Monday, November 8, 2010

Hanging out with the Geocentrists, Part 1

So I went to that Galileo was Wrong conference. Despite their best efforts, I remain unconvinced that geocentrism is necessary, much less the truth about the universe. Big surprise, huh? Here's part one of my report.

The conference must have drawn about 100 people in attendance. Some had traveled a long way to be there. There were folks from Mexico, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico. Judging by the way some of them respond to the talks, there were a fair number of geocentric enthusiasts in the audience. Others seemed to be taking more of a wait and see attitude, open to the idea of geocentrism but not convinced. Others seemed outright skeptical. After lunch, a group of students from Notre Dame showed up. They didn't openly heckle the speakers (good for them), but they did cheer after one speaker was prevented from finishing when time ran out. In the hall, I overheard one student comment, "Did you HEAR what that guy said?" I couldn't tell if she was talking about the speaker who said that Newtonian physics was inspired by the evils of English capitalism or the speaker who said that you could measure the "ether" of the universe by measuring the speed of light as it travels through water going the opposite direction.

Actually, that sounds a lot crazier than it really was. On the whole, it wasn't as bad as you might expect for a twenty-first century conference advocating geocentrism. First of all, this is not Ptolemaic geocentrism; it's "neo-Tychonian." That means these guys don't think that the planets revolve around the earth. The planets revolve around the sun, while the sun and the rest of the universe revolves around the earth. It's essentially an altered coordinate system (this was alluded to several times). I don't know that neo-Tychonian geocentrism is much better, but at least it accounts for things such as retrograde planetary motion and stellar parallax. Speaking of which, for all of the simple objections I thought of before I came (Foucault's pendulum, stellar parallax, redshift, cosmic background radiation, retrograde planetary motion, etc.), they've already thought of answers. I didn't always find the answers convincing (or even comprehensible), but at least they'd thought about it. So they are by no means naive, and it's clear that they've given this stuff a lot of thought.

That doesn't mean that I agree with them, though. Quite the contrary, the central issue to me has always been what the Bible actually teaches about the motion of the earth (or lack thereof). That theme was addressed by John Salza, who went through a series of biblical references that speak to the motion of the sun and the stability of the earth. I haven't looked at all of these references, but it seemed to me that he did not properly address possible heliocentric interpretations of some of the verses he cited. He kept saying, "The Bible never says that the earth is in orbit!" That's not really the point. The Bible doesn't give us the periodic table of the elements either, but I don't have a problem with that. Given his unsatisfying treatment of the passages I'm familiar with, I have my doubts he adequately interpreted the ones I'm not familiar with. In the Q&A, a priest asked him whether the Church Fathers affirmed geocentricity because that's what the Scripture taught or because that was just the most popular view of the day. I thought that was a really good question, but Salza didn't answer it. He just went off on whether the Bible should be authoritative on everything it says or just the religious stuff. I remain skeptical of the biblical necessity for geocentrism, and that to me was the real crux of the whole day. Because they didn't convince me that the Bible required this geocentric position, the science (such as it was) sort of fell flat.

More about that tomorrow.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.