Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Flat Earth, Myth, Mythology and more mythological narratives of naturalism...

More idiocy, another ignorant narrative popular in the American University....

"The story is so common that it’s tedious to repeat it in great detail. As we all think we know, ancient superstition put Earth and its inhabitants at the physical and metaphysical center of a small, anthropocentric—that is, “human-centered”—universe. The benighted masses thought Earth was flat, while the educated elites, following Ptolemy and Aristotle, imagined it as a sphere, with the Moon, planets, Sun, and stars revolving around it.

Copernicus, according to the popular story, demoted us by showing that ours was a sun-centered universe, with Earth both rotating around its axis and revolving around the Sun like the other planets. This claim is some times accompanied by still more egregious factual errors. For instance, Bruce Jakosky explains in The Search for Life on Other Planets, “Because of this tremendous change in world view, Copernicus’ views were not embraced by the Church: the history of his persecution is well known.” Never mind that Copernicus wasn’t persecuted and died the same year (1543) that his ideas were published, not at the oil-soaked stake but peacefully and of natural causes. Since these historical facts muddy the popcorn-movie simplicity of the Official Story, with its cast of intrepid, steely eyed scientific heroes on the one hand and its one-dimensional villain priests on the other, the historical facts are garbled. (Understand, we don’t believe this is part of a willful conspiracy. Jakosky is a well-known and respected scien tist, and the publisher, Cambridge University Press, is a respected publisher of astronomy books. Such a mistake could only survive the editorial process because a great many intelligent people simply assume the stereotype.)

The popcorn movie continues on from Copernicus’s persecution with a bravura medley of fact and fiction: The messiah Copernicus leaves his even less fortunate followers, like Bruno, the first martyr, and Galileo, the first saint, to suffer even more hideous consequences. In time, however, the brave and unflagging march of scientific evidence overwhelms the darkness and idiocy of religious superstition—swelling and triumphant musical score followed by cheers and the film’s credits. The test audience loves it; everyone goes home fat and sassy in the knowledge of modern man’s incalculable superiority to the superstitious fools of a dead and defeated past.

Thus is the story purged of its cumbersome subtleties. The Copernican Revolution, we’re led to believe, was the opening battle in the ongoing war between Science and Religion. Textbooks and science writers on the sub ject display varying degrees of reductiveness and aversion to detail, but with few exceptions, the central message is the same: Religious superstition maintained the myth that Earth and human beings are the center of the universe, both physically and metaphysically, but modern science has taught us otherwise. Copernicus is the enduring symbol of science’s unflinching commitment to the facts, even when it means displacing humanity from our false sense of uniqueness and importance. As astronomer Stuart Clark puts it: “Astronomy leads us to believe that the Universe is so vast that we, on planet Earth, are nothing more than an insignificant mote.” Strangely, some even see Copernicus’s work as play ing the role of moral teacher. Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “The Copernican Revolution will not have done its work until it has taught men more modesty than is to be found among those who think Man suf ficient evidence of Cosmic Purpose.”

The intended subtext, of course, is that one will be scientific only to the extent that one is nonreligious. To be “religious,” in the narrow sense intended here, is to believe that there is something unique, special, or intentional about our existence and the existence of the cosmos. “Science” here has a special definition as well. Rather than a search for the truth (scientia means knowledge) about nature—based on evidence, systematic study, and the like—science becomes applied naturalism: the conviction that the material world is all there is, and that chance and impersonal natural law alone explain, indeed must explain, its existence.

Toward this end, the official story line comes close to reversing the most important historical points. Predominant in that story line is the link between our “central” location and our importance in the overall scheme of things. As planetary scientist Stuart Ross Taylor puts it:

Copernicus was right after all. The idea that the Sun, rather than the Earth, was at the centre of the universe caused a profound change in the view of our place in the world. It created the philosophical climate in which we live. It is not clear that everyone has come to grips with the idea, for we still cherish the idea that we are special and that the entire universe was designed for us.

Historians of science have protested this description of the development of science for decades, but so far their protests have not trickled down to the masses or the textbook writers."
(The Privileged Planet: How Our Place
in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery
By Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards :222-225)