Copernicus: Center, Anyone?
Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland in 1473. He died seventy years later, in 1543. His life span covered the middle part of the Renaissance, which closed the door on the Middle Ages and ushered in a new outlook on human life, the world, and the universe.
It was Copernicus who first changed people’s anthropocentric outlook. He showed that the earth is not fixed firmly at the center of the universe, but moves around the sun. This discovery was a major factor in loosening the hold of church dogmatism on human thought.
Dogmatism is usually, though not always fairly, identified with church theology. Of course, that word was more or less invented by theologians, but what the church did also was bring to a focus a tendency that is prevalent everywhere. Today, dogmatism is “alive and well” — thriving in fact, even among self-styled iconoclasts. For it is a simple reality of human nature. People like to frame their perception of truth, to focus it narrowly for the sake of clarity, and then to ignore everything outside that frame as though it didn’t exist. In fairness, one ought to look at dogmatism from a standpoint of one who sees his belief system — his dogmas — endangered. He fears the loss of that carefully framed view, and forgets that the way he framed it was only an artifice anyway. In fact, what he really fears is loss of control. He feels a personal commitment to his view. His mistake, of course, is that he can never own the view: He can only enjoy it. Man thinks of himself as creating, when the best he can do is participate.
Alas, the time even for such participation is so short! A person may invest his entire career in a certain perception of reality, only to find, in the twilight years of his life, some young “upstart” challenging it. Perhaps the older man is already in his sixties when a new discovery is made. He may see it as capable of shattering the frame he constructed so carefully. His productive life is nearly over. Has he wasted it? Has he spent it pursuing a will-o’-the-wisp?
Let us say he is a university professor. His professional standing may seem to be at stake. What will happen, if this new discovery causes a complete shift in people’s thinking? He would need courage to admit that for all these years he’s been mistaken. He might even prefer honorable death in defense of his country to seeing his hard-earned reputation destroyed. Not many could face with equanimity the fact that convictions they’d held their whole professional lives, and declared proudly and confidently to so many students, were fallacious.
The larger the ship, the harder it is for it to turn quickly. This was the secret of little England’s victory against the “Invincible” Spanish Armada in 1588: The Spanish ships were large and ungainly. The English ones were small and could be maneuvered easily.
Dogmatism would have existed with or without the church. What the church did, primarily, was empower people’s natural resistance to change.
Before the discoveries of Copernicus it seemed obvious to everyone that the earth was the center of creation. One could see for himself that the sun, moon, stars, and planets all revolved around this central aspect of God’s creation. Few people gave much thought to such anomalies as the constellations moving up and down against the horizon as the seasons change. It never occurred to them to question why: These things simply happened.
Humanity’s knowledge of the earth itself was very slight compared to what we know today. (An old map in Hakluyt’s Voyages, published in 1589, had only this to say about regions as yet unexplored: “Here be griffins.”) During the Middle Ages, people tended to view even their own countrymen virtually as “foreigners” if they lived a few villages away. As for the universe, they had no conception of how vast it is. To them, reality was relatively cozy: heavenly bodies revolving “up there” solely for the benefit of mankind.
The church gave such concepts as these its stamp of approval. The fact that it did so seemed to justify popular opposition to Copernicus, when the protests began. Copernicus during his lifetime saw the demise of medieval society, and the birth I referred to above of a new outlook on reality.
The Renaissance got its start in Florence, Italy, with people’s awakened interest in the culture of ancient Greece. The year 1492 saw the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. Minds were stirred by new possibilities. Soon, walls were crumbling everywhere — ramparts that had stood for centuries protecting the venerable city, Official Dogma.
Copernicus was very different in nature from Thomas Malthus, who lived three centuries later. Malthus almost gleefully challenged some of the basic assumptions of his day. Copernicus, by contrast, was reluctant even to publish his findings. Malthus lived at a time when intellectual impudence could be confident of a hearing. He wrote after the French Revolution, after the American War of Independence, after Voltaire and other free thinkers had urged people to think for themselves, after France’s solemn announcement of the dawn of a new “Age of Reason.” It was a time when many people found it exhilarating to have their — or perhaps I should say, other people’s! — preconceptions shaken by new discoveries. Copernicus, on the other hand, was born at a time when orthodoxy held universal sway. The church, like a large ocean liner, was not able to respond to any sudden call for a change of direction.
It wasn’t from the Bible, however, that Rome derived its view of the universe. It accepted this view on scientific authority. Well, such was Rome’s way. It asked, “What does authority say?” not, “What do the facts indicate?” Creative thought is anathema to the need of institutions for conformity.
In this case, authority rested in the calculations of Ptolemy, an ancient astronomer of Alexandria. Ptolemy was not a Christian, but his declaration in 150 A.D. (or thereabout) that the universe revolves around the earth was acceptable to the church fathers. It was compatible with what those authorities understood of the Bible, and had, therefore, to be true. What the church in those days declared as true, even in mundane matters, was tantamount to dogma.
When Copernicus realized from his reckoning that Ptolemy had been in error, he feared persecution by the church. According to prevailing opinion, as Robert B. Downs put it in Books That Changed the World(1), “The whole universe seemed to be made for man.” The universe had been created by an anthropomorphic Lord, an emperor-God whose primary concern was for His human subjects, made, as the Bible tells us, in His own image.
Ptolemy’s cosmology was supported not only by the sanction of tradition, but also, so it seemed, by common sense. Copernicus contradicted what everyone could see clearly was a fact. After years of painstaking study of the heavens, he concluded that the earth is not stationary, as everyone believed, but rotates on its axis once a day, and travels around the sun once every year. As Robert Downs expressed it, “So fantastic was such a concept in the sixteenth century that Copernicus did not dare to advance it until he was convinced his data were irrefutable.” Even so, it took him thirty years to make his revolutionary “theory” publicly available. No doubt he was deterred partly by fear of the church. Even after that long wait, his findings when announced attracted violent opposition.
Downs tells us, “According to one tale, the printer’s shop where De Revolutionibus [Copernicus’s opus] was being printed was attacked by university students who tried to destroy the press and the manuscript; the printers barricaded themselves to finish the job.” The church reacted with resolute opposition to the new theory, especially after its later refinement by Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.
Galileo supported those findings both mathematically and by observation through a telescope, which hadn’t been invented while Copernicus was alive. Galileo was fortunate enough to have friends high in the Catholic hierarchy. Nevertheless, even he was forced at last to repudiate his discoveries. Today it seems hardly credible, but Galileo remained guilty of “heresy” in the eyes of the church until late in the twentieth century. Only then, after more than three centuries had passed, was he given official church pardon!
It should be reiterated, however, that it is unfair to blame the church entirely, absurd as it now seems for it to have refused for so long to admit its mistake. For the church recognized that much more was at stake than this simple issue of heliocentricity versus geocentricity. Modern science has shown itself increasingly indifferent to certain attitudes that, in religion, are essential. For example, it has always been condescending toward devotional feeling. Indeed, it considers feeling of any kind detrimental to impersonal objectivity, valued in science above all other attitudes. Devotional attitudes are vitally important in religion. Without them, religion itself might sink to the level of hypocritical mummery. The church felt, understandably, that it had to protect values that to it were so supremely important.
Individually, many scientists have in fact believed in God. Einstein, one of the greatest of them, described scientific discovery in terms of “mystical awe.” His transcendent outlook, however, had nothing to do with church affiliation of any kind. Indeed, he was suspicious of any attempt by so-called “authority” to limit the freedom of scientific inquiry.
Long, however, after religion had lost its power to impose concepts or to ban new findings as heretical, dogmatism was still healthy and robust. Other writers, including scientists themselves, adamantly opposed findings that didn’t fit into their own carefully constructed beliefs.
The story of Immanuel Velikovsky, in the twentieth century, is a sad example of scholarly persecution. Whether or not his theories were valid, Velikovsky’s revolutionary book, Earth in Upheaval, about an interplanetary event that, he claimed, had dramatically affected the earth, was at least carefully researched. Yet it was so fiercely excoriated by the scientific “establishment” that many publishers wouldn’t even accept more of his writings for publication. Scientists — not bishops and clergymen, mind you, but supposedly impersonal and objective astronomers and physicists — had threatened to boycott those firms.
I was intrigued by another example of emotional outrage by a well-known scientist. In this case, the denunciation was directed at a revolutionary, but well-researched and indeed fascinating book: The Hidden History of the Human Race, by Michael A. Cremo and Richard L. Thompson. This book presents startling evidence that Homo sapiens may have existed on this planet far longer than is officially accepted. The book won substantial support from authorities in the field, but it was slated by no less a man than Richard Leakey, the internationally known anthropologist. “Your book,” wrote Leakey, “is pure humbug and does not deserve to be taken seriously by anyone but a fool.” Leakey didn’t go so far as to urge persecution of the authors, but his opinion has certainly weighed heavily in anthropological circles. He was influenced in his outburst by convictions that, while by no means founded in religious dogma, were nevertheless, in their own way, dogmatically religious. The displeasure he evinced was with ideas that threatened to undermine his own carefully structured understanding of human evolution.
To reiterate, orthodoxy and dogmatism are not monopolies of the church; they are a common human phenomenon. Clear reason cannot always ensure acceptance for a new truth. People everywhere are inclined to be swayed by “authority,” whether it be religious or any other kind.
Gradually, over the centuries since Copernicus discovered that our earth is not the hub of the universe, astronomers have come to realize how very far it is from being the center of anything — except, perhaps, of our own little moon’s orbit. (I say “perhaps” because that orbit is elliptical; the earth cannot be exactly at its center.)
Late in the nineteenth century, astronomers found that the sun, too, is not central in the universe, as they’d believed. In time, others discovered that the sun lies near the edge of a vast star system — a galaxy, as it came to be known after the astronomer Hubble, in 1925, discovered that what had been thought was a nebula in Andromeda is in fact another star system like our own. The “Milky Way,” as our galaxy has come to be known, was first thought to be only one among several others. Now it is known that at least a hundred billion galaxies exist. In our own Milky Way there are estimated to be over a hundred billion stars. Every galaxy, similarly, is thickly populated with stars.
It was several decades into the twentieth century that the center of the Milky Way was located. It is 27,000 light years away from us. Even the nearest star to the sun is at a distance of four light years. When we consider that light travels at 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) a second, the mind simply gives up trying to grasp the immensity of it all.
To speak of any point in the universe as the cosmic center would be, itself, pointless. It may be that a center exists, but if it should be found there are few who would consider the fact very significant. Since Copernicus, astronomy has so radically reduced man’s consciousness of significance in the great scheme of things that one may wonder if humanity is even relevant to anything.
And yet… and yet…:
Where we ourselves are concerned, are not we, at least, central to everything we can perceive? What choice have we, except to begin from this perspective? Although the thought may strike one as medieval with a vengeance, it is quite the opposite, really. For it posits an understanding of everything in existence from an infinity of centers, beginning always from the unique perspective of each one of them. From the concept of a universe without any imaginable center, it is necessary now to contemplate it completely anew: not as a totality that would be comprehensible only from outside — and therefore, as far as man is concerned, not really comprehensible at all — but from within an infinite number of centers.
This is how living things grow. They develop outward from their first tiny cell. Their reality is not formed: it manifests itself, from that center.
In past ages, hierarchies of aristocrats, usually ruled by a king, were at the apex of a descending order of populace down to the lowest serfs. When kings made war, what they wanted, usually, was to expand their dominion, and of course thereby to increase their own importance. How petty, that ambition! Worldly conquest is always temporary, because artificial. It is an outer imposition on human beings, whose true reality is unassailably locked within themselves. Conquest is possible only, in the truest sense, when it succeeds in winning a voluntary and cooperative response: willingness on the part of others to participate in whatever outward events are occurring.
In terms of the universe, if it is true that the reality of all things begins at their center, then the center of all things must be considered to be everywhere. What no militant ruler can ever accomplish may be achieved easily, not only (as I suggested above) by winning others’ consent, but more subtly by consciousness! In sympathy, man’s awareness can reach out and embrace everyone and everything. It can touch individual centers everywhere in recognition of their kinship with one’s self. Thus, one can not only draw things and people sympathetically to himself: One can understand them deeply, as kindred realities to his own.
Physicists say the atom is the key to the universe. If this is so, it is quite reasonable to consider every atom as, itself, the center of the universe. “Center everywhere, circumference nowhere” was an ancient concept. Only in relation to one atom can everything else be understood. Reality reaches out from its center everywhere toward its own center, everywhere.
How different, this view, from the popular concept of reality!
From people’s perception of the earth as fixed and central in creation to the staggering concept that there may be no center anywhere, it is really only a short leap to considering every atom in space, and every “ego-atom” (thus to describe humanity), as a valid point of departure in any search for universal understanding.
This point will become increasingly important in this book. For no one can understand anything except from his own central reality, and from his individual ability to understand. Even Einstein, universal as his outlook was, could only begin with his own capacity for understanding. The most amazing insights in science are limited by the comprehension of their discoverers.
It will become evident, as we proceed, that only the individual, not society as a whole, can provide a key to social progress as well. Social development begins with one person; it cannot be imposed on society from above, nor from outside. Efforts to improve the human lot by outward means only must fail unless individuals cooperate of their own free will with those efforts. Without their willing cooperation, the most zealous efforts at reformation will inevitably leave humanity more or less where it has always been.
It is easier, certainly, to ponder abstract schemes for perfecting society. It is much more difficult to inspire individuals to embrace change voluntarily. Nevertheless, this is the only method that has a chance of working. If true change is to be effected in this world, it must be inspired in individuals who have a sincere desire for it, themselves.
Revised paperback edition, New American Library, New York (1983).
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