Sunday, February 23, 2014

What's In A Map

During my university studies, I took astronomy. The first class began with a discussion of Ptolemy.  Ptolemy assumed the Earth stood at the centre of the universe.  Surrounding the Earth were a number of crystalline shells.  The heavenly bodies were thought to be inscribed upon these shells.

By determining the size and distance of the shells from the Earth's surface, this model founded an astronomical system which made accurate predictions about the movements of stars and planets for centuries.  Over time, however, the model suffered increasing inaccuracies.  these were addressed by adding increasingly complicated epicycles to the system  Eventually the system became too complex to manage while it's accuracy continued to decline.  It was supplanted by the work of Kepler and Galileo, among others, which placed the sun at the centre of the cosmos.

But the system didn't die easily, for it had become powerfully linked with the Catholic Church's world view which favoured placing Earth (and therefore man) at its centre.  In what history recalls as “The Galileo Affair,” the Church Fathers justified their objections to the “heliocentric” (Sun Centred) universe proposed by Galileo because it (according to church authority) contradicted scripture.  They further banned any interpretation of scripture that would make room for such a view of the world.   It is easy enough to presume that these objections were based in fears that the church would be diminished in its authority, and therefore power.  It might be that some feared that a challenge to church authority would weaken faith, and therefore hope among believers.  That some figures in the church hierarchy feared challenges to their own faith seems clear from this excerpt from a letter from Galileo to Kepler:

“My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth."

The frustration Galileo must have felt is clear from this passage.  It is easy to sympathize with him, especially since he was proven to be, at least half right (the Earth does indeed move, but so does the sun).  Yet, we might see in him a degree of righteous arrogance in his description of his opponents as stupid and stubborn.  What he may have missed, and what I wish to address in what follows, is that people do not hold the views that they do based exclusively, or even primarily, on what is objectively true about reality. 

The great Catholic mystic, Thomas Merton once said; “Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than him”.  When you hold a flower in your hand, the feeling is as much about your hand as about the flower, the colour as much about your eye, the smell as much about your nose.  Our own bodies, and the way these bodies (minds) have been shaped by experience, is the glass through which we see darkly. Our ideas about the world are as much about us as they are about the world.  Why should we assume that this world, as it appears to our mind's eye, is any less a product of that eye than of the eye that looks our from our body?

Our models of reality, the maps we draw and read, disclose the world as it appears to us.  That others may agree and use these maps may tell us more about our kindredness of vision than about its accuracy.  The poet Walt Whitman wrote:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
This passage suggests that our understanding of the world reveals us to our selves.   Perhaps the world is more a mirror of our mind than the other way around.  Whether we think that it reveals a divine plan into which we must fit ourselves, or a welter of blind forces that we must simply ride as a sailor rides the wind, this says more about the kind of thing we are than about the world we look upon.  The truth we find is a truth about ourselves.  Perhaps this is the only truth of which we can be sure.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Between Winter and Spring

The day that falls directly between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal (Spring) Equinox is a day of great power. For Celtic Pagans it is Oimelk or Imbolc, when Ewes begin lactation, in later Christian traditions it is the purification of Candles (Candlmass) as well as the Purification of the Virgin. St. Valentine's Day and even Ground Hog's day also echo the recognition that, at this time of year, something is definitely stirring in the winter darkness. For an in depth look at the manifestations of this recognition see here: and here: What all these feasts and celebrations share is the recognition that “light” is returning to the world. The nursing Ewes are symbols that life, having emerged from the obscurity of the womb, is now beginning the long rising arc into radiance. The purification of the virgin, a Christian holiday, hearkens back to the Hebrew tradition of a woman's emerging from her postpartum sequester and returning to active life in the community. These notions, and others, point to one simple and powerful natural fact-spring is coming-life stirs and begins to grow. But when exactly does this day come? A little nerddom with our magic. Let us remember what causes seasons. The Earth rotates on its axis at 23.5 degrees to the sun. As we see, the rays of the sun strike the earth's surface most directly on the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (where we live here in TN). On the Winter Solstice they strike most directly in the southern hemisphere and on the Equinoxes they strike evenly in both hemispheres. The cross quarters are those days which fall between equinoxes and solstices. All such cross quarters have celebrations associated with them.
The calendar dates of the Solstices and Equinoxes are well defined, varying slightly from year to year but always representing specific moments in the Earth's path about the sun (the summer solstice, for example is the moment when the sun has “traveled” as far north as it is going to and begins retreating to the south). The dates of the cross quarters are not so well defined. This is not so much because they do not represent specific astronomical “moments”, but rather, these moments are not considered important to modern cultures (except for their faint echoes in Groundhog's day, Halloween, etc.). Arguably, the specific dates of these, or any such celebrations, do not matter so much as what they represent. New years Day, for example, does not fall directly on the Winter Solstice but it (as well as Christmas), is strongly associated with the meaning of the solstice. If anyone is inclined to acknowledge the importance of Imbolc (Oimelk) I am happy to raise my flagon of mead with them even if the party comes a few days early or late. However, because my geekdom raises my eyes to the heavens, and because I mourn how far we Earthlings have come from understanding that our feasts celebrate real cosmic events, I will suggest that the real date of the February Cross Quarter, at least for this year, is Monday February 17th. True, or “solar” North is 0 degrees of arc on the compass. According to, the sun first appeared on the horizon at 119 degrees of arc on December 22 2013 (the date of the last Winter Solstice). On March 20, 2014, the day of the Vernal Equinox, the sun will rise at 90 degrees of Arc. The distance between sun rise on the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox is, therefore 29 degrees of arc. This means that on the day that falls directly between the Solstice and Equinox the sun should rise at 104.5 degrees of arc. According to, the sun will rise at 105 degrees on February 16 and 104 on the 17th. So, go outside, look up at the sky, note where the sun is and rejoice. This image is from Sharp's Ridge in Knoxville TN. It is taken with the Sun Surveyor App. The compass point of sunrise varies from that given by but the sun's path directly between that taken on the winter solstice (green line) and that taken on the Vernal Equinox (pink line). \