A few days ago, I contrasted two different worldviews. One was the “modern” worldview subscribed to by many, if not most, Americans and the vast majority of Europeans, as well. The other was the general worldview of most indigenous people in the world, including the “Indians” of North and South America, many Africans, and the aboriginal people of Australia and New Zealand. (Click on the link above to read that post.)
Today, I’d like to talk about questioning the assumptions of our worldview, and why it’s important to do this. Today’s graphic illustrates a couple of things that people used to believe: that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited the earth instead of the other way around.
It may not be true that all people thought the earth was flat at one time in recorded history. Greek astronomer Anaximander (610-546 BC) and Greek mathematician Pythagoras (570-435 BC) believed not only that the earth was spherical in shape, but also that the earth rotated in space and that it orbited the Sun. (They did place the earth at the center of the universe, however.) That was seventeen centuries before Columbus. Still,, there were those, particularly the uneducated, of which there were many, who did subscribe to the idea that the world was flat. Certainly a number of Columbus’ sailors had that idea floating in the back of their minds, and it no doubt came out to haunt them when the sailing was rough and no land was in sight. The sailors also feared sea monsters, which some maps were decorated with at the edges of the known world.
Even though many early Christian scholars accepted that the earth was round, they didn’t understand the idea of gravity, and they had trouble believing that anyone could actually live on “the other side of the earth.” (The term they used was “the antipodes.”) Therefore, they tended to imagine that people only lived on land at the “top” of the earth, which was just about as good as believing the earth was flat. It wasn’t until the 1600s, when explorers circumnavigated the earth and carried out trigonometric calculations that the majority of people accepted the idea that the earth was a sphere, but that people on the other side did not, in fact, fall off, or even walk upside-down.
Astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543) proposed a theory that the earth revolved around the Sun, but didn’t publish his work until the year of his death. The theory didn’t seem to excite much opposition until after he died, when Dominican Bartolomeo Spina, the Catholic Church’s chief censor, and later, his friend, Dominican Giovanni Maria Tolosani, refuted Copernicus’ theory on philosophical grounds. The Church didn’t take any official action until six decades later, however. In 1616, the Church issued a decree suspending Copernicus’ work, De revolutionibus, until it could be “corrected”, on the grounds that the doctrine that the Earth moves and the Sun does not was “false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture,” even though noted astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) defended it. By this time, however, the Inquisition was in full swing, and one had to be very careful not to say anything that conflicted with the Church’s established doctrine. In 1632, Galileo was ordered to Rome to stand trial. In July of the following year, he was found guilty of heresy and ordered to recant. (He was threatened with torture if he did not tell the truth, but he was in fact never tortured.) His published work on heliocentrism was banned, and he was sentenced to imprisonment, but the sentence was commuted to house arrest, which lasted until his death. (It is interesting that three of the ten cardinals who judged him refused to sign the verdict.) The Church now makes a point of saying that they are glad they did not rush to embrace Galileo’s theory, because he was wrong, too, since he believed that the Sun was the center of the universe, which it is not. Pope Benedict XIV suspended the ban on heliocentric works in 1757, based on Isaac Newton’s work. Pope Pius VII approved a decree in 1822 to allow the printing of heliocentric books in Rome. Although the Church has always said that their tribunals did not constitute infallibility, many people wonder how the Church can say they are teaching “truth” when they force a scientist to recant a theory that is later found to be true. It wasn’t until 1989 that Pope John Paul II admitted that the Church had made a mistake in the handling of the matter, and reiterated that science and astronomy are not the province of the church.
Other Controversial Ideas
The flat earth theory and the theory that the Sun revolved around the earth were finally proven false by direct experience and improved measurements made possible by inventions such as the telescope. What other theories have changed over the years?
Theories about the age of this planet have been in flux for a long time. In the 1600s, the age of Earth was thought to be about 6,000 years, going by the Biblical account in Genesis. By the 1800s, the estimate was between 20 and 40 million years. In the early 1900s, radiometric dating of rock was invented, and the latest estimate of Earth’s age is about 4.5 billion years. Proving that the earth was much older than 6,000 years upset a lot of religious people, because it meant that the Bible was not a completely literal document, but rather an allegorical one. This is likely the basic reason why a lot of people tend to distrust science, in general. They fear that science will discover something that will upset their spiritual beliefs. On the other hand, we have gotten past the “6000-year-old-earth” theory and religion is still around, which proves that spiritual beliefs can expand right along with science.
There are other challenges that are ongoing, one being the whole “global warming” controversy. While some continue to deny it is happening at all, others can accept the idea, but disagree on the consequences. More and more people are realizing what some of the consequences might be, but nobody can agree on what to do about them. Meanwhile, conditions on this planet are rapidly deteriorating.
Another issue that is coming out is the true length of human existence on earth. The Egyptian pyramids are now being studied not only by anthropologists, but also by modern engineers, and researchers are realizing that the mathematical and technical knowledge necessary to build the Great Pyramids far exceeds the level of math and technology that we currently ascribe to the Egyptians, even at the height of their ancient civilization. In fact, the level of technology necessary to build the pyramids even exceeds the level of our modern technology. The Egyptians are not making modern scientific research any easier when they severely limit scientists’ access to the Pyramids and other antiquities. Nevertheless, there are discoveries in other parts of the world that indicate man-made structures that are now being dated as older than the pyramids. If this is true, it means that humans existed before recorded history, and we’re not just talking cave men, here. These people were advanced, even more advanced than we are, today. But if they were so technologically advanced, where is the evidence of their civilization? Where are their writings? Where are their machines?
The cutting-edge theory is that the Pyramids and other ancient structures were built by humans in prehistoric times using advance mathematics, precision machinery and tools, and techniques such as antigravity, but that the bulk of the evidence of their civilization was destroyed by some type of grand cataclysm. The oral traditions of many indigenous traditions say that the earth has weathered more than one grand cataclysm, perhaps three, or four of them, depending on whom you ask . Theories range from major floods to volcanoes and earthquakes, to a supernova exploding relatively close to Earth. There still may be information about early human high-tech civilizations that we have not yet come across, buried deep in the earth or possibly under the ocean floor, perhaps even secured inside the Pyramids or inside the Great Sphinx.
One of the staples of our modern worldview is that modern humans are at the apex of civilization. What if we found out that there were higher-level civilizations much earlier – even before our current recorded history – and that we are only now beginning to learn some things that the ancients discovered long ago? What if we realized that some of the teachings of indigenous cultures were actually closer to the truth than we have admitted?
One other issue of worldview is coming up for debate. This is the issue I mentioned earlier about the relative importance of human beings in the circle of life here on Earth. The indigenous teachings say that human beings are not necessarily the apex of creation. (I would submit that, among animal forms, humans are the most complex, but that doesn’t mean we are more important to the life cycle here on Earth, or that we are more loved by God.) The idea that, because humans are at the top of the heap, they can do whatever they like with earth’s resources, without regard to the balance of nature or the renewability of resources, has led to unconscious and unconscionable destruction, to the point where the earth may not be able to repair itself by natural processes. If modern humans were to adopt the indigenous perspective, we would pay more attention to the issue of global warming/climate change, and we would take a long, hard look at the way our dependence on energy is harming our beautiful planet and all her inhabitants, including us.
My point in writing all this is that we need to be more open to new ideas, and we need to learn to question accepted wisdom, not in the sense of a blind refusal to follow authority, but in the sense of allowing ourselves to grow and change by giving up the security of leaning on “accepted wisdom” in favor of the excitement and challenge of learning new things.