Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Very Tiny Place In The Heavens (part 2)

Ptolemy's Geocentric Universe
[This is the 2nd installment in this series. The first is here]

The unseating of the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, first introduced by Copernicus (late 15th century), and verified through data analysis by Galileo (late 16th century), has been used to vilify theism and its sympathetic scientists for over 300 years.

Here's why ...

On the ancient view (like Ptolemy's: 90-168 AD) the universe could be best described as a giant "sump." In the given illustration (at right and the only decent one I could find), imagine the whole picture turned counter-clockwise 90 degrees. This puts the Earth at the bottom of the diagram, where the sump's bottom lies.

On this view the value/worth of things increased as one went further "up" into the heavens -- or away from the sump. For instance, Hades was a really bad place to go because it sat beneath the Earth and you simply cannot get any lower than that. Just above the Earth was the "first heaven" or, as we would refer to it now, the atmosphere that surrounds us. When Jesus told us that the "kingdom of heaven" was "at hand" this is what he meant -- that the life God promised us was immediately obtainable right where we are now. We didn't have to go anywhere to acquire it.

Just above the Earth (in the "second heaven") was the realm of the Sun, stars, and planets. The ancients believed the Earth was fixed at the bottom of the sump while these objects moved around above it within the second heaven. Thus the notion of a "geocentric" universe -- the idea that the Sun and stars moved around the Earth.

Way out beyond the stars and planets was the "third heaven," where God himself lived. When Paul (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:1-3) relates his story of being "caught up to the third heaven," this is what he means. He is claiming that he was (somehow) brought into the very presence of God.

All this is simply to show the ancient, geocentric view of the universe that had been around for some time but that was formalized by Ptolemy. When Copernicus came along and put the Sun at the center of things -- postulating that the Earth revolved around it instead -- what he actually did was move the Earth further away from the "sump" and out into the second heaven. This change, which has been mischaracterized by many ever since, actually moved the Earth to a more important position in the hierarchy of things!

Regardless of the fact that the intent of neither Copernicus nor Galileo was to diminish the Earth's status based on its position; Regardless of the fact that the physical location put forth by these two Christian astronomers actually exalted the position of the Earth to a higher level than the Ptolemaic understanding. Despite these facts, the perception that man’s status within the universe was diminished by their discoveries continues to thrive. This has been the case because the revision of the physical location has been equated with a diminished view of the importance of man in the cosmos.

This Copernican Principle, that we should assume that there is nothing noteworthy about the Earth’s cosmic position or the life it supports, has led to two follow-on views concerning our place in the universe.

More on that next time ...

___________ NOTES ____________

Dennis R. Danielson, “The Great Copernican Cliché,” presented at the combined American Astronomical Society and American Association of Physics teachers meeting. San Diego, California. January 11, 2001.

Guillermo Gonzalez & Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2004. p. 248.

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