Well over a year after this blog's creation, I continue to plumb the medieval world's treasury of ideas for ways to make our own world better, or, at least, more beautiful (to which a medieval would likely say is the same thing). Because we live in fundamentally the same place, and since the medieval philosophers so loved to preoccupy themselves with questions of universal application, I believe turning to them for inspiration is generally a sound principle. Every so often, though, the well-meaning medievalist tries to hammer a square peg through a hole, and in doing so, they only succeed in making the rest of us look like fools. Today, I write to you about one tiny segment of the medievalist peanut gallery: the geocentrists.
You may not be able to tell, but before I was a history nerd, or even a Batman nerd, my first two loves were dinosaurs and space. While other kids played tag or soccer, my father gave me Discover Space, a learning game/software suite published by Broderbund Software in 1992 for DOS systems. By the time I was in 2nd grade, I was regularly stargazing, drawing maps of constellations, and pondering about quasars.
The cosmos, as actually seen by medievals
You probably already know that in the medieval cosmology, the earth was placed at the center of the universe. Tempting as it is to dismiss anyone who lived in the days before Kanye West and smartphones as a complete idiot, a scholar in the 12th century didn't have any reason to believe the earth was anything but fixed, immovable; hence the expression terra firma. For if the earth did move, then what would keep us all from careening into the void beyond? And, as the Galileo affair highlighted, the Bible's own cosmology suggests a fixed earth. The psalmist says "the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved". And in the book of Joshua, God held the sun and moon in place for the Israelites to have enough daylight to vanquish the Canaanite heathens.
Beyond the earth's immovability, in a world without the benefit of telescopes, much less space travel, the rest was a matter of wild speculation. Today, we take it for granted that the universe is mostly an unfathomable expanse of empty space. But from Aristotle's day until the modern age, the heavens were generally believed to be a series of perfect, concentric spheres. The planets didn't fly about the earth in empty space; rather, they were fixed upon these spheres like gemstones embedded in cloth. The "fabric" was the fifth element, aether, the perfect substance that held our existence together. When Dante wrote of the nine circles of paradise, he wasn't thinking solely of the planets in orbit around the earth. The "circles" were whole spheres encasing the earth, exponentially larger and perfectly proportioned. It seems quite eccentric to us now, and I don't think even modern geocentrists defend the idea of the concentric spheres; but in the pre-telescopic world, the spheres theory as found in the models of Aristotle of Claudius Ptolemy seemed the best idea anyone could come up with. And so, it went unchallenged for well over a thousand years until an obscure Polish priest, Nicolaus Copernicus, came along in the 16th century.
The modern geocentrist
The old Ptolemaic system still has its uses. For example, planetariums are built using what is basically a Ptolemaic system since earth is our point of reference, and a truly heliocentric planetarium would be needlessly expensive. For a handful of people out there, including in the trad Catholic community which I'm a part of, this isn't good enough. Indeed, there are a few stubborn trads out there whose faith in God would be shattered if they accepted the idea that a judgment from Rome in the 17th century, outside its purview of faith and morality, could be wrong. If they could agree with our generation's so-called "militant atheists" on one thing, it's this: that even one misstep by the Church invalidates her entire claim to any share of the truth whatsoever. This has the tragic consequence of reasonable trads having to witness their brethren fall on their swords for the indefensible, plugging their ears with their fingers and chanting "nuh uh" like schoolchildren at any and every piece of evidence to the contrary.
Let me step back for a minute and clarify that there are actually three kinds of geocentrists:
1.) the apathetic,
2.) the anti-intellectuals, and
3.) the pseudo-intellectuals.
Category 1.) makes up the vast majority of geocentrists in existence. If you're reading this, you might think that's already a miniscule number, but multiple surveys, such as this one, count one out of every five adult Americans as a geocentrist. Even if we discount a full half of the respondents as being either pranksters or senile old folks, that still leaves us with a 10% of Americans who believe the sun orbits the earth. Of these, I imagine the greater part by far are just people who have never seriously thought about the question one way or the other. These are the same one out of five Americans who don't know which country the United States declared independence from, or where we are on a map of the world. They're frankly beyond the scope of this article.
Category 2.) are the trads who outright distrust telescopes, or anyone who has survived academia long enough to hold a PhD. In their minds, our entire understanding of science is built upon one lie after another, all according to the designs of Jewish atheists. If one of these anti-intellectuals is forced to confront such stubborn things as facts, they might propose the idea that God created the universe to appear much more vast and ancient than it really is to test our faith and confound the unbelievers. That sort of answer would bewilder Aquinas, and is probably more fitting for the irrational whims of a radical Islamist terror cell's god than the orderly First Mover of the medieval scholastics. Asking such a simple question as, "why would a much greater mass such as the sun orbit around a much smaller mass such as the earth?" is an exercise in futility, for all you'll get in response is something along the lines of, "well, you haven't actually gone to the sun yourself, have you? Then how do you know how big it is? Have you walked to and from it with a measuring stick to really know it's as far away as you say it is?" I wish I were exaggerating. The most extreme geo's I've come across will go so far as to pull the old moon-landings-are-a-hoax card, and that every mission NASA has ever accomplished is a lie. Since my father was an engineer for NASA in the 1970's, I won't even bother dignifying that with a real response.
Category 3.) are the fideists' comrades in the "devout geocentrist" ranks (or perhaps I should say "rank" in the singular, as anything more would suggest an army). The pseudo-intellectuals will write entire books in an attempt to prove the geocentrist model as not just a point of reference or a philosophical truth, but an accurate scientific model. These folks would be as worthy of comment as Raelians, Pope Michael, or whether Queen Elizabeth is a lizard, save for that the geocentrists' chief champion is Robert Sungenis, a fairly well-respected and established apologist in the trad Catholic community. (I even remember selling some of his apologetic works at a Catholic bookstore I worked at years ago.) Unfortunately, his insistence upon the geocentric universe effectively undoes all the good work he's achieved elsewhere in his career. A quick glance at reviews of his book Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right on Amazon.com reveals that the president of Catholic Apologetics, International has only attracted mockery from skeptics and generally made the magisterium a laughing stock.
And, by the way, if you happen to be one of the said geocentrists and you're offended by the fact that I won't shell out $20.38 plus tax and shipping to hear out a tortured semantic debate that twists Einstein's theory of relativity to mean that heliocentrism and geocentrism are equally valid models, then I'll just say this: if you can provide just one reasonable explanation for how a geocentric model makes even a modicum of sense when it would require Pluto to travel faster than the speed of light in order to revolve around the earth once every 24-hour period...... then I'll listen to the entire thing. Until then, the prospect of buying Galileo Was Wrong is about as thrilling as reading a 15-volume series about how 2 + 2 = 5 or how I'm actually black.
The hardcore geo's and Dawkinites are both missing the point
The "new atheist" points to our ancestors' belief in a geocentric universe as proof that we put ourselves in the center of existence; that we made God in our own image. The modern geocentrist confirms his suspicion that all religious people are rubes who can't even believe in a god big enough to set Earth on the third planet of one of many solar systems. Richard Dawkins himself couldn't imagine a better man in his wildest wet dreams. But both of these ridiculous caricatures miss the great point behind the entire medieval cosmology.....
Returning to Dante, we see that God didn't place the earth in the center because it was the most important part of the universe. The earth is there because that's where all the shit falls. When Satan was cast out of heaven, he fell into the very core of the world, the ninth circle of hell, which is the furthest point from the ninth heaven on all sides. Medieval man saw himself at the center, yes, but he certainly didn't want to be there. He wanted to ascend higher, to climb the nine levels of mount purgatory and see God in the highest heights of the heavens. He raised up towers and cathedrals higher than any civilization before. I can think of few things that would delight a medieval thinker more than the chance to defy gravity and fly into space, taking in all the nations of the world at once with his own eyes.