View Full Version : Astronomy and the round Earth

05-17-2017, 06:37 AM
The theme of this thread is linked to a previous thread - this one:


That thread is about Boethius and cosmic insignificance.

I'm increasingly interested in how the ancients, and others in history, viewed their place in the physical universe. It seems we've been misled about this in various ways.

Anyway, as I understand it, there are basically three dimensions to this:

1.) The size of the Earth in relation to the universe (the theme of the thread linked to).
2.) The shape of the Earth (the theme of this thread).
3.) Geocentrism/heliocentrism, or the position of the Earth in space (conceivably the theme of a future thread).

This current thread picks up from matters touched on in this post in the older thread:


Among other things, Terry Jones reminds us (I am sure I had heard this, but it is easy to forget), that the idea that the church opposed the voyage of Columbus on the grounds that the Earth is flat was a complete invention of (or was propagated by) the novelist Washington Irving.I encountered the following passage in the Oxford World's Classics Selected Philosophical Writings of Aquinas. As it happens, the piece in question is a (kind of 'class notes') commentary by Aquinas on a text by Boethius:

These intermediate sciences we are discussing consider the same material as natural science but not the same form. So nothing stops them proving the same conclusions, but not with the same arguments, except in so far as sciences interpenetrate and sometimes use each other's methods. Thus natural science proves the earth round by the way heavy objects move [towards a centre] whilst astronomy proves it by considering [the round shape of] lunar eclipses...

05-17-2017, 10:07 AM
...but the earth is flat.

Seriously, though: one thing which mar(k)s this age, is that hardly a thought is given to the extent to which our previous conceptions of the universe were perhaps fulfilling of an actual spiritual need & here i mean spiritual need not as the vague quest for 'meaning' but something as inherent to our non-physical existence as hunger & sleep are to our physical existence.

I guess what i'm trying to say is that sometimes i get the impression that the ancients' place in the physical universe was, to them, at least in part their place in an abstract universe.

In short, perhaps it is important to be able to consider the earth to be flat?

I fear i am not making myself clear.

In any case, i agree that we've been misled about this, as about so many other things pertaining the ancients.

Speaking Mute
05-17-2017, 10:20 AM
The belief in a flat earth is actually incredibly modern - it was only revived in the 19th century by American Evangelical fundamentalists who insisted on a literal reading of the Old Testament. Before that, you pretty much have to go back to the Old Testament period to find widespread belief in a flat earth. Once people started ranging north and south over moderate distances, it only takes rudimentary geometry and astronomy to understand that only a spherical earth accounts for the change in visible constellations. The current flat earth fad is, ironically, motivated by an obliviousness to the stars and a level of mathematical ignorance well below a Dark Age monk like Bede.

An interesting thing about the quote from Aquinas is that it shows how socially conditioned our intuitions about things like movement are. Prior to Newton, objects were naturally supposed to move in arcs and circles and tending towards a specific place: the idea that a flat earth would provide an intuitive explanation for gravity, or more directly, that people would fall off a spherical earth, would have been lost on ancient thinkers who were not conditioned to think about movement in terms of rectilinear forces. So a really strange thing about modern Flat Earthers is that, despite often being ignorant of Newtonian physics, they find a flat earth intuitive in large part because of how Newtonian physics has shaped the modern imagination.

On a tangent, I'm also curious about when the myth about the Catholic Church believing in a flat earth arose. It's almost as bluntly ignorant as the flat earth belief itself - the earth being round is a basic tenant of Ptolemic cosmology.

Nirvana In Karma
05-17-2017, 12:26 PM
History of Cosmology (http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/ast123/lectures/lec01.html)

05-17-2017, 03:48 PM
Ok. To try again:
Despite the irrefutable fact that 'it only takes rudimentary geometry and astronomy to understand that only a spherical earth accounts for the change in visible constellations,' there was perhaps an understanding that our model of the earth & cosmos would frame our placement of ourselves in it? A conscious choice for a model of the cosmos that ignores the material facts, the way the ancient Egyptians knew perspective, but simply did not use it?

Another illustration would be the case of modern astrology which, by linking itself to the empirical findings of astrological science, has ended up unnecessarily muddying its own perfectly consisent symbolical system.

Speaking Mute
05-18-2017, 08:19 AM
I can understand both the appeal of anthropocentrism and how astrology and Ptolemic cosmology can foster it - but the earth being flat doesn't strike me as making the universe more intimate or comfortable. It's an extreme even for religious fundamentalism, as to the biblical passages cited by both biblical skeptics and Evangelical flat earthers lack context for a literal reading.

Recent flat earthers like B.o.B don't seem to have a coherent system of beliefs, just opposition to authority. Many people interpret the propensity for conspiracy theories as representing an inverted anthropocentrism - and in some cases that may fit - but in general, opposition to authority is explanation enough in itself: if scientists suddenly adopted a flat earth cosmology, folks like B.o.B would probably start believing that the earth was round. In other words, trolling has become a way of life for many people.

05-18-2017, 05:10 PM
One last attempt.
The ancient model of the universe was not a model of the universe but a model of the mind. As our mind was deemed divinely-wrought, infinite, the cosmos was capable of being held in it, in full. Since, our mind has been reduced to finite matter, held by an infinite universe.