Thursday, June 4, 2009

Against Scientific Geocentrism

In a recent comment, John van Popta cites, apparently favourably, the geocentrism of van der Kamp. I never did have the honour of meeting “Kampee” as he was apparently affectionately known. But for a short time about a dozen years ago, I was involved in what I thought was a private internet discussion on geocentrism (mostly critiquing it while seeking to understand and appreciate it), and you can actually still find what must have been the most favourable thing I said about it quoted in The Geocentric Bible (!):

“no physicist I know says that the earth in any absolute sense travels around the sun. Science today does not claim that there is an absolute reference frame in which the earth is moving.”

This is apparently the best thing any Ph.D. physicist has said which could be construed to be in favour of geocentrism, at least in terms of “reference frames”. (Unfortunately, I can no longer find my other comments from that discussion.) Einstein’s theory of general relativity allows one to show how measurements of space and time correspond between references frames which are moving (in fact accelerating) relative to one another, and eschews the concept of an absolute point or system of reference from which space and time ought to be measured. However, one should not assume that the instrumentalist view is implied by general relativity, or that geocentrism is thusly made tenable. In astronomy, one does indeed usually employ an earth-based coordinate system for reasons of history and convenience. But there are plenty of good observations which indicate that geocentrism is not the true state of affairs in the cosmos. Maintaining scientific geocentrism is possible only if we dispense with nearly every well-established physical principle: gravitation, force, mass, dynamics, energy, not to mention the other basic observations which validate heliocentrism (within the solar system) such as rotational dynamics, centre of mass, stellar parallax, Coriolis force (with its Foucault pendulum, counter-clockwise rotation of storms in the Northern hemisphere), nuclear fusion, neutrino oscillation, extra-solar planetary systems, seasonal anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background, etc., etc. Of course, one could be a philosophical antirealist, or fictionalist, and maintain that these are only appearances or useful constructs, but we have discussed – and will continue to do so, Lord willing – the problems of such a position in Reformed epistemology and ontology, with, in my view, the critical (or, as Broussard puts it, humble) realist position doing more justice to the reality of the creation and to God’s gift of rationality to His image bearers. My main point regarding reference frames is that Scripture’s speaking from the point of view of earth is not scientifically problematic, but neither is it a scientific claim any more than is our continued reference to such geocentric notions as sunsets.

Also, let me briefly unveil the Copernican myth to which van der Kamp and nearly everyone else has succumbed. This is the idea that Copernicus in proposing a heliocentric system dethroned the earth from its position at the Centre of the cosmos, and that this is a threat to the Scriptural idea that humanity is central in God’s plan of salvation. Having once been considered at the Centre, the earth is now relegated to being just one planet among many, and further developments put us orbiting around just one star out of many, in one galaxy among many, etc. However, it is important to note that according to the Greeks, the earth is evil, with hell being at its centre and the heavens being the place of perfection. Thus, far from demoting the earth, Copernicus actually exalted it to join the heavenly realms! This is discussed in Dennis Danielson, “The Great Copernican Cliché”, American Journal of Physics, v. 69, n. 10 (Oct. 2001), pp. 1029-35. Danielson is a member of a Reformed church, and an English professor at UBC studying historical literature on the cosmos, writing here in a physics journal, and so if you can obtain the article via your university or college library, all readers of this blog should find it accessible. In fact, modern astronomy suggests that not only is the earth not at the center, but that there is no centre, much like how there is no location on the surface of the earth which could rightfully claim such an honour; I consider this to be a superb poetical analogy of how once Jews claimed they had to worship in Jerusalem, but now God’s people worship anywhere in spirit and truth (see John 4:20-24).

Incidentally, earth’s placement, environment, and attributes remain particularly special in many ways; see Guillermo Gonzalez & Jay Wesley Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004) and Peter D. Ward & Donald Brown, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (New York: Copernicus Books, 2004).

My conclusion is that scientific geocentrism is neither taught in nor implied by Scripture, and there is every reason for the Christian to acknowledge the weight of evidence against it while no reason to suppose that this means earth and humanity is any less special in God’s eyes. After all, we are created in God’s image, and the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection took place on our home planet. And we can say with even more depth of understanding, in humility and awe, with David, “When I consider your heavens, …what is man that you are mindful of him…?” (Psalm 8.3-4, NIV)


John van Popta said...


I had posted a comment citing WvdK's geocentricism in the context of John Byl’s instrumentalism. I mentioned it as a model striving to explain the phenomena as we can see and measure it. Only in that way did I cite it "favourably." Even as Newton's and Einstein's theories are models striving to explain the phenomena as we can see and measure. I think that they all do it imperfectly in some measure.

Dennis Venema said...

John, I'll admit your original comment was a real jaw-dropper for me. I'm quite curious about your views - hence the following list of questions:

Are you saying that you are a geocentrist? Or just that you're sympathetic to the approach? Or something else?

Do you think that, since all models are flawed in some way that there is no way to differentiate between them?

Do you think that the church should interpret the "geocentric" passages as meaning the earth literally does not move? (I.e. do you think Calvin was correct in interpreting those passages the way he did?)

Sorry for the flurry of questions, but you've really piqued my interest. I'd love to hear a more detailed explanation on your views.

Dennis Venema

Ben said...

Literary reactions to Copernicanism in 17th-century England provide further examples of Dennis Danielson's point that not everyone necessarily saw the heliocentric model as a diminution of earth's status.

Unlike John Donne, who worried deeply about the social and political ramifications of the "new philosophy", John Milton seemed to have a more sanguine view of the new astronomy. When Milton was in Florence in the summer of 1638, he paid a visit to an ailing Galileo to talk about astronomy, religion and academic freedom. He refers to this visit in his tract against censorship as an illustration of the ill effects of religious intolerance on scientific inquiry under Catholicism. In his pamphlet on education earlier that year (1644), Milton gives astronomy an important place in the curriculum.

The most famous passages on cosmology in Paradise Lost occur at the beginning of Book 8 in the conversation between Adam and Raphael, the archangel sent by God to warn our first parents about Satan's imminent attack. In his response to Adam's query "concerning celestial Motions", Raphael dismisses possible concerns about a heliocentric universe by answering Adam's question with a set of rhetorical questions:

"What if the Sun / Be Centre to the World, and other Stars / By his attractive virtue and their own / Incited dance about him various rounds? / Their wandring course now high, now low, then hid, / Progressive, retrograde, or standing still, / In six thou seest, and what if sev'nth to these / The Planet Earth, so steadfast though she seem, / Sensibly three different Motions move?" (8.122-130).

Raphael is critical of speculative astronomy, saying that God laughs at the disputes and "quaint Opinions" of those who attempt "To save appearances" (8.82). The point is that Raphael answers Adam's question about cosmology in *moral* rather than *scientific* terms to warn Adam about forbidden knowledge and about the limitations of human understanding: "Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid, / Leave them to God above, him serve and fear" (8.167-8). This warning is entirely appropriate for a poem whose climax in Book 9 is Satan's temptation of A&E to eat forbidden fruit and become god-like in knowledge.

Some think that Milton's use of Ptolemaic imagery in Paradise Lost indicates that he ultimately rejects the "new philosophy" that so bothered Donne. Others (myself included) see Milton's use of Ptolemaic imagery--the image then being discarded--as serving poetic and rhetorical purposes, and not as a statement about Copernicanism. Milton's consistent position in political and ecclesiastical matters was against centralized power. While aware of the political, religious and spiritual implications of a decentred universe, Milton seems not to have considered these implications to be fatal to his vision of a Protestant commonwealth. Nevertheless, it does look as though the youthful Milton who visited Galileo in 1638 was optimistic about the possibilities of science, whereas the Milton who dictated Paradise Lost thirty years later was more cautious.

Ben Faber

Anonymous said...

VanderKamp's Geocentrism (Part 1)

I am well-placed to make a comment relating to VanderKamp's position on geocentrism, since in the early 70s when he was promoting this theory, he also promoted it to me. I was one of his students from Grades 6 through 8, and in the early 70s, I was attending SFU, studying physics.

I think it is fair to state that mathematics was not his strong point, and further that he had no higher education at all in the hard sciences. At some point, he learned of the Michelson-Morley experiment. This was an experiment to detect the earth's movement through the "luminiferous ether". It showed a null result and this was taken almost universally to indicate that our understanding of space was flawed. But vanderKamp thought he had a better interpretation; one that is more in line with his interpretation of the Bible: The reason there was no movement detected was because the earth is stationary in the luminiferous ether. He found this very satisfying: Not only was the universe geocentric as the ancients believed, but Einstein's theory of relativity (which was difficult to understand and the math complicated), could be tossed out as well.

But now problems arose. For one thing, he had to explain stellar aberration. This is the effect that because of the earth's motion, descending starlight is apparently deflected. We have to tilt our telescopes very slightly in the direction of earth's motion to "catch" the starlight. In other words, stars are shifted slightly from their real positions. How do we know their real positions? Because of the fact that the shift varies, changing from positive to negative from summer to winter; in fact following a tiny circle if one carefully measures it (taking out of course the daily circular variations about the north pole direction).

VanderKamp laboured over this and came with a solution published as "Airy reconsidered". Google it and you'll find his other works as well, all published in his "Bulletins of the Tychonian Society", now called "Biblical Astronomer". His solution of course required starlight to act in a complicated and pathological manner.

Another problem was that if the earth was really stationary, then the whole "heavenly host" was daily whirling about it. This made far away objects travel so fast as to be scarcely believed. It forced him to posit that the whole universe is only about 60 light-days across.

Yet another problem is one I raised with him at our coffee social after church one Sunday. Since the sun is by far the most massive body, the centre of mass of the solar system is near it, so the solar system could not possibly revolve around the earth. He responded by saying that Ernst Mach's theory was that inertia was given by all the other masses of the universe, and so it is possible that all the other masses sort of hold earth in place. If I had known more history, I would have said that Mach as a speculator is discredited because he held an extreme instrumentalist point of view and did not even believe molecules to exist.

--rick baartman

Anonymous said...

VanderKamp's Geocentrism (part 2)

It is enlightening to quote from one of his articles where he is describing an experiment which was designed to verify his cosmology. He is relating a conversation he had with a UBC prof, in trying to convince him to help with an experiment he designed to demonstrate geocentricity (link):

"When I countered this by remarking that a null result would not only lend support to Einstein more accurately than ever, but would also deal a severe blow to the "Biblicist" stance that I hoped the experiment would enhance, he sadly shook his head and remarked: "Not a chance. You are too far gone for any scientific evidence to influence you." It was typical, incidentally, for the ubiquitous climate of thought then, and still is today, that any further confirmation of Einstein was considered unnecessary. He simply is, and must be, right."

This is quite a common reaction when a relatively ignorant person challenges a well-accepted scientific theory. The scientist works with the science day-to-day and has stopped endlessly accumulating evidence to support it. The theory really becomes a prejudice because it is simply impossible to make progress in research if we daily have to re-consider fundamentals.

"Any further confirmation of Einstein" really was unnecessary. At the time vanderKamp had his conversation with the prof, the theory was being used to design particle accelerators. If Einstein was not right to an almost unimaginable accuracy, then the accelerators (which I have a hand in designing) simply would not work. (This relates to Fritz's comment about TRIUMF.)

It is interesting to browse through the titles of articles that have appeared in vanderKamp's publication, now called the Biblical Astronomer. As ever, it's chock full of quackery.

-rick baartman

George van Popta said...

At Wolter van der Kamp's funeral, one of his sons mused that the following might be a fitting epitaph for his father's grave:

Now Wolter van der Kamp is on a spot
Whence he can see what's moving,
what is not.

Dennis Venema said...

When I first mentioned the geocentrism issue, I was thinking along the lines of "at least here is one topic where we can all agree that science was useful in helping us change our view of Scripture." Not that it showed up the "geocentric" passages to be wrong, but merely that it showed the fallacy of attempting to derive natural science from a text that was not intended to have any scientific notions in mind.

I was very surprised, of course, to find out that even here we are not necessarily agreed - although John vP has not yet answered my queries, so I don't know the extent of our disagreement.

Well, when it rains it pours - an online acquaintance of mine, who has developed an excellent series of science / faith videos, has had the exact same response: he uses the same example in one of his videos, and then is taken to task by a respondent who accuses him of selling out to "secular pseudoscience" because of rejecting geocentrism. I recommend the video to you, if for no other reason than it has several of Calvin's quotes on the issue featured prominently.

Is geocentrism experiencing a revival of sorts, perhaps? There was a re-trenching of many into a YEC position who came from OEC families in the 1960s after Morris & Whitcomb. Might the looming threat of common ancestry, as powerfully evidenced by genomics, engender a backlash against all modern science? One hopes not.

Here's the original video , and the geocentrist (video) response if you're interested.