Reflections in Cosmology 4: Uncentering the Earth

This fool wishes to reverse the entire history of astronomy ~ Martin Luther, on Nicolaus Copernicus and his assertion that the Sun, rather than the Earth, was at the centre of the Universe.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), formulated a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology in which the Sun was at the centre of the universe
The high-profile incidents involving Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei in the 16th and 17th centuries are well known. Modern interpretations that conveniently label these clashes as science/reason vs. religious dogma/irrational beliefs are overly simplistic. But why did the Western Church (Catholics AND Protestants) initially oppose the heliocentric view of the universe?

The Theology

There is no doubt that theological factors played a role. Galileo insisted that a heliocentric system would not in any way contradict Scripture, suggesting the possibility of alternative interpretations of passages that seemed at the time to espouse geocentrism. With the Protestant Reformation fresh in the minds of the Roman Catholic clergy however, the Church was extremely sensitive towards any such rogue interpretations.

The Philosophy

The Medieval Western world (including the Church) was heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy and its dichotomies between the perfect, eternal realm of the Mind vs. the imperfect, temporal realm of the physical. What we observe through our senses is but a shadow of the true reality. Truth can only be attained through rational thought. Therefore, well reasoned and unified theories with geometrical beauty and logical coherence had more weight than pure observational facts.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), provided observational support for the heliocentric universe based on astronomical observations through his telescopes

Galileo keeps harping on how things happen, whereas his adversaries had a complete theory as to why things happen. Galileo insists upon irreducible and stubborn facts, and Simplicius, his opponent, brings forward reasons, completely satisfactory, at least to himself. It is a great mistake to conceive this historical revolt as an appeal to reason. On the contrary, it was through and through an anti-intellectual movement. It was the return to the contemplation of brute fact; and it was based on a recoil from the inflexible rationality of medieval thought. In making this statement I am merely summarizing what at the time the adherents of the old regime themselves asserted. ~ Alfred Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

The Science

It wasn’t just the clergy who rejected heliocentrism. Ptolemaic cosmology with its geocentrism still held sway among the intellectuals of the day. Ptolemy had ‘proven’ that the Earth had to be stationary since a person jumping up always landed on the same spot on the Earth (this argument was later shown to be wrong by the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi). Tycho Brahe, one of the intellectual giants of the era, rejected heliocentrism on the basis that stars should have been observed at different positions of the sky at various times of the year (due to parallax) if the Earth moved in a circle around the Sun. Such parallaxes were not observed then. Tycho Brahe and many of his contemporaries couldn’t accept the large distances required for the parallaxes to be so small as to be unobservable. They couldn’t conceive of such a large universe, and the stars would have to be enormously larger than the Sun to have their observed sizes and to be at those great distances (they had no idea that the stars appeared larger due to the Earth’s atmosphere). Though the Copernican system provided a simpler explanation for the weird motion of the planets, it was rejected mainly due to lack of evidence.
The Ptolemaic universe, one of the many popular geocentric cosmologies in the Medieval era
The Copernican or heliocentric universe, with the Sun at its centre
Copernicus and Galileo have since been vindicated (partially at least, since we now know that even the sun is not at the centre of our own galaxy, not to mention the entire universe!), and the Church has slowly but surely relented. We need to understand, however, that the Church’s rejection of the heliocentric system was the rational (though mistaken) thing to do at the time!

Lessons for Today

In light of some of the more recent struggles between the Church and science in areas such as evolution, we need to ask the following questions:

Are we sincere in seeking the truth, even if it means allowing our interpretations of certain portions of Scripture to be informed by scientific, historical and literary research? How do we interpret the first few chapters of Genesis in light of cosmological and evolutionary sciences?

What is the extent of the influence of our own philosphical world-views on our understanding of Scripture and the world around us? Is insisting on absolutes, literal interpretations and historical accuracy – concepts that would have been alien to the original authors of the Bible – a product of modernity and the Enlightenment? How much does our culture and world-view affect how we learn about the universe and organize our knowledge?

Can we accept that scientific and theological understanding is an evolving process and will continue to change over time?

Science does not have a privileged route of access to knowledge through some superior ‘scientific method’, uniquely its own possession; theology does not have a privileged route of access to knowledge through some ineffable source of unquestionable ‘revelation’, uniquely its own possession. Both are trying to grasp the significance of their encounters with manifold reality. In the case of science, the dimension of reality concerned is that of a physical world that we transcend and that can be put to the experimental test. In the case of theology, it is the reality of God who transcends us and who can be met with only in awe and obedience. ~ Sir John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology

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One thought on “Reflections in Cosmology 4: Uncentering the Earth

  1. Hey there, my name’s Ivey and sometimes I write about the same thing on my blog. Actually, if I may, let me ask you something.. Is it just me or does it seem as if many of the replies appear they are coming from a bunch of idiots? 😛 Also, if you’re on additional
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