In our previous episode (Soul Searching Episode 39), we got a good idea of what flat Earth looks like. The model is based upon several Biblical accounts, mainly emanating from the Genesis account of Creation which are very convincing but are they fact or fiction? And, what consequences flow from invalidating the flat-earth theory.
Here's a reminder of flat Earth's shape. Imagine taking a large analogue clock (one with hour, minute and second hands) and placing it face-up on a large table. Coinciding the North Pole with the centre of the clock (where the pivot is), you could map out the continents on the clock's face. To do so, you'd have to remember that the main topographical difference between round- and flat-earth models, is that there is no south pole on flat-earth. The Antarctic continent in the round-earth model, straddles the south pole. In the flat-earth model, Antarctic's shoreline wraps around the entire circumference of this gigantic, flat, circular sea. If you were a sailor circumnavigating the Antarctic shoreline on a round-earth model, you'd be travelling more or less in a circle around the south pole. In a flat-earth model, you'd be travelling inside the outer rim of this very large, circular ocean. In both cases, you would eventually reach your starting point. If you want to see what such a map looks like, search for the United Nations emblem which shows a flat-earth map, cupped between two olive branches. Notice how distorted the continents are, compared to the continental shapes we are so familiar with on a globe.
The flat-earth model says that the Sun, Moon and planets are much smaller than we were taught and that they sweep across the surface of this flat ocean at a relatively low altitude, much like the hands of a clock, sweeping over its face. The rising and setting of the Sun and Moon is merely an illusion. These celestial bodies don't actually rise and set, as we were told in our school astronomy lessons, but glide over the surface in a clockwise motion, always maintaining the same altitude above the ground. Mmmm! These are some novel ideas indeed and they seem to be validated by the Genesis account of creation. The Bible hints that Earth's flat surface is enclosed by a huge, overarching dome, called the Firmament. It holds the atmosphere and traps it above the flat Earth. Painted on the inside of this dome are the stars which remain in their fixed positions. The Bible says that this entire formation is submerged in water, describing both the Waters above the Firmament and the Waters of the Deep. However, how do these postulations hold up against the evidence of what we see?
Flat- and round-earth models are two separate but plausible hypothesis and we need a common set of rules to test whether they are correct or flawed. We can't rely on hearsay and conjecture and so we use a set of operating guidelines which were established as far back as Aristotle's time. These rules say that you must first create a proposition to describe how something works from the observations you have about it. Then, the whole community is invited to gather further evidence to prove or disprove your theory. If any evidence is found to disprove your theory, it renders your entire theory null and void and you'll have to go back to the drawing board to refine it. We gathered every scrap of our scientific knowledge this way. Furthermore, the rules make provision for peer reviews which are designed to give your colleagues opportunity to poke holes in your theory. It's their job to discredit what you proposed and your job to substantiate it with proper evidence.
The theories of flat- and round-earth models must stand the rigours of scientific testing for them to be true. In the flat-earth scenario, you can support the theory using scriptural evidence. We have to seek opposing evidence if we were to prove it wrong. We don't need to disprove all the aspects of the flat-earth model to discredit it — we need only find a few flaws to render it implausible. Flat-earthers (those who believe and defend a flat-earth concept) would then have to counter our invalidation by providing us with revisions to their theory.
Let's go back to the flat-earth map as one sees it on the United Nations emblem. Does the use of this logo prove that the earth is flat? No, not at all. Geometry on a globe is very different from geometry on flat planes. Try to draw a straight line on a globe and you'll soon find that it wraps back on itself, forming a circle with its centre in the middle of the globe. We call these kinds of circles, Great Circles. Have you ever wondered why airline route maps are never straight lines but are drawn as curves on the map? It's because there are no straight lines on a globe; they are all Great Circles. The shortest distance between two points on a globe is always an arc of a Great Circle. If you carefully unpeeled the map from a globe, you could flatten it out. That's the sort of thing Gerardus Mercator did in 1569. He created a revolutionary map of the earth by representing the spherical surface of the earth on a flat sheet of paper. He drew a grid of horizontal and vertical lines and then set about mathematically plotting the continental edges very accurately so that one could chart navigational routes in straight lines (instead of curved ones) across this map. This mathematical representation of a spherical surface on a flat sheet of paper distorted the continents, making Greenland appear much larger than South America but the Mercator Projection cleverly made the job of maritime navigators that much easier because they could now use a ruler to measure distances and a protractor to measure angles. A flat-earth map is insufficient proof that Earth is flat.
Staying with navigation for a moment, in both the round- and flat-earth models, Polaris, the north pole star lies directly above the north pole at an angle of 90° above the horizon. Early Portuguese sailors used Polaris to decide how far they were along the African coastline as they sailed south. For every degree they travelled south, Polaris set in the north by one degree. In Lisbon, Polaris is no longer seen directly overhead but lies approximately 38° above the northern horizon. The measurement of the angle between the northern horizon and Polaris's position is the same as the latitude of your observing point. Lisbon's latitude is 38° N when Polaris is observed at 38° above the northern horizon. By the time these sailors travelled to the bulge of Africa, near modern day Dakar, Polaris would be only 14° above the northern horizon and therefore, Dakar's latitude is 14° N. Once the sailors reached the equator, Polaris would touch the northern horizon at 0° and it is therefore no coincidence that the latitude of the equator is 0°. As soon as the sailors crossed south of the equator, Polaris disappeared below the northern horizon and wouldn't be seen again from any southern latitude.
The flat-earth model suggests that Polaris is painted on the dome of the Firmament, directly above the north pole. It too would set towards the northern horizon, the further south you travelled but its lowest declination could never be less than 45° above the horizon. On a flat Earth, Polaris will always be visible, even when viewed from the Earth's outer rim. The theory of a flat-earth fails to match reality and we must use this as evidence to poke holes in the model. It would be up to some flat-earther to explain why Polaris observably sets, the further south we travel. This evidence not only debunks the flat-earth model but corroborates the round-earth one. We only need one debunking proof to trash the whole theory.
There are however many other debunking proofs so let's look at another scenario out of curiosity. In the flat-earth model, Sun, Moon and planets sweep across the flat circular surface, like the hands of a clock passing over a clock face. These celestial objects simply travel, at relatively low altitudes, above the ground and go around and around, each in its own time, as if tethered to the north pole. When the Sun is at the 11 o'clock position on flat-earth, it'll be midday but, diametrically opposite at the 5 o'clock position, it'll be midnight. Flat-earthers say that the rising and setting of these celestial objects is a myth. What they say is occurring when we see them rising in the east, slowly moving overhead and disappearing in the west, is simply their clockwise sweep, approaching us from the east and moving past and away from us to the west. According to the workings of perspective, the further an object is away from you, the smaller it visually becomes. Artists draw lines of perspective to realistically portray scenes with depth. A tree in the foreground is much larger than the speck of a tree on the horizon. Flat-earthers use the workings of perspective to justify why we can't see ships far away because the further away they are, the tinier they become, until they become a minute specks and disappear from view. But, if it works for ships, it must also work for the Sun. If the Sun, was configured the way flat-earthers say it is, you should see a speck of the Sun as soon as it comes into view on the eastern horizon. As it gets closer, it should get bigger. The midday Sun on a flat-earth would be huge compared to the morning or evening specks on the horizon. If the Sun moved in a way that flat-earthers propose, we should get our first sighting of the Sun on the northern cardinal point but, if the distance is too great for us to see it, we should at least see it somewhere to the right of north. Then, this tiny speck would move along the horizon towards the east, where it would begin to arc across the sky, disappearing towards the west where it would again diminish in size and travel long the horizon, northward. Again, reality doesn't match this theory and we have no choice but to invalidate it in its entirety.
It's not looking good for the flat-earth model, is it?
Part of our common-sense bits of repudiating evidence debunking the flat-earth model is the phenomena of lunar eclipses. They happen when Moon, Earth and Sun line up in a straight line, with the earth somewhere between Moon and Sun. Backlit by the sun, Earth's shadow falls onto the moon. This can only happen at Full Moon. In the flat-earth model, since the Sun and Moon are both in the canopy above the flat surface, there is no way for Earth to cast its shadow upon the Moon because there is no light source beneath the flat-earth's disk. If such a light source existed, lunar eclipses would then occur at any phase of the moon and not specifically at Full Moon. This is again a case of a theory not matching what we experience in the real world.
Even though there are many, many more damming bits of evidence out there, I would like to share this last one with you. It's a thorny problem for flat-earthers and it is about distance distortion. Lines of longitude on a flat-earth radiate outward from the Centre of the Earth, like the spokes of a wheel. These lines never converge as they do on a globe. In the flat-earth model, there is no south pole, only an outer rim of icy Antarctic shores, running all the way around the outer perimeter, along the circle's circumference. Flat-earthers say that the Antarctic shoreline prevents ships from sailing over the edge. This configuration seems plausible at first, because, if you start a journey at the Centre of Earth, located at the north pole, you could travel in a straight-line southward until your journey is interrupted somewhere along the Antarctic coastline. Flat-earthers get stuck with this explanation and come up with some fanciful reasoning as to what lies behind this icy barrier and why aircraft can't fly there. Cartography (the science of map-making) has painstakingly mapped out continental shorelines in detail. Furthermore, aircraft and ocean navigation routes confirm that these distances are precise and accurate. We know, to the kilometre, how far it is between the north and south poles. The distance is 20,004 km. Regardless of Earth's shape, this distance is constant, meaning that the radius of this disk-like Earth is just over 20,000 km. From this, we can easily compute the disk's circumference using some elementary school maths. The circumference of flat-earth is therefore found to be 125,663 km in length. If the Antarctic coastline wraps around and on the inside of Earth's outer rim, it too should measure in at a distance of around 100,000 km to 125,00 km, depending on its thickness, but it doesn't nearly match the actual length of this coastline which measures in at only 17,968 km. That's a discrepancy ratio of nearly 1 in 7, a huge error indeed!
Given the few explanations in this show that debunk the flat-earth model, we must conclude that the whole hypothesis is flawed. Conversely, since we have no evidence disproving the round-earth hypothesis, we have no choice but to accept it as true. Besides this being a nice academic exercise, what do we learn from it and why is it so important, and how does this discussion fit into the general genre of Soul Searching? Indeed, it fits nicely and with far reaching consequences…
The Biblical inferences that we examined in the previous episode, gave us some compelling reasons to believe that Earth, created by the Almighty God Himself, easily fits the flat-earth model. The arguments are eloquent and plausible and they find mutual cooperation. It's very easy to read the Genesis account with a flat-earth model as reference and you'd soon be convinced that it is true. Add a little religious endorsement to this belief and you might soon feel guilty or sinful for doubting the way God made Earth. If God, through the inspired scriptures, says that Earth is flat with waters above and below the Firmament, then dare we challenge the inferences these texts make? Rational thinking soon vanishes. Led by faith alone, we might blindly ignore all contrary evidence in favour of a model we believe to be true. This is not an isolated scenario. With compelling evidence to support evolution, many fundamentalists still hold onto the outrageous notion that God meticulously handcrafted everything in situ, as we see it is today, and all of this in six literal days. This very literal interpretation and the dismissal of all evolutionary scientific evidence is preposterous. Who's right and who's wrong? Who needs to push for truth and who needs to back off? It's a fair assumption to say that the Biblical account is probably true in all respects and it is equally fair to assume that all verified scientific evidence is equally true. So how can there be such disparity between these opposing camps and where did it come from? Unlike science, with all it rigorous burden of proof, the Biblical account is often poetic, non-specific, symbolic and dare I say, even allegorical. Revelations, the final book of the Bible, seems more like the rantings of a person high on LSD than some rational document describing the end of the world. Just as art takes licence to portray objects in an abstract, symbolic way, the Bible might also take licence to beautifully describe the beginnings and endings of the world. Artistic licence doesn't invalidate science but adds a whole textured layer to our appreciation and interpretation of our world. Similarly, the Bible's colourful descriptions don't invalidate science's understanding but add another nuanced spiritual dimension to human life. The errors don't lie in science, nor do they lie in the scriptures. They lie in our erroneous interpretations of what we think the Bible says. Reverend Mel White, co-founder of Soulforce, cautions Christians, saying that "Even when we believe the scriptures are without error, it's a risk to think our understanding is without error." There is a shared interface between Biblical writings and science. These are not opposing enemies but collaborators, approaching the same thing from different perspectives. The variable that has always changed over eons, is our interpretation of the Bible. It's the only variable in this equation.
Humans have made and corrected mistakes before. We first believed that the Earth was the centre of our Universe (what we call an Earth-centric model) and it was deeply blasphemous back in Galileo's day to say that it wasn't because, by saying that Earth was not the centrepiece of this universe, we were inferring that we were not that important; we were not the showpiece of God's universal creation. The Catholic Church vilified poor Galileo for over 350 years before it accepted his proof that the Earth orbits the Sun and reversed their stance and vindicated him. This wasn't such a cool thing for Galileo but it is consoling to us because we have a precedent that the church can be wrong and that it can revise and correct its interpretation errors. Galileo's experience is not isolated. The Mormon Church once preached that black-skinned people are subhuman but they had to make an embarrassing U-turn and open their church doors to those they once abused. How many ill people haven't, to this day, lost their lives because Jehovah's Witnesses interpret just one sentence in the Bible, 'thou shalt not eat blood,' to mean that one may not, under any circumstances, be the recipient of a blood transfusion. How many Islamic folk haven't, through fundamentalist interpretations, been radicalised into believing that all non-Muslims are Haram and thereby feel justified in overthrowing them?
I certainly believe that the whole creation account in Genesis is highly symbolic and not at all literal. It may be poetic writing to describe how this vast universe came into existence, how some almighty, invisible force shaped and sculpted the material of the Big Bang into the millions of galaxies made up of millions of stars that we see around us today, including this tiny blue pixel, Earth, in this amazing solar system with an ordinary and uninteresting star, the Sun, at its centre. The Bible, along with a collection of other ancient scriptures, becomes an operating manual for us humans. One day, after we have fully expanded our knowledge and wisdom to include the workings of all things, we might then come to appreciate that these ancient writings never once opposed the truth of what we will then know in its entirety.
It's easy to see how interpretation mistakes can be made and, knowing human stubbornness, how difficult it is to lose face and admit that you were wrong. The erroneous interpretations about Earth's shape pales into shades of grey when compared the prevailing dogma that divides and harms us, like the few cases I mentioned a moment ago. It is time for religions to take a brave step and embrace the evidence that proves some of their interpretations to be wrong. If they cocked up their interpretations about Earth's shape and its place in this solar system, might they not have done the same with their stance on homosexuality, their onslaughts against heathens and infidels and their many other hurtful and harmful beliefs? Scriptures are deeply inspiring and ought to help us reach the highest possibility of who we can be as human beings. Is this not religions' true purpose — to act as agents of change to help us grow spiritually? When will they guide us into the ideals taught by the wise Masters that walked here on this planet before us, to inspire us to live in peace and harmony, despite our differences? I am sad to say that religion has a lot to answer for, it through numerous wars, helped eliminate many of Earth's great people and cultures; it helps by keeping us trapped in the belief that we are sinners, worthless children seeking favour with an angry parent. Religions hands are bloodied and they should carry a lot on their consciences.
What matters most is how you live your life. Is it always aimed in the direction of achieving the highest accomplishment you can reach as a human? Are you aligned with your inner divinity, in humble devotion to your highest self? It's good to question things. It's good to observe and to find evidence for how things are. It's good to be a co-creator of our world. It's equally good to explore your ambitions, your artistic flare, and to embrace life to its fullest — provided that you are always in devotion to your inner godhead, in constant pursuit of the highest elevation of self. A fair measure of scepticism prevents blind faith, cultish practices and insane interpretations. God is never offended by your seeking truth.