The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus

For many years after the publication of Copernicus’ book De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium in 1543, his ideas remained within the mathematical astronomy community. The more popular books on astronomy and cosmology either were unaware of his work or chose to ignore them. But there were a few non-astronomers such as poets who were aware of his work and they ridiculed it for advocating a moving Earth, not because of any ideas of heresy. It was though the poets and other popularizing writers of that time that Copernicus’ ideas became more widely known.
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Was the Copernican model a demotion for human beings?

In this post, we will look at one particular myth surrounding the Copernican story, the one that says that Copernican ideas were opposed because they implied a demotion for human beings.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium, his epic work describing a heliocentric system, in 1543 the year of his death. Until then, Ptolemy’s geocentric model described in his Almagest had been the one used for studying planetary motions. In this model, the Earth was at the center of the universe and every celestial body orbited about the center. The Almagest was the “first systematic mathematical treatise to give a complete, detailed, and quantitative account of all the celestial motions.” (Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, p. 72) This work was so good and its methods so powerful, that it provided the framework for astronomical calculations for nearly 1500 years. It was the framework that guided Copernicus’ own work.
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The four stages of life: some closing reflections

While the stages of student and householder described in Hindu philosophy may not be that different from the way we conceive it, the stages of retirement and sannyasin definitely take some getting used to.

First of all, it looks like you are abandoning all that is near and dear to you. Our normal conception of the last stages of our lives is that we keep active, do some good works in our community, keep close to our families, children, and grandchildren, and hopefully die as respected members of the community, surrounded by those near and dear to us. What stage 3 and stage 4 of Hinduism philosophy of life says is that we should walk away from all that we have spent our lives building up.

The idea that we should use our retirement to ‘find ourselves’ is also strange because we usually see that as a young person’s task, something that they need to do to get a sense of purpose and direction in life. That is because we see the major decisions in life as deciding on a career or finding the person with whom one wants to share one’s life, through marriage or some other form of commitment. That is what is usually meant by ‘finding oneself’ – answering the question “So what do you want to do with your life?” Young people, starting from when they enter high school are asked this question so many times that they get sick of it. And this does not end until they settle down with a career, home, and community, whereupon it is assumed that they have ‘found themselves.’

But in the philosophy outlined here, the important question is not what do I want to do with my life but what is the meaning of my life. Such a question is perhaps better addressed later in life, once one has experienced a fuller range of joys and sorrows, births and deaths, successes and failures, and have all that experience to draw upon in order to decide what is meaningful for you.

But in order to address such questions seriously, one must break free of distractions and go deeply into it. It is also an individual journey, because we each make the meaning ourselves. Seen this way, leaving all that you have created and going off to ponder such questions is not quite so bizarre.

But it will seem strange to everyone else in our contemporary society. Imagine the reaction if some person who is considered very ‘successful’ in the traditional sense announced at the age of 55 or so that he or she had fulfilled all responsibilities and was now going off to live simply in some remote location to try and figure out what it all means. Such a person would be thought to have become unhinged, although it may be the most rational decision such a person makes.

It is admittedly true that carrying out the third and fourth stages in life as described by Hindu philosophy is difficult in western society. But it may be possible to think of ways of reaching that same end without sticking strictly to that same form. For example, it may be possible to live during the retirement stage in a remote and rural area without necessarily living in the forest. Something along the lines of a monastery seems to be a possible model for such a life.

And it would be interesting to see how to manifest the detachment from life’s worldly aspects that being a sannyasin implies without having to actually be a mendicant and risk (in the US) being thrown in prison, though a true sannyasin would probably be indifferent to being harassed this way. Perhaps living on some communal farm that produces just the basic elements of life would be a possible alternative.

But I suspect that the specific form that such stages of life take is not what is important. Ultimately, having a philosophy of life enables us to confront our own mortality without flinching. The real question is whether we feel the need to develop one and are willing to do what it takes to develop it ourselves. It does not come prepackaged in religion or in philosophy courses. There is no Personal Philosophies for Dummies in the self-help section of bookstores. (Actually, it would not surprise me if there is such a book, since there seem to be Dummy/Idiot books for everything under the sun.) It is something that people have to figure out for themselves.

I’ll end this series of postings by quoting once again Huston Smith from his book The World’s Religions:

The unwise life is one long struggle with death the intruder – an uneven contest in which age is obsessively delayed through artifice and the denial of time’s erosions. When the fever of desire slackens, the unwise seek to refuel it with more potent aphrodisiacs. When they are forced to let go, it is grudgingly and with self-pity, for they cannot see the inevitable as natural, and good as well. They have no comprehension of Tagore’s insight that truth comes as conqueror to those who have lost the art of receiving it as friend.

“Truth comes as conqueror to those who have lost the art of receiving it as friend.” I like that. Words to live by.

A puzzle for believers in an afterlife

Death has dominated the news recently, first with Terri Schiavo and then the Pope, whose funeral was today. It is perhaps inevitable that this has caused practically everyone to think, however briefly, about how they would like to die and what kinds of steps they would like to have taken if they should be incapacitated towards the end of their lives.

Robert Friedman, an editor of the St. Petersburg Times, has a funny take on it that I recommend reading.

But lost in the news was the fact that evangelical leader Reverend Jerry Falwell lost consciousness briefly recently and was hospitalized twice for pneumonia. After he recovered, he gave an interview to CNN where he compared his case to that of Terri Schiavo’s situation and also made his own wishes known. He said “I’ve already given my living will. Don’t you dare pull the plug on me. I want to wake up in 14 years and say, “What day is it? What time is it?””

Falwell’s decision that he would want all the stops pulled out to keep him alive as long as possible puzzles me. Having grown up in the Christian tradition, and having been around many evangelical, born-again Christians throughout my own life, it seems to me that a basic belief among them is that this life on Earth is merely a stepping-stone to a much, much better eternal life after death, and that if one is born-again, then one is guaranteed to enter heaven to enjoy that good life. In fact, they go out of their way to describe this life as temporary, full of misery and sin, and generally pretty awful, and that death is a welcome release from it.

Country and western singer Jim Reeves summed it up when he sang (and I am quoting from memory):

Across the bridge, there’s no more sorrow
Across the bridge, there’s no more pain
The sun will shine across the river
And you’ll never be unhappy again

So I am genuinely puzzled as to why, given that view, one would want to postpone death at all costs. If any readers of this blog can share their insights, I would appreciate it.

Let me be clear: I am not questioning Falwell’s personal decision to be want to be kept alive at all costs. That is his right and one has to accept it. I can also understand why one should not kill oneself just because one thinks the afterlife is going to be wonderful. That is also not the question.

The question is why someone who fervently believes that the next life is everlasting and far better than this one, and that she or he is guaranteed to enjoy the afterlife because they are born again Christians (or an equivalent reason), would want to hold on to this life at all costs, when it seems fairly clear that the end of one’s life is near and that it can only be prolonged at the price of barely existing, with prolonged sadness for one’s loved ones.

Falwell seems to think that, against all the odds, he might one day recover and be fully functioning again. But why would someone who is in that situation prefer those tiny odds to the certainty of going to heaven, if getting there has been your goal all along?

I have mixed feelings about the Pope’s legacy. I agreed with his stance on some things and disagreed with others. (Juan Cole has a nice compilation of quotes and stories about the Pope that captures the complexity of the Pope’s message on a whole range of issues. And Justin Raimondo also weighs in on his legacy.) But I have to say that, to the extent that one can tell these things from a distance, he seemed to have been at peace with himself when he died. He seemed to know the end was near, he seemed to feel that he had lived his life fully, and he seemed to be accepting of death and ready for whatever awaited him after that.

Given his stature and resources, there is no doubt that he could have ordered extraordinary steps to be taken to try and keep him alive if he had so desired. But he seemed to choose not to and it was a graceful way to die.

And whatever else one thinks of him, one must admire him for that.

The four stages of life: Stage 4 – sannyasin

The final stage of life in Hindu philosophy (as described in the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book) is that of the sannyasin. This is the stage eventually arrived at by the person who, according to the Bhagavad-Gita becomes “one who neither hates nor loves anything.” (For descriptions of earlier stages, see stage 1, stage 2, and stage 3.)

Once having arrived at this stage of detachment from the world, the retiree returns from the self-imposed exile that was necessary in order to free oneself from worldly distractions so that one could achieve this deeper understanding. But returning to the world does not mean returning to the familiar bonds of the world. He or she “is back as a separate person” because “time and place have lost their hold.”

“Far from wanting to “be somebody”, the sannyasin‘s wish is the opposite: to remain a complete nonentity on the surface in order to be joined to all at the root…The outward life that fits this total freedom best is that of a homeless mendicant. Others seek to be economically independent in their old age: the sannyasin proposes to cut free of economics altogether. With no fixed place on earth, no obligations, no goals, no belongings, the expectations of the body are nothing. Social pretensions likewise have no soil from which to sprout and interfere. No pride remains in someone who, begging bowl in hand, finds himself at the back door of someone who was once his servant and would not have it otherwise.”

If the idea of retirement as leaving all that one has created in order to find oneself is hard to take, the idea of ending one’s life as effectively a beggar is even more difficult to accept. Part of the problem is that the word ‘mendicant’ properly means a holy person who begs just for food, and such people are more commonly found in predominantly Hindu or Buddhist cultures, where they are highly respected as having reached an exalted stage in life that everyone should aspire to. It is an honor to have such people come to your house asking for food and people respect them and are supposed to take care of them.

In the west though, the word mendicant is equated with beggar and such people tend to be despised as wastrels and losers. So it is hard to see this idea of becoming sannyasin catching on here. One cannot imagine people who are important figures in society here choosing to end their lives wandering the streets, living on charity. A sanyasin who arrived at someone’s door asking for food is likely to find the police being called and be arrested for vagrancy.

But is that a problem with the philosophy or with the way the society creates its value structure?

The four stages of life: Stage 3 – retirement

So far, the first two life stages of student and householder described by Hindu philosophy would not seem that different from any western concept of those stages. It is the next two stages (retirement and sannyasin) that the paths start to diverge.

In the US at least, people approach retirement with mixed feelings. For those people who loathe their jobs, it may come as a welcome relief from a routine that they find hateful, a chance to enjoy life free from restrictions. Such people look forward to retirement.
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The four stages of life: Stage 2 – the householder

In a previous post, I spoke about Hinduism’s description of the first stage of life, that of the student. Today, we’ll look at the second stage, that of householder. Once again I am using as my source the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book.

The marker that indicates that you are entering this second stage is evoked by its name, which indicates that you are no longer dependent on your parents but are setting up your own home, getting married, raising a family, and starting a career. This stage corresponds to the time when your “physical powers are at their zenith.” If you view the four stages of life as paralleling a day, then the student stage is the morning and the householder stage is noon, the peak, the apex of ones energies.
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The four stages of life: Stage 1- the student

For most people, their starting philosophy comes from what they acquired in their early childhood and is strongly influenced by the religion of their family and the values of their family and local community. Of course, the religious philosophies of the major religions encompass many strands, as they must if they are to maintain broad-based support. If their basic philosophies become too narrow, rigid, or constraining, then they will lose members or breakaway groups will form. Already, major religions have broad sub-groupings, such as the many denominations of Christianity, the Sunni and Shia groups of Islam, the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements in Judaism, the Mahayana and Theravada branches of Buddhism, and so on.

But even these subgroups allow for a wide diversity of philosophies within them. But most people tend to know only the range of philosophies of the religion of their own childhood. Thus they tend to be unaware of elements of philosophies of other religions that might have appealed to them.

For those who would like to go further afield in their philosophical explorations than just their own religious tradition, I can recommend the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. (All quotes in this series of postings are from this book.) What I like about the book is the approach taken by the author, who is a Methodist minister. He simply lays out the basic elements of each religion. He does not try to make value judgments of each one, or compare and contrast the religions, or try to rank them. He simply describes what each one says about the major questions that concern them, and leaves it to the reader to take from them what they may. But this is not just a dry ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach either. Smith manages to balance a non-judgmental approach with commentary delivered in a lively way.

Since I tend to be very eclectic in my tastes, not bound by any particular religious tradition, and willing to use ideas from whatever source as long as I find them interesting or useful, Smith’s book appealed to me. A section that I found particularly interesting was Hinduism’s approach to the life cycle, that each person’s life can be split up into four stages, each having its own distinct characteristics.

Although I grew up in a country where almost 20% of the population were Hindus and I had many Hindu friends, I had never really gone beyond a cursory understanding of this ancient religious tradition, so the four stages of life described by the book were unknown to me until I read this book a few years ago. The philosophy of life implied by these four stages does not seem to me to be organically connected to Hindu theology and could be adopted by believers in any religion or by atheists.

Hinduism takes the diversity of human nature seriously and accommodates “a variety of paths towards life’s fulfillment.” But it also asserts that each person goes through four stages of life “each of which calls for its own appropriate conduct.” I will end today’s post with a description of just the first stage, which is that of the student, leaving the other stages for later.

The student stage starts around the age of ten (give or take a couple of years) and lasts for a dozen years. “Life’s prime responsibility at this stage was to learn, to offer a receptive mind.” There will come a time later, during other stages of your life, when you will have responsibilities to bear. But “for this gloriously suspended moment the student’s only obligation was to store up against the time when much would be demanded.”

But the learning envisaged was not just factual information or knowledge just for knowledge’s sake, to create a mere walking encyclopedia. Education also required that character be developed and good habits cultivated so that one would lead a good and productive life. “The entire training was more like an apprenticeship in which information became incarnated in skill. The liberally educated student was to emerge as equipped to turn out a good and effective life as a potter’s apprentice to turn out a well-wrought urn.”

I like the fact that this says that the student’s only obligation is to learn and not be too concerned with other, ostensibly weightier matters. This enables students to immerse themselves in the learning process, to experience the joy that true learning brings with it. (Note that grades and degrees and other types of credentials are not synonymous with the model of learning described here and may even detract from it.) But although the student is absolved from responsibilities for other things at this time, learning does take place with an eye to the successful carrying out of responsibilities that must be inevitably shouldered as one goes through the later stages.

What constitutes those three later stages – that of householder, retirement, and (most intriguingly) sannyasin – will be described in later postings.

What do creationist/ID advocates want-III?

It is time to tackle head-on the notion of what is meant by the “materialism” that the creationist/ID camp find so distasteful. (See part I and part II for the background.)

The word materialism is used synonymously with “naturalism” and perhaps the clearest formulation of what it means can be found in the writings of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who said in Tempo and Mode in Evolution (p. 76.):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only.(Emphasis added)

Simpson was not an atheist (as far as I can tell) but he is saying something that all scientists take for granted, that when you seek a scientific explanation for something, you look for something that has natural causes, and you do not countenance the miraculous or the inscrutable. This process is properly called “methodological naturalism”, to be contrasted with “philosophical naturalism.”

Despite the polysyllabic terminology, the ideas are easy to understand. For example, if you hear a strange noise in the next room, you might wonder if it is a radiator or the wind or a mouse or an intruder and you investigate each possible cause, looking for evidence. For each question that you pose, the answer is sought in natural causes. You would be unlikely to say “The noise in the next room is caused by God knocking over stuff.” In general, people don’t invoke God to explain the everyday phenomena of our lives, even though they might be quite religious.

Methodological naturalism is just that same idea. Scientists look for natural explanations to the phenomena they encounter because that is the way science works. Such an approach allows you to systematically investigate open questions and not shut off avenues of research. Any scientist who said that an experimental result was due to God intervening in the lab would be looked at askance, because that scientist would be violating one of the fundamental rules of operation. There is no question in science that is closed to further investigation of deeper natural causes.

Non-scientists sometimes do not understand how hard and frustrating much of scientific research is. People work for years and even decades banging their heads against brick walls, trying to solve some tough problem. What keeps them going? What makes them persevere? It is the practice of methodological naturalism, the belief that a discoverable explanation must exist and that it is only their ingenuity and skill that is preventing them from finding the solution. Unsolved problems are seen as challenges to the skills of the individual scientist and the scientific community, not as manifestations of God’s workings.

This is what, for example, causes medical researchers to work for years to find causes (and thus possibly cures) for rare and obscure diseases. Part of the reason is the desire to be helpful, part of it is due to personal ambition and career advancement, but an important part is also the belief that a solution exists that lies within their grasp.

It is because of this willingness to persevere in the face of enormous difficulty that science has been able to make the breakthroughs it has. If, at the early signs of difficulty in solving a problem scientists threw up their hands and said “Well, looks like God is behind this one. Let’s give up and move on to something else” then the great discoveries of science that we associate with Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, etc. would never have occurred.

For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon was a well-known unsolved problem for over sixty years after the introduction of Newtonian physics. It constituted a serious problem that resisted solution for a longer time than the problems in evolution pointed to by creationist/ID advocates. Yet no supernatural explanation was invoked, eventually the problem was solved, and the result was seen as a triumph for Newtonian theory.

So when creationist/ID advocates advocate the abandonment of methodological naturalism, they are not trying to ease just Darwin out of the picture. They are throwing out the operational basis of the entire scientific enterprise.

Philosophical naturalism, as contrasted with methodological naturalism, is the belief that the natural world is all there is, that there is nothing more. Some scientists undoubtedly choose to be philosophical naturalists (and thus atheists) because they see no need to have God in their philosophical framework, but as I said in an earlier posting, others reject that option and stay religious. But this is purely a personal choice made by individual scientists and it has no impact on how they do science, which only involves using methodological naturalism. There is no requirement in science that one must be a philosophical naturalist.

The question of philosophical naturalism is, frankly, irrelevant to working scientists. Scientists don’t really care if their colleagues are religious or not. I have been around scientists all my life. But apart from my close friends, I have no idea what their religious beliefs are, and even then I have only a vague idea of what they actually believe. I know that some are religious and others are not. It just does not matter to us. Whether a scientist is a philosophical naturalist or not does not affect how his or her work is received by the community.

But what the creationist/ID advocates want, according to their stated goal of “”If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings” is to enforce the requirement that scientists reject both philosophical and methodological naturalism. They are essentially forcing two things on everyone:

  • Requiring people to adopt the creationist/ID religious worldview as their own.
  • Requiring scientists to reject methodological naturalism as a rule of operation for science.

In other words, creationist/ID advocates are not asking us to reject only Darwin or to turn the clock back to the time just prior to Darwin, they want us to go all the way back to before Copernicus, and reject the very methods of science that has enabled it to be so successful. They want us to go back to a time of rampant and unchecked superstition.

This is probably not a good idea¦

What do ID advocates want?

In an earlier posting, I spoke about how those who view Darwin’s ideas as evil see it as the source of the alleged decline in morality. But on the surface, so-called “intelligent design” (or ID) seems to accept much of evolutionary ideas, reserving the actions of a “designer” for just a very few (five, actually) instances of alleged “irreducible complexity” that occur at the microbiological level.

This hardly seems like a major attack on Darwin since, on the surface, it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the major ideas of the Darwinian structure such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no discontinuities), the multiplication of species, and natural selection.
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