Thursday, July 09, 2009


A big part of the claim that Christianity is at war with science is geocentrism, the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe. As readers of this blog are aware, this issue is almost entirely misunderstood: in the ancient/medieval cosmology, the closer you were to the center of the universe, the less privileged and esteemed you were. This is precisely why hell is even closer to the center of the universe than the surface of the earth, and why Dante placed Satan at the exact center of hell (and thus of the entire universe), immobilized in a field of ice.

The misunderstanding is that since the premoderns thought the earth was at the literal center of the universe, they must also have thought it was the metaphorical center as well. It confuses geocentrism with anthropocentrism. But this can only be maintained by completely ignoring their Aristotelian cosmology, according to which the universe was arranged in concentric spheres, with God on the outside as the prime mover. The furthest place in the universe from God, therefore -- the furthest place in a sphere from what is outside the sphere --, is at its center. Of course, this ignores the fact that in Christian theology God is not merely transcendent to the universe but omnipresent within it as well; nevertheless, the premoderns maintained that the closer you were to the center, the less valuable you were. This has been amply demonstrated by Dennis Danielson in his essays "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot", "The Great Copernican Cliché", and chapter 6 in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion; Humphrey wrote an enlightening post on this issue as well.

But I find it interesting that when Christians are told that their worldview requires a belief that conflicts with science, some respond by embracing the belief in question. Thus, there are geocentric ministries today which argue that being a Christian requires belief in a geocentric universe -- although they prefer the term "geocentricity" as it doesn't have as much historical baggage. The Geocentricity website is the official site of the Association for Biblical Astronomy, "biblical astronomy" meaning Aristotelian/Ptolemaic astronomy. The second link takes you to a collection of the publications of their journal.

There's another site that bothers me more. When I was in (Protestant) seminary, my favorite theology professor used a book for one of his classes written by a Protestant-turned-Catholic entitled, Not by Faith Alone. I didn't take that class, but I did plan to someday study this book, maybe together with Alister McGrath's Iustitia Dei, and see where I came out. However, the author of Not by Faith Alone has also published a two volume work entitled Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right, volume 1 of which deals with "the scientific case for geocentrism", thus absolving me of any requirement to take him seriously. (Update: Just to be clear, I'm not tying the Catholic doctrine of justification to geocentrism. I'm only saying that particular author is not credible.)

The Geocentric Bible is essentially an online book arguing for geocentrism; he says he first heard of this view from a young-earth creationist ministry. This leads to another point: most young-earth ministries have embraced a neo-geocentrism in order to account for the problem of starlight travel time. They argue that the universe we know is actually a white hole -- a black hole so crunched that light begins to escape via quantum tunnelling -- with our galaxy (the Milky Way) at its center. They call it "galacto-centrism" since the earth is only approximately at the universe's center. I critiqued the scientific case for this claim here. For now I'd just like to point out that in arguing for this view, they appeal to the idea that if we're important to God, we should expect to find ourselves at the center of the universe. In other words, they accept the conflation of geocentrism with anthropocentrism, a conflation which is not only unhistorical, but which was invented in order to mock and ridicule Christianity. This strikes me as an extremely unwise concession: when fighting the spirit of the age, you shouldn't let it define the terms of the debate. Moreover, the fact that they have to appeal to geocentrism in order to defend their belief in a young earth makes the latter even less plausible than it already was.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Mike Flynn said...

Thomas Kuhn, he of paradigm fame, has also said that geocentrism is no less true than heliocentrism, in a letter to the NY Times and in private correspondence to William Wallace. I don't know his reasons, Wallace did not say. But a physicist friend, an atheist, contends that since Einstein showed that no acceleration frame is "privileged," one can center the origin of the coordinate system anywhere at all, and the only price is the relative complexity of the math.

At the time of Galileo, heliocentrism had been "falsified" (in our present terminology). There was no observable stellar parallax and objects dropped from towers did not fall east of the plumb line. Galileo himself suggested the latter experiment, but there is no evidence he ever carried it out. [Maybe he did, found no deflection, and kept mum.] As to the former, known to Aristotle and Archimedes, Copernicus responded that maybe the stars were much farther away than their relative luminosity suggested (which was around 70-120 million miles!) But you cannot save one unproven hypothesis with a second unproven hypothesis.

Scientifically, Galileo's proof was bogus: he claimed that the ocean tides were caused by sloshing due to the earth's rotation and that this was the clincher. But even Aquinas had known that the tides were due (somehow) to the moon. This led Duhem to remark that Galileo was right but for all the wrong reasons, while Osiander and others were wrong for all the right reasons. It is likely also why Darwin's Bulldog, Huxley, after examining the facts, concluded that the Church had the better arguments.

Around 1800, Italian scientists detected stellar parallax and measured the minute eastward deflection of falling bodies. Settele brought this to the Church's attention. The Office looked it over and agreed, and lifted the injunction. The empirical evidence demanded by Bellarmine had finally been delivered.

Karl said...

Well, this situation is no different then the one involving the flat Earth Myth. A bunch of atheists who don't know nearly enough about history or theology tell some Christians that also don't know enough about history or theology and they swallow it hook, line, and sinker.

Strangelove said...

More info on our geocentric universe here: