Gary Gutting: Could you begin by noting aspects of recent scientific cosmology that are particularly relevant to theological questions?So, those ignorant pre-scientific theists thought the earth was at the center of the universe and we know today that it's not, but do we? It all depends on what one means by "center," does it not? It's true the earth is not at the spatial center because there is no spatial center. The fact that the ancients thought there was was due to the common sense view, easily confirmed by the senses and held by almost everyone prior to 1543 when Copernicus published his theory of a geocentric universe, that everything revolved around the earth.
Tim Maudlin: That depends on the given theological account. The biblical account of the origin of the cosmos in Genesis, for example, posits that a god created the physical universe particularly with human beings in mind, and so unsurprisingly placed the Earth at the center of creation.
Modern cosmological knowledge has refuted such an account. We are living in the golden age of cosmology: More has been discovered about the large-scale structure and history of the visible cosmos in the last 20 years than in the whole of prior human history. We now have precise knowledge of the distribution of galaxies and know that ours is nowhere near the center of the universe, just as we know that our planetary system has no privileged place among the billions of such systems in our galaxy and that Earth is not even at the center of our planetary system. We also know that the Big Bang, the beginning of our universe, occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, whereas Earth didn’t even exist until about 10 billion years later.
No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us. This realization began with Galileo, and has only intensified ever since.
Nevertheless, it's not a mistake to assert that man really is, in some sense, at the center, and that the earth really is privileged. Assume for the sake of discussion that the consensus cosmological view is correct, and that God chose to create the universe just as cosmologists describe with a cosmic explosion of space/time and energy about 14 billion years ago. Then about 5 billion years ago the earth formed, giving rise to mankind about 200,000 years ago (the actual numbers are not important here). If so, the universe would have to go through all those billions of years of stellar birth and death in order for the elements necessary for life to be formed and dispersed through space.
In other words, it took billions of years to produce the elements of life. Man could not have arisen much sooner than he did, and during those billons of years the universe has been expanding, ultimately attaining it's current enormous size.
If all this is stipulated then in order for man to exist at all the universe would have to be at least as old as it is and thus would have to be as vast as it is. If God did all this then all of creation exists solely so that man could exist, in which case man is indeed the center or focal point of the universe.
Some have objected to the idea that man is the reason for the universe's existence by citing how insignificantly small we are on a cosmic scale, but why base significance on size? Our significance lies in the fact that we are purposely created by God, who made the whole universe so that we could be here, and on the fact that God loves us.
To say that the vast sweep of space and time makes it absurd to think that man and earth are in some sense privileged is to commit the mistake of looking at the cosmos solely from the human standpoint, but surely it's an act of intellectual arrogance to think that the human point of view is the only appropriate view to take. In fact, what Maudlin does by assuming that man's point of view is the only meaningful one is to privilege man in the very attempt to deny that man is privileged.
If we look at space and time from the Creator's viewpoint the whole cosmos might be little more than the contents of a kind of divine petri dish or, as I sometimes prefer to think of it, a projection of God's thought. For a being which possesses the attributes of God enormous stretches of space and time are as nothing at all.