People say many things about the pre-Copernican model of the universe today. That it was geocentric, that it was unscientific, that it was incorrect, that it was dogmatically averse to incorporating observational insight into an outdated conceptual framework. All this is true, of course. But that’s not all.
The Ptolemaic system, and any geocentric system for that matter, is the result of an insight that, for all the philosophical and scientific progress to date, is still valid. That is, that however far you look outwards – in space as well as in detail – the perspective of the observer or knowing agent is always one from somewhere. There is, in the words of Thomas Nagel, no view from nowhere, or, as philosopher Michel Serres pointed out, no purely scientific viewpoint.
The merit of the pre-Copernican perspective, for all its scientific falsity, contains a great existential truth : when we look, we look from our centre out to everything else. From me to you. No wonder we see the Sun on a par with the other planets, circling around us. Science is true, but becomes irrelevant outside this optics.
The model where the Earth is at the centre of the universe may be scientifically bankrupt but it is phenomenologically accurate. Our experience will always be modelled on the concentric circles of Ptolemy and Aristotle’s cosmos, even if we sometimes choose to travel to other circles to watch our ‘Earth’ from there, as in altruism and empathy.
Who we are has more to do with what we do than with the scientific truths we profess. And agency is subject to the same me-to-you axis, whoever ‘you’ might be, a person, an animal or the planet.
Problems arise when we confuse phenomenology with science, the ‘me’ of my centre with the ‘you’ of my edge, the responsibility of ‘here and now’ with the indifference of the ‘anywhere and anytime’, morality with ecology.
Then we set ourselves in the centre of the world, despots on stage, and it’s only a matter of time before we submit (meaning subject, meaning damage, meaning destroy) everything around us, people, animals, plants and climate to complete and utter ruin.
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