Published on Models of Motion (http://www2.evergreen.edu/modelsofmotion)

Models of Cosmologicalnessityfariousness...ness.


Models of Motion


“Is it not conceivable; that a person in a perpetual state of suffering requires a different sort of religion than one who is consistently in a state of well being?”

-Alpha 60’s lecture in Central Memory at the Institute of General Semantics, from Godard’s “Alphaville”


A cosmology serves a vital psychological function for a person. This important point is made by Kuhn, and the reasoning seems sound.

Kuhn bolsters this contention by mentioning the essential questions which confront all the sentient: “What is the stuff of the universe?”, “How can celestial phenomena be explained?”, “Was the universe created or guided towards some ultimate purpose, and if so, what is that purpose? If so, how should my activities be ordered so as to be harmonious with said purpose?”, etc. (2)

In my opinion, the answers given to these questions (like indeed any answer given), is itself a product of two elements of the individual:

1) innate biological programming, and

2) prior experiences (learned behaviors)

            Of course the cosmology of one person will never be precisely the same as that of any other person, for reasons of the different interpretations of various words, if not that of more fundamentally differing cosmological aspects (which can be numerous). When speaking of large groups such as societies, though, there oftentimes exists on average enough elements amongst the given population in common regarding any particular subject, to speak with some accuracy in generalizations regarding that population’s ideas. Indeed, what is the cosmology associated with a given culture but the collectively arrived (through agreement or averaging of contradictory elements) cosmologies of a group?

            Just as it is possible to discern psycho/intellectual attributes of a person from ideas communicated by this person about a subject, so too may a group’s attributes be likewise discerned by analysis of the group’s ideas on a subject. The subject is cosmology, obviously, and the groups to be discussed are the ancient societies of Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and medieval Europe. The universes each culture conceives are produced from the worlds of which they know, and reflect this knowledge.

Speaking of the less cultural aspects of these models, such a model for representing or explaining a phenomena can only derive from previously gathered information, and so it follows that the more ancient models would be more inaccurate, because the more ancient peoples had less information with which to explain the phenomena they encountered. What they did have, was immediate sense perception, and so there appears to be an initial heavy emphasis upon this kind of information in the construction of the cosmological system. As time progresses and more data is gathered on the heavens, the initial systems become incompatible with the newly acquired empirical data, and so the model is either revised or abandoned. The result is a steady progression of de-emphasis upon immediate superficial sense perception, or what things at first “appear” to be, and an increasing emphasis on elaborate esoterica that is nonetheless more rigorously consistent with empirical data.

            With the progression I mentioned, it seems that humanity is advancing towards what Democritus of fifth century Greece advocated as a “legitimate” knowledge, as its scientific explanations become increasingly counter-intuitive and abstract.(1) Take this quote from him:

There are two forms of knowledge: one legitimate, one bastard. To the sort belong all the following: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The legitimate is quite distinct from this. When the bastard form cannot see more minutely, nor hear nor smell nor taste nor perceive through the touch, then another finer form must be employed.”(1)

So it would seem at first that humanity is approaching the “legitimate” knowledge as the knowledge propogated from “bastard” sources (the senses) becomes progressively less accepted. Yet if I am interpreting what this philosopher states above correctly, it would seem that there could never be a time in which humanity would attain a purely “legitimate” knowledge, but rather such could only be approached like a mathematical asymptote, because senses are the only means by which a phenomenon can be analyzed, and the veracity for an explanation of such be tested. Although, it would seem that the “bastard” knowledge might serve as an indirect vehicle for ascertaining the “legitimate” knowledge, through reasoning and deduction, and reductive quantification of the qualitative.

It seems to me also, that there will never arise a model for the cosmos devised by humanity (or perhaps any other intelligent life form) that perfectly conforms to what it attempts to model. This is because such a model is the stuff of omniscience…forever an impossible attribute for humans or any other sentient being, I would argue. For to be omniscient is to know all things, including the knowledge of ones knowledge, followed by the knowledge of one’s knowledge of one’s knowledge, and so on until a point of unknowing is reached. It would truly be the worst curse to have infinite knowledge also, because then there is no new information to discover, and an insanity arising from sensory deprivation, an ultimate cabin fever, would set in. Humanity may forever approach, but may never attain, total knowledge…may forever pierce the darkness of the unknown with the light of reason, therefore. The process of such involves a process I will soon describe; of model formation to explain phenomena, followed by the eclipsing of such with a newer model when new data appears that is incompatible with the older one. Advances come through the failures of one theory or model which becomes replaced by something that accounts for the formerly unaccounted data. Human knowledge is guesswork and approximation…though some guesses are better representations of nature than others.

            One model of the ancient Mesopotamians consists of an earth surrounded by waters upon which it floats, all encapsulated by a metallic dome of the sky. The stars are merely bright points in the atmospheric sky, as I recall. (3)

            The Babylonian model has a number of features very similar to the Egyptian…in fact, they’re virtually the same. Only now the entire Earth this time consists of the Nile valley with a little land surrounding it, all as a platform floating on a great ocean. One other difference exists in the explanation of the sun as traveling across the sky due to the influence of the sun god traveling in a chariot.

            The Greeks did also adopt this model, for a time. In the Greek platter (sounds tasty, mmm?) the sun would traverse the sky, but would be believed to submerge into the ocean that surrounds the world, swim through deep waters beneath the Earth, and then finally make a complete circuit by arising out of the waters at the break of a new day. (It’s unclear to me whether these three models were arrived at independently or were spread from a common origin).

            This floating platter and sky dome model certainly does fulfill the urgent need of a people to explain celestial phenomena, and does so in ways that seem to make the most sense to these people…that is, in a way that most conforms to experience and what was for that time common sense. Which was primarily what these people had to rely upon as a basis for their models. If you stand on the surface of the Earth, your perception of it is not going to be one of standing on a sphere. The Earth is so massive that the curvature becomes impossible to see, and appears to our senses as being a flat surface. The sky dome is also another instance of deceptive appearances, for as Kuhn points out, the sky from the Earth’s surface does appear to be some sort of “dome.”(2) According to my dad (talk about your irrefutable bastions of scholarly knowledge), the reason for such an appearance is due to the Earth’s atmosphere (which is spherically shaped) bending incoming light waves in accordance with its spherical convexivity, to produce from an Earthling’s perspective a sort of fish-eye lens effect, in which objects directly ahead of the lens are far exaggerated in size, while the converse exaggeration occurs for objects appearing from the periphery. The third element of the design, namely a body of water surrounding the whole floating landmass, arises from people understanding through experience that the periphery of a landmass is that of an ocean. Since if an object is placed on a body of water, it must either sink or float, and since the Earth we humans know of certainly is not on the bottom of the ocean, therefore it seems reasonable to propose that the Earth floats on the ocean. It always seems, too, that the complete world sketched on any of these platters is always far smaller than that of the world map we know of, and that the geographical region at the center of the platter just so happens to be the geographical region where the artist hails from. But since a platter could be of any size, how would an ancient cosmologist conceive of an accurately sized not to mention accurately shaped collection of Terran landmasses, without having explored such? Of course the artist will draw only what is known, along with perhaps some conservatively truncated foreign continents.

A problem arising from the dome and platter design is that a little southern  exploration (assuming the cosmographer comes from the Middle East or Greece) will soon demonstrate, through the appearance of certain more southerly stars and disappearance of northern ones, a sphericity of the Earth incompatible with such a design.

To account for this sphericity, there was a new model adopted by the Greeks, both radically different from the platter/dome design and radically more accurate a model of the cosmos (though still very much wanting in accuracy). This was the two-sphere model. It’s simply the sphere of the Earth at the center of a cosmos that’s surrounded by the celestial sphere or sphere of the stars. The earth is stationary, while the sphere of the stars rotate about the axis of the N/S geographical Earth’s pole. This accounts for the motion of the stars also, which the platter/dome model didn’t do to much satisfaction.

However, while this model may account for the motions of the distant stars, the motions of other heavenly bodies [insert joke here], namely the various planets, was still unexplained. “No prob, bob” quothe some Greek guy whose name I don’t remember who was the inventor of yet ANOTHER supplanting model: this time it’s a model utilizing not two but 9 spheres for each of the cosmological bodies, ordered from center to periphery of the universe: The earth, the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and finally the stellar sphere. Each sphere other than the Earth had upon it one of the planets, the sun, or the moon, and its only visible element was that of the planetary body itself, while the sphere operated as the vehicle that would carry the planet along in its own particular sort of motion. So you would think that this model, which accounts for all the stars, wandering or not, and the sun and moon and spherical earth, would finally be all that the humans needed.

If so, you thought wrong! The planets turned out to be immensely complicated in their motions, for they would at times reverse directions (retrogress), AND their positions were consequently immensely difficult to predict, AND there were steadily accruing inaccuracies for the calendrical system, due to this unsatisfactory model. So, the model became further complicated by incorporating complex mathematical calculators for planetary positions known as equants, epicycles, deferents, and eccentrics. I won’t get into the details of these things, but they produce complex motion and it was thought by Ptolemy that with just the right combination of these things, you could have a model that would accurately predict planetary position. One small problem: IT DIDN’T FREAKIN’ WORK!

Copernicus, when looking at the equants of Ptolemy, thought they were crap, and so came up with his own model that radically broke with those that came before, placing the earth in O’bit ‘round de Sun, mon. ‘Nuf said.






1. Wikipedia article on Democritus:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democritus [1]



2. “The Copernican Revolution” by Thomas Kuhn



3. online article on ancient mid-east cosmological systems:


http://www.mukto-mona.com/new_site/mukto-mona/Articles/brent_meeker/cosmology.htm [2]


‹ Kate Knable [2]Marcie Hundis › [2]

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