Letter to a Geocentrist

Recently I have had a number of friends ask me about geocentrism, the belief that the earth is immobile and at the center of the universe. So I decided to share this letter I recently wrote to a friend who has been feeding me geocentrist information for the last nine years.

Dear ______,

As promised, here are the questions I said I would send you about geocentrism. These questions relate to the main areas of concern, namely:

  1. scientific experimentation
  2. church authority and Scripture
  3. research ethics
  4. history

Although these issues are interrelated, for purposes of clarity I will try to address them one at a time. Each question will be labelled both numerically and alphabetically, with the number referencing which of the three subtopics it falls under. For example, my first question under the heading of church authority and scripture will be 2b. This will hopefully aid ongoing dialogue so you can reference which questions you are responding to as you work through them. Sometimes these questions will be parenthetical and italicized in order to set them apart from the main text and thus not break the flow of argumentation.

These question represent areas where, I believe, further due diligence is required. That includes further due diligence on my part, as I have only dabbled in geocentricsm, mainly through conversations with various geocentrists and heliocentrists over a period of nine years, and through reading some of the relevant literature, and attending presentations.

  1. Scientific Experimentation

The first area, scientific experimentation, I will pass over because I have already conveyed these questions verbally. For the sake of completeness I merely note this as an area of due diligence.

2.  Church Authority and Scripture

I have already raised substantial concerns about the scriptural and theological case for geocentrism in our correspondence in January 2015. Since then I have been able to study this further by reading Robert Sungenis’ work on the subject, specifically the second of his three-volume set Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right.

It seems that much of the theological case for geocentrism hinges on assumptions about the authority of Scripture and the church that are merely assumed rather than defended. Such questions include,

  • What kind of authority does Scripture have?
  • How is Scripture inerrant?

The operating assumption among the geocentrist community (or at least among those with whom I have interacted) seems to be that the Scriptural writers intended to provide accurate scientific information, and that Scripture should not only be taken as true but maximally precise.

Sungenis argues for this approach in Chapter 12 of the second in his three-volume set on geocentrism, but without giving a fair representation of competing views of Scripture. Indeed, one might be forgiven for coming away from Sungenis’ discussion thinking that the alternative to his view of Scripture-as-maximally-precise is the modern deconstructionist view, thus trapping the reader on the horns of a false dilemma.  (Do you think this represents a gap in Sungenis’ work that it would be useful to fill through our own study? [2a])

The result is a very wooden and mechanistic way of handling Scripture. One example will suffice, without going through every proof-text used by geocentrists. Let’s take Psalm 96:9-11. In this passage we read,

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth. Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously. Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof.

Sungenis uses these verses as one of the proof-texts for an immobile earth and a rotating sun. Referring to the phrase, “the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved,” Sungenis writes that the Psalmist is referencing “the scientific fact of the Earth’s motionlessness,” and adds

On a theoretical basis, one might object that since the Psalmist regards the sun as orbiting the Earth he could just have easily regarded the Earth as orbiting the sun, since both systems are equivalent, geometrically speaking. But although the geometrical reciprocity between the two celestial models is true, the Psalmist is working from a perspective of propositional truth that will only allow him to appeal to the actual celestial model and force him to discount its geometric or mathematical equivalent.

The idea that the Psalmist was intending to reference an actual celestial model that is scientifically correct is plausible only if we begin with the aforementioned notion of Biblical inerrancy, one in which Scripture is not only true, but maximally precise.

But there are other models of Biblical inerrancy that lead to widely different interpretive schemas. The most widely accepted model among Biblical scholars (catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) goes something like the following. We may agree or disagree with this model, but it should not be lightly dismissed without substantial research.

The original Scriptural manuscripts, when interpreted according to the intended sense of the author, speaks truly in all they affirm. (Do you agree with this initial formulation? [2b]) The words “intended sense” are crucial here. If my interpretation of a text is not governed by the meaning the author intended, then the result is hermeneutical chaos and ultimately we would be forced to concede that objective communication is impossible.

The intent of the author creates a context for what counts as truth, and what counts as error. One example of this is when it comes to the level of technical precision an author likely intended. If I am reading a legal document then any slight anomaly can count as error because the author is claiming, either implicitly or explicitly, a high degree of precision; this is even more the case within mathematics. But if you tell me that my neighbor is middle aged when he is really 38, I would be a fool to accuse you of falsehood. This is because there is a qualitative difference in what counts as error in the genre of a legal brief or in a poem, in a letter or in a casual remark, in a road sign or in a theological treatise. Thus, genre is crucial in establishing what level of technical precision it is rational to assume an author likely intended. But if this is the case, then what counts as veracity and falsehood cannot be determined independently of genre. (Are you in agreement with this basic principle when it comes to secular documents? [2c])

Few people would dispute this when it comes to normal communication and secular texts, but in the case of Scripture people start applying different rules. This is most evident when God-haters claim to have found mistakes and contradictions in the Bible.

“Perhaps the best way to resolve this confusion,” writes Biblical scholar Kevin Vanhoozer, “is to [ask] what counts as an error?” Vanhoozer continued:

“If I say that my lecture lasts an hour, when in fact it lasts only fifty-nine minutes, have I made an error? That depends on your expectation and on the context of my remark. In everyday conversation round figures are perfectly acceptable; no one would accuse me of getting my figures wrong. In other contexts, however, a different level of precision is required. A BBC television producer, for instance, would need to know the exact number of minutes. The point is that what counts a an error depends upon the kind of precision of exactness that the reader has a right to expect. ‘Error’ is thus a context- dependent notion. If I do not claim scientific exactitude or technical precision, it would be unjust to accuse me of having erred. Indeed, too much precision (‘my lecture is fifty-nine minutes and eight seconds long’) can be distracting and actually hinder clear communication. Let us define error, then, as a failure to make good on or to redeem one’s claims. The Bible speaks truly because it makes good its claims. It thus follows that we should first determine just what kind of claims are being made before too quickly ruling ‘true’ or ‘false’. If error is indeed a context-dependent notion, those who see errors in Scripture would do well first to establish the context of Scripture’s claims. To interpret the Bible according to a wooden literalism fails precisely to attend to the kinds of claims Scripture makes. To read every sentence of the Bible as if it were referring to something in the world, or to a timeless truth, may be to misread much of Scripture. Just as readers need to be sensitive to metaphor (few would react to Jesus’ claim in John 10:9 ‘I am the door’ by searching for a handle) so readers must be sensitive to literary genre (e.g. to the literary context of biblical statements).

Sensitivity to the literary context of Biblical statements should exclude those models of Biblical inerrancy which claim more for the text than the authors themselves intended. For example, it is a mistake to assume that every statement of the Bible must have the kind of precision that we normally reserve only for the hard sciences. (Regardless of whether you agree with the previous sentence, do you think it is a valid inference from the previous considerations? [2d])

The inerrancy of Scripture means that the Biblical authors make good on their claims; yet they claim to speak truly, not with maximal precision. Fr. John Frame discusses this difference:

A certain amount of precision is often required for truth, but that amount varies from one context to another. In mathematics and science, truth often requires considerable precision. If a student says that 6+5=10, he has not told the truth. He has committed an error. If a scientist makes a measurement varying by .0004 cm of an actual length, he may describe that as an “error,” as in the phrase “margin of error.”…

We should always remember that Scripture is, for the most part, ordinary language rather than technical language. Certainly, it is not of the modern scientific genre. In Scripture, God intends to speak to everybody. To do that most efficiently, he (through the human writers) engages in all the shortcuts that we commonly use among ourselves to facilitate conversation: imprecisions, metaphors, hyperbole, parables, etc. Not all of these convey literal truth, or truth with a precision expected in specialized contexts; but they all convey truth, and in the Bible there is no reason to charge them with error….

Inerrancy, therefore, means that the Bible is true, not that it is maximally precise. To the extent that precision is necessary for truth, the Bible is sufficiently precise. But it does not always have the amount of precision that some readers demand of it. It has a level of precision sufficient for its own purposes, not for the purposes for which some readers might employ it….

So, I think it is helpful to define inerrancy more precisely (!) by saying that inerrant language makes good on its claims. When we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that the Bible makes good on its claims.

Now many writers have enumerated what are sometimes called qualifications to inerrancy: inerrancy is compatible with unrefined grammar, non-chronological narrative, round numbers, imprecise quotations, pre-scientific phenomenalistic description (e.g., “the sun rose”), use of figures and symbols, imprecise descriptions (as Mark 1:5, which says that everyone from Judea and Jerusalem went to hear John the Baptist). I agree with these points, but I do not describe them as “qualifications” of inerrancy. These are merely applications of the basic meaning of inerrancy: that it asserts truth, not precision. Inerrant language is language that makes good on its own claims, not on claims that are made for it by thoughtless readers.

(Do you think it is helpful to make a distinction between Scripture being true but not maximally precise? [2e])

Okay, so that roughly outlines the traditional model of Scriptural inerrancy most widely accepted among faithful Christians. Much more could be said, and I have discussed these concepts in more detail in my article interacting with Ken Ham’s anachronistic readings of Genesis. But I want to toggle back to geocentrism.

Does the geocentrist theological case depends on the model of inerrancy I developed above being false ?[2f] I think so. For them, Scripture must not only be true, but must be maximally precise; therefore; a passage like  Psalm 96:9-11 that says the earth will not be moved must be read as the author intending a precise scientific description.

If the geocentrists believe their particular model of Scriptural inerrancy (and the hermeneutical schema flowing out of it) is legitimate, they have a lot of work to do in establishing this. It is insufficient merely to lump the competing approaches as being on the same level with belief that the Bible is just a myth and culturally limited. For again, the real distinction is not between believing Scripture is true vs. believing Scripture is a myth or culturally limited; rather, the point of divergence is between two schools of thought that are both committed to the truth of Scripture, but one which also adds that Scripture must be maximally precise, and the other which denies that maximal precision is necessary.

Once we uncouple the truth of Scripture with the insistence for maximal precision, it is no longer problematic to claim that Biblical writers could have been using purely phenomenological descriptions when talking about the sun rising. Just as it would be a bad hermeneutical move to take the phenomenological statements of contemporary heliocentrists (i.e., “it was a beautiful sunrise this morning) as suggesting that they are really geocentrists, so it also seems bad hermeneutics to interpret comparative statements from scriptural writers as supposedly revealing belief in geocentricist cosmology. But even if it could be established that when Biblical authors referred to things like “sunrise” and “sunset” that they actually meant it literally but were mistaken (assuming the truth of heliocentrism), this would not negate the inerrancy of scripture unless we first assumed that the authors were intending to speak with scientific precision. For, as I suggested earlier, the veracity of a text is a context-dependent notion, and part of the context we must consider when assigning truth or error is the intent of the author; ergo, if the author was not intending to convey scientific precision, then the absence of such precision cannot count as error. Thus, it is non-problematic to recognize both that geocentrism is false AND that the Biblical writers believed in geocentrism.

       3. Research ethics

For a number of years I have been concerned that geocentrists are lacking proper research ethics, taking an “end justifies the means” approach to justify sloppy scholarship. During dinner on Friday, and again in our walk on Sunday, I outlined these concerns, but I’d like to use this opportunity to go a little deeper into the points I was trying to make, and also interact with some of the objections you raised when I brought this up before.

The classical and Christian traditions have always recognized that there are certain virtues of the mind that are preconditions to effective inquiry and research. The epistemic virtues are simply character traits that help with knowledge acquisition and intellectual discernment. These include such things as:

  • non-dismissive consideration of arguments;
  • charitable interpretation of opposing arguments;
  • carefulness;
  • being able to weigh up different points of view, including listening to opposing points of view with cognitive elasticity;
  • curiosity;
  • thoroughness;
  • awareness of one’s own presuppositions and potential for being mistaken;
  • attentiveness;
  • honesty;
  • fair-mindedness;
  • tenacity;
  • love of truth;
  • reflectiveness;
  • intellectual humility;
  • courage;

In Jason Baehr’s book The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology, he gives an example, drawing on the work of Linda Zagzebski, to demonstrate how some of these virtues (specifically, carefulness, thoroughness, fair-mindedness, etc.) form an important part of research ethics.

Imagine a medical researcher investigating the genetic foundations of a particular disease. As she conducts her research, she exemplifies the motives characteristic of the virtues of intellectual carefulness, thoroughness, fair-mindedness, and tenacity. She also acts in the manner of one who has these virtues; she examines all the relevant data carefully and in great detail and refrains from cutting any corners; when she encounters information that conflicts with her expectations, she deals with it in a direct, honest, and unbiased way; in the face of repeated intellectual obstacles, she perseveres in her search for the truth.

This example shows how epistemic or intellectual virtues like carefulness, thoroughness, fair-mindedness are directly related to the intellectual task of working with information and acquiring knowledge.

One the epistemic virtues is the willingness to listen, and to genuinely consider, both sides of an argument; to expose oneself to information that may be uncomfortable and challenge bias. The book of Proverbs talks about the wisdom of a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 24:6) and one application of this principle for researchers is to avail oneself of the discourse surrounding a topic rather than merely seeking out information that conforms to our own biases. Here is how my friend Dr. Alastair Roberts explains this injunction from the wisdom literature:

“The wise surround themselves with a multitude of counsellors. By contrast, fools merely appeal to whatever ‘expert’ will confirm them in their ways, dismiss the experts as agents of a conspiracy or blind servants of an ideological agenda, or absolve themselves from the task of discernment by appeal to the fact that ‘experts disagree’. Fools generally appeal to experts to validate them in their positions, rather than genuinely familiarizing themselves with the scope and shape of the conversation between experts of varying perspectives and insights.

The solitary counsellor is a dangerous thing, as is the clique of unanimous counsellors—whether ‘orthodox’ or contrarian (those who are temperamentally contrarian can often mistake their criticisms of mainstream opinions for genuine stress-testing, while not being alert to the ways that their own positions are open to serious criticisms). True wisdom is to be found in attention to a multitude of counsellors, where the viewpoints of many informed and wise persons are constantly cross-examined, stress-tested, revised, honed, and proven through searching conversation with each other, a conversation often directed by the judicious ruler.

One of the typical hallmarks of cranks is that they simply dismiss peers in the mainstream guild as agents of a conspiracy, as malicious, or as stupid, rather than engaging in sharpening good faith dialogue with them or allowing their work to be cross-examined by them. They will speak of the stupidity of the mainstream experts, without ever closely engaging with them face to face, or truly understanding their viewpoints or arguments. Most actual experts tend to treat other experts who disagree with them with rather more respect.

A careful researcher will apply these principles by engaging with the discourse in his field, even—and perhaps even especially—when he disagrees with that discourse. I saw a good example of this at the monastery in Arizona, where I met a pilgrim who had solved previously unsolved math problems. He explained to me that before he even begins tackling a problem, he reads all the peer-reviewed literature on the topic. Few of us have the time or expertise to be such specialists, yet within our scope of interests, we should avoid pontificating on subjects without first gaining at least a cursory familiarity with the literature. There are tools that enable any person, in less than an hour, to get an entry-level introduction to the peer reviewed literature on any topic, and I have discussed some of these tools in my article and tutorial video about using academic databases.

On Friday I was surprised by how you reacted when I suggested you might profitably apply these tools to your own work on geocentricm. I pointed out that geocentricsm involves numerous disciplines and subdisciplines, all of which have an extensive discourse in the peer-reviewed literature. “Why not,” I said, “take a look at some of this literature from the last ten years, to see what people are saying about the various experiments and concepts on which the case for geocentricm hinges?” Isn’t it the case that your various objections to doing this—that you don’t trust the peer-review process, that academic articles just quote each other, that the universities don’t allow things to be published that challenge consensus, etc.—would only be relevant if we merely wanted to expose ourselves to information that confirmed our pre-existing conclusions? [3a] The reality is that a wise person will seek out information that makes him uncomfortable, and he will want to see what his opponents are saying, even if this carries a risk of being challenged.

One way that geocentrists make themselves immune to challenge, and therefore absolve themselves from needing to perform due diligence on the peer reviewed publications in the relevant fields and subfeilds, is by making their beliefs non-falsifiable. Although geocentrists like to appeal to various experimental evidence, on the occasions when I’ve really pushed them, they end up acknowledging that geocentrism is a necessary tenant of faith; therefore, they cannot countenance, even in theory, that experimental evidence could ever point to a heliocentric model. Do you understand why this might give me lack of confidence in their research ethics? [3b] It means that they are committed, a priori, to needing to find evidentiary grounds at all costs.

When I explained this before, you gave a counter-argument about someone believing his wife is faithful, even if there seems to be evidence to the contrary. You suggested that this is the type of faith we should have, so that, ideally experiments proving geocentrism wouldn’t be necessary.

The Eastern Orthodox tend not to endorse this type of pious anti-intellectualism, and have a different understanding of faith. In the podcast “The Biblical Problem of Orthodox Christianity in America – Fr. Stephen De Young (Part 3)” Fr Stephen explained that faith is not believing something unreasonable, but is more related to faithfulness. Applied to the case of a man who believes his wife is faithful even in the face of suspicious gossip, we may assume in such a situation that he had genuine evidence – perhaps from having come to know his wife over many years – of maintaining her evidence. In cases where our beliefs are not tethered to rationality, we run the risk of being compromised through wish-fulfilment and gullibility.

God calls us to sound mind; ergo, blind faith is not a virtue. Moreover, blind faith is an obstacle to the type of research ethics needed to do real science.

Do you find these concerns compelling? [3c] If not, what are some specific points in my discussion of epistemic virtues with which you disagree? [3d]

     4.   History

The more I immerse myself in geocentrist apologetics, the more I see how deeply imbedded many of their leading spokesmen are to promoting certain historical claims that require due diligence. Given the “conspiracy theory” nature of much of their historiography, there are prima facie reasons for being skeptical of their historical claims. At the present, all I can do is merely note these areas of further historical inquiry:

  • Did the church really condemn Galileo because he advocated heliocentrism, or was it for some other reason? [4a]
  • Did Galileo really embrace geocentrism at the end of his life? [4b]
  • Why were atheists upset when Einstein believed he had proved the need for a beginning of the universe? [4c]
  • Was the reason for the Special Theory of Relativity received such publicity indeed because it established heliocentricism? If so, what are the main historical evidences for this? (In answering this question, we must avoid historical fallacies such as the post hoc ergo propter hoc.) [4d]
  • Geocentrist historiography claims the Special Theory of Relatively was designed to rescue science from the data proving geocentrism. Can this be established historically, without the argument collapsing into a post hoc ergo propter hoc? [4e]
  • Is it actually true that physicists throughout the 20th century had to go along with Einstein or be fired from their jobs? If so, how can we account for the rise throughout the later half of the 20th century of non-Einsteinian speculation among top physicists, and the exploration of new modalities like string theory, etc.? [4f]
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