The sun and the moon

You’ve probably heard that Bill Nye was booed in Waco, Texas for saying that the moon did not shine its own light but reflected the light of the sun.  Apparently a number of people decided that he was speaking against Genesis 1:16 which says that God made two great lights and put them in the sky:  one woman snatched up her children and walked out, saying “we believe in God.”

One thinks of literalist believers as having a problem with the scientific understanding of time:  creation (and a short duration) vs. evolution (and a long one).  But this story bespeaks a problem with the scientific account of space.  The Waco woman seems to think of reality as a canvas on which God stuck things, the things he stuck there being the things that exist.  Reality, for her, is a diorama.  It makes perfect sense, but for some reason I had never understood that someone could see the world this way.  It has illuminated my current thinking about time and space.

In an episode of Sherlock! (aka the best TV show since The Wire) Watson has to explain to Holmes that the earth revolves around the sun, and later blogs about the exchange to the amusement of his readers.  But despite a seeming affinity, Holmes’s ignorance is the opposite of the Waco woman’s.  This is not just because he takes correction, but because when corrected he says, “it doesn’t matter.”  In this case these are golden words.  It doesn’t matter to Holmes that the earth revolves around the sun since Holmes’s knowledge of reality, which is vast, is circumscribed by its utility:  everything that Holmes needs to understand, he needs to understand from the perspective of human experience.  The Waco woman’s painted canvas is in distinction a God’s-eye view, and so she cannot be corrected.  And to her it does matter;  it is the only thing that matters.

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