Astronomy and Civilization in the New Enlightenment

Volume 107 of the series Analecta Husserliana pp 99-109


Coming of Age Under the Night Sky: the Importance of Astronomy in Shaping Worldviews

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A worldview, an individual’s or whole society’s conceptual framework for making sense of the world, evolves as it wrestles with such questions as “Why do I see what I see?” While telescopes and spacecraft dramatically expand worldviews in space and time, astronomy began shaping worldviews long ago. Those who watched carefully saw the universe as predictable and orderly rather than magical and chaotic – a conclusion which increased psychological security in individuals and desire for order in society. Spurred by Kepler, astronomy values humbly refining models to fit data. Spurred by Galileo urging critics to look through the telescope, astronomy promotes seeking over believing–something which unites rather than divides people. In challenging anthropocentrism, in tracing the roots of humanity to the ashes of exploding stars, in revealing an image’s “pale blue dot” to be Earth, astronomy encourages a “we belong to nature” feeling, as can the beauty of the Milky Way in the night sky. Studying planets made inhospitable by runaway greenhouse effect, investigating the stability of the Sun and nearby aging stars, and monitoring hazards posed by space debris help humankind confront real threats. Complementing astronomy’s concern with civilization’s premature end is its search for the beginning of the universe. This has long enriched discussion of, and cosmological arguments for, what many individual worldviews are built around: belief in a Creator. Astronomy continues to inspire. Contrast what seeing a comet in the night sky once meant – fear – to what it can mean today: a cause for celebration of humanity’s growing up. And someday astronomy may provide an answer to what untold generations of night sky watchers have wondered, “Are we alone?”