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For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky, part 1

October 26, 2011

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, so the story goes, on his return from outer space, made a point of stating that he saw no god out there. The story may be apocryphal, and I hope it is, because as bright as one has to be to become an astronaut, an assertion like that demonstrates only how lunkheaded one has to be to suppose that because Christians speak of God being “in heaven” that they picture a giant, bearded man sitting on a chair just beyond the limits of earth’s atmosphere.

Similarly ill-founded, I believe, is the following assertion which this post (in two parts, due to excessive verbosity) seeks to evaluate: that the Bible teaches a cosmology consisting of a “three-tiered universe” which is structured as depicted in the figures below. To the left is a more recent rendering. To the right, an older version which I have seen reproduced in multiple places as far back as I can recall.

Features of this construct include:

  • A flat earth (a disc surrounded by sea)
  • A solid dome forming the sky
  • Stars embedded in this solid dome
  • Gates in the dome from which rain emerges
  • Atop the dome God’s abode, palace, and throne
  • Both the earth and sky supported by pillars
  • Watery abyss beneath the earth
  • Abode of departed dead beneath the earth
  • Immobility of the earth
  • Geocentric universe

I have long been curious about the origin of this drawing, and the conception it represents. The older version, with its multiple typefaces, appears to me no older than the twentieth century. It certainly isn’t an ancient drawing. Nor does it seem to be copied from an older drawing. Otherwise we’d see the older drawing disseminated rather than this relatively recent one.

It would seem to have been extrapolated from various references in the Bible. We have, provided by our own Daniel, a list of these (here), which he asserts demonstrates not only that the Biblical authors–from Genesis to Revelation–held this view, but that their writings taught it. Therefore, their assertions, in regard to the physical cosmos, are to be ignored in favor of the image of the physical cosmos which you currently have.

In part two, therefore, we will go through the enumerated verses, to evaluate whether and how strongly they provide evidence for the “three-tiered universe” assertion. Before doing so, however, I would like to make some general points, which have some bearing on the particulars we will examine.

First, I am in no way stating that ancient writers pictured the cosmos the same way that a typical twenty-first century American, for example, would picture them. I have no ability, any more than those who make the “three-tiered universe” assertion, to interview ancient people, much less to read their minds.

Second, what an individual pictured within his own mind, and what his writing asserts are not the same thing. As E.D. Hirsch points out in Validity in Interpretation, a speaker can make accurate statements in regard to a tree, even if his mental image fails to include the root system. Therefore, even if one is persuaded that Moses, for example, must have believed in a “three-tiered universe,” given his place in history, this is a very different matter from the claim that his writings, under inspiration, asserted the erroneous information he personally believed.

Third, a few facts from history are worth noting. First that in approximately 240 B.C. a Lybian scholar by the name of Eratosthenes not only knew the earth was spherical, but he measured it with only a 2% error in his accuracy. How far back the spherical nature of the earth was understood is difficult to say, but both Plato (d. 347 BC.) and Aristotle (d. 322 BC) referred to it as such. These antedate the New Testament, at least, by centuries, though we cannot say how widespread this understanding was among the general populus.

Fourth, in considering the Scriptural evidence, we must bear in mind that the Sciptures are written in normal human language. We must treat them as such, without resorting to absurd measures.

We say, for example, that such and such a thing “is red.” Now one may say–in a supposed attempt to be “scientific”–that such a statement, a thing “being red” is not a statement of objective reality, therefore not “literally true.” That which we speak of as “redness” is a combined effect of physics and physiology. The chemical composition of the surface of the object reflects light with a wavelength of approximately 650 nm and absorbs light of other wavelengths. Light of this wavelength stimulate certain receptor cells in the human retina, and not others, and produce an effect of perception in the human brain, which we label as “red” and assign conceptually to the object itself.

Thus we employ phenomenological language, i.e. referring to things in the physical world not as they objectively are, but as they appear to us to be. An example of a different type is the word and concept “sky.” In reality this “thing” consists of nothing more than the totality of a human being’s visual angle from his point of view on the earth’s surface. The limits of this entity are the “horizon,” another “thing” which has no objective existence, but merely is a phenomenon of an individual’s perception. Things which are regularly stated to be “in the sky” include birds, clouds, the moon, the sun, the stars. Objectively, these various entities can hardly be said to occupy the same space. Moreover, this reality is known by virtually everyone on earth, and yet the concept “sky” is a common and useful one.

We further say that “the sky is blue.” Here are both our examples of phenomenological concepts in human language combined. What is the truth value of the statement “the sky is blue”? On one hand it is obviously true. On the other hand, one has to admit that there is no objective reality to it.

Fifth, we have to distinguish between reference and assertion. Within human language we have the following:

Etymology. Though the etymology of the word itself means “study of what is true,” a word’s constituent parts are neither an assertion of reality nor an indication of the beliefs of the one speaking it. Etymology is not ontology. We may, for example, refer to a person as phlegmatic. This is an established word in the English vocabulary for a certain type of behavior. To employ it is not in any way an endorsement of the four-humor theory of Hippocratic medicine.

Expressions. Similar to etymology, we employ phrases which carry conventional meaning, but are not believed by the speaker to represent objective reality. Thus a person may say “…with all my heart,” without the slightest indication that he or she believes the cardiac organ to be the actual seat of will or emotion. It is conventional language, not representative of “objective reality,” but not an untrue statement either.

Assertions. The above categories are mere reference, i.e. specification of a concepts, not linguistic enties capable in themselves of carrying an assertion. At a minimum communication requires, semantically, a proposition, with is commonly reflected syntactically by a clause. In other words to assert one has to not only identify a referent, but make a comment on it. For example, to use the phrase “the four corners of the earth” is a reference. To say “the earth has four corners” is an assertion. These are very different actions. The former, the mere reference, may be consistent with a belief that the earth has four corners, or else may be a mere expression, such as “…with all my heart.” A reference is not therefore evidence of belief, whereas an assertion may be.

Sixth, human language employs various strategies for conveying meaning. The most straightforward employs terminology in a direct and concrete way. “The brick is five inches long” would be an example of this. Taking a step away, we sometimes employ abstract concepts, events not things, in noun form: “Love is kind,” for example. Objective reality is that the one who loves is kind, not actually “love” which is an action or feeling, not an entity capable of being kind. Similarly, human communication is enhanced by various “tropes” or figures, such as metaphor, metonymy, simile, and so on. Different genres of text may employ such tropes to different degrees. Instructions for installing a water heater are likely to run heavily to the direct and concrete. A love sonnet is likely to be heavy with picturesque imagery.

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