Whenever I mention geocentrism in a blog post one or other of my commentators of the anti-religious persuasion comes along and tries to claim that the reasons for the acceptance of geocentric cosmology were mostly, largely or totally religious and in no way could it be possibly scientific. My recent Saints and Demons post was no exception with Michael Fugate doing the honours as he has done on several previous occasions. It is worth taking a closer look at his comments and pointing out the historical errors that they contain. We’ve been here before but it’s a subject that bears re-examination particularly given the recent trend amongst gnu atheists of denying the objective empirical basis of the geocentric world-view.
Michael Fugate starts his attack with the following comment:
The problem with history is we don’t know all the hypotheses that were out there and why some were rejected. We have fragments of ideas about geocentrism and heliocentrism from thousands of years ago, but it is unclear exactly why geocentrism became the standard. We can try to reconstruct thought through the data we know or presume was available at the time, but it is no more than a guess. To claim that heliocentrism was rejected primarily on scientific grounds is at best speculation – it could have easily been a combination of factors (e.g. aesthetic, religious and political).
What we have in the history of western science is a fully formed highly detailed geocentric cosmology and mathematical astronomy in the form of the Syntaxis Mathematiké from Ptolemaeus from the middle of the second century CE. This lays out in great detail all of the arguments for and against both the geocentric and heliocentric cosmologies known to the Greek astronomers and cosmologist over a period of about six hundred years. Not exactly fragments of ideas! These arguments are logically argued scientific hypotheses based on solid empirical observation made by Babylonian and Greek astronomers over a period of approximately nine hundred years. Thanks to Ptolemaeus we know exactly why geocentrism was the standard. A standard that was accepted and defended in the works of Plato, Aristotle and many other Greek philosophers and mathematical commentators. This standard was also maintained and defended by many, many Islamic philosophers and astronomers from about 800 CE into the Early Modern Period. Put bluntly the claims made by Mr Fugate in the comment quoted above are historical rubbish.
It has only been very recently that religion and science have become separate fields of study; religious beliefs were often the foundation of scientific hypotheses (geocentrism, young earth, species fixity, flood geology). That these were proposed as true and put to the test by religious scientists shows how strong the evidence is against them. Perhaps it made science all the more rigorous as there would be many reasons for wanting to retain them. Hypotheses can come from anywhere, it is how they are treated that counts.
The geocentric hypotheses of Greek and Islamic cosmology and astronomy were not based on religious beliefs but on solid empirical observations. The religious views of the astronomers and cosmologists who presented those hypotheses did not play a significant role in their work.
However the three main players in the introduction of heliocentric cosmology in the Early Modern Period Copernicus, Kepler and Newton (contrary to popular opinion Galileo only played a very minor role) were all deeply religious and the religious views of two of them did play a highly significant role in their scientific thought. Copernicus was a cannon of a Catholic cathedral. Kepler trained for the priesthood in a Lutheran seminary and remained devotedly religious all of his life believing that he was serving his God through his astronomical work. Newton was by any standards a religious fanatic who believed that he had been special chosen by God to reveal the secrets of His creation.
Not content with the observations presented above Mr Fugate took a second bite of the cherry with the following comment:
Here is a thought experiment I would like to throw out. What do historians think might have been the effect if 1) the consensus coming out of ancient Greece had been heliocentrism, or 2) if a god really spoke to the authors of the Bible and had told them the earth went around the sun, when scholastic efforts arose in Europe? The way it did happen, the geocentrism of Greece meshed with the Bible, but what if it hadn’t?
I won’t mind if you tell me it is a silly question.
It is a silly question but we will treat it as if it wasn’t. There is no chance what so ever that the consensus coming out of ancient Greece could have been heliocentric. As for the second suggestion, as a life long atheist I don’t think any god ever spoke to anyone and so I can’t even conceive of a god who would have revealed to his followers anything so counterintuitive as heliocentrism. And here we have the nub of the matter. With the very, very notable exception of Aristarchus all of the cosmologies in the whole of history in the whole of the world before the sixteenth century CE are geocentric for the very simple reason that we live in a geocentric world. All the observation that we can make without the aid of the telescope and other later developed scientific instruments tell us quite categorically and without doubt that we live at the centre of all that we can perceive. In fact it takes a massive leap of faith to imagine otherwise. It is one of the great puzzles of the history of science that we don’t know how or why either Aristarchus of Copernicus took that leap.
Although he doesn’t mention Aristarchus by name Ptolemaeus sets up a formidable set of solid empirical arguments against a heliocentric worldview; arguments that only finally lost their validity during the seventeenth century CE. Even after Copernicus published his De revolutionibus in 1543 it took a long time for astronomers to produce empirical evidence for the heliocentric hypothesis and you can believe that they tried really hard to do so. It was first 182 years later in 1725 that James Bradley first produced evidence to support annual rotation around the sun with his discovery of stellar aberration. It was more than two hundred years before the measurement of the earths shape produced indirect evidence for diurnal rotation of the earth around its own axis. It would take almost another hundred years before stellar parallax was discovered confirming annular rotation and Foucault produced direct proof of diurnal rotation with his pendulum.
People like Michael Fugate make the mistake of thinking that because they have been ‘indoctrinated’ by the modern education system into believing in a heliocentric worldview that such a worldview is logical and obvious to anybody who would just open their eyes. It isn’t. I have more than once on this blog challenged anyone to demonstrate convincingly that we live in a heliocentric world with only the knowledge and instruments available to an intelligent astronomer in the middle of the sixteenth century. Strangely enough nobody has ever taken up my challenge. Actually it’s not strange at all because it is literally impossible. Even today for the ordinary man in the street all of the empirical observations that we can make without the aid of theories and instruments developed after 1600 CE tell us quite definitely that we live in a geocentric world.
People might feel provoked by my use of the word indoctrinated above and although I will admit to its use being a bit tongue in cheek it is not so far from the truth. People forget how they perceived the world as a child. All of us regarded the world as being at the centre of all we could perceive and being totally immobile before we were taught otherwise. Also most of us had a great deal of difficulty accepting that the earth rotates and that we go round the sun and not vice versa when these facts were first revealed to us. It is important to remind ourselves that we had to be taught these facts. We could learn for ourselves through empirical observations that fire is hot and if we are careless it will burn us or that snow is cold and will freeze our fingers if we play with it too long without gloves but we can’t discover for ourselves that the world we live in is heliocentric and geodynamic this we have to be taught. This perception that our world is geocentric and geostatic is reflected in our language. We talk about the sun rising and setting as if it were moving and not the earth revolving. Even astronomers when viewing the appearance or disappearance of stars over the horizon at night name this phenomenon heliacal rising or setting as if it were the stars that were moving and not the earth.
This post will of course provoke Michael Fugate and his ilk to make new ahistorical comments about the unscientific nature of the geocentric hypothesis. May I politely suggest that before doing so they at least read the cosmological writings of Aristotle, Ptolemaeus, Averroes, Peuerbach, Christoph Clavius, and many, many others, all highly scientific thinkers, who convincingly argued for a geocentric worldview.