Myths about Science and Religion: That Copernicanism Demoted Humans from the Center of the Cosmos

copernicus-tlSigmund Freud (1856-1939), Dennis R. Danielson tells us, alleged that science had inflicted on humanity “two great outrages upon its naive self-love”: the first, associated with the sixteenth-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), “when it realized that our earth was not the centre of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable”; the second was Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection (to these two Freud added his psychoanalytic theory, which delivered “the third and most bitter blow”).

It seems neither popularizers nor serious scientists can utter Copernicus’ name without at once feeling the urge to say that he “dethroned” the earth or us humans when he explained that the earth circles the sun, instead of the other way around.

But according to Danielson, this feeling presumes too much. This great Copernican cliche simplistically assumes that central is good, or special, and that to be removed from the center is bad.

Yet the earth’s central position was taken as evidence not of its importance but its grossness. Danielson points out that many medieval philosophers, including Jewish philosopher Moses Maimondies (1135-1204) and foremost Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas  (1225-1274), declared that “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.” This idea is even present in popular literature, as when Dante, writing in his Inferno in the early fourteenth century, places the lowest pit of hell in the very midpoint of the earth, the dead center of the whole universe. “If anything,” Danielson writes, “Galileo and his fellow Copernicans were raising the status of the earth and its inhabitants within the universe,” not dethroning them.

The seventeenth century’s foremost Copernicans expressed exhilaration at earth’s release from the dead center of the universe. Galileo (1564-1642), for example, saw his account as militating against “those who assert, principally on the grounds that it has neither motion nor light, that the earth must be excluded from the dance of the stars,” but the “earth does have motion,” and it “surpasses the moon in brightness” and therefore “it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.” Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) likewise argued that man “could not remain at rest in the center…[but] must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform his observations…There is no globe nobler or more suitable for man than the earth. For, in the first place, it is exactly in the middle of the principal globes…”

Heliocentrism was seen as exalting the position of humankind in the universe and pulling the earth up out of the cosmic sump that Copernicus’ predecessors thought it occupied—and conversely, placing the divinely associated sun unto that central yet tainted location. In Copernicus’ cosmology, the center was transformed into a place of honor, while at the same time earth was promoted to the status of a “star” that “moves among the planets as one of them.” Only with the abolition of geocentrism, then, might we truly say that we occupy the best, most privileged place in the universe.

The other presumption that generally piggybacks on the cliche is that Copernicus, in allegedly reducing the status of the earth, also struck a blow against religion, particularly the Abrahamic religions, which supposedly require the cosmic centrality of humankind. But again the Jewish and Christian scriptures do no promote “naive self-love” on the part of humans, but instead proclaim our smallness, weakness, and often moral incapacity against the immense greatness, goodness, and otherness of the Creator.

Possible support for these assumptions may be found in the seventeenth century Galileo affair. But this is ultimately misguided. The opposition Galileo met from Catholic authorities in Rome was a dispute focused on matters related to biblical interpretation, educational jurisdiction, and the threat Galileo represented to the entrenched “scientific” authority of Aristotle, not on any supposed Copernican depreciation of the cosmic specialness or privilege of humankind. And as Danielson correctly notes, Aristotle’s system of physics dominated European natural philosophy for centuries.

The Copernican cliche seems to have appeared for the first time in France more than a century after the death of Copernicus. Most influential was science popularizer Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle’s Discourse of the Plurality of Worlds (1686), who argued that Copernicus had abated the “Vanity of men who had thrust themselves into the chief place of the Universe.” Later, in 1810 Johann Wolfgang Goethe 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.”

But the irony of this supposed dethronment is that, while purportedly rendering “Man” less cosmically and metaphyscially important, it actually enthrones us modern “scientific” humans in all our enlightened superiority. But as Danielson concludes, “Historically and philosophically…the tale is a fabrication. Reasonable people need not believe it.”

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