Have You Fallen for the Great Modern Copernican Myth?

NewtonsApple“Study the history of science.”

That was the advice Guillermo Gonzalez gave my son and daughter a few years ago, as we were wrapping up breakfast time together. He had graciously opened up time for our family when we were in Grove City, PA, touring the college where he was teaching at the time. Dr. Gonzalez is an accomplished astronomer, discoverer (with Donald Brownlee) of the galactic habitable zone, the uniquely perfect position the earth sits in with respect to the center of the Milky Way and our local spiral arm.

There’s a lot I could say about Dr. Gonzalez’s story, but that was the main thing he wanted to leave with us. “Study the history of science.” I couldn’t help thinking of it today while reading Newton’s Apple and Other Myths About Science, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis.

I’ve just finished Michael N. Keas’s chapter on the myth “That the Copernican Revolution Demoted the Status of the Earth.” In this chapter Keas traces the history of the Copernican idea from its initial cosmic heliocentrism (the sun in the middle) to the demise of Christian cosmic anthropocentrism (booting man out of the middle) to the rise of an entirely new brand of cosmic anthropocentrism (putting man back in the middle again).

Well, no, not quite, at least not the part about Christian cosmic anthropocentrism:

The Copernican myth assumes that premodern geocentrism (earth-centered astronomy) was equivalent to anthropocentrism (human-centered ideology.) However, according to the ancient Greek geocentric viewpoint that was commonly assumed through the time of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), earth was at the bottom of the universe. This was no honor. “Up” pointed to the exalted incorruptible cosmic heaven; “down” here in the terrestrial realm, things fall apart. The British literary scholar C. S. Lewis summarized the medieval vision of the human place in the cosmos to be “anthroperipheral.” Accordingly, Galileo wrote in 1610: “I will prove that the Earth does have motion … and that it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.” Galileo offered heliocentrism as a promotion for humanity out of the filthy cosmic center that Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265-1321) had associated with hell.

That was what heliocentrism was really about, ideologically. The story now, though, is that “there was a time … when our ancestors maintained that Earth had a special role in the cosmos and lay at the center of all things.” So say Eric Chaisson and Steve McMillan in an introductory astronomy textbook. My short answer to that is, “I’m sorry, but on this point you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

For one thing, early opposition to heliocentrism was based mostly on empirical factors (here is an example). But there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Chaisson and McMillan continue:

Our view of the universe — and of ourselves — has undergone a radical transformation since those early days. Humankind has been torn from the center of the cosmos and relegated to an unremarkable position on the periphery of the Milky Way. But in return we have gained a wealth of scientific knowledge. The story of how this came about is the story of the rise of science.

Gonzalez and Brownlee might raise an eyebrow or two over our “unremarkable position on the periphery.” Meanwhile there’s a trace of a hint there that Chaisson and McMillan aren’t fully convinced that humans are so unremarkable after all. If so, they’re not alone in that. Keas quotes Dennis Danielson:

I also suspect (though can’t yet prove) that the great Copernican cliché is in some respects more than just an innocent confusion. Rather, it functions as a self-congratulatory story that materialist modernism recites to itself as a means of displacing its own hubris onto what it likes to call the “Dark Ages.”

(An earlier chapter in Newton’s Apple dispenses with the myth of an unscientific “Dark Ages” period in history.) Some of the people advancing the end of anthropocentrism seem to have trouble keeping humans out of the center, in spite of themselves. Keas quotes NASA scientist Mark Lupisella:

Bootstrapped cosmocultural evolution allows for the possibility that life, intelligence, and culture could have arisen by chance, while at the same time asserting that such phenomena are cosmically significant. Stronger versions suggest that cultural evolution may have unlimited significance for the cosmos.

Are we up or are we down? Both, because “bootstrapped cosmocultural evolution” allows it! Don’t you just want to groan, “Really?” I’m sure he’s serious. Evolution (on the naturalistic view) has always been about about one population lifting itself above another by pulling up on its metaphorical bootstraps. Cultural evolution means growing in knowledge and civilization, and I suspect (though Keas doesn’t supply this) that “cosmocultural” means taking our knowledge and culture to the stars.

This view of humanity is curiously exalted and degraded, both at the same time. From a cosmic perspective our “pale blue planet” (quoting Sagan) is nothing more than a speck of dust. We showed up here by chance. We’ve shed ourselves of the illusion that we’re at the center of it all. Instead we “may have unlimited significance for the cosmos.” It almost sounds like he thinks the cosmos should care.

The harder we try to run from our spiritual pride the quicker it catches up with us.

Keas also quotes Jeffrey O. Bennett, writing in The Cosmic Perspective (2014), “The cosmic perspective is spiritual — even redemptive — but not religious.”

Spiritual but not religious. Where have you heard that before? It has all the benefits of religion — purpose, meaning, and even redemption — without all the humiliating bow-the-knee-before-God-in-worship part we exalted humans can’t bring ourselves to (though if we could, we would find it was good).

Lupisella’s modern vision of the cosmos puts us at the apogee, the zenith. Medieval Christians never thought humans held that position. They knew that God did. They may have thought our world was at the center of the physical universe, but they never dreamed of our being “unlimited” in “cosmic significance.” No one in that day thought our significance came from our physical relationship to the physical universe. They knew it came from our relationship with God as Creator, Redeemer, and Father.

The Copernican revolution didn’t demote humans. It didn’t exalt us, either; especially not in the confused way some modernists do. It wasn’t about us, at least not in that sense. It was about the way the heavens worked. It wasn’t the Christians of Copernicus’s day who put an ideological/theological stamp on it, it was modernists. They wanted to embarrass those late medieval Christians for their lack of knowledge. Ironic, isn’t it?

A truer understanding of the meaning of the Christian religion would correct a lot of myths. So would a truer understanding of the history of science.