Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Specter of Geocentrism

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.


  1. Mr. Ellis: Considering the fact that you have been thoroughly and honestly refuted in all of your *scientific* arguments advanced against geocentrism, on an earlier thread, I find it highly revealing that you should trot along off to a new thread.

    I was wondering why you had failed to respond to my points.

    I suppose it is much easier to simply ignore them and plow ahead.

    The rows of goose eggs in the comments count on your blog are richly deserved.

    If you can't take it, don't dish it out.

    If you dish it out anyway, you are probably going to end up talking to yourself.

  2. In science, nothing is every so substantially "proven" as to have absolute certitude, only a level of certainty necessary for us to have good reason to believe it is true. This is part of inductive reasoning qua inductive reasoning. Additionally, I had written this before the full unfolding of your counter arguments, so it really has little to do with you, except of course tangentially.

    I had better things to do than to respond to arguments in defense of a now defunct system: except, of course, philosophical or theological geocentrism. You will notice that I do not believe there is nothing to geocentrism as a recognition of the importance or centrality of the earth to humanity. It is only mistaken when this is coupled with a real belief of the physical nature of the arrangement. Nevertheless, I'll go back now and take a look at your new comments.

    I appreciate your encouragement. I will continue doing what I do. I write this blog, and if no one wants to read it, so be it. I'm glad to know I have at least one reader interested enough to comment, even if the comments verge towards rather caustic attacks.

  3. Only caustic in the absence of honest debate, sir.

    I commend you for returning to address my points on the other thread.

    My responses are now posted as well.

  4. The article states, "But the truth is that not only is geocentrism considered by its opponents to have not been defeated..."

    Am I missing something or did you mean to write, "But the truth is that not only is geocentrism considered by its **proponents** to have not been defeated"?

    When I read your piece, I wondered who really believes in this today. But then I saw you actually have one of the proponents you mentioned right here in your comments box. I'll have to take a Google around to see what this is all about.

  5. All I see for Catholic geocentrists is a little club that has made a spectacle of themselves at the Church's expense. Here's just the most recent example I found, and in syndication, no less. Fabulous.

    The president of the geocentist club isn't even a scientist. And he has a "colorful" history, to say the least.

    Just the sort of thing the MSM can use to portray Catholics as ignoramuses and the Catholic Church as irrelevant. With all due respect for a fine, good-will effort you've made here, I wonder about the wisdom of engaging fringe ideas like this. It makes them appear to be serious in a way they don't deserve and gives them the attention they crave and even need to survive. The one geocentric commenter here seems to be egging you on for just that reason, IMHO.

    Personally, I wouldn't put the geocentrists in the same category as the Intelligent Design people. Although I think ID people blur the lines between philosophy and science.

  6. Dale,

    Yeah, typo! I'm definitely not the best self-editor. Occasionally I will find an entire clause completely missing that wrecks up my meaning.

    As for Rick, I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. That was kind of the point of this blog: I was tired of reading other blogs, some Catholic and some not, that would consistently refuse to genuinely engage with dissenting comments. That being said, I've grown weary of my geocentrist reader's apparent disconnection with reality and increasingly hostile, demeaning posts, and have decided not to engage with him any more.

    As for ID, I wouldn't put them in the same category as geocentrists, either. But, in a way, they are engaging in the same sort of error, albeit to a substantially lesser degree: they are confusing the roles of science, philosophy, and faith.