Friday, April 17, 2009

The Galileo Affair - (2) The Cosmic Promotion

Our ancestors lived out of doors ... [And to them, it seemed,] the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars are part of some elegantly configured cosmic clockwork ... put here for a purpose, for our benefit. Who else makes use of them? What else are they good for?

This satisfying demonstration of importance, buttressed by daily observations of the heavens, made the geocentrist conceit a transcultural conceit—taught in the schools, built into the language, part and parcel of great literature and sacred scripture. Dissenters were discouraged, sometimes with torture and death. It is no wonder that for the vast bulk of human history, no one questioned it.

Carl Sagan

The great paradox of humanity is that all the greatest of our intellectual endeavours are perversely mirrored by a crippling diminution of what it is to be human. Having emerged by a slow, bloody march from the primeval slime of the earth we are informed in gloating terms of our complete and total insignificance. Copernicus, we are told, banished the earth from the centre of the universe; Darwin told us our closest ancestors were ‘damn dirty’ apes and Freud informed us that we all secretly fantasise about sleeping with our mothers; although that last vignette might tell us more about the scale of his cocaine habit than the state of the human condition.

The problem is that the first of these humiliations, the overthrow of Geocentrism, doesn’t appear to have been the affront to our ‘na├»ve self love’ and ignorant religious worldview which Freud portrayed it as. The first crucial point is that the Jewish and Christian scriptures are not supportive of anthropocentric egoism. Instead they proclaim the smallness of mankind, its weakness and its moral incapacity in comparison to the greatness and omni-benevolence of the creator. As the psalmist declares to God:

‘when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them’.

The ancient Jewish picture of the world was vertical. God was above and the abyss lay below. The human race was in-between both in place and value. Among created things we were lower than the angels and higher than plants, animals and inanimate objects. In no sense were we at the centre.

Nor was Aristotle’s system of physics in any way a prop to human arrogance. The earth was at the centre of the universe purely because that was where heavy things would collect by their nature. Since our planet was heavier than water air and fire, it would tend to remain motionless at the centre. Was this an exalted position to be in?. No. The further from the centre the more sublime and beautiful things were, while the closer they were to the centre, the baser and grosser. More refined substances like fire tended upwards while heavy, earthly things tended towards their natural place at the centre of the earth

As Moses Maimonides asserted:

‘In the case of the universe..the nearer the parts are to the centre, the greater is their turbideness, their solidity, their inertness, their dimness and darkness, because they are further away from the loftiest element, from the source of light and brightness’.

The centre of the universe was by far the worst place to be.

As Jim points out in his essay, neither Aristotle nor Ptolemy thought the Earth to be a large part of the universe. Aristotle thought it was of "no great size" compared to the heavenly spheres. Ptolemy says in the Almagest that "The Earth has a ratio of a point to the heavens."

Following this theme of self deprecation, Thomas Aquinus declares that:

‘in the universe, earth – that all the spheres encircle and that, as for place, lies in the centre, is the most material and coarsest (ignobilissima) of all bodies’

According to the accepted cosmology of the period therefore, our miserable sphere was located at the bottom of the celestial hierarchy, considered too unworthy to be part of the heavens due to its imperfect and sinful nature and with hell and purgatory placed by Dante at the its core, the very centre of the universe. Our planet stood in dismal contrast to the heavenly firmament above, a realm of perfection derived from Plato's Theory of Forms with the realm of God beyond.

As Michael de Montaigne wrote:

"The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man and withal the proudest. he feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, the most remote from the heavenly arch"

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola followed this theme, referring to earth in delightful terms as occupying ‘the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world’

Thus, as Dennis R Danielson points out in a recent essay ‘The Copernican Demotion of Humans’:

‘the greater obstacle to Copernican theory was almost two millennia of a physics according to which the gross earth was obviously down and the glorious sun was obviously up. Accordingly the first semi-official response to the Revolutions, written by a Dominican friar but framed in transparently Aristotelian terms complained that “Copernicus puts the indestructible sun in a place subject to destruction”. Rather scandalously , heliocentrism was seen as ‘exalting’ the position of humankind in the universe and pulling the earth out of the cosmic slump that Copernicus’s predecessors thought it occupied- and conversely placing the sun into that central yet tainted location’.

In order to counter this impression, Copernicus and his assistant Rheticus were keen to enhance the status of the centre by suggesting it was a throne, a fitting place for the majestic sun to govern the planets. The earth had been effectively promoted to the status of a star ‘moving among the planets as one of them’.

As Danielson explains, the relocation was often seen in positive terms except by those who preferred that the gross earth be put in its proper place. The English clergyman John Wilkins for example, opposed those who presumed that ‘the earth is of a more ignoble substance than any other planets, consisting of a more base and vile matter’ that ‘the centre is the worst place’ and that is where the earth should be.

Kepler saw the new cosmology as offering humanity a new cosmic advantage. Because man had been created for contemplation:

‘he could not remain at rest in the center..but must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform his observations…There is no globe nobler or more suitable for man than the earth. For, in the first place, it is exactly in the middle of the principal globes…Above it are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Within the embrace of its orbit run Venus and Mercury, while at the centre the sun rotates.’

Galileo railed against those who argued:

‘principally on the grounds that it has neither motion nor light, that the earth must be excluded from the dance of the stars. For I will prove that the earth does have motion, that it surpasses the moon in brightness, and that it is not the sump where the universe's filth and ephemera collect.’

Since the earth’s meteoric rise from a cesspool at the centre of the Aristotelian universe to an exalted position amongst the stars looks like a stunning promotion, where did the idea of cosmic demotion come from?. Like a substantial number of the world’s delusions it appears to have come from the French enlightenment. According to Danielson:

‘it was Cyrano de Bergerac who associated pre-Copernican geocentrism with the “insupportable arrogance of Mankinde, which fancies, that nature was onley created to serve it’. Most influentially, the science popularizer Bernard de Bouvier de Fontenelle’s Discourse on the Plurality of Worlds complimented Copernicus who ‘takes the earth and throws it out of the center of the world’- for his’ design was to abate the vanity of men who had thrust themselves into the chief place of the universe’.

This retrospectively imposed dethronement became the standard account during the enlightenment. The myth serves a valuable purpose. It allows the proponent to wallow in smugness and intellectual superiority at the naivety of his forebears. It also forms a great centrepiece in the grand narrative of materialism; the inevitable unmasking of humanity and exposure of its cosmic insignificance. Yet it is not at all clear that the great scale of the universe is any cause for despair. For example, when Cotton Mather looked out at the stars through his telescope he proclaimed:

'Great God, what a variety of world's hast thou created!. How stupendous are the displays of thy greatness and of thy glory'

Calvin's conclusion about the human condition was that:

"If God had formed us of the stuff of the sun or the stars, or if he had created any other celestial matter out of which man could have been made, then we might have said that our beginning was honourable. ... But ... we are all made of mud, and this mud is not just on the hem of our gown, or on the sole of our boots, or in our shoes. We are full of it, we are nothing but mud and filth both inside and outside."

Ironically we do appear to be made out of stardust. The universe we see is greater than anything he could have imagined; provided, that is, you ditch the misery tinted spectacles.

The Galileo Affair - (1) The Problem with Heliocentrism

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