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.