If the Universe is flat, is it round?

In my last piece I argued that “natural evil” cannot possibly be an Old Testament doctrine because the very concept of “Nature” post-dates the major OT texts by several centuries. I also mentioned in passing that this goes along with the fact that since the idea of a “cosmos”, ie the world seen as a single, “organic” whole, is also a later Greek idea, it’s futile to ask about Israelite “cosmology”. You simply cannot have cosmology without a cosmos. Therefore no bubble floating in a cosmic ocean.

Now that I’ve brought that up, let’s examine it a bit more closely, more as a refresher than a new thought, beause I have discussed it before. Yet it does matter, partly because TEs (in particular, it seems) always return to the idea that “ancient cosmological science” was erroneous, unlike ours of course, and that this has negative implications for the reliability of Genesis 1 and, by an unwarranted extension, to the authority of Scripture in toto both factually and doctrinally. Old errors always resurface amongst those who don’t bother to think, so their refutations need to be repeated as well, sadly.

In fact, the truth about the ancients is, as I quoted in my article linked above:

Phenomena were observed, understood, explained and integrated in an overall system without, however, Man looking to understand them as a unity from a single perspective; what Emma Brunner-Traut designated as ‘aspective’ (Brunner-Traut cited in Brague, 2003, p. 13)

But apart from that, straining at cosmological gnats and swallowing epistemological camels (ie doubting ancient science but ignoring differences in ancient worldviews) leads us to wrong interpretions of Scripture even when we do accept its authority. One example of this is heard in this YouTube clip by scholar Michael Heiser, who points out that in interpreting the scope of the Noachic Flood, we ought to be guided by the fact that Genesis ch10 actually records the extent of the entire world known by the author, in the form of the Table of Nations. A little research shows that these territories encompass essentially only the area around the Eastern Mediterranean – and that was the world after Noah’s descendantss had spread out across it: that before the Flood was, by implication, far smaller. So quite apart from the ambiguity of the vocabulary surrounding the flood (“eretz” for example meaning “soil” and “land” before it means “world”), the “world of that time” (2 Pet 3.6) was, according to the text, a localised region anyway.

Many people now simply can’t imagine that the writer of Genesis 1, although his description is undoubtedly free of any details about the size or shape of the world, wouldn’t have had some ideas about the matter. He must 9they say) have had a mental picture in order to describe the creation. It would be irrelevant to the meaning of the text even if he did, of course, unless he wrote those ideas down in some form. But it is, in fact, not only possible but normal to leave ones mind free of conceptions concerning what is not within either ones experience or knowledge. You have to be taught to have such a conception.

I can vaguely remember, as a small child, some bright person telling me for the first time that the world was round. The reason I remember is that it was so counter-intuitive, in that one immediately realised the people underneath would fall off. But since I was soon harbouring the usual ideas of digging through to Australia from our garden, no doubt the information came from a reliable adult I could trust, and not my chum Susan Purser next door. It wasn’t, I think, that I had some previous idea that the world was some other shape than round. I’d just never thought about it, other than that the sky was up, the ground was down, and the edge of the world, if it had one, a long way away.

(Incidentally, rather sweetly a trip to the edge of the world was the theme of a book I had, a group of animals going on such a quest and finishing up at Lands End in Cornwall. The sweet part was that my parents booked our next family holiday down in Cornwall so I could retrace the steps of Old Stripe the badger and his friends. I digress.)

It never occurred to me, before the knowledge of Australia was imparted to me on authority, that the ground below would ever stop, or that its limit was even knowable. Rather, my world, before my parents started my formal scientific education with The Observer’s Book of Astronomy, was purely phenomenological.

Now you may doubt that my hazy memory of toddlerhood is to be relied on about this – so you might like to experiment with any small children you know who have not, as yet, been introduced to Education, by asking how they think of the world. That is, if you can ask without using leading questions (so if you ask what shape the world is, you’ve already sown a conceptual seed unknown before Pythagoras and Co. muddied the waters with the kosmos concept).

An alternative, though, is to find a similar conceptual situation within our own adult experience, and I think there is one in the concept we have of the Universe itself. It’s strange to think that only a century ago, astronomical knowledge could only describe a universe about 400,000 light years across: only in 1924 did Hubble show that Cepheid variables in spiral nebulae were outside the Milky Way – they were true “island universes”. Yet since the triumph of Copernican science centuries before, nobody had been able to give a justified opinion on the shape of the universe. The Ptolemaic universe had been perfectly spherical on philosphical grounds, but once that outer crystalline sphere of stars proved to be illusory, the universe might be any shape, or even (as perhaps a majority of astronomers came to believe) infinite.

We now know more about deep space-time than ever before. But unless you’re either ignorant yet self-confident, or else have studied cosmology in great depth, I’m willing to bet that most of you, like me, have no clear mental concept of what shape the universe as whole is. If I’m forced to envisage it at all, I believe the universe has limits, picture it as a sphere, and know that’s wrong even as I think it.

Granted, my limited reading on the matter makes it pretty clear that nobody has firm scientific knowledge about it, and that the knowledge that does exist is expressed in ways calculated to confuse the innocent. After the Big Bang Theory was accepted, it seemed obvious that a universe exploding from a point over 14.5 bn years must be finite, but they now talk about the “observable universe” and seem still to toy with the idea that the whole universe may be infinite. Still, the “observable” bit had a Big Bang, so one would expect it to have a boundary of a particular shape.

But even at school, not only did I grapple with the unthinkable idea that this boundary isn’t in space but is space, so that maybe it has no shape, and the idea of space-time curvature led to the idea that travelling in a straight line from your front door might eventually bring you to your back door.

But now, it seems, we know the universe is flat, or nearly so – another wantonly confusing idea, since they’re talking about that space-time thing, not the cosmos itself. Straight lines, it seems, remain straight forever. And the simplest explanation for that, apparently, is that space is Euclidian. So you’re back to the naive expectation that travelling in a straight line will bring you to the edge of the universe, and what then? I understand such considerations make the shape of a Euclidian universe most likely either to be a sphere, or a torus. But whether the boundary is of crystalline aether or just engineering bricks they don’t say.

Now be honest – how many of us, when we think about the universe as physical entity, think about a doughnut? I suspect that most of us don’t even think of a sphere – if only because we’re afraid of appearing a fool for such simplicity without even picturing convoluted strings being involved somewhere. No, if you’re anything like me, you can write blog posts about the cosmos, laugh at the naivety of the Greeks with their perfect  spheres, and all the rest – and somehow still manage to do without any clear conception of what shape the universe might be, even if it has one at all.

If that’s true for you, you’ll have an idea of what the world must have been like to someone in the ancient world who’d never travelled more than a hundred miles from home or met a Greek philosopher.

Here’s a song by a good friend of mine expressing the cheerful ignorance of the non-cosmologist:

The Universe is Flat by Chris Spring

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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