Main image
24th May
2012
written by Jeffrey Long

The Copernican Revolution

For centuries, astronomers tried to make sense of the strange motion of the celestial bodies we now know as planets. While the stars traveled a predictable path along the sky, the planets danced in strange patterns. These astronomers built elaborate models to try and predict the motion of the planets in the sky. But because they believed that the heavenlies revolved around the earth, they could never get their models quite right.

All of this changed in 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” In it, he demonstrated that the motion of the heavens can be explained without the Earth’s being in the geometric center of the system. In fact, rather then stationary, the Earth revolved around the sun.

The Copernican Revolution was one of the starting points for the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century. But it did not come without resistance. The idea that the heavens revolved around the Earth was not simply an insignificant belief; it was founded on what was believed to be clear teaching of the Bible and upheld by the authority of the church. It took 200 years for this new heliocentric model of the solar system to replace the geocentric model.

What is critical thinking?

Copernicus utilized a tool for solving the problem of the motion of planets that we call “Critiical Thinking.” Critical thinking is a method of testing assumptions based on asking a series of probing questions to determine whether a claim can be rationally justified with clarity and logical consistency. In order to make the jump to a solar system revolving around the sun, Copernicus used critical thinking to test the assumptions of Geocentricity by taking careful observations and asking probing questions of the data.

What it means to you

Hans Kuhn wrote that “To describe the innovation initiated by Copernicus as the simple interchange of the position of the earth and sun is to make a molehill out of a mountain in the development of human thought. If Copernicus’ proposal had had no consequences outside astronomy, it would have been neither so long delayed, nor so strenuously resisted.” (Kuhn, Thomas, The Copernican Revolution. Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought.) Since then, there has been a continual conflict between those who believe the interpretation of the Bible they have been taught, and that of scientific inquiry through use of critical thinking.

An important step in untraining our eyes is to end the conflict between Christianity and critical thinking. One way to do that is to recognize “the order of the universe” that we live in. St. Thomas Aquinas used this idea to argue for the existence of God; because there is design and order in the universe, it cannot be designed by chance, but only by design and purpose. Now it is time for Christians to turn Aqunias’ argument on its head; the order of the universe is not simply an argument for the existence of a creator god. It is an argument for an orderly god. For example: believing that we serve an orderly God, we can use critical thinking to test the age of the universe by comparing the ratio of the distance of stars with the speed of light. But if, as some people do, we insist on interpreting the Bible’s account of the creation of the universe as having occurred in 7 consecutive 24 hour days, then we must come to the conclusion that we serve a capricious God, not an orderly one. Because he created an aged universe that looks like it was millions of years old, when in fact it is only roughly 10,000 years old.

The importance of emphasizing critical thinking

When I explain the Copernican revolution to my Christian friends, they inevitably tell me that the revolution of the earth around the sun isn’t important to them. It is such a broadly held conviction that it seems irrelevant. But as Kung said, the shift in worldview caused by the revolution is far-reaching. It was the beginning of a slippery slope in which science would examine evidence, propose a hypothesis, and come to a conclusion that sometimes interfered with what was believed to be an inerrant teaching of the Bible.

I believe that this generation of Christians needs to step up to the plate and engage, rather than reject, the use of critical thinking to understand the order, and meaning, of the universe. A high view of scripture does not mean that the interpretations we have been taught are infallible. Every fresh movement of God in history has come from leaders and people who have re-examined the Bible and discovered a facet of truth that was overlooked by the generations before them. This can only come through sharpened thinking, and a willingness to challenge the beliefs we have been taught.

To get started, I encourage you to watch these 6 videos posted at io9.com on critical thinking. Over time, I will be posting each individually along with an essay on its importance in modern Christian thinking.

What about you?

What do you think about the tension between scientific and critical thinking and Christianity? Can it be resolved? Or do we have to pick sides? How has the tension impacted your life?