C.S. Lewis "rebuts" size-of-the-universe argument. Can you help me find it?

I’m giving a talk on “The Theologian’s Nightmare” this week for the local Bertrand Russell Set.

Now, a few years back, in a current events discussion group, I was highly praised by the moderator (privately) for showing concern that everyone be given a chance to express dissenting views, including those that were very far from mainstream. :smiley:

I enjoyed the praise so much that that I fully intend to live up to it.

And so I want to include something unusual as one of the hand-outs for folks to read afterward.

It seems that Clive Stapes Lewis, a convert to Christianity and author of popularizing essays wrote at least once in a rebuttal to the type of argument Russell uses. (But I don’t think he referenced Russell by name.)

I do recall that one point he made was that greater size does not necessarily entail greater importance. A man’s legs versus his head, for example.

Lewis was especially concerned with the doctrine of salvation through Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. He saw an apparent contradiction between the traditional assumption of uniqueness of these events, and the strong possibility of intelligent (and, likely, morally responsible) life elsewhere. But he didn’t think the problem suggested was beyond solution. He asserted that it wasn’t necessary for every sentient race to have “fallen” even assuming that such was an inherent possibility every time. (I’m sure that he once said that the vast interstellar distances perhaps existed to “quarantine” fallen races such as ours from non-fallen ones that might be influenced to fall. I recall that a very old issue of TIME quoted this particular bit of his.) He also brought up the possibility of alternate ways God could provide for particular needs for a route of salvation for other fallen species. This, he felt, could leave our own situation unique.

It’s possible that he also went into the idea of our scenario being repeated elsewhere, but I don’t recall that for sure.

Lewis also appeared rather annoyed at the assumption that the “Ancients” did not have any idea of the relative tininess of our planet. He once surprised a skeptic of religion by showing him a classic text that included a statement that the stars showed themselves to be so distant that they may as well be at infinite distance.

(That may sound unlikely to be a true excerpt, or at least something very strange for classical Natural Philosophers to say but here’s the idea. The moon and planets can have their distances measured, at least roughly, by parallax against the stars. But he stars themselves (which are unlikely to be all at the same distance from us) show absolutely no parallax relative to each other.

Of course, modern astronomers HAVE measured the parallax of relatively nearby stars, using telescopes and the whole of Earth’s orbit as the baseline.)

So, can anyone locate the particular essay or essays?

- Jack

I believe it’s “A Chapter Of Red Herrings” from MIRACLES.

Lewis was certainly not the first person to see this issue as a potential theological problem. It was raised in the 17th century by Fontenelle, and, at least implicitly, by earlier Copernican writers such as Bruno and Kepler, who both raised the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (in Kepler’s case, on the Moon, in Bruno’s, in other star systems). This was not an issue under the Aristotelian cosmology that prevailed before Copernicus, because there the heavenly bodies were conceived to be of a very type to the Earth, and in no way capable of sustaining life. I must say, it does seem that it would be a bit hard on Jesus if he had to go and get crucified on every inhabited planet in the universe in order to redeem the aliens there. I guess Lewis’ view was that we Earthlings are uniquely evil, the only race in the universe that actually needed to be redeemed. (I once read Out of the Silent Planet [puke], and that certainly seemed to be his view there.)

I do not know what text that might be, but I would not be surprised if it existed. There was considerable diversity of opinion about such matters in the Ancient world, especially early on, in the presocratic period. However, it was certainly not the consensus view, or the view handed on, mainly by Aristotle and Plato, to Later Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

No. Again, although there might possibly have been some Ancient thinker who suggested something like that, the standard view (promulgated by Aristotle, but not invented by him) was that the stars are all at the same distance from the Earth, affixed to a sphere concentric with the Earth, and that rotates around it once per day. On this model, you would not expect parallax effects among the stars, and indeed, in the 16th and 17th centuries the lack of any observable parallax amongst the stars became one of the most telling arguments raised against the Copernican model. (Actually, Copernicus himself still placed the stars on a sphere in his model, but the model predicted parallax motions amongst the stars because he had the Earth moving relative to this sphere, which was now centered upon the Sun. Later Copernicans such as Digges, Bruno and Descartes realized that the sphere was not necessary, and that the stars might be other suns scattered throughout space. However, that only made the parallax problem worse, as, in that case, they would be at different distances, and thus should show even more parallax to a moving Earth.)

Incidentally, I am not at all sure that you are right about the Ancients estimating the distances of the Moon and planets by parallax. I have never heard of that. Their relative distances were inferred from the relative speeds at which they were observed to move against the background of the sphere of the stars, with the faster moving objects being taken to be closer to Earth, and thus in a smaller orbit around it, taking less time to complete. (Aristachus also had another method of estimating the relative distances of the Moon and Sun, but it did not involve parallax, and, although it was mathematically sound, he did not get a good answer out of it, because it was highly sensitive to quite small measurement errors.)

What you want for that bit is “The Discarded Image,” a book all about the medieval picture of the universe. It’s one of my favorites!

From chapter 3 (detailing the Somnium Scipionis, a classical text):

In another spot he quotes sources calling the Earth a mathematical point in the universe with no appreciable magnitude.

From chapter 5, on the medieval idea of the Earth:

There are several other examples from various sources–that’s just what I found in a two-minute look through a few pages.

I’m pretty sure that the one you’re thinking about occurs in the book Miracles. Lewis did also write an essay about the theological implications of life on other planets, which appears in The World’s Last Night and Other Eassys. The ideas he discussed there were also relevant to his science fiction series The Space Trilogy.

While Aristotle’s views were certainly influential, it was the Almagest by Ptolemy that was considered the authoritative text on astronomy in Europe during the Middle Ages, and Ptolemy was the one that Lewis refers to in making his argument. The actual figures that Ptolemy had for cosmic distances appear in Planetary Hypotheses and he did say that the distances to the stars are vastly more greater than distances within the solar system, though I’m not sure we know how he derived those distances.


If you’re looking for a Christian response to the materialist argument using the huge size of the universe, I have an alternative to suggest. G. K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy is a record of his intellectual journey to Christianity, and in chapter 4, The Ethics of Elfland, he mentions some of the claims made of materialism that he found unsatisfactory. Here’s part of the relevant passage:

Really? If we take that as meaning 90 times as big in linear dimension (radius or diameter), that’s a remarkably close value. In fact, the Sun (a not atypical star, and certainly the easiest one to study) is 109 times the size of the Earth. I’m now left wondering if there was actually some valid measurement of the size of the Sun in Maimonides’ time. Or, of course, it could have been a lucky guess.

The size of the universe is really not an argument used by non-believers so the whole issue is kind of a strawman, but even so, the best anybody appears to be able to do is an argument from absence. I wouldn’t call it much of a “rebuttal,” just an expansion of the fantasy. “Fallen” races vs “unfallen races?” Give me a break. That doesn’t rebut anything, it’s just ad hoc fabrication. It doesn’t provide evidence for anything, and the whole concept of a “fallen race” is, in itself, irrational and easily eviscerated.

The quoted bit from Chesterton is complete gibberish, by the way.

The direct quotation is on page 100 of The Great Chain of Being, which is handily available on Google Books. Yay for the Internet!

To OP, the same chapter of that book cites Ptolemy on the whole Earth-as-point thing.

In “Religion and Science”, Lewis directs a friend who thinks the medieval concept was of a tiny universe to Ptolemy’s Almagest and quotes Book 1, Chapter 5: “the Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point”.

The quoted passage doesn’t address anything meaningful. Yes, the physical measurements of the universe don’t have any real philosophical significance in themselves. This is so obvious that to belabor it seems, and is, pointless.

The likelihood that other intelligences exist, which is implied but not conclusively proven by the number of stars in the universe, is a more interesting (and troubling to any belief system that rests on a specific event taking place on the specific planet Earth) question, that is nowhere addressed in the quoted text.

[quote=“Steve_MB, post:11, topic:545807”]

The quoted passage doesn’t address anything meaningful. Yes, the physical measurements of the universe don’t have any real philosophical significance in themselves. This is so obvious that to belabor it seems, and is, pointless.


Sadly, it is not a point which can belabored too much, and if it has lost its impact today, it is because people like Chesterton drove it home repeatedly beforehand. His basic point is that if any emotion like awe of the universe is to have value, then it intrinsically values, not devalues, mankind. And this was not obvious at all to certain intellectual classes of his day.

Yet that was also addressed elsewhere - by simply pointing out the very old religious idea that we might not be all that unique, however special we are, and that whatever uniqueness we possessed might not be all to our benefit or glory.

It’s somewhat incidental, but Albert van Helden specifically singles out the discussion of astronomical distances in The Discarded Image as historically inadequate in his Measuring the Universe: Cosmic Dimensions from Aristarchus to Halley (Chicago, 1985). His argument is that Lewis was unrepresentatively drawing on too narrow and too early a set of sources, some of which he was citing at secondhand. Van Helden’s broader case is that Ptolemy laid out a series of dimensions and, once filtered through the Arab world, that becomes a rather stable tradition in medieval Europe, a set of numbers familiar to any educated man. Which is perhaps the dull conclusion.
Of course, Ptolemy’s universe was huge enough and the tradition held that the Sun and fixed stars were larger than the Earth, so I’m not really sure that van Helden’s point would have made much difference to Lewis.

(Van Helden’s narrative does still throw up plenty of oddities. For example, it’s Kepler who’s the conspicuous example who shockingly concluded that the fixed stars were smaller than the Earth. Being a Copernican did not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the Sun was just one amongst many.)

Lewis’s Space Trilogy also explores the theological implications of life on other planets. Perelandra posits a world in which Adam and Eve do not Fall, for instance.

This is chapter 7 in Miracles. You can find most of it online in Google books – check out pages 83-85.

Dio: the OP was requesting help in finding a particular piece of text, not looking to debate the content of that text. Everyone but you has stayed on topic. If you wish to debate this particular issue, start your own thread in GD – this isn’t the right thread for it.


twickster, Cafe Society moderator

This is not true.

I am not sure what point you are trying to make here, since Ptolemy followed Aristotle in regard to the point I was discussing: i.e. they both held that the stars are arranged on the inner surface of a sphere centered on the Earth, and are, consequently all at an equal distance from the Earth. So far as I am aware, Aristotle had nothing explicit to say about the actual size of this sphere. Ptolemy might have thought this sphere to be pretty big, but he certainly did not regard the stars as other suns, or, a fortiori, as potential centers of other planetary systems.

Anyway, it is misleading to imply that Ptolemy was considered more authoritative than Aristotle with regard to astronomical issues in the middle ages. They were each regarded as authoritative on different aspects of astronomy. Ptolemy was the main source for mathematical astronomy - i.e, the prediction of future planetary positions (mainly for astrological purposes) based upon measurements of past and current positions, and calculated via the complex mathematical apparatus provided by Ptolemy. Aristotle, however, who has little to say about such mathematical issues, was, in the middle ages, regarded as the principal authority on the physical nature of the heavens. Inasmuch as there were any apparent conflicts between the views of Ptolemy and those of Aristotle (and as I pointed out, they did not conflict on the matter I was talking about) Aristotle’s view was generally treated as the more authoritative. For example, it was difficult to see how Ptolemy’s elaborate mathematical apparatus of eccentric orbits and planetary epicycles could be reconciled with the Aristotelian view that the planets were moved around in their orbits by physically real crystalline spheres, concentric with the Earth. The usual response to this was to understand Ptolemy’s system, and mathematical astronomy in general, as making no claims about the physical realities of the heavens at all, but as simply being a mathematical apparatus, a calculating device, for, as they said “saving the appearances,” i.e., for generating predictions from past observations. This is bound up with the fact that natural philosophers, who looked to Aristotle, and who were closely associated with (often the same people as) the moral philosophers and theologians who dominated the medieval universities, generally carried considerably more academic and intellectual clout than did the mathematicians, who were strongly associated with disreputable, religiously suspect practices like astrology and other forms of numerical divination. (Weird as it may seem to us now, to the medieval mind math was strongly associated with woo-woo.)

Lewis may well be right that the Ancients, or some of them, believed the universe to be quite large, and (so far as I can see) he is right that the size of the universe *per se raises no particular problems for Christianity. There is a canard about that one of the sources of opposition to heliocentrism in the 17th century was a sort of agoraphobia inspired by the implication that the universe might be very much bigger than had traditionally been thought. However, I am aware of no evidence whatsoever that this was the case. There was resistance to heliocentrism, but it was based upon a mixture of good scientific reasons, political and careerist reasons, natural (and proper) intellectual conservativism, and (last and very much least) Biblically based religious concerns.

*The likelihood of intelligent life on other planets does raise a problem, and I find Lewis’ response to it to be glib and unconvincing, but that is another matter.

I had wondered about that, since several books I had read in my youth showed a celestial sphere, even in representing the Copernican view.

This is something I had never come across, nor had it occurred to me, so thank you. :slight_smile:

- Jack