Like the Flat Earth Society, contemporary geocentrists maintain the accuracy and defensibility of a cosmological model long considered debunked by the community, especially the scientific community. It is tempting to write off geocentrists as relics of a bygone age, individuals who cling to the remnants of a discarded system for a wide variety of social and intellectual reasons. But the truth is that not only is geocentrism considered by its proponents to have not been defeated, but they actually continue to posit its ability to take into account contemporary phenomena: that is to say, that the more cunning among the geocentrism are not plugging their ears and shouting "the earth does not move!" to themselves against all the clamor of opposition around them, but they are actually believe themselves to be thoroughly engaging the claims of modern astronomy.
Now, first I think it is necessary to distinguish three types of geocentrism. The first I call innocent geocentrism. There's really not much to blame except ignorance in innocent geocentrism, which is the first, uninformed hypothesis that we seem to immediately form regarding the earth and the sun. It rises and sets, and in the absence of any subjective feeling of motion or other, more subtle information, it seems only logical to attribute the motion entirely to the sun. This is the geocentrism of children; it has not yet been exposed to the fruits of the Copernican Revolution.
The second is philosophical or theological geocentrism. These individuals recognize the physical validity of the modern insight that there are no privileged, special, immobile frames of reference; there is no absolute center. Nevertheless, they cling to geocentrism not as an accurate description of the physical cosmos but as a statement about the importance of the earth as the scene of the human story so far, or, in the case of Catholicism, as the setting for the drama of salvation. In some ways, their impulse is captured in the Tychonic system. Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer, developed an alternative to the competing Copernican and Ptolemaic systems, positing that the earth remained at the center, the sun and moon revolved around the earth, and the other planets revolved around the sun. This move, while ultimately preserving the Copernican insight, nevertheless preserves geocentrism as a crucial intellectual insight. I have no dispute with this form of geocentrism in principle; in the current absence of any evidence of other rational life capable of science, art, and all the other grand and horrible acts of intellect, I see no reason why not to give earth a privileged place in the cosmos. In the very least, it has the privilege of having been our home for a while - even if we believe as Catholics that it is only a temporary stop on the way to a different age.
Finally, affirmed geocentrism is the persistence in holding geocentric beliefs even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. It is the most interesting of the three for my current purposes, because it embodies the continued possibility of conflict between faith and science. I am not in this post going to launch a critique of their arguments, because in some ways I believe it would be unnecessary. But more importantly, I believe that the importance of their persistence lies not in the specific more or less pseudo-scientific rationalizations, but in the general way they generally rely on a specific vision of the contents of faith as the basis of their belief.
This specter is not merely related to geocentrism; it finds analogues in issues of creationism, intelligent design, and other issues of interest both to faith and science. But it reaffirms a basic motif that I have begun exploring in these early blog posts: the way in which faith can come into conflict by a priori assuming knowledge of some empirical fact.
To some extent, this is because Christianity and other major religions were founded with an ancient worldview. While it is certainly not the fact that ancient thinkers discarded empirical observation as unimportant, as some caricatured visions of ancient natural philosophers might suggest, it is the case that they neither had a clear systematic grasp of observation and experimentation, nor did they have any problem with solving a problem of cosmological or physical importance strictly through abstract thought, a process we might today call a thought experiment. We can take Plato's Timaeus as an example, a dialogue in which the characters more or less make up a cosmology based upon certain a priori assumptions about the physical structure of the universe and its relationship to certain formal ideas about geometry, perfection, and so forth. This free interplay between purely rational hypotheses, thought experiments, and beliefs about physical phenomena persisted and can be seen in a wide variety of the ancient world's physics. Aristotle believed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, a hypothesis which seems reasonable from a strictly rational point of view in the absence of extensive observation but which crumbles immediately in the face of the simplest of controlled experiments. How did one of the greatest minds in Western history make such a gaffe?
Abstraction is a process which follows on the observation of particulars. It is a gathering together of common themes, patterns, and so forth into a single universal form. Our intellectual encounter with the world consists of a kind of back and forth between our intellect's grasp of abstract universals and its encounters with the diversity of particulars. It can be argued that to some extent the ancient world tended to side heavily with the abstract against the particular; that is, with the invisible realities of form over the visible reality of body. In such a milieu, it is not surprising that the dictates of intellectual abstractions should be considered far more important than discrepancies in the observations of particular physical bodies. Any such discrepancy should be solved if at all possible in favor of the elegance of the relevant abstract forms - and, so, the Ptolemaic system was defended time and time again against increasingly contradictory observations by the inclusion of cycles and epicycles that grew inordinately complex but which failed to truly ever reconcile the theory with the observations.
Faith can fall into this trap, and its adherent have sadly fallen into it on a number of occasions. But it is important to point out Christianity's particular great virtue in respect to this source of tension between religion and science: Christianity believes that God became a particular man. In the Incarnation, the union between Creator and Creature, we see the paradigm of the ancient world flipped on its head. This inversion nicely corresponds as a kind of corrective to a broadly Platonic worldview. It is true that the Church took a great deal of time and is still taking a great deal of time coming to understand the profound insight of the doctrine of "Verbum caro factum est." But it is also true that in this union there is a pattern for union between science and religion: that is, a recognition that the universal and abstract Truth is embodied in the endless particularity of the universe. St. Bonaventure once wrote in his Breviloquium, "If physical nature was to be complete in itself, reflecting also the manifold wisdom of the first Principle, there had to be a multiplicity of forms, such as appears in minerals, plants, and animals." The open and diligent study of nature through the scientific method fully accepts - in fact, must assume - the integral intelligibility of the universe which it studies. This is the greatness of modern science: it takes seriously the notion that the universe has an intelligibility all its own.
But back to the specter of geocentrism: the geocentrist of the third type I mentioned has not abandoned the notion that a priori logical systems can determine the answers to questions of physical and cosmological concern apart from observation and careful methodological science. Thought experiments do continue to be an important part of science, but they require follow up with real experiments to test if the researcher's assumptions bear out in concrete reality the way they seem to do in abstract thought. Faith, too, is not an abstract: in the person of Christ we see faith revealed as something concrete. The unhealthy practice of clinging to the triumph of abstraction as do these geocentrists is not merely a danger to science, but to faith as well.
In a very important way, modern methodological science can be seen as an important correction and complement to faith. In its better moments, especially more recently, the Church has come to this conclusion. It is only fair to say that it has never strayed too far from this conclusion as a whole, even if particular moments and events do represent a tragic history in which members of the Church seemed to have forgotten the lesson of the Incarnation.