Science / Religion
In school we learn that the ancient model of the universe/solar system - called the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos - was a geocentric, or Earth-centered model. Later, in ‘modern’ times it was replaced by the Sun-centered, or heliocentric, Copernican model, named after the Polish monk and astronomer Nicolas Copernicus. Confirmed by observations using the new telescopes and lenses that were developed in the 16th century, the heliocentric solar system was championed by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was famously arrested, tried, and committed to house arrest by the Catholic Church for his views. The Church even forced him to recant his scientific propositions. Sadly, Galileo’s case is always presented as a case of a backward, oppressive and superstitious church persecuting the voice of Truth and Reason in opposition to the cause of Science that embodied those qualities. Nothing at all is said in school about Galileo being a rude, egomaniacal asshole who invited the treatment he got by being hyper-intolerant to dissenting views. He had poor people skills.
The short of it is that in school we are taught that the solar system model that has planets revolving, or orbiting around a stationary Sun is the observable truth, while the model that describes the Sun, Planets and stars orbiting around a stationary Earth is wrong, as confirmed by Scientific observations. The long persistence of the Ptolemaic model is credited to the place of superstition in society, and today many people probably sincerely believe this, and would say so without a second thought.
“Yes. The Truth is that the Earth orbits around the Sun, and the Christian Church was long opposed to the promulgation of this idea.”
But for me, such talk, although in the right, is not so right as its speakers think that it is, nor for the same reasons, either. By way of example, I was interested to read the language of a letter-to-the-editor of the English-language Japan Times newspaper by one Mary Walters. Her letter “Baffling divide over evolution,” (January 11th) was about the chronic religion versus science debate in America, centered on school science curricula in that country, and most recently manifested as the Intelligent Design debate. Specifically, I was interested to read her statements about scientific discoveries and theories that are “eventually proven,” followed by the assertion that it is a “fact that the Earth revolves around the sun.” Of course, she is not incorrect. But neither is she as correct as she thinks.
It is true that the Heliocentric model of the solar system is taught today as the accurate and correct explanation of the working of the solar system. But here is an important point that is lost on many students: it replaced the Ptolemaic model not so much because it was “proven” correct as because it was just easier. With all of the discoveries and observations being made in the sky in the 16th century because of the rapid development of lenses and telescopes, the Geocentric model became too difficult, too cumbersome, too awkward. The Heliocentric model was simpler and easier, satisfying the scientific principle of Ohkam’s Razor, or the Rule of Parsimony: the simplest explanation is the best. “Best” does not mean “right,” or “most right.” It only means most functional, which is all that science cares about.
Science does not “prove” things. That is the common language of people at large. What science does is to demonstrate things, and “demonstrate” is not a synonym for“prove.” Indeed, even today the propositions of the ancient Greek philosopher, Gorias - that nothing is knowable, and that even if it is knowable it is not demonstrable, and that even if it is demonstrable it is not provable - deserve respect, although they are suspiciously sophist propositions. Ideas like Gorgias’ propositions do not satisfy most human beings’ deep need for the security of certainty. Certainty is not the language of science, but supporters of science - and some adversaries as well - invest their expectations in science and easily credit it with unwarranted qualities.
Even after the heliocentric solar system was demonstrated there were many people who held onto, supported and taught the Geocentric model until the ends of their lives. The revolution to the Sun centered solar system occurred slowly over time as the old school grew old and then died out and was replaced by the next generation who were raised with a different model. That’s how that paradigm shift occurred. People did not just wake up one day in the 16th century saying to themselves, “Holy cow! That’s right, it’s impossible for the Earth to be the center of the universe. How stupid we’ve been all this time.”
In addition, geocentrism was not unscientific. On the contrary, it was very scientific for its time, answering all the questions and accounting for all the observations of the skies for centuries. Heliocentrism is a model with a much longer pedigree than geocentrism. Similarly, heliocentrism is a scientific model of our time. By that, I mean “confined to our time.” It is not unreasonable to suppose that in the future, times will be different. So, heliocentrism and geocentrism are only models, not proofs. Even today we can still devise Earth centered models of the cosmos that work. But nobody does it because it would just be too awkward as an explanation of all the phenomena that we observe today. Such models are not parsimonious. It is easy for me to imagine that some time in the future yet another model of the cosmos could be invented and hailed as the “right” and “true” one, and this highlights the persistent hubris of the present. In all times, people think that they know better than their forebears, and therefore their ideas have greater virtue because they are invested with more accurate information than was possessed before. That’s a lot of hubris, isn’t it? It’s also an inaccurate interpretation of history, psychology, theology, and any other “ology” you can name.
Finally, we use models as descriptions of how we think things are. How things actually are is a different matter, and possibly not definitively knowable as Gorgias proposed in ancient Greece - not because of a failure of observation or reason, but as an aspect of our psychology. Nothing ever is as people say that it is. Reality is always something else. But I could be wrong.