An Oft Repeated Historial Fallacy

In speaking of the announcement last week that two more planets orbiting other stars have been found in habitable zones, Ross Douthat assumes an oft repeated fallacy regarding Medieval cosmology here. He writes,

“The first possibility obviously raises theological as well as scientific questions. In one sense, it elevates humanity, restoring us to an almost pre-Copernican position in the cosmos. At the same time, though, plenty of religious believers are untroubled (or even inspired) by the idea of extraterrestrial life, while the possibility that the cosmos might be as empty as it is vast raises troubling questions about what, exactly, its Designer had in mind. (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread,” wrote the great Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal.)”

The false and often repeated belief is that Medieval cosmology elevated humanity by viewing the universe geocentrically as if the earth was the hub or the centre. This was not their understanding or assumption. Rather, C.S. Lewis explains,

“…men had realized that movement towards the centre of the earth from whatever direction was downward movement. For ages men had known, and poets had emphasized, the truth that earth, in relation to the universe, is infinitesimally small: to be treated, said Ptolemy, as a mathematical point (Almagest, i.v). Nor was it generally felt that earth, or Man, would lose dignity by being shifted from the cosmic centre. The central position had not implied pre-eminence. On the contrary, it had implied, as Montaigne says (Essais, n. xii), “the worst and deadest part of the universe’, ‘the lowest story of the house’, the point at which all the light, heat, and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity. The position which was locally central was dynamically marginal: the rim of being, farthest from the hub.” 

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama

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