Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
The Principle is a documentary promoting geocentrism, or the idea that the earth is at the center of the universe.
In a previous post, I looked at how well it worked as a film. (I gave it * * 1/2 stars out of 5.)
What about the content of the film? How well does that stand up?
It depends on the level you are talking about.
At the highest level, the film contains a message that science and faith are not enemies and should not be pitted against each other.
But that doesn’t mean that the earth is at the center of the universe, which is what the film wants to suggest.
The summaries that The Principle provides about the history of astronomy also are generally accurate, though I was amazed that the filmmakers let Michio Kaku get away with saying that Giordano Bruno was burned alive “for simply saying that there are other worlds out there.”
This is not true, and the filmmakers should have provided a voice setting the matter straight. Even Wikipedia’s page on Bruno is more accurate than The Principle is on him.
The film’s discussion of recent physics is also largely fine. Even some of the critiques it offers of modern scientific ideas are good (e.g., that we shouldn’t overplay the idea of a multiverse). But again, these don’t prove geocentrism, which is what the film is interested in advocating.
“What If . . . ?” Advocacy
We should note the way in which The Principle advocates geocentrism. It does not come out and say, in a straightforward way, with the full editorial voice of the film, “The earth is at the center of the universe.”
Instead, it uses the kind of breathless “What if . . . ?” style of advocacy that you find in documentaries inviting us to consider whether—just maybe—Jesus Christ might have been married to Mary Magdalene. Or whether—just perhaps—he never rose from the dead. Or even—just maybe perhaps—he was a space alien.
Despite framing their theses in the form of questions, the viewer understands which points of view they’re advocating.
Know what I mean?
Now: What arguments does the film offer concerning geocentrism?
A good bit of the film just tries to poke holes in current cosmological ideas by proposing alternate interpretations rather than making a positive case for geocentrism.
This happens when they note that you could explain the fact that almost all galaxies appear to be moving away from us either by proposing an expanding universe, in which almost all galaxies are moving away from each other, or by proposing that our galaxy is at the center of the universe and everything is moving away from us.
Fine. Either one of those works.
What the filmmakers don’t point out is that these aren’t the only two options. While you could pick our galaxy as the center and see everything moving away from it, you can equally well pick any random location in the universe and use it as a reference point.
If you did that, the same exact thing would result: Almost all the galaxies would seem to be moving away from that randomly chosen point.
Since there are an infinite number of random points you could choose, you need to give the viewer a reason to pick our galaxy—and, more specifically, our planet—if you want us to suppose that we are at the physical center of things.
A Baby’s Smile? The Finale of a Symphony?
It’s hard to know what to make of some of the things in The Principle. For example, there is an opening montage in which you have multiple figures talking about whether the earth is or is in a “special” place, with many of them denying that it is.
The earth very obviously is a special place (it has life, liquid water, breathable oxygen, and it’s where I keep all my stuff), so when the film talks about the earth being or being in a special place, it seems to be using the word special to mean something like “central” or “at the center.”
But then why is Kate Mulgrew telling us that the earth seems special because nowhere else in the universe do we see a baby’s smile or the finale of a great symphony being performed?
That’s not evidence that the earth is at the center of anything. Indeed, there could be babies smiling everywhere in the galaxy and symphonies finishing all over the universe and we wouldn’t know it because we don’t have telescopes powerful enough to see them. “Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.”
It’s hard to think that the filmmakers meant this to be taken seriously. Presumably, they put it in to give the viewers a warm fuzzy, without making a serious argument.
The film seems to attempt only two serious arguments in favor of geocentrism. The first is based on the findings of physicist John Hartnett, who claimed to have discovered that there are regularities in the speeds that the galaxies appear to be moving away from us.
According to Hartnett, the galaxies seem to cluster around particular redshifts (i.e., particular speeds at which they are retreating). This can be visualized as a series of concentric shells (see illustration) with a center “somewhere cosmologically near our galaxy’s position,” in Hartnett’s words.
It should be noted that, although Hartnett himself thinks that our galaxy has a central location in the universe, he does not believe in geocentrism, and he believes that the producers of The Principle misrepresented his position in the film.
Further, Hartnett notes that even his galacto-centric interpretation of his data is not the only way of looking at it:
[T]he existence of concentric shells could be interpreted as some sort of oscillation in the expansion rate of the Universe. This view does not place any special significance on the centre of the large-scale structure being found exactly at the observer. This is because if cosmological redshift results from cosmological expansion then we only appear to be at some local centre.
Physicist Alec MacAndrew agrees. After noting that Hartnett’s data has been challenged and may not be accurate, he considers a proposal made by several scientists that the expansion rate of the universe changes over time in a way that makes the galaxies seem to cluster around particular speeds. He states:
In that case, observers will see preferential clustering of galaxies as a function of redshift, in concentric shells exactly centred on themselves from wherever in the universe they make the observation. Just like the recession of galaxies in a uniformly expanding universe always appears to be exactly centred on the observer, so universal oscillations in the expansion rate would leave a signature in the redshift data precisely centred on the observer, wherever he is [italics in original].
The argument based on the apparent speeds of the galaxies thus does not prove geocentrism (or even galacto-centrism).
The Cosmic Microwave Background
The other major argument that The Principle proposes for geocentrism is based on an analysis of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB)—a low-level radiation that fills the universe and that is commonly thought to be the “afterglow” of the Big Bang.
The argument that The Principle makes is difficult to summarize concisely and without computer animations, but it can be put this way: If you look at the sky, there are tiny temperature fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, and if you analyze these, you find features that seem to align with the plane of the solar system and the tilt of the earth’s axis. These seem to suggest that the earth is at the center of the universe.
Physicist Alec MacAndrew has written a technical takedown of the claim, which you can read here.
David Palm provides a somewhat less technical summary here. Here are a couple of takeaway points provided by Palm:
- “Although you would never know it by reading geocentrist literature, the alignments which the new geocentrists highlight in the CMB are far from exact – they are only approximate. It is true that any apparent alignments are interesting to physicists if they are expecting randomness. But the inexactness of the alignments certainly does not create anything like a sound foundation upon which to build the extravagant claims of the geocentrists. It is precarious, at best, to argue that the CMB data are actually ‘pointing to’ the earth when those alignments are off by 7, 14, even 16 degrees according to the most recent, most precise measurements. The geocentrists are again playing fast and loose with the facts. They demand we accept that God intentionally made the earth motionless at the exact center of the universe. Yet, they’re content with supposed evidence that God is an extremely sloppy architect and cartographer who can’t manage to ‘point’ to the earth with a margin of error of less than 16 degrees.
- “But it’s worse than that for the new geocentrists. Because, as Dr. MacAndrew demonstrates, the CMB data don’t point at anything. As MacAndrew says, ‘the CMB multipole vectors give directional information but no positional information. If you were an astronomical distance away from the Earth, you would not be able to use the CMB multipole vectors to navigate to it.’ The claims of the new geocentrists that somehow the CMB ‘points at the Earth’ is completely fallacious.”
One of the most frustrating things about The Principle is a fallacy seemingly embraced by both the geocentrists and the non-geocentrists in the film.
Remember the opening montage I mentioned, where the question of whether the earth is or is in a “special” place kept being posed? Parties on both sides of the question seemed to be harboring the idea that if the earth isn’t in a special place then mankind is nothing special.
The geocentrists then seemed to suggest that since mankind is special, the earth must be or be in a “special” place. At one point, apologist Robert Sungenis says: “It’s tremendous to be human, so why wouldn’t we want to be in a special place in the universe, made by a special God?”
One of the problems with this argument is that what we want isn’t relevant. Another is the ambiguity of the word “special.”
The earth is a special place in ways that have already been noted: It has life, it has liquid water and breathable oxygen, etc.
The earth is also in a special place, because it’s in a location where those things are possible. If we were—say—at the distance from the sun that the planet Mercury is, that wouldn’t be the case.
Mankind is special because man has numerous qualities and abilities that are unique among all the living creatures on earth. From a theological point of view, man is also special because of his unique relationship with God.
But what does any of this have to do with being “special” in the sense of being at the center of the universe?
If God put the earth and mankind at the farthest point from the physical center of the universe (assuming the universe even has a physical center), none of the things that are special about them would change.
Just because something is special in one sense (having liquid water, having life, having intelligence) doesn’t mean that it is special in other senses (having liquid methane, having wings, being at the physical center of the universe).
This is simply fallacious reasoning.
But it’s the central—and fatal—fallacy of The Principle.