Nobody gives ancient religious leaders or philosophers any credit anymore. They had little in the way of scientific education or knowledge of math and lacked advanced tools that might help them to test their hypotheses, so they did the best they could with what they had. This is to say, they sat around and thought about stuff while their slaves, or congregations, did all the real work.
Let’s look at the Flat Earth theory. We all like to deride those people who we now consider to be foolish for ever having assumed the Earth was flat and for suppressing the science that suggested otherwise. Such was the certainty of the Catholic Church, despite the lack of any biblical mention of geometry, math, or anything related to the possible circumnavigation of the Earth, that it took centuries before scientific proof was accepted. The Flat Earth zealots stuck with their theory until they realized that the bible didn’t specifically preclude the Earth from being round and orbiting the sun and until it also became obvious that people were perfectly able to accept that the previous Popes may have been wrong but that the current Pope is still always right.
Frankly, the Popes were just doing their jobs as they were taught. They were just messengers and we all know it isn’t nice to shoot the messenger. How can we expect someone with no scientific training to believe every would-be scientist or soothsayer who has a new theory? Just because the science indicates something, doesn’t mean it is true until god is ready to tell the Pope that it is. Or for the Pope to finally agree that it is true, since I’m not exactly sure how clear the communications path is between god and the Pope. Sure, they could have followed Ronald Reagan’s friendly advice to “trust but verify” any reasonable new scientific theories instead of “burn the lying blasphemer,” but it all worked out in the end. As far as I’m concerned, the Earth was flat until it was round.
Or is it? In the early twentieth century, Einstein showed that space and time were linked and that gravity was a manifestation of the curvature of space-time. We finally had reached the point where the science was good enough to refute the earlier science that just said the Earth was simply round rather than flat and that things fell towards other objects with an acceleration corresponding to their mass. Things no longer just fell, they moved along the curved paths of space-time.
Had ancient religious leaders had Einstein’s insight, I’m pretty sure they would have agreed that the world is indeed flat after all, just as they originally thought. You see, the concept of space-time is just so confusing, and makes so little practical sense, that we have to assume that god created an illusion of roundness simply to prevent people from falling off the edge. He simply could not possibly tolerate the existence of a dangerous flaw in his creation. Consider this. The currently-perceived roundness of the Earth might just be another manifestation of curved space-time.
You know that saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? Well, perhaps a little Newtonian classical physics was just enough knowledge to discredit a perfectly reasonable Flat Earth theory, since it didn’t take warped space-time into account. Thanks Newton. You may have thought you stood on the shoulders of giants, but maybe they were really just midgets after all.
My breakthrough theory, that the Earth may still actually be flat after all, came to me while I was thinking about how the universe isn’t just an expanding sphere as many people may think. Stick with me here for a couple of paragraphs while I go through the proof.
The fact that stars are all receding from each other means that the universe is expanding in all directions, or at least appears so. If all matter were flying outward in an expanding sphere, then the stars would not all have to be receding from each other unless we were all sitting on the outside edge of that sphere. That would mean we are actually in a two-dimensional universe, which doesn’t seem right. So, that means the universe is somehow warped in a weird way that might resemble an expanding donut or some other shape we cannot easily conceive.
The space between stars is also warped, which means that the light from a star may actually be seen coming from more than one direction as it passes by multiple massive objects (e.g. stars, black holes) and bends around them. Theoretically, the Earth could be surrounded by starlight that is actually coming from the same star along many different paths through warped space-time. Instead of billions and billions of stars, as Carl Sagan used to say, there may just be billions and billions of refracted images of far fewer stars. We might even be looking at refracted light from our own star.
The obvious and simple conclusion–and I’m pretty sure Aristotle would be happy to back me up on this–is that god probably made the universe flat, for simplicity’s sake, but also made it appear warped to keep people from flying their spaceships off the edge. Maybe he also made it this way to keep us from ever reaching another star and bumping into some of his hideous and dangerous other alien creations. He might not mind it if humans kill off the rest of his terrestrial creations, or the Earth itself, but it is apparent that he has deliberately made it a lot harder for us to start blowing up his more advanced alien worlds. If there are really billions and billions of other planets out there, there have got to be some less aggressive species out there that are a lot more grateful for the opportunity to spend their days worshipping their god rather than indulging themselves.
Isn’t it amazing how profound and simple the universe can really be if we just realize that there is a difference between reality and perception and that perception is all that should matter to us? Surely, there is no more elegant way to build a universe than to make it appear simple while hiding its innate complexity. Why do we have religion? Religion helps to keep us from thinking too hard about the complexity of reality. It’s easier, and more comforting, to say it is whatever we say it is and just leave it at that.