Geocentric Anyone?

My friend Richard over at DangerBlog made a nice little post on the debate between young Earthers and old Earthers. I think I would add from a literary perspective that the first few chapters of Genesis are clearly mythological and just as clearly true in a strictly literal sense. Not until the Greeks did anyone try to divorce mythology from truth and turn their myths into nice stories designed to teach deeper lessons. So I believe in the Judeo-Christian creation myth and its literal trueness as ardently as a Babylonian believed the story of Utnapishtim and the flood. The only difference is that the Christian story is true while the competing mythologies only contain elements of truth shrouded and jumbled in a confused hodge-podge.

But all that aside, the real purpose for this post is to interact with the comparison often made between the young Earth theory and the geocentric theory that prevailed prior to Copernicus. The argument goes like this: "The Bible seems to say that the cosmos were created in six literal 24 hour days, but this may be merely poetic language. After all parts of the Bible seem to indicate a geocentric universe, and how embarrassing it was for the church to defend the geocentric theory in the face of clear empirical evidence to the contrary."

As my favorite rhetorical method is to swallow the reductio, I'd simply like to defend the "embarassing" geocentric theory. No one should be embarrassed by medieval astronomy. Medieval astronomers were able to predict and hypothesize about celestial events with amazing accuracy. Often we hear anthropologists and scientists praise the Aztecs for their accuracy in astronomical predictions or the ancient Egyptians. Somehow the standard changes when the Christian church of the Middle Ages is thrown in even though the level of accuracy is just as high if not higher. Ah's not embarrassing that the Aztecs and Egyptians did not hold to Copernican astronomy but it's shameful that the Europeans did not.

In her commentary on Dante's Divine Comedy Dorothy Sayers had this to say about medieval cosmology.

It is well to remind ourselves that, apart from the incidental inaccuracies of observation and measurement due to a lack of instruments of precision, the Ptolemaic [geocentric] view of the universe is neither more true nor more false than our own: it is merely another way of describing the same phenomena. Its truth, however, is of a different kind from ours. The difference is like that between a realistic perspective drawing and a map. In the one, all the geometrical facts are falsified; the lines which we know to be parallel are made to meet; it is a faithful presentation of what we actually see. In the other, all the geometrical facts are adhered to, but the view presented is one we can never see so long as we keep our feet on the earth. The first picture corresponds to our observation; the second is reached by inference.

Although, of course, the "machinery" of the rotating spheres with their deferents and epicycles bears no closer relation to objective fact than do models of the atom made of little rotating balls, yet, as seen from the Earth, the movements of the heavenly bodies do trace precisely such patterns as the medieval astronomers described. We find it more convenient to take an imaginary stand at some point outside the Solar System and describe the motions from there, so that we can see the whole arrangement laid out as on a plan. For many practical purposes, however, we still use the Ptolemaic vocabulary, turning on our car-lights half an hour after "sunset", and not after "solar horizon-rise"... The Ptolemaic universe is the universe we recognize, as we recognize a photograph or picture of the house in which we live. It is inferior to the Copernican in that its mathematics, even when corrected by modern knowledge, would be too complicated for ready calculation; but it is superior as a description of what the Heavens have to show us, because it is a direct transcript of the observed phenomena.


Richard said…
I think you're right as far as the science is concerned. They had certain presuppositions, and they built their system around them. Nothing wrong with presuppositions, and, like you said, their system worked well (surprisingly well to us moderns). And it was worthy of being defended for being the accepted theory for as long as it was, and working as well as it did.

However, I don't know that we should think the same way about the church's role. It seems to me that the church had an undue commitment to the one scientific model, and against the other. The Church was stubborn enough in the old model that men were censored and disciplined because of it. I'm sure there was a lot involved that I'm not aware of, but I think it comes down to something other than what the Scriptures teach. Exegeticly, there is no reason to require a geocentric cosmology. Why was the church so resistant to the change? I don't really know... but I do think it is something to be at least a little be ashamed and embarrassed by.
Rick said…
I agree that the Church should not tie itself to one specific scientific model without Scriptural support. But I don't think that the Church was basing their opposition to Copernicus merely on a faulty exegesis of Scripture. Among other things, Copernicus' theory did not simplify cosmology. He eliminated some of Ptolemy's epicycles only to create more to replace them. And his theory did not offer any new observations or predictions.

Add this to the fact that Copernicus had no empirical evidence for his theory, and the fact that Ptolemy's theory had stood unchallenged for 1400 years, and it would stand to reason that sensible people wouldn't believe him.

I am thankful that Copernicus' theory was finally proven and that we have a more accurate view of the way the cosmos work now, but I don't think we can righly blame the medievals for a reluctance to accept a theory that proffered no apparent benefits, had no empirical data to back it up, and ran contrary to common sense experience and the wisdom of the ancients.

A good article by Gary DeMar on the subject can be found here.
Richard said…
Oh, I agree that the Church wasn't basing their opposition to Copernicus (and the new cosmology) on faulty exegesis. It seems their opposition, and their faulty exegesis, were based on the old science.

Again, I don't have issues with the science aspect of it. But the Church's discipline of men for arguing in favor of the new cosmology is another issue. DeMar's article even says that the system was vindicated by Kepler and Galileo, but Galileo was censored by the Church. What gives with that?

I think you're right that we should not point back at medieval thought with mocking laughs. They were far smarter than we give them credit for. Likewise, we can't say the church made them backwards and stupid. Of course none of that is true, although it's typically the point being made.

despite that, though, the Church *has* made mistakes, and I think this is one of those areas. There's nothing wrong with a bit of godly shame and embarrassment at our mistakes.

Now I have to give you a call...
Rick said…
Point taken and agreed upon. I certainly can't hold to the infallibility of the Church as a Presbyterian.

(Just as long as I don't have to feel bad about the crusades...) ;)