Monday, 4 July 2011

Common Sense Is What Tells Us The World Is Flat

Galileo got into trouble in 1632 for writing a book which a) insulted the Pope and b) suggested that the Sun, and not the Earth was the centre of the universe. He was  sort of right about both points, but not everyone saw it that way, especially the Pope, and Galileo ended up spending the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo's problem was that the theory he was propounding, heliocentrism, seriously undermined the status quo and ran counter to common sense (everybody could see that the sun was smaller than the earth and rose on one side of the world, set on the other, and presumably nipped around the back during the night). Further, Galileo's theory depended on some rather arcane mathematics which very, very few people could understand. Those who could understand the maths, and this group included the guys who advised the Pope, could see something else: that  Galileo's sums did not quite stack up.Galileo believed that the earth and other planets moved in perfect circles, but observations did not quite confirm this. Rather than agree with the theory of Kepler, now recognised as more accurate,  that the planets move in ellipses not circles, Galileo adjusted his geometry.

Galileo's theories were hard to accommodate to the plain reading of scripture but that wasn't the only problem most of his contemporaries had with him. His idea that matter was composed of atoms and behaved according to immutable laws was hard to reconcile with the doctrine of transubstantiation, and his idea that the Moon and was covered in craters and mountains - and were thus made of stuff pretty similar to ordinary earthly matter - ran counter to the prevailing idea that the heavens were some sort of perfect realm where things were made of perfect materials.

So Galileo got into trouble not so much because of people's reluctance to adopt new ideas as because of their inability to let go of old ones. The ideas he ran up against: that the Earth was the centre of the universe; that matter is of four kinds (earth, air, fire and water) and has two forms (heavy and light); that the heavenly bodies are perfect in all respects; all these ideas were false, but were popularly and firmly held because people could clearly "see" that they were true. We have a compelling need to make sense of things; to form the disparate facts of our existence into some sort of coherent whole.  From the time we are born we do this, making up a world from the information presented to our senses, and from the ideas presented to us by our family, friends and culture. Even Galileo himself did this, allowing his preconceived ideas of planetary motion to blind him to the truth presented by Johannes Kepler.  We all do this. All of us. We make a world that is "common sense", and scorn those who see things differently, failing to see either the provisional nature of our own worldview or the way we have cobbled it together out of the guesses and assumptions of those we live amongst. So when we look back on the Galileo controversy with the perfect view afforded by 400 years of hindsight it's pretty easy to forget that if we had been alive at the time, probably 99.9% of us would have sided with the inquisition. It's pretty easy to overlook the painful lesson that all of us, every last man Jack and woman Jill of us, glimpses the truth dimly and only through the fog of our self imposed falsehoods. It's easy to forget that the path to truth involves as much unlearning as it does learning.

24 comments:

Alden Smith said...

I was going to write something tongue in cheek about common sense and a flat earth - until I did a Google search and realised that a belief in a flat earth is alive, kicking and breathing and could even be residing in a house close by.

VenDr said...

Obviously not a house over a horizon.

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, Galileo wasn't born until 1564.
Copernican views were already widely accepted in northern Europe. You can find them in Calvin's commentary on Genesis on phenomenonal vs. literal language.
And much of northern Europe (and France and Hungary) was then Protestant, and would certainly have fallen foul of the Inquisition.
Ah, you weren't expecting that! :)

Brian

VenDr said...

OOps. Correction made. Thanks

VenDr said...

I am surprised that Heliocentrism was so popular so soon amongst the Protestants.

"There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth."
-Martin Luther, 1539
John Calvin, despite his commentary on Genesis, also denounced, in a sermon, those who "pervert the course of nature" by saying that "the sun does not move and that it is the earth that revolves and that it turns".
Heliocentrism was a common enough view by the late 17th C to be the subject of a popular book by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle - one of the first attempts to serve up a scientific theory for general consumption, but it wasn't really until Isaac Newton that Kepler's theories had the theoretical undergirding they needed to make them incontrovertible. And of course, it wasn't until Bessel in the mid 19th C that absolute proof was provided.

Alden Smith said...

Although your title contains the words "flat earth" - apparently the concept of a"flat earth" was not a prevailing idea during the middle ages.

"The myth of the Flat Earth is the modern misconception that the prevailing cosmological view during the Middle Ages saw the Earth as flat, instead of spherical.
This idea seems to have been widespread during the first half of the 20th century, so that the Members of the Historical Association in 1945 stated that:

"The idea that educated men at the time of Columbus believed that the earth was flat, and that this belief was one of the obstacles to be overcome by Columbus before he could get his project sanctioned, remains one of the hardiest errors in teaching."

"During the early Middle Ages, virtually all scholars maintained the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks."

There is an illustration of a spherical Earth in a 14th century copy of L'Image du monde (ca. 1246).

Historians of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers point out that "there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference".

Hmmm, maybe there was a bit of common sense prevailing during the middle ages despite the controversy regarding heliocentrism.

Alden Smith said...

Perhaps the term "Common Sense Tells Us The World Is Flat" is incorrect? Whatever thinkers since the time of the Greeks were using it was telling them that the world was spherical.

Anonymous said...

I may have been wrong about Calvin and heliocentrism but he did write this in his Genesis commentary:

"Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them."

Calvin thus distinguished between popular, phenomenal language and how things "really are". It isn't really a mistake to say 'the sun rises', but a normal description of how things appear from earth. "Common sense" tells us the earth doesn't move (pace Christchurch) but also that the world is indeed round, as anyone observed a ship's mast on the horizon can infer.
"Common sense" - or empirical science, as practiced by a Peter Singer - also tells that human beings are simply animals, and some are more equal than others.

Brian

Anonymous said...

Life comes from accepting what is different from ourselves.

It is a challenge to every generation and never stops. Jesus liked people who were different from himself and they liked him. God is most different from ourselves and eternal life comes from liking God. Men and women are different from each other and new life comes from that union. Gay unions . . ? Well no not really. Your blog . .? A little too comfortable with things to be real.

VenDr said...

Indeed Alden, my provisional and limited statement based on erroneous assumptions is false. Rather proves my point, don't you think?

VenDr said...

Brian your comments encouraged me to have a look at Protestant reactions to heliocentrism. It's complicated. Views of what Calvin had to say on the matter are as varied as the portions of his writings that people find to back up their views. Some say that the Protestants were quite OK with the new science that the dastardly Catholics were intent on quashing. Others that all those religious folk of whatever persuasion were reactionaries intent on sppressing the new knowledge. Balderdash in both instances I think. There was a new and suprprising scientific theory which took the usual route into popularr consciousness: first the elite few, then the disciples and popularisers of those few, then the teachers and leaders of the communities then the great mass of folk; a provess that took, in this instance about 180 years or so to complete: par for the course, I'd guess.
My point is not really heliocentrism though. It is our need to forget before we can learn anything new. In other words, another instance of our need to die before we can experience resurrection.

VenDr said...

Hi Anonymous. Interesting comments, and thought provoking. On reflection. I'm not sure I agree with any of your statements except one. I do sometimes accept the status quo a little too easily and my worldview, like that of everyone else, is only ever approximately real.

Of the others:
Life comes from accepting what is different from us? I think ultimately it comes from accepting, the oneness of all things. I'm not sure that God is ultimately that which is most different from us, but rather, as Meister Eckhart says, my ground is God's ground
I think Jesus's ministry was more about recognising and accepting the essential humanity of all people than in bearing with their differences.
But perhaps I have misunderstood your point here?

Anonymous said...

VenDr
Absolute truth and irrational numbers have a lot in common :-)
You might enjoy this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I76lFlWT4ZI

Anonymous said...

Before you were born you were a egg in your mother's womb. Then one day your father came knocking at the door. Don't suppose you remember the moment? To become a person you had to become a new and different identity. Life does come from accepting what is different from ourselves - within limits.

VenDr said...

I'd see it a little differently. Before I was born there was an egg in my mother's ovary - apparently she was born with it, and it was there for 28 years before I was conceived but it wasn't me. Neither was the single sperm that one day united with it. In that union there arose the occasion in which "me" could take presence in this universe. But the "me" which is here is, in the final analysis, actually nothing. It is an illusion constructed of the particular biology my parents brought to that conceptual event, and the experiences, social pressures, cultural artefacts etc that I have encountered over the past 59 years. Much of it depends on my brain and will die when my brain dies. But, and it is a BIG but: Underlying that illusion there is something that is ultimately and completely real. Something which I cannot ever grasp because I can never observe it. This is that "thing" (note the quotation marks) which Meister Eckhart calls der grunt - the ground. It is pure Being. It is eternal - by which word I mean considerably more than that it lasts for a very long time.

For Being to have a presence in this universe it was indeed necessary for "me" to be distinguishable from the other bits and pieces which make up the universe - for there to be 'me' and 'not me.' But this distinction is, ultimately, also illusory - how can it be otherwise when all that is comes from God and has its being formed in God and only in God?. It seems that for purposes I can only dimly guess at, the process of my life is for me to make a great circular journey: from oneness of consciousness which I suspect I had before I was born (I suspect - who can tell? and I certainly don't remember) through the illusory but necessary stage of differentiation and back to an awareness of unity and the oneness of all. That is, I make my own personal journey from Eden through the fall and back to the New Eden. I follow my Lord and Saviour on the path he pioneered of birth, life, death and resurrection.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm . . I suspect that your "ground of being" is just another way of saying "flat earth." And the it is easy and PC safe to say that you were not the egg and sperm that became you. But it leaves the much bigger and real question of if they were not you then what were they?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment, Kelvin (now there's a name to make a scientist and cosmologist sit up and listen!). I agree the process took time, like the Reformation itself. Part of the problem, I think, was being able to break from the hold that Aristotle had on the medieval and early-modern Christian mind, including the approach to biblical interpetation; and Galileo, of course, is credited elsewhere with the development of experimental science that overthrows that (the real or mythical experiment with cannonballs). Galileo's own Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina is still a fine model for understanding literary truth along with empirical science. And it's worth pointing out that that great Neo-Platonic Christian Augustine, in 'De Genesi ad Litteram', didn't take Gen 1 literalistically either but was aware of its poetics.
How much can we forget, and far do we depend on others? Michael Polanyi is interesting on this.

Brian

Anonymous said...

It is much less complicated and sensible to see matter as bound up consciousness than to see consciousness as the pretender partner to matter.
The two great scientific truths of the 20th century were:
1. Absolute time is a fiction (relativity)
2. The fabric of reality is discontinuous (quantum)
The application of some thought to these truths renders evolution as a product of our imagination. And yet it is the dunces of Darwinism who hold the day and folk like yourself give weight to their pronouncements.

Anonymous said...

... nevertheless, Augustine also had this to say, which you might find a little disturbing, Kelvin.

Brian

"But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part that is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled." So now you know!

VenDr said...

This wouldn't be the first time Augustine has been shown to be a little out of whack!

I am fascinated- and this is, I suppose the point of my post- by the way that even the best and brightest of us ( including Augustine, and in places, even Galileo) can be so wedded to a world view that the truth of the universe is hidden from us. My namesake, the great Lord Kelvin opined grandly towards the end of the 19th C that science had discovered just about everything that it was possible to discover: yeah, right.

But the point for me is not the smug feeling of superiority I can gain from noticing the faux pas of men whose intellects could, even on a bad day, knock mine into cocked hoop but the reminder of the provisionality of my own world view; that what defines me and shapes the way I relate to the universe is, overwhelmingly, not my wisdom but my ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Nevertheless, before we dust off our old copy of Sextus Empiricus and seek recourse in the blissful apatheia of scepticism, we Christians must recall the promise "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free."
Those atheist media scientists like Professor Brian Cox (who know what they do partly because of that great Scottish Christian Lord Kelvin) do believe themselves to be close to a grand theory of everything - and they are resolutely materialist and atheist about it. Their end vision of the cosmos (the heat death of universal entropy and the extinction of consciousness) is the precise opposite of Romans 8.
I prefer to follow Platinga on knowledge, rather than Sextus Empiricus.
Brian

VenDr said...

....and perhaps I prefer The Cloud of Unknowing "He may well be loved but not thought. By love may he be gotten and holden; but by thought never."

Anonymous said...

"He may well be loved but not thought. By love may he be gotten and holden; but by thought never."

Dante would likely agree: 'The Love that moves the sun and the other stars...' (Paradiso XXXIII) But he can only be loved because he first loved us, which we know because the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us in a particular time and place, and thus some historical knowledge is necessary, otherwise everything dissolves into atemporal mysticism.

Anonymous said...

all we need now is a good meal