In writing about revolutions of celestial orbits, Copernicus didn’t think he was starting a revolution. But he did. Research indicates Copernicus had “strategic intuition,” what religious “nones” also seem to enjoy. They might be the new Copernicans.
There’s a great deal of research on the rise of the religious “nones.” When asked their religious preference, these individuals check the “none” box. In the realm of religions, nones are the fastest growing category, now comprising 20 percent of the US population. But categorizing them as “nones” is not helpful. Checking “none” only tells us what an individual does not believe. It doesn’t indicate what she or he believes.
Copernicus’ story provides a better category. In the spring of 1543, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus lay on his deathbed in Frombork, Poland. He was 71 years old. His followers brought straight from the press the first printed copy of his life’s work, On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbits. On that same day, May 24, Copernicus died.
His book launched the scientific revolution. But it didn’t produce what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift until a century and half later, when Isaac Newton published his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687. As Kuhn noted in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Copernicus had a “flash of insight.” He didn’t have a theory in mind when he postulated about planetary motion. He had a new picture in mind, what William Duggan of Columbia University calls “strategic intuition.”1
Copernicus imagined Aristarchus plus trigonometry plus Ptolemaic data to arrive at a new picture of the solar system. Neuroscientist Berry Gordon calls this “intelligent memory” where you “connect dots to form a picture.”2 This is the sequence for a paradigm shift – intuition, seeing new angles, and much later, a theory. In this case, 150 years later with Newton. This is the sequence Descartes and the Enlightenment reversed.
With the advent of the Enlightenment, people began to speak of theories or concepts as the initial – not final – step in discovery. Concept is a 16th century term from the Latin conceptum for “abstract.” In some cases it was a refashioning of conceit, a word with negative connotations. Concept is the Enlightenment conceit that we can discover things without getting our hands dirty. Just sit around and entertain abstract conversations.
Theory is also a term derived from the Enlightenment. From the Greek word for observing, theorists purport to explain things having merely recorded observations from a distance. This is not how we learn. Genuine knowledge begins with hands-on practice as well as intuition, which is why Copernicus never spoke of a theory or concept.
This is how religious nones are feeling their way along. I call them the new Copernicans. They desire to do what Copernicus did – connect dots to form a picture. I recently spent two days with hundreds of them. I was in New York City attending the “Future of Storytelling” conference. Over 550 cultural creatives were there, including visual artists, biochemistry professors, architects, CEOs, neuroeconomists, motion picture directors, and so on. Google was there, as well as Second City Chicago. They came from Cal-Berkeley, MIT, and Columbia. They were religious nones, so I conducted a small experiment. I asked a few if they felt like new Copernicans. Across the board, yes.
Andrea, a professor from Amsterdam, got very excited. For years she has urged students to be a “new Columbus.” Hearing the new Copernicans, she saw how Columbus conjures images of a destination – the New World. After that, he disappears. Copernicus isn’t a destination but a better orientation to the heavens, or what Andrea called “Deos,” Latin for the gods. She asked if I had written on this. I have.
Made in the image of God, many religious nones feel the world has become too flat and shallow. Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary and a professed agnostic, feels it. He describes how neuroimaging is putting together more dots, pointing toward the existence of “the Other.” This is a grand opportunity for people of faith.
In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor urges Christians to create common ground with those apart from the faith, a space “not coloured by either a believing position or an unbelieving position.” Few Christians are doing this. Few were in attendance at the “Future of Storytelling.” For me, common ground is reframing religious nones as the new Copernicans. It offers a better orientation to life. But what do you think?
Next week I’ll describe what is required to capitalize on this common ground.
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1 William Duggan, Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Intuition (New York, Columbia Business School Publishing, 2007)
2 Berry Gordon and Lisa Berger, Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory that Makes You Smarter (New York: Viking, 2003), pp. 8-9.