The Copernican Revolution and Man's place in the Universe

In a previous post we noted the conventional wisdom that posits an eternal conflict between Christianity and science, a narrative made plausible only by a selective reading of the historical evidence.

One of the many subplots of this narrative is the Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth. The truth is that virtually no educated person in Columbus’ day believed the earth was flat—not leaders in church or state, not university professors, and probably not even the average medieval serf plowing the field of his lord.

Another subplot focuses on the supposedly catastrophic consequences of the Copernican Revolution for the Christian faith. Prior to the 16th century nearly everyone took for granted that the earth lay at the center of the universe, a view known as geocentrism. This certainly seemed obvious enough. After all, do we not see the sun, moon, and stars move across the sky? What could be more obvious than the fact that the heavenly bodies circle a stationary earth?

The ancient astronomer Ptolemy (A.D. 100–170), building upon the work of his predecessors, had devised a detailed description of celestial motion from a geocentric viewpoint that seemed to account for all the observational data. His model of the heavens was all but universally accepted for nearly 1,400 years, even with numerous tweaks to account for certain anomalies that didn’t otherwise fit the system.

Copernicus suggested that the number of anomalies called for an entirely different system, one in which it was not the earth, but the sun that lay at the center of the universe. The reason the heavenly bodies seemed to move, he said, was because the earth was rotating on its axis as it revolved around the sun.

But this was a hard sell. It went against common sense and daily experience. If the earth really is spinning on its axis, how is it that we don’t feel the movement? Why aren’t we thrown off the earth? Why isn’t there always a stout east wind as the planet rotates in that direction? Why is it that when you throw a rock straight up, it comes straight down? If the earth were rotating to the east, wouldn’t the rock land to the west? 

And then there were the Scriptural arguments against a sun-centered (heliocentric) system. Religious scholars cited passages like Psalm 93:1, “The world is established; it shall never be moved” (cf. 1 Chron. 16:30; Ps. 96:10). If the earth cannot be moved, it can neither rotate on its axis nor revolve around the sun, ergo the heavens move and the earth is stationary. And isn’t this also implied when Scripture speaks of the rising and setting of the sun (e.g., Ps. 50:1; 113:3; Mal. 1:11) and Joshua commanding the sun and the moon to stand still (Josh. 10:12-14)?

Taken in their proper contexts, of course, these passages can hardly be interpreted as arguments in favor of geocentrism. Scripture often speaks according to appearances, just like we do. Even we who live in the 21st century speak in terms of the sun rising and setting and the moon and stars moving across the sky—even we who know the apparent movement is caused by the earth rotating on its axis.

It is often said that the biggest religious objection to the Copernican system was that it dethroned man by removing the globe he inhabits from the center of the universe. Typical is the statement of Brody and Brody,

“Few were prepared to consider a theory that displaced Earth and humankind from the hub of the universe. The unassailable truth was that God put us in the center and on the largest object because vanity, fear, and the Bible demanded this correlation of location and size to importance.”[1]

Marvin Perry discusses Copernicus in a section entitled The Dethronement of the Earth.[2] Bertrand Russell argued that:

“the dethronement of our planet from its central position suggests to the imagination a similar dethronement of its inhabitants.” It was too difficult to believe that a remote corner of the cosmos “could have the importance to be expected of the home of Man, if Man had the cosmic significance assigned to him in traditional theology. Mere considerations of scale suggested that perhaps we were not the purpose of the universe.”[3]

Dennis Danielson briefly traces the origin of the dethronement hypothesis:

The Copernican cliché seems to have appeared for the first time in France more than a century after the death of Copernicus as part of an anti-anthropocentric critique. Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) associated pre-Copernican geocentrism with “the insupportable arrogance of Mankinde [sic], which fancies, that Nature was onely [sic] created to serve it.” Most influentially, the science popularizer Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle’s Discourse of the Plurality of Worlds (1686) complimented Copernicus—who “takes the Earth and throws it out of the center of the World”—for his “design was to abate the Vanity of men who had thrust themselves into the chief place of the Universe.” This interpretation became the standard and apparently unquestioned version of the Enlightenment, as magisterially summarized in 1810 by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who repeated the notion that “no discovery or opinion ever produced a greater effect on the human spirit than did the teaching of Copernicus,” for it obliged earth “to relinquish the colossal privilege of being the center of the universe.”[4]

The problem with this narrative is that it’s false. But it’s not only false. It assigns exactly the opposite significance to a geocentric view of the universe than those who actually held the view. Arthur Lovejoy explains:

It has been said that the older picture of the world in space was peculiarly fitted to give man a high sense of his own importance and dignity; and some modern writers have made much of this supposed implication of the pre-Copernican astronomy. Man occupied, we are told, the central place in the universe, and round the planet of his habitation all the vast, unpeopled spheres obsequiously revolved. But the actual tendency of the geocentric system was, for the medieval mind, precisely the opposite. For the centre of the world was not a position of honor; it was rather the place farthest removed from the Empyrean [i.e., the highest heaven, dje], the bottom of the creation, to which its dregs and baser elements sank. The actual centre, indeed, was Hell; in the spatial sense the medieval world was literally diabolocentric. And the whole sublunary region was, of course incomparably inferior to the resplendent and incorruptible heavens above the moon. Thus Montaigne, still adhering to the older astronomy, could consistently describe man’s dwelling-place as “the filth and mire of the world, the worst, lowest, most lifeless part of the universe, the bottom story of the house.” How, then, he demanded, could a creature native to it and fellow-lodger with “the lowest of the three orders of animals” (i.e., land animals) dare in imagination “to place himself above the circle of the moon, and reduce heaven under his feet”?

John Wilkins in 1640 mentions, as one of the arguments still advanced against the Copernican system, that drawn “from the vileness of our earth, because it consists of a more sordid and base matter than any other part of the world; and therefore must be situated in the centre, which is the worst place, and at the greatest distance from those purer incorruptible bodies, the heavens.”

It is sufficiently evident from such passages that the geocentric cosmography served rather for man’s humiliation than for his exaltation, and that Copernicanism was opposed partly on the ground that it assigned too dignified and lofty a position to his dwelling place.[5]

Credit: datarep
Had he wished, Lovejoy might also have quoted the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who attempted to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with the teachings of Torah, and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the leading Christian philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages who attempted a similar synthesis between Aristotle and Christianity.[6] Both of these men reflected the commonly received opinion that the earth, as the center of the universe, was not a place of exaltation, but of degradation. Let us not forget that Dante places the lowest circle of hell in the very center of the earth.

Medieval scientists and churchmen had their reasons for initially rejecting Copernicus, but the fear that doing so dethroned man was not one of them.

[1] David Eliot Brody and Arnold R. Brody, PhD, The Science Class You Wish You Had (New York, NY: The Penguin Group, 2013), p. 9
[2] Western Civilization: A Brief History, vol. 1 pp. 240-241
[3] Bertrand Russell in Religion and Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 7, as quoted by Tom Bethel in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2005), p. 191
[4] Dennis Danielson, in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion ed. by Ronald L. Numbers (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 57
[5] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, [1936] 1964), pp. 101-102.
[6] See Danielson, p. 53. Thus, Maimonides:  “In the universe, the nearer the parts are to the centre, the greater is their turbidness, their solidity, their inertness, their dimness and darkness, because they are further away from the loftiest element, from the source of light and brightness.” Thus, Thomas Aquinas: “In the universe, earth—that all the spheres encircle and that, as for place, lies in the center—is the most material and coarsest (ignobilissima) of all bodies.” “Material” and “coarse” were not merely terms to describe the physical properties of the earth, but also stood as a negative judgment against them, relative to the heavens.


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