Saturday, December 21, 2013

Geocentrism and the Three Sillies

The Three Sillies illustrated by Arthur Rackham, as found on Project Gutenberg.

Every once in a while, I come across the claim by some well-intentioned Catholic that Sacred Tradition demands that we adopt a geocentric model.  I'm not really sure what drives this kind of misconception; it may be an honest mistake about what the point of Church Teaching is, or it may be the same kind of thrill with being one of the few "in the know" that has led me to compare cryptozoology with pagan mystery religions.  Periodically these claims are disposed of by Catholic apologists, and it is not my intention to deal with the whole issue here.

Instead, I would like to deal with a more subtle argument that is occasionally tossed out by geocentrists.  Many of them have enough education to know that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity allows us to correctly describe the mechanics of the universe using essentially any coordinate system, including coordinate systems in which the Earth is non-rotating, stationary, and at the center.  Nature is satisfied with such a coordinate system.  If that coordinate system is as good as any other, surely preference should be given to the one used by the Church Fathers?

Of course, this misses the fact that Relativity specifically denies that the idea of a center is physically meaningful, and it is only physically meaningful distinctions that are in dispute.  No one will deny that the Earth is the center of the baseball universe, for example.  But is it true that just because it is possible to make correct physical descriptions in any coordinate system, no coordinate system can be said to be "better" than another?

The answers to a surprising number of basic questions can be found in folk tales. The one of relevance here is an English folk tale called, "The Three Sillies".  Please read the whole story, but the passage that most pertains to this case is as follows.

And the inn was so full that he had to share a room with another traveler. Now his room-fellow proved quite a pleasant fellow, and they forgathered, and each slept well in his bed.
But next morning, when they were dressing, what does the stranger do but carefully hang his breeches on the knobs of the tallboy!
"What are you doing?" asks young squire.
"I'm putting on my breeches," says the stranger; and with that he goes to the other end of the room, takes a little run, and tried to jump into the breeches.
But he didn't succeed, so he took another run and another try, and another and another and another, until he got quite hot and flustered, as the old woman had got over her cow that wouldn't go up the ladder. And all the time young squire was laughing fit to split, for never in his life did he see anything so comical.
Then the stranger stopped a while and mopped his face with his handkerchief, for he was all in a sweat. "It's very well laughing," says he, "but breeches are the most awkwardest things to get into that ever were. It takes me the best part of an hour every morning before I get them on. How do you manage yours?"
Then young squire showed him, as well as he could for laughing, how to put on his breeches, and the stranger was ever so grateful and said he never should have thought of that way.
"So that," quoth young squire to himself, "is a second bigger silly."
Although the stranger managed to eventually get his pants on each morning, the reader (or listener) is supposed to understand immediately that this is the wrong way to put on pants. 

What the geocentrists would have us do is just as silly.  Most mechanics does not really require Relativity; usually Newton's Laws are sufficient, and they can be taught to students with no more math than algebra and trigonometry.  

An example would be the trajectory of a satellite in a circular polar orbit.  For this, we can choose a coordinate system in which the Earth is stationary, but we still need to allow the Earth to rotate under the satellite.  Everything is easy to explain; the satellite is in uniform circular motion, and its centripetal force is supplied by gravity as specified by Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation.  

If we maintain that the Earth does not rotate, though, the eastward rotation of the Earth will have to be explained as a westward force on the satellite, a force that varies with latitude and is hard to justify in simple terms.  The real justification comes from a relativistic phenomenon called frame-dragging, in which the motion of a massive body "drags" the inertial reference frame with it.  In sane coordinate systems, this is hard to measure except near a massive, exotic object like a black hole or neutron star.  A very sensitive experiment, Gravity Probe B, was required to see this effect from the rotation of the Earth.  To calculate the relativistic forces from first principles requires coupled partial differential equations of tensors -- higher math than most people will ever see, let alone master.

The final answers for what will be observed are, of course, identical, just as the final result of putting on their pants was identical for the young man and the stranger.  Just as trying to jump into the pants is the wrong way to put on pants, though, the geocentric approach is the wrong way to do physics.  To top it off, the people with the attachment to the geocentric model always prove to have never even attempted to solve physics problems in what they insist is the uniquely correct way.

Gravity Probe B Confirms the Existence of Gravitomagnetism


  1. Those with an open mind on the subject of geocentrism would do well to visit rather than merely accept what modern science/scientism has foisted on us for so many years. Catholics, in particular, should appreciate what can be seen at

  2. I've traveled far and I've traveled fast, but never have I met with such sillies as these.

  3. By the way, I am not impressed with the charge of "scientism". "Scientism" has a real meaning, but it is not what James thinks. Scientism is the elevation of science to something it was never intended to be -- a de facto object of worship, or at least an all-sufficient philosophy of life. The worst offenders of scientism are usually admirers of science, not practitioners of science, but the most famous advocates are often scientists who engage in popularization. An example of scientism is the willingness to perform unethical experiments (for example, on human embryos, or, with even less excuse for ignorance, on developing infants in the womb who "would have been aborted anyhow"). Another example would be anyone advocating "transhumanism".

    Scientism is not defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but superstition is. "Superstition in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion..." (2110). and "Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes." (2111)

  4. Howard, I'd be interested if you could interview one of the producers of "The Principle." I would like to hear them respond to you. (By the way, I like your approach/tone to the topic.)

  5. Howard, just a couple more thoughts.

    I've heard the producers of "The Principle" say several times that geocentrism is not, in fact, a de fide proposition. They equated geocentrism to usury in this regard. The Church has no existing, ruling doctrinal statement on either, although historical evidence exists for such statements to someday be promulgated.

    Anyway, my other thought is if we for the moment forget about the scientific arguments on either side. It seems hard to argue that this proposition (geocentrism) does not bear heavily on worldview. If we suspend disbelief for one moment, what would happen if the great majority of scientists were to suddenly believe in geocentrism? I think this is also the geocentrists' larger point. We live in a world of complete separation between natural and supernatural. There is a total chasmic separation between the two, as wide, if not wider, than the separation between State and Church. The modern world makes absolutely no concessions to the supernatural. God is truly dead in this sense. He lives only in the imaginations of those who believe. Obviously geocentrism radically changes this situation. It has tectonic consequences. So, along this line, The Principle folks are merely opening the door to say the "supernatural" and natural may have an observable confluence within the greater cosmos. The Principle authors point to see observable phenomenon in their work. Their argument is a lot more than merely "Einstein's Relativity allows for a geocentric coordinate system, as one among an infinite number of possibilities."

    Thanks, and Ive enjoyed finding your blog.

  6. Sorry, Howard, one more thing. The subtitle of "The Principle" is something like, "Are you important?" That's the full extension of the argument that the producers want to arrive at. It's more than just the bringing God back into our common world views, through cosmology. It's about what that means for us, and our common human dignity.

    The real world consequence of taking the supernatural out of the ordinary lives and common world view of humanity is that human dignity has horribly suffered.

    This is not a reason for supporting any form of pseudo-science.

    It is a reason for trying as hard as possible to give geocentrism its day in court.

  7. I am not familiar with "The Principle". Is it a book or a web page? If a book, who are its authors; if a web page, what is its URL?

    As for some of your other points, I think I have already stressed that I am talking about PHYSICS. If you want to say that the Earth is the "center" in some other sense -- notably in the sense that this is where the important things are happening -- I have no objection, only that has nothing whatsoever to do with physics.

    You might also consider that the real cosmology of the ancients did not hold that the human sphere was the "center" of the universe, which they knew it obviously was not; we live in "Middle Earth" -- above Hell, below Heaven. In Dante's picture, the Earth may be at the center of the material universe, but Satan is at the center of the Earth; you might call this a diablocentric cosmology. Of course, neither Dante nor anyone else thought of Satan so much as the center as the BOTTOM. The "geocentric" cosmology of the ancients did not say that earth is at the "center", but at the the "bottom". As you say, that affects one's worldview.

  8. Also, what's your reply to the supposed repeated findings that the hot and cold spots in the CMR form a giant X that has the Earth in the center?

  9. I've never heard of this, but I suppose I can't be surprised. When I was a child some of my teachers told me that astronauts had seen the New Jerusalem hidden behind the moon. I was also taught the nonsense about Joshua's Long Day being uncovered by NASA computers.

    At any rate, a cross in the sky will have its center in the sky. You can see this on autumn evenings in the Northern Hemisphere, when the constellation Cygnus, also known as the Northern Cross, is overhead.

  10. Here's the movie link:

    Heres' one of several links regarding the background radiation:
    "As of March 21, 2013, with the Planck confirmation of the Axis, it is clearly not a chance effect based primarily on the inherent difficulty in measuring the CMB power at large angular scales.

    The effect is real, and indeed, presents what could turn out to be a very big problem indeed for the standard (LCDM/inflation)cosmological consensus.

    The fact that the alignments are with respect to our location is utterly astounding, and is being assiduously avoided for obvious reasons."