical perceptions, not to mention their psychological disposition, the stationary earth was at the centre of the cosmos, though smaller than any star. It was a globe, like the sun and the moon, but a barrier of scorching equatorial heat prevented access to the other half of it, on which life existed, moving about like flies on the underside of an apple. Although sophisticated minds did not accept this literally, the fires of Hell, reached by a tunnel, were said to burn at earth's centre; beside the mouth of this tunnel rose the Mount of Purgatory.
The security a faith provides seems, on the surface, to be of the same sort as that provided by science. To the faithful, events happen the way they do because God, alien beings, the stars, or other remote powers cause them to. As with science there is the same apparently casual chain of explanation. But these remote powers possess two much more attractive features not contained in the scientific world of cause and effect.
Many of us are impatient. Life is short, and we wish to have as much satisfaction as we can obtain as rapidly as possible. In particular we want a reason here and now for why the world is the way it is. We have to make crucial decisions in our lives which depend upon this world picture. We cannot wait for a lengthy chain of causes to be discovered by the patient analysis of science, especially because the longer the chain the farther removed it becomes from the human sphere of relevance. We might appreciate that matter is made up of atoms, but when the atom is found to have a nucleus inside it and that nucleus has elementary particles inside it which themselves may have quarks inside them, well, we tend to lose track and interest. This is especially so when the quarks are to be expected to have internal constituents, which will themselves have components, and so on in a never-ending succession.
So scientific explanation does not really seem an explanation at all because it never ends. There are always further steps of the explanation waiting to be uncovered.
The second feature that makes faith score over science is that it can be all-embracing and explain every aspect of the world, not just a severely limited part of it. The scientific method only applies to reproducible phenomena, and the effort to achieve this repeatability often drives phenomena away completely or at best distorts them severely. This is especially so as far as human experiences are concerned, and imagination, creativity, feelings and indeed any mental experiences would seem to be well beyond the scientific pale. An example of this is the act of love observed under the cold gaze of laboratory scientists; in the words of the poet "we lost the love some time ago, now we've only the act to grind". This limitation leaves the major part of human experience apparently out of bounds to scientific scrutiny. So faith steps gracefully in and explains all.
A rapid, all-embracing framework with which to explain the hostile Universe makes faith and fantasy far more appealing than science in this short life of a mere human. Even scientists may turn to clutch at religious straws as their lives thunder on towards the final whirlpool. The certainty they searched for during their too-short lives could only be obtained in the last few years, days or minutes of it by rejecting the scientific code they lived by up till then.
There is another feature of science which gives ground to the other side, and may well cause this breakdown of the scientific spirit. As understanding of the world increases ignorance also expands, for there are fresh problems which are exposed to view by the new advances. It is as if our known world lies on the surface of a balloon, with the unknown just on the outside of it. As the balloon expands so the known world increases, but so does the area outside it with which it comes into contact; our ignorance is simultaneously expanded. This increasing ignorance of our surroundings can finally sap the confidence of an ageing scientist ever to understand the world by scientific analysis. This difficulty is also seized upon by the anti-scientific to show how little we understand about the world by the help of science. How much easier it is to appeal to supernatural forces in some form or other!