Championed by Aristotle, the the theory of a Round Earth began in classical antiquity, contradicting the prevailing belief of a Flat Earth. Aristotle founded his theory on three proofs, which are still cited and in use today. As Greek and Roman influence and culture spread throughout the ages the concept of a Round Earth overthrew the ancient knowledge, establishing itself as the cornerstone of Western civilization.
Aristotle's Round Earth Proofs
Aristotle is credited as being the first to propose that the earth was round based on physical evidence. Around this time, at the birth of Western Science, philosophers had begun to believe that the world could be explained by natural processes. Leading philosophers of Ancient Greece rejected the prevailing divine guidance of the world as absurdity, and instead sought to diminish the divine influence by postulating alternative explanations. In this effort the Greek philosophers sparked a secular movement which continues to this very day. The Round Earth Theory is championed as Western Science's triumphant victory in overthrowing the ignorance of the past, and is prided to have been discovered entirely through human reason and intellect.
Aristotle gives three observations for the new world model:
Sinking Ship Effect
Aristotle's first proof is the observation that ships at sea appear to sink as they recede past the horizon, providing demonstration that the Earth is a globe. If the Earth is round, then it stands that bodies will sink as they recede from the observer. In the mid-1800's Samuel Rowbotham demonstrated that this proof of sinking ships was inconsistent, was dependent on conditions, and that one can often see further than should be possible. Beginning in 2012 long duration time-lapse photography of the sinking effect became available, showing that it is an inconsistent optical effect.
See the Sinking Ship Effect
Rising and Setting
Aristotle said that the southern constellations appear to rise as you traveled southwards. This was another proof that the earth was globular, since if the earth were flat we should see all of the stars at once. This proof relies on certain axioms in nature which the Ancient Greeks assumed, but did not empirically demonstrate. Some of the axioms assumed were that the perspective lines recede infinitely into the distance without merging, or that light travels in straight lines at all scales. The observation of a rising or setting body could come under any number of interpretations.
Aristotle points to the Lunar Eclipse as proof that the Earth is round. Aristotle said that only a round Earth could create a round shadow. Looking further, this appears to be untrue. A flat-sided or slightly concave-sided shadow projected onto the convex surface of a sphere could also create a convexly curved shadow.
See the section Lunar Eclipse due to EA - Curved Shadow
Eratosthenes' Shadow Experiment
Eratosthenes is famed for his shadow experiment where he determined the circumference of the Round Earth. However, this experiment assumes that the earth is a globe and that the sun is far away. The experiment can also be interpreted under a Flat Earth model as well.
The Ancient Greeks believed in a Continuous Universe. This Ancient Greek concept of a perfect universe assumes the following:
- That perfect circles can exist
- That one could zoom into a circle forever and see a curve
- That any length of space can be divided into infinitely smaller parts
- That the space can be infinitely long
- Time can likewise be infinitely divided, or infinitely long
- Light rays travel in perfectly straight lines into infinity
- Perspective lines recede infinitely and continuously into the distance
“ Although we condemn flat-Earth thinking as an example of foolish ignorance, a spherical Earth is actually counterintuitive. It’s such a radical idea that it has been ‘discovered’ only once, in Athens after 400 BCE. The concept of the Earth being round didn’t appear in any other civilisation. India and the Islamic world learnt it from the Greeks, while China had to wait until the Jesuits arrived in the 16th century and turned the Chinese view of the Universe upside down. ”
—Historian of science Dr. James Hannam, author of "God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science" (bio, source)
“ In the past scientists did not use the scientific method we use today. For example, Aristotle was a great thinker in ancient Greece. He carefully observed and tried to check things for himself. But he also wrote things down that had not been proven by the kind of careful experiments scientists complete today. Sometimes Aristotle was wrong. But his work was so respected in Europe that 1,000 years later few people doubted what he had written. Until the 1500's university students were not supposed to question what Aristotle and other ancient thinkers had written. They were just supposed to memorize it. Experimenting and checking things were simply not done. ”
—Suzane Glass, Analyze This!: Understanding the Scientific Method
“ Bacon applied the empirical method of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) to observations in texts attributed to Aristotle. Bacon discovered the importance of empirical testing when the results he obtained were different than those that would have been predicted by Aristotle. (Aristotle had never performed experiments to verify his explanations of his observations of nature; in ancient times, constructing an artificial situation was not considered a valid way to discover the laws of nature.) ”
—Wikipedia article on Roger Bacon, Father of the Scientific Method
“ So Aristotle might have been all the more ignorant of the deeper secrets of nature. And wise men are now ignorant of many things which the common crowd of students will understand in the future. ”
—Roger Bacon, De mirabile potestate artis et naturae
“ From 400 BC, with Aristotle, and until the mid-19th century (1830–1850 AD), many scientists have claimed that some organisms can be generated spontaneously from non-living matter, citing larvae as an example and the flies that are generated on decomposing meat. Aristotle had observed the correlation between the rotting of meat, the appearing of larvae on it and the developing of flies. Upon his repeated observations, he found a correlation that developed in a theory (the theory of spontaneous generation). This theory proved wrong (the ‘rotting meat error’ in our story) because it grew out of correlations ‘statistically’ (very) significant but those correlations were wrong ones. Yet, for a long time the theory was constantly applied as ‘scientific’ understanding since Aristotelian logic applied well to it. ”
—Giovanni Comandé, The Rotting Meat Error: From Galileo to Aristotle in Data Mining?
“ Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths. ”
—Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society
“ Aristotle, the most important Western philosopher of all time, was a powerful thinker. He wrote many foundational texts that shape philosophical and logical discourse to this day. He expounded on just about every topic, from math to physics to biology. He also managed to be wrong about everything. And not just mildly in error. Grievously, profoundly, perhaps even maliciously wrong to such a depth that he, more than any other single person, carries the blame for the West’s descent into the Dark Ages. Europe could not return from the depths of superstition and ignorance until it got past this man’s influence. The Enlightenment and its preceding Renaissance, in fact, represents the West finally throwing off of the iron shackles of Aristotelian thought after over a thousand years. ”
—Diane Stranz, Aristotle: Wrong About Everything
1 Modern scholars continue to champion Aristotle's arguments as proof of the Earth's sphericity. From p.242 of When The Earth Was Flat by cosmology historian Dirk Couprie, Ph.D., we read:
- “ Recently, several scholars highly praised Aristotle’s empirical arguments. Stephen Hawking admired Aristotle for delivering “two good arguments for believing that the earth was a round sphere rather than a flat plane.”9 [Professor of Philosophy] Daniel Graham stated, “Aristotle defends and indeed proves the sphericity of the earth in the De Caelo with adequate scientific arguments.”10 [Theoretical Physicist] Carlo Rovelli, in a paper on Aristotle’s physics, wrote about Aristotle’s most famous argument, which used the shape of the shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse to prove the earth’s sphericity: “This proves empirically, and very solidly indeed, that the earth has a shape that is (approximately) spherical.”11 ”
2 Although the topic of a round Earth was discussed beforehand, Aristotle is credited by the American Physical Society as perhaps the first to argue that the earth was round based on physical evidence:
- “ It was around 500 B.C. that Pythagoras first proposed a spherical Earth, mainly on aesthetic grounds rather than on any physical evidence. Like many Greeks, he believed the sphere was the most perfect shape. Possibly the first to propose a spherical Earth based on actual physical evidence was Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who listed several arguments for a spherical Earth: ships disappear hull first when they sail over the horizon, Earth casts a round shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse, and different constellations are visible at different latitudes. ”
Astronomy Professor Michael Zeilik credits Aristotle with the same on p.31 in his Astronomy: The Evolving Universe:
- “ Aristotle was the first person to describe in detail simple observations to demonstrate that the earth must be round ”
3 In regards to the origin of science as an effort to usurp religion, on p.7 of Science and Religion: Understanding the Issues (Archive) its author Professor Nancy Morvillo tells us:
- “ The ancient Greek philosophers are revered in history as they were the first to reject the notion that natural events are caused by supernatural forces. According to their philosophies, natural phenomena were not caused by vengeful and whimsical gods; rather, nature behaved in a constant and uniform fashion. Therefore, to the Greek philosophers, it was irrational to ascribe the workings of the natural world to gods. ”
Aristotle utilizes his science to try to reject religion. From the journal Notre Dame Philsophical Reviews we see:
- “ Aristotle is highly critical of the anthropomorphizing of divinities, pervasive throughout Greek culture. He thinks not only that the stories told about the traditional gods are absurd, but that these gods do not exist, though he is prepared to allow that certain myths about the gods are possibly more edifying than others. So, Aristotle thinks that Greek "religion" is mostly irredeemably false.
- ...In the first chapter, Segev gives an account of Aristotle's reasons for rejecting traditional religion. As he demonstrates, Aristotle's rejection follows from his own scientific philosophy, especially as this is found in his physics, ethics, and metaphysics. ”