The Discarded Image Vindicated Experimentally

Though, sadly enough, it has not yet much influenced the understanding of lay people, the rank and file of common college professors in general, and temporizing theologians in particular – the relation between science and truth is no more what, until about the Second World War, it since Newton was accepted to be. Truly perceptive thinkers, at long last coming to their senses and recognizing the fatuity of a “we now know”, slowly begin to attract a following. Slowly, for even among those who profess to admire the literature published by these harbingers of a better era in humanity’s travel through time, today only a minority have already become fully aware of this new view’s far-reaching impact. And this, I am inclined to think, because the sense of awe that modern technological accomplishments are wont to make us look at these accomplishments as products of theoretical science -which in the commonly accepted sense of the term they are not. These marvels result from trial and error tinkering, not from questioning – just read a biography of Edison.

Canny inventors may devise machinery capable of shooting men to the Moon and may fabricate microscopic tools for gene splicing, but this does not mean that therefore and thereby they can answer mankind’s greatest and deepest questions – those remain as elusive as before. Returning to the subject concerning us here: with regard to presenting us with truth in theoretical cosmology, technology is powerless. Mighty telescopes and super-sensitive scanners may deliver reams and reams of data – they deliver not a syllable of unassailable interpretation. At bottom we always see, as Wittgenstein put it, what we want to see. That is in astronomy: either a closed finite, an open infinite, or a curved unbounded cosmos. “Today”, thus James Burke, “we live according to the latest version of how the universe functions. This view affects our behaviour and thought, just as previous versions affected those who lived with them…Like our ancestors we know the real truth”. And pondering the implications of the many shifts of view history presents us with he asks: “Do scientific criteria change with changing social priorities? If they do, why is science accorded its privileged position? If all research is theory-laden, contextually determined, is knowledge merely what we decided it should be? Is the universe what we discover it is, or what we say it is?”(72) In the same vein C.S. Lewis remarks: “The nineteenth century still held the belief that by inferences from our sense-experience (improved by instruments) we could ‘know’ the ultimate physical reality more or less as, by maps, pictures, and travel books a man can ‘know’ a country he has not visited; and that in both cases the ‘truth’ would be a sort of mental replica of the thing itself. Philosophers might have disquieting comments to make on this conception; but scientists and plain men did not much attend to them.”

No, they did not, but today they begin to do it. “We are all”, Lewis adds, “very properly, familiar with the idea that in every age the human mind is deeply influenced by the accepted model of the universe. But there is a two-way traffic; the model is also influenced by the prevailing temper of mind… Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical “(73)

I am aware: the temper of modern man’s mind I still have against me. On the other hand the modest approach of the rising philosophy of science gives me the courage to speak my mind freely. Against all comers I therefore declare that I side with Lewis’ Greek. I hold that the finite Universe is hierarchical, ascending from man on the Earth below to the Heaven of God Almighty above the stars. However, before placing my battery of facts in position I have to prepare the ground for doing this.

Pertinent to the importance of the right understanding of aberration: there has been more at stake with regard to its influence on the further development, and thereupon the demise, of Copernican astronomy than at first sight will meet the eye. That the publication of Newton’s Principia caused Tycho Brahe to be driven into oblivion cannot be denied; but forty years later Bradley appears to have silenced almost without exception even the few percipient souls who cannot but have agreed, with Berkeley over against the great Isaac, that only in a space knowing place, and in it the fixed stars at rest, the nation of an Earth orbiting a Sun has any real, unequivocal meaning. For aberration, as it is presently preached, requires an Earth at a “real” velocity of 30 km/sec describing an ellipse through space with a Sun resting in one of its foci. A Sun in motion, carrying our Kepler’s and Newton’s laws abiding planet along, would cause that aberration to be inconstant and revealing the Sun’s speed at the moments of its maximum and minimum size. Therefore it is not difficult to see that even these Berkeleyan doubters – reluctantly I suppose -began to go along with what everybody of name knew to be true. To attribute the phenomenon to a synchronous and simultaneous motion of all the fixed stars was out of the question. It would have involved a retrogress of astronomy to hoary Ptolemaic antiquity and to Kepler’s long already abandoned Stellatum, that is: a shell of stars enclosing a finite Universe. It is accordingly understandable that no one judged a further conformation, as proposed by Boscovich, still necessary.

Yet already a decade before Bradley died the speculations of a Thomas Wright, about the Milky Way possible being a lens-shaped stellar system, commenced to set in motion a train of thought that, though inhering the Newtonian view of spatiality, would make havoc of mankind’s still lingering parochial outlook with respect to our place in the totality of the visible cosmos.

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