Prometheus and cosmology

I’m reproducing here a longish post I’ve just done over at Biologos (#82822), only because posts there are ditched after 6 months and I’d like to preserve it. Ted Davis posted a link to an excellent article by Dennis Danielson, on the prevalent myth that the old “geocentrism” implied anthropocentrism. But it also answered a question to me by PNG about sources for TOF’s claim in his blog series on heliocentrism that Renaissance folks preferred the new views because they elevated man to the celestial realm. My post follows:

That article is the business, Ted – ticks all the boxes and specifically responds to PNG’s query.

…Which was to query TOF’s claim that humanism gravitated(!) towards heliocentrism to elevate mankind to the celestial realm – and we have it there in the words of Galileo himself, eg:

[this account militates 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. For … the earth does have motion, … it surpasses the moon in brightness, and … it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.”


“As for the earth, we seek … to ennoble and perfect it when we strive to make it like the celestial bodies, and, as it were, place it in heaven, from whence your philosophers have banished it.”

I’m struck by how Danielson astutely resolves the apparent paradox between demoting the earth and yet exalting man as the “mediocrity principle” (the flip side of the Copernican cliché) takes hold:

But the trick of this supposed dethronement is that, while purportedly rendering “Man” less cosmically and metaphysically important, it actually enthrones us modern “scientific” humans in all our enlightened superiority. It declares, in effect, “We’re truly very special because we’ve shown that we’re not so special.”

…Instead it offers — if anything at all — a specialness that is cast in exclusively existential or Promethean terms, with humankind lifting itself up by its own bootstraps and heroically, though in the end pointlessly, defying the universal silence.

This is a thoroughly Renaissance humanist idea (and you’ll be aware how closely it resonates with my work on “fallen nature” and Prometheus).

Incidentally, there’s a nod in the article to Lou Jost’s equally mythical assertion (on this or an earlier thread) that Christian teaching has always been afraid of consideration of extraterrestrial life. I showed him Richard Baxter, but here’s Kepler, the Lutheran (and humanist), simply assuming it to be the case in Christ’s cosmos:

“Let the Jovian creatures, therefore, have something with which to console themselves [for being less important than a celestial earth]. Let them even have … their own four planets.”

Danielson points to reasons why the Copernican cliché is harmful – (a) it falsifies history and the history of ideas, when science should be about truth, (b) it forecloses the very important consideration of our own place in the universe and (c):

It impedes a critical evaluation of what may be the hidden “teleology” of materialist modernism.

…a hidden teleology that some of us have noted repeatedly in Darwinian evolutionary writing.

Danielson hopes to help put the record straight, but notes:

Over the past century a handful of other scholars have in their own ways drawn attention to medieval geocentrism’s non-anthropocentric character or to anthropocentric tendencies within Copernicanism, but their arguments, however robust, have apparently simply not registered in either the popular or the scholarly scientific mind.

But is the problem mere lack of information? He optimistically hopes:

My assumption in attempting these tasks is that, if professional physicists and astronomers can be made aware of the fallacy of the cliché, then its days maybe numbered.

Sadly, this assumes there’s mo metaphysical commitment to the mythical version, which is doubtful. There is indeed total ideological commitment to it, or it would hardly be the case that:

It is a claim that one hears not only in Hollywood B-movies but also from more scientifically reputable sources. Most high school science texts [my emphasis] seem to say so, as do many university-level “Astronomy 101” syllabuses.

And that raises the question why, if it is inadmissable to teach religious or metaphysical opinion in science, it is permissible to teach sheer lies as history – with a clear metaphysical agenda – in science? Science teachers like Merv have a serious challenge on hand, it seems to me.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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