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The Myth

copernican-revolutionLike most, if not all religions, science has a creation myth that proclaims a new cosmic situation. The Copernican myth tells how science began and, like all myths, is recited again and again. Astronomers, physicists, and biologists—even schoolboys—recall the great beginning when reality was fully manifested. Geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky recounts how Copernicus “dethroned [the Earth] from its presumed centrality and preeminence.”[1] Cosmologist Martin Rees concurs: “It is over 400 years since Copernicus dethroned the Earth from the privileged position that Ptolemy’s cosmology accorded it.”[2] Astrophysicist Carl Sagan proclaims Copernicus delivered the first in a series of “Great Demotions [by science] to human pride.”[3] Sigmund Freud approved of Copernicus’ “great outrage” against humanity’s “naïve self-love.”[4]

Everyone knows that before Copernicus humans occupied the center of the universe, a very special and a very privileged place, and that the heliocentric theory reduced humankind to a position of insignificance. But what everyone “knows” is a false belief, a tale told to hide what really happened. To see the revolution that Copernicus did effect, a revolution greater and more lasting than the changed outlook caused by relativity and quantum physics in the twentieth century, we first must grasp what Copernicus overturned—Ptolemaic astronomy founded on Aristotelian philosophy.

The Real Revolution

A revolution overthrows an old regime and initiates a new order. Therefore, to comprehend the significance of any revolution it is necessary first to understand the old regime, or in our case, the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmos.

picture1Any person in the Northern Hemisphere can begin the study of astronomy the way Aristotle and Ptolemy did. Go outside at night, sit on the ground, and you will see the stars trace out circles around an imaginary axis that goes through the North Star and the Earth. Unless you are a human being unique in history, I can guarantee you will not feel that you are in motion, but that the stars are turning around the Earth. Repeated viewing of the stars over many years shows that the constellations and other stars do not change in brightness or in location with respect to each other. The constellation Pisces looked the same to Ptolemy as it does to us.

The stars move differently than terrestrial objects: a rock held up in the air and released falls in a straight line toward the center of the Earth. From such common experience, Aristotle drew an obvious, although incorrect, conclusion: The cosmos is composed of two kinds of matter, celestial and terrestrial. The celestial matter of the stars is eternal, moves in perfect circles, and is either divine or moved by something divine. In contrast, the Earth is composed of ever-changing matter whose natural movement is in a straight line toward the center of the Earth. In the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmos, the Earth is the basement, the sinkhole where all the gross, dull matter is concentrated.

A half a century before the publication of Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola described the dwelling place of Earth as “the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world.”[5] Inhabitants of the cosmic sinkhole suffered floods, earthquakes, and plagues, while the angels and saints in heaven blissfully contemplated God. Even a quarter of a century after On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres appeared in print, the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne said people feel and see themselves “lodged here amid the mire and dung of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst, the deadest, and the most stagnant part of the universe, on the lowest story of the house, and the farthest from the vault of heaven.”[6] Contrary to the Copernican myth, the place of the Earth in a geocentric cosmos is not preeminent, nor does it lead to human pride or naïve self-love, unless the bubonic plague is preferable to eternal bliss.

Following Aristotle, Ptolemy begins his great work on astronomy, the Almagest (circa 150 AD), by first laying out in broad outline the three categories of knowledge—physics, mathematics, and theology. “In the highest reaches of the universe, completely separated from perceptible reality,” is an invisible and motionless deity, who is the “first cause of the first motion of the universe.”[7] The first cause, or Prime Mover, is the most intelligible entity that exists. Never-changing, the Prime Mover is unknowable to us, because of its remoteness. Properly speaking, theology should be called guesswork, not a science, since the invisible and motionless deity is remote and unknowable.

Physics, the opposite of theology, investigates what is perceptible and near at hand. Matter, unfortunately, is unstable and obscure, for such qualities as white, hot, sweet, and soft never remain. What is closest to us is least intelligible and thus, on the whole, unknowable. Like theology, physics is guesswork, but for a different reason; terrestrial matter is essentially unknowable. Consequently, philosophers can have no hope of agreeing about either the Prime Mover or terrestrial matter.

Only mathematicians using the indisputable methods of arithmetic and geometry have arrived at sure and unshakeable knowledge because mathematics occupies a middle ground between theology and physics. Numbers and geometrical figures are close at hand, yet unchanging. While the stars are ever-moving around the Earth, they are eternal and unchanging in themselves. Astronomy partakes of both the physical, for the stars are perceptible, and the theological, for the stars are heavenly and divine. Because of their remoteness, however, the astronomer’s knowledge of the stars is limited.

The bulk of the Almagest is taken up with giving accounts of the irregular motion of the Sun and the wandering stars (planets). Careful observations show that the motions of the Sun and the planets around the Earth vary throughout the course of a year, which poses a problem to Aristotle and Ptolemy, since all celestial bodies were thought to move in perfect circles and never change in speed around their respective centers of motion.

picture2picture3Ptolemy constructs two hypotheses to account for the observed irregular motion of the Sun in terms of regular circular motion, but he offers neither as the way the Sun really moves. Ptolemy’s has two hypotheses to account for the Sun’s motion. In the eccentric circle hypothesis, the Sun’s regular motion is not centered on the Earth. In the other hypothesis, the Sun rides on a small circle called an epicycle; the regular motion of the epicycle is on the large circle, called the deferent that is centered on the Earth. The regular motion of the Sun is about the center of the epicycle. Both hypotheses account for the observed annual motion of the Sun about the Earth. Ptolemy offers neither hypothesis as an explanation of the Sun’s motion; each hypothesis is a likely story; the ancient astronomers had no way of choosing one over the other. A modern reader looking at these diagrams may make the error of thinking that these are models of the Sun’s motion, which they definitely are not; they are mathematical artifices, accounts, likely stories, nothing more.

Ptolemy’s drawings are not representations of the motion of the Sun and the planets. If we define a map as a representation of an object or a process, then the figures in the Almagest are not maps of the cosmos.

Occupying the basement of the universe, the sinkhole of the cosmos, the ancient astronomer is limited in what he can understand. The night sky is an impenetrable mystery. At no place in the Almagest does Ptolemy give a drawing of the cosmos; each planet is a divine being that does its own thing, and Ptolemy has no reason to think that Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn fit together into a grand scheme.

Like all ancient philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers, Ptolemy highlights how his discipline affects the whole person. The practice of astronomy results in persons of ethical action and good character: “From the constancy, order, symmetry and calm which are associated with the divine, it makes [astronomy’s] followers lovers of this divine beauty, accustoming them and reforming their natures, as it were, to a similar spiritual state.”[8]

Astronomy and the Book of Genesis

Copernicus begins astronomy where Aristotle and Ptolemy could not, with the book of Genesis. From Revelation, Copernicus concludes that the cosmos was fashioned by “the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.”[9] Consequently, the cosmos must be intelligible and beautiful. Copernicus’ main critique of Ptolemy and his followers is that they did not discover the chief point of astronomy, the beautiful form of the cosmos. The geocentric cosmos lacks unity and the parts are not harmonious. Copernicus likens a Ptolemaic astronomer to an artist taking hands, feet, head, and limbs from his different drawings of humans, each part beautifully drawn, and assembling them together; the result is a monster, since no two parts match. From Genesis, Copernicus concludes that the Ptolemaic cosmos must be wrong.

The second point that Copernicus draws out of Genesis is that since man and woman are made in the image of God, natural philosophers can discover “the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.”[10]

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-28)

picture4In Book One of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), Copernicus hurries to persuade the reader of the truth of the heliocentric cosmos, he offers as overwhelming proof the harmony and proportion of such a universe when seen from the outside, from a divine perspective. Looked at from the outside, from God’s vantage point, the cosmos is seen to have a wonderful harmony and simplicity. The astronomer sees the truth of the heliocentric cosmos by simply looking at it. Copernicus exclaims, “How exceedingly fine is the godlike work of the Best and Greatest Artist!”[11]

Unlike Ptolemy, Copernicus draws maps of the cosmos. The astronomer sees that in a heliocentric cosmos, the Earth is a planet, a wandering star: “The center of the Earth too traverses that great orbital circle among the other wandering stars in an annual revolution around the Sun.”[12] No longer are the stars remote; we are riding on one in our annual traverse around the Sun! The Copernican Revolution unnails and unrivets us from sinkhole Earth.

From God’s vantage point, we see that the Aristotelian division of matter into celestial and terrestrial is wrong. The Earth is a wandering star, so either the Earth is divine or the stars are mundane like the Earth. The Earth, clearly, is mundane; thus, the stars must be too. In the Copernican cosmos, the planets and the Earth move in perfect circles. Somehow the mundane matter of the Earth must have regular mathematical properties and thus must be intelligible. Furthermore, the intelligible stars can be known to us. Star-stuff and Earth-stuff are the same; we can study star-stuff by going out in the backyard and digging up earth. No longer must the scientists be satisfied with accounts, with likely stories, for now, they can grasp reality and explain how things really happen.

The Copernican Revolution opened up the entire cosmos to human understanding. In principle, scientists can grasp the whole show. Now, that is a boost to human pride! Copernicus gave the astronomer the vantage point of God; transported outside the universe to bear witness to its mathematical regularity, the astronomer, and later all scientists, became godlike. In the modern world, the scientist in his mind is a detached observer outside the universe looking at the machinery of the world, contemplating the causes of things. No longer is the astronomer an inhabitant of an unknowable Earth surrounded by the great mystery of the divine stars. Far from demoting humankind, as Sagan and others proclaim, the Copernican Revolution elevated the scientist above the stars, planets, and Earth to a position of the highest being in the cosmos.

The truth of the heliocentric cosmos gave rise to a pressing problem. The mathematical properties of a shovelful of earth are not obvious, so a new science was needed, a new method to replace Aristotelian science.

The Experimental Method

In 1620, Francis Bacon, one of the principal architects of modern science, published The New Organon: Or the True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature, a work intended to replace the old Organon, the six logical treatises by Aristotle that formed the foundation of his philosophy. At the beginning of the Great Instauration, the preface to The New Organon, Bacon laments, “the state of knowledge is not prosperous nor greatly advancing,” and declares, “a way must be opened for human understanding entirely different from any hitherto known.”[13] The main impediment to the advancement of knowledge is Aristotelian philosophy filled with “specious and flattering” propositions that give rise to “contentious and barking disputation.”[14] The title word “instauration” means the “restoration of something that has lapsed or fallen into decay.”[15]

The knowledge of nature had fallen into a lamentable state, but what was it to be restored to? Certainly not to Aristotelian physics, a disaster from the start and later proven wrong by Copernicus’ heliocentric understanding of the cosmos. The restoration is to the Garden of Eden, the only time in human history when man had real authority over nature. Genesis sets the goal of the new science envisioned by Bacon: Helps and aids must be found “in order that the mind may exercise over the nature of things the authority which properly belongs to it.”[16]

So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air; and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatsoever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. (Genesis 2:19-20)

The true test of human knowledge, for Bacon, is whether nature can be commanded, for “those twin objects, human knowledge and human power, do really meet in one; and it is from ignorance of causes that operation fails.”[17] While the goal of the new science is to “command nature in action,” the goal of Aristotelian philosophy is “to overcome an opponent in argument.”[18] Bacon tossed Aristotle on the trash heap of history, for implicit in Aristotelian physics is that terrestrial matter is obscure and barely knowable, and thus can never be commanded.

Bacon’s “twin objects, human knowledge and human power” changed man’s relationship to nature forever. Lakota Chief Standing Bear observed the great difference between the Native Americans and the European settlers, who brought to the New World the Baconian desire to command nature: “But nothing the Great Mystery placed in the land of the Indian pleased the white man, and nothing escaped his transforming hand…. And here I find the great distinction between the faith of the Indian and the white man. Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings.”[19] F. Scott Fitzgerald imagines in the concluding pages of The Great Gatsby what the first Dutch sailors to the New World saw: “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”[20] Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and social philosopher, contrasts what Europeans imagined of the New World to how Americans actually behaved: “Europeans think a lot about the wild, open spaces of America, but the Americans themselves hardly give them a thought. The wonders of inanimate nature leave them cold, and, one may almost say, they do not see the marvelous forests surrounding them until they begin to fall beneath the axe. What they see is something different. The American people see themselves marching through wildernesses, drying up marshes, diverting rivers, peopling the wilds, and subduing nature.”[21]

According to Bacon, another error Aristotle committed was his complete confidence in the senses that became the medieval tag, “Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu.” (Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses.) But for Bacon “it is certain that the senses deceive.”[22] After the Fall of Man, our intellects became clouded and we became too attached to the senses. More importantly, Copernicus demonstrated that our senses give “false information;”[23] the Earth rotates around its north-south axis and traverses an orbit about the Sun, while the senses report the Earth is stationary. The geocentric cosmos resulted from Aristotle and Ptolemy trusting the senses to report the way things truly are.

Bacon enunciates a fundamental principle of the new science: “The testimony and information of the sense has reference always to man, not to the universe; and it is a great error to assert that the sense is the measure of things.”[24] But a total rejection of the senses is madness, so to arrive at trustworthy information about nature the senses must be assigned a limited role. In one sentence, Bacon presents the heart of the experimental method, something entirely new to mankind: “The office of the sense shall be only to judge of the experiment, and the experiment itself shall judge of the thing.”[25] Said another way, the scientist touches the experiment, and the experiment touches nature. The scientist has no direct contact with nature. No scientist has ever seen, or will ever see, with his or her own eyes a neutrino, the helical structure of DNA, or the background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Scientific instruments touch nature, and the physicist, the chemist, or the biologist reads the numerical outputs, analyzes the data, applies theories, and eventually discovers the real constituents of nature—subatomic particles, molecules, and genes. For example, the Tevatron judges the top quark, and physicists judge the output of the Tevatron. The experiment touches nature, and the scientist touches the experiment. See illustration, the control room of the Tevatron, courtesy Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. (The Tevatron went permanently dark in September 2011.)

picture6Bacon thought that instruments like the telescope and the microscope for “enlarging and sharpening the senses”[26] were vastly inferior to experiment. Although Galileo’s telescope revealed that moons orbit Jupiter and thus offered evidence for the correctness of the Copernican system of the Sun and planets, his inclined plane experiment to determine how terrestrial bodies accelerate touched nature deeper. For the first time in history, Galileo showed that terrestrial matter obeys mathematical laws, a more powerful confirmation of the heliocentric universe than the observation of the moons of Jupiter.

As science advanced, more and more instruments were interposed between scientists and nature. Today, microwave telescopes map the early Universe, x-ray machines reveal the structure of organic macromolecules, and particle accelerators probe the subatomic.

Unlike Aristotelian methodology that observed nature free to work in her own way, the experimental method vexes nature to reveal her hidden ways. In laboratories, nature is “forced out of her natural state”[27] by the use of either an extreme condition such as high temperatures found in furnaces or a contrivance such as systematically altering the mineral composition of soil to see the effect on plant growth. “The nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom.”[28] The vexation of nature is the path to commanding nature. If a scientist pokes nature here with a sharp stick to see how she responds; and, then pokes nature there to see what happens; soon he will discover how to poke nature in a way that will make her do what he wants her to do.

Bacon hoped the command of nature would contribute to the “relief of man’s estate,”[29] a way to treat some diseases, bring about modest improvements of health, and perhaps increase physical comfort and pleasure—“in some degree [to] subdue and overcome the necessities and miseries of humanity.”[30] To support his position that future technological innovations would drastically alter human life, Bacon called attention to three then-recent discoveries, whose origins were “obscure and inglorious.”[31] The printing press, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation…no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.”[32] Not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that electric lighting, television, and computers were part of the “great mass of inventions”[33] that would flow forth from the new science that gave command over nature.

Bacon delivered two admonitions to his successors about the use of the new experimental method. First, he admonished scientists that the study of no part of nature is forbidden; “for it was not the pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to the creatures according to their propriety, which gave occasion to the Fall.”[34] In their pursuit of the truth, scientists have a divine mandate to ignore religious dogmas, philosophical doctrines, and cultural taboos. In effect, Bacon sanctioned the separation of science from religion and philosophy.

Second, Bacon addressed “one general admonition to all—that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it with charity.”[35] The general admonition exposes an inherent flaw in the Great Instauration. Bacon hoped to restore man to the Garden of Eden intellectually, but knew man could not be restored morally.

In Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences (1638), Galileo announces his great discovery that terrestrial matter does indeed obey mathematical laws, and consequently the Earth and the stars are made of the same material. At the end of his treatise, Galileo applies his new knowledge discovered through the experimental method to the improvement of artillery. So much for Bacon’s general admonition. In the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, laboratories worked for the benefit of life and the destruction of humanity, producing polio vaccine and thermonuclear weapons, aids for life and instruments of death.

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[*] The other defining event of Modernity is the Protestant Reformation, which destroyed medieval communal life and thereby launched individualism. The new man of God was to achieve “salvation through unassisted faith and unmediated personal effort.” (Robert A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), The Quest for Community, p. 90.)

[1] Theodosius Dobzhansky, Man’s Place in the Universe: Changing Concepts, ed. David W. Corson (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona College of Liberal Arts, 1977), p. 80.

[2] Martin Rees, Before the Beginning (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998), p. 100.

[3] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (New York: Random House, 1994), p. 26.

[4] Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans. Joan Riviere (New York: Garden City Publishing, 1938), p. 252.

[5] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man.

[6] Michel de Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 330.

[7] Ptolemy, Almagest, trans. G. J. Toomer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 35–36.

[8] Ibid., p. 37.

[9] Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, trans. R. Catesby Taliaferro in Great Books of the Western World, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1939), vol. 16, p. 508.

[10] Ibid., p. 506.

[11] Ibid., p. 529.

[12] Ibid., p. 525.

[13] Francis Bacon, The New Organon: Or the True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960 [1620]), p. 7.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Microsoft Bing Dictionary.

[16] Bacon, The New Organon, p. 7. Italics added.

[17] Ibid., p. 29.

[18] Ibid., p. 19.

[19] Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), p. 196.

[20] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Collier Books, 1980 [1925]), p. 182.

[21] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 485.

[22] Bacon, The New Organon, p. 21.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p. 22.

[26] Ibid., p. 53.

[27] Ibid., p. 25.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, ed. William Aldis Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963 [1605]), p. 43.

[30] Bacon, The New Organon, p. 23.

[31] Ibid., CXXIX.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p. 103.

[34] Ibid., p. 15.

[35] Ibid., p. 15.

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1 reply to this post
  1. “for it was not the pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to the creatures according to their propriety, which gave occasion to the Fall.” F. Bacon

    Bacon was actually a grammarian, one component of the trivium, a systematic method of critical thinking used to derive factual certainty from information perceived with the traditional five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. In the medieval university, the trivium was the lower division of the seven liberal arts, and comprised grammar, logic, and rhetoric (input, process, and output).

    He also advocated the reading of the medieval Book of Nature, a theological/philosophical perspective on nature that views it as book to be read for knowledge and understanding.

    Thanks for the article!

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