Who should be Patron Saint of England?

It’s that time of year again, when people keep thinking it makes sense to ascribe modern nationalities to someone from Classical Antiquity. In past years, I’ve seen people variously claiming St. George was Turkish, Syrian, Palestinian, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian and Georgian (He was born in Cappadocia, now South-Eastern Turkey, and later moved with his mother to her homeland in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina, which occupied the Levant and also a large part of what is now South-Eastern Turkey). Whatever the case, he was certainly not English, and has nothing to do with England apart from being the patron saint of it.

The cult of St George certainly has a long history in England, going back to before the Norman Conquest. He was associated with the Crusades, and then was made Patron Saint of the Order of the Garter when it was founded by Edward III in 1348, ending up with him definitively supplanting the East-Anglian King Edmund the Martyr as Patron Saint of England. Given that he has nothing to do with England, and is a rather unoriginal choice for a national patron saint, being a patron saint of Russia, Georgia, Portugal, Turkey, The Crown of Aragon (inherited by Catalonia and Aragon), Greece, Palestine, Ethiopia, The Republic of Genoa, and Moldova, as well as farmers, soldiers, scouts, herpes, and syphilis. England has plenty of its own Saints that could be used instead. Here are some possibilities:

Edward the Confessor

Edward_the_Confessor
Edward the Confessor
Anonymous (Public Domain), from Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 1003-1005, Islip, Oxfordshire.
  • Died: 1006, London
  • Canonised: 1161
  • Connection with England: Was the King of it
  • Feast day: October 13th

Edward the Confessor seems an obvious choice, as the only canonised King of England, as a patron saint of Kings of England, and as one of the unofficial patron saints who were displaced by Saint George.

He was crowned king in 1043, having spent most of his life up to that point in exile in Normandy whilst England was under Danish rule.

During his reign, Edward spent much of his time trying to make sure the Vikings didn’t invade, trying to make sure his Earls didn’t depose him, and appointing the Norman abbot Robert of Jumièges as Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps most notably, he built Westminster Abbey, in a decidedly Norman, Romanesque style.

He died in January 1066 with no heir, leaving 3 possible successors, all with decidedly tenuous claims to the throne, to sort it out among themselves. Of course, this being 1066, William, Duke of Normandy ended up coming out on top.

He was canonised in 1161 and nobody is entirely sure what he did to deserve it apart from being just generally sort of religious. A lot of Anglo-Saxon Kings became unofficially venerated, but this was the first time one had been actually canonised. He became a patron of the Kings of England, and the namesake of 8 of them (although ironically overlooked in their regnal numbers).

Thomas Becket

thomas becket
Thomas Becket, in a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral
Renaud Camus from Plieux, France [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 1119, Cheapside, London
  • Died: 1170, Canterbury, Kent
  • Canonised: 1173
  • Connection with England: Was English
  • Feast day: December 29th

Thomas Becket (not Thomas à Becket, which seems to have come about long after his death to make him sound more like the theologian Thomas à Kempis) was an extremely important Medieval saint, and a prominent figure in the politics of 12th century England.

Becket was born in Cheapside in 1119, the son of a merchant. In a remarkable example of social mobility for the time, he ended up becoming Archdeacon of Canterbury, and was recommended to Henry II for the position of Chancellor.

As Henry II’s Chancellor, he was extremely obliging and Henry, looking to rein in the power of the Church in England, appointed him as Archbishop of Canterbury. In a surprising turn of events, however, Becket ended up taking his role far more seriously than Henry had expected, and refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have given the King a lot more power over the Clergy. Henry ended up putting him on trial, digging up some financial offences from when he was Chancellor. Becket was convicted, and fled to France.

Eventually, in 1170, the Pope persuaded Becket and Henry to make up, and Becket was allowed back to England.

Later that year, however, Henry got the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London, and the Bishop of Salisbury to crown his son, Henry the Young King, in accordance with the French tradition of crowning the Heir Apparent. Since the Archbishop of Canterbury is meant to crown Kings, Becket excommunicated all three of them, and went on something of an excommunicating spree. This, famously, prompted Henry’s outburst of “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (although the exact words are disputed). Four knights, interpreting this as an order, turned up at Canterbury Cathedral, pulled out their swords, and hacked the Archbishop to death, smearing his brains across the floor when they’d finished with him.

Becket took just over 2 years to be canonised, and Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral became an major pilgrimage destination.

Whilst Thomas Becket is one of the most important English saints, I’m not sure I’d want a patron saint who was martyred for his conviction that the Church should be above the law.

Augustine of Canterbury

augustine statue
A statue of Augustine of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral
User:Saforrest [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 6th Century presumably, Italy
  • Died: 604, Canterbury, Kent
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Led the mission that converted the first Anglo-Saxon King to Christianity
  • Feast day: May 26th

Lots of countries already have a great converting saint. Germany has Boniface, Ireland has Patrick, Norway has Olaf, etc. It would make a lot of sense for England to do the same.

The Roman province of Britannia had become Christian, along with the rest of the Roman Empire, under Constantine. However, in 410, the Roman Legions withdrew from the Province in order to defend the more central parts of the Empire from the Barbarians that were overrunning it. This left room for the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes to take over the Southern and Eastern parts of the Island, now England. As a result, while the Celtic peoples in the West remained Christian, albeit with a weird way of calculating the date of Easter.

According to Bede, the whole thing started when Pope Gregory I saw some Anglo-Saxon boys in a Roman slave market. Being the Pope, his eyes were of course immediately drawn to their angelic fair hair, blue eyes and pale skin. Remarking “non angli sed angeli” (“not Angles, but angels”), he resolved to convert these people to Christianity, and dispatched Augustine to do the job. Another account is that King Æthelberht of Kent, whose Frankish wife was a Christian, asked the Pope to send missionaries. Either way, Augustine was sent to convert the Kingdom of Kent to Christianity.

Augustine arrived in Kent and made himself the Archbishop of Canterbury. Æthelberht was baptised, and the Anglo-Saxons gradually became Christian, even if he didn’t get the Celtic Christians to agree on the date of Easter.

Bede the Venerable

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
An image of Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle
Public Domain. See page for author. via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 673, probably Sunderland, Tyne and Wear
  • Died: 735, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Known for his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • Feast day: May 25th

Possibly the only notable person ever to come from Sunderland, Bede was sent to a monastery at the age of seven. At the age of 14, everyone in the monastery except him and one other person died of plague, leaving them to run the monastery themselves. He seems to have spent most of his adult life writing books about history and how to calculate the date of Easter. He died in 735, having written enough, especially his Historia Ecclesiastica Genti Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) to be one of the most useful sources on the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

Joseph of Arimathea

arimathea
An illustration by William Blake titled Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion
William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: Unknown, presumably 1st Century BC or 1st Century AD
  • Died: Unknown, presumably 1st Century AD
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Visited Glastonbury, according to legend.
  • Feast day: March 17th

Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four Canonical Gospels, as the person who offers his tomb to be used to bury Jesus. His significance to England is rather mysterious, but there are several stories, appearing first in the Middle Ages, according to which he visited Britain after the death and resurrection of Jesus and founded a church at Glastonbury.

Going further, there are also stories tied into Arthurian Mythology, in which Joseph brought the Holy Grail with him on that trip. The Glastonbury Thorn is supposedly a descendant of the hawthorn bush that, in the same legend, sprouted from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff when he planted it in the ground on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury.

Another legend says that Joseph of Arimathea was a tin merchant and visited Cornwall, the centre of tin production in ancient Europe, bringing a teenage Jesus with him. An elaboration of this story says that Jesus actually taught the Cornish tin miners how to extract tin from its ore. The story of Jesus visiting Britain is referred to extensively by William Blake, most notably in And did those Feet in Ancient Time.

All this is, of course, total nonsense and obviously never happened, but I like it when a country has national myths like that. The Joseph of Arimathea myths are important parts of England’s cultural heritage and deserve to be celebrated.

Edmund the Martyr

edmund the martyr
The Martyrdom of St. Edmund
The Morgan Library & Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 841, traditionally
  • Died: 869 or 870, Hoxne, Suffolk (or maybe Dernford, Cambridgeshire, or Bradfield St. Clare, Suffolk)
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Former Patron Saint of England
  • Feast day: November 20th

In modern times, Edmund the Martyr is a very obscure saint. He’s mostly getting a mention here due to his popularity in the Middle Ages, and the fact that he was a patron saint of England before St. George was adopted by Edward III.

Very little is known about his life. He’s supposed to have been born in 841, and became King of the East Angles in 855. In 869, England was invaded by the Viking Great Heathen Army, who killed Edmund. The story concerning his martyrdom (which is probably nonsense) is that he refused to meet the Vikings in battle, instead throwing down his weapons and allowing himself to be tied to a tree and shot full of arrows before being decapitated.

When people were looking for his head, the story goes that it called out “here! here! here!” until they found it, with a wolf guarding it from other animals.

Bury St. Edmunds, the location of his shrine, became a very popular pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages, until the abbey was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and he was venerated as a patron saint of England until Edward III replaced him with St. George.

In defence of “muh feels”

For years now, a big feature of right-wing rhetoric has been to present the arguments of the Conservatives and/or Right-Libertarians as rational and evidence-based, while dismissing those of Liberals and the Left as emotive and irrational. To a lesser extent, similar arguments are used the other way, although this seems to occur mostly as an effort to turn Right-Wing rhetoric on its head. In general, there’s a tendency (which I’m not saying has any basis in reality) in popular political discourse to view the Right as pragmatic and the Left as emotive.

However, what I’m saying is that this dichotomy of “facts” versus “feelings” is not a sensible way to discuss Political Philosophy, and that any Political Philosophy must depend on a synthesis of the two.

The Is-Ought Gap

A big issue in ethics is the problem of how to derive moral facts (what ought to be) from natural facts (what is). David Hume just flat-out said it can’t be done and, like a lot of things David Hume said, it’s irritatingly difficult to argue with.

Ethical Naturalism

An ethical naturalist could argue that objective morality still exists if you can decide on a goal that you’re trying to achieve, as follows:

p1: C is a morally desirable state of affairs.
p2: If A does B, then C will occur.
c: Therefore A should do B.

Here, premise 2 is entirely objective and naturalistic, and the premises entail the conclusion. The issue is with premise 1. This is a claim that C ought to be the case, and not a claim that clearly linked to any natural facts.

An example of a branch of ethics in this form is Utilitarianism, most famously proposed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. According to this ethical doctrine, the ultimate goal is maximising total happiness, and one ought to do things that can be expected to increase overall happiness, and avoid things that will decrease overall happiness. For example:

p1: Greater happiness is a morally desirable state of affairs.
p2: That homeless man there will gain more happiness having from the change in my pocket than I will.
c: Therefore I ought to give him the change in my pocket.

Here we clearly have one of the premises (p2) that is based on a (sort of) observable, measurable natural fact, and another (p1) that isn’t. However, p1 is necessary to link p2 to the conclusion.

The Categorical Imperative

Ethical naturalism, based on is not, however, the only approach to trying to create objective moral facts. Immanuel Kant argued that morality is based on a Categorical Imperative (an absolute statement of what you ought to do), as opposed to Ethical Naturalism’s Hypothetical Imperatives (statements of what you should do if you want to achieve a particular goal.

According to Kant, there is one rule that governs how you should behave:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Basically, this means you should only do things if it would make sense if everyone did them all the time, for example:

p1: You should only do things if it would make sense if everyone did them all the time.
p2: If everyone lied all the time, nobody would believe anything anyone said, and it would be impossible to communicate.
c: Therefore lying is wrong.

Kant is saying that actions in themselves have properties of goodness or badness, which derives from their relation to this principle, and have nothing to do with their consequences in any one particular case.

Ultimately, though, Kant’s principle succumbs to a similar problem to that of Consequentialist ethics, in that there isn’t an objective fact about the world from which you can derive the connection between Goodness and the Categorical Imperative. All Kant has done is asserted that the Categorical Imperative is equivalent to a moral fact and worked from there. Indeed, any other categorical imperative must have the same problem.

What we’re getting from this is that any attempt to derive a moral “ought” from a natural “is” fails. Either you’re already assuming a moral fact about the consequences of an action, or you’re assuming a moral fact about the action itself.

How Ideologies Work

The point here is that political ideologies are, in essence, sets of moral statements, just applied to governments rather than individuals. Either there is a goal (such as common ownership of the Means of Production) in mind, and policies are intended to move towards that, or there is a principle (such as the Non-Aggression Principle) that has to be followed at all times, and policies are judged based on their compliance with that. Justifying these principles, you might end up with more general principles, about rights or freedoms or living standards or military strength or something like that. In the end, though, you have to come back to something you can’t argue for based purely on natural facts – something fundamental, something basic. Without a basic principle like this, you’re trapped forever in a regress.

In general, the non-naturalistic content of an ideology can be expressed as a set of desired ends, and a set of principles that constrain the range of actions that can be used to achieve that end. Applying logical reasoning to empirical input can tell you what the initial conditions are, and what actions are likely to get you from the initial conditions to the desired outcome. However, they cannot tell you what the desired outcome is, or what methods should be rejected on ethical grounds.

This is where “feelings” (or “intuitions” or whatever you want to call them) come in. Feelings are what motivate us to act. Feelings are what tell us how the world should be. Without feelings, we would not act, we would simply observe. We would see the world, we might even make logical deductions. But we would have no impetus to interact with the world. In many ways, such a world sounds very appealing, but it’s not the world we inhabit. In the real world, we feel, and through those feelings we are active participants.

The Flat Earth Game

A particular hobby of mine is arguing about whether or not Earth is flat. I know I’m very unlikely to ever convince a Flat-Earther that Earth is approximately spherical and orbits the Sun, but I still like coming up with arguments for it.

An Introduction to Flat Earth Cosmology

According to the Flat Earth movement, Earth is a flat disk, with the North Pole at the centre, and an “Ice Wall” (known to most of the world as “Antarctica”) around the edge (a few Flat-Earthers claim there are more continents beyond the Ice Wall).

flat earth diagram The orbits of the Sun and Moon in the Flat Earth model
https://aplanetruth.info/23-why-was-nasa-created/flat-earth-images/

The Equator is a circle halfway between the North Pole and the Edge.

The Sun and Moon move around the Earth in circles in 24 hour cycles, moving directly above the Tropic of Cancer on the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, the Tropic of Capricorn on the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, and the Equator on the Equinoxes. At all other times the circle around which the Sun moves is between the Tropics, presumably according to the latitude at which the Sun is directly overhead on that particular day. This gives us a day/night cycle, since the Sun only illuminates a certain area of Earth at a time, like a spotlight.

The Moon does not reflect the light of the Sun, but gives off its own light. According to some Flat-Earthers, moonlight actually reduces the temperature of objects it falls on, as demonstrated in some highly questionable experiments on Youtube (Of course anyone who has any knowledge of anything about energy or light or anything like that will realise that this is almost certainly nonsense. What in fact appears to be happening is that areas in the “moonshade” aren’t as exposed to the sky, so don’t lose as much heat that way.).

This whole system is contained within a dome or “firmament”, made of glass, water, or some other, similar substance. The stars and planets are lights shining from the firmament.

In this universe, gravity is not a real force (there is simply a physical law that denser materials sink below less dense materials), and there is no such thing as Space (photos taken from Space are fake and astronauts are lying).

Missing the point of Flat Earth

Globe-Earthers arguing with Flat-Earthers often miss the point of the Flat Earth model, failing to realise that it operates within a very different paradigm to Proper Science. Here are some examples of common ways they do this:

Pictures of Earth from Space

This is a mistake often made by Globe-Earthers who are relatively new to the Flat Earth scene. You post a photograph of Earth from Space, claiming that picture proves Earth is round. The problem is that this assumes that whoever claims to have taken the photograph is basically trustworthy. The Flat Earth Movement, however, is characterised by a total distrust of mainstream scientific authorities, especially NASA, who are a key part of a huge conspiracy to hide the true shape of Earth for one of various reasons. Flat-Earthers generally claim any photograph of Earth from Space is “CGI” (and in fairness to them, most of them actually are composites).

Pictures of the “curvature” from high altitudes

Another common Globe-Earth argument is to show a picture of Earth from, for example, a weather balloon, and claim that the curvature of the Earth is visible in it. This is distinct from the “photograph from space” argument, since Flat-Earthers agree that the photographs are taken from an altitude it is actually possible to reach.

The Flat-Earth response is generally that the apparent curvature results from the nature of the camera lens. In this case, they’re actually often right. At the altitudes reached by weather balloons, the visible curvature of the Earth is still very small. It’s well-known that wide-angle lenses result in a seemingly curved horizon, even at low elevations, and this is often the result of most of the “curvature” you see on photographs from GoPros on weather balloons. For example, in this video of a weather balloon launch, you can see the horizon bending all over the place due to lens effects as the balloon goes up.

“Where’s the Ice Wall?”

If you ask a Flat-Earther this, they’ll probably show you a picture of an Antarctic ice shelf meeting the sea, and tell you that’s the Ice Wall. This leads to a very silly argument, since the photo does not illustrate anything except that Antarctica exists, which neither side actually denies. The Flat-Earthers just have the peculiar habit of calling its coastline the “Ice Wall” (As an aside, Flat-Earthers often claim that the Antarctic Treaty says nobody’s allowed to visit Antarctica. This is bollocks).

“Why are the other planets round?”

This one particularly annoys me, because people who ask this have clearly not even tried to understand the Flat Earth model. Possibly the most fundamental tenet of the Flat Earth movement (even more important than the claim that Earth is flat) is the rejection of the Copernican principle (the idea that Earth is not the centre of the Universe). The idea that Earth should be spherical because the other planets are spherical already assumes that the other planets are a bit like Earth, and a basically heliocentric understanding of Earth’s position in the universe, which is not a part of Flat Earth cosmology.

The Flat Earth Game

The key mistake Globe-Earthers make in Flat Earth arguments is approaching the question from within the mainstream scientific paradigm. Earth is not the centre of the Universe, the laws of physics are applicable everywhere and at any scale, scientific authorities are usually trustworthy, etc.

The problem is that Flat-Earthers don’t play by these rules. In order to have a good argument with a Flat-Earther, a Globe-Earther needs to argue within the Flat Earth paradigm. They need to play by the rules of the Flat Earth Game.

In this game, the only experimental evidence that is allowed is that from experiments that you (or others amateurs) are able to perform yourself. Things you can personally observe. Anything that you’ve just learnt in school, or read about, is not acceptable evidence that Earth is round.

Good evidence that the Flat Earth model is wrong

Here are some pieces of evidence that the Flat Earth model is incorrect that are acceptable within the rules of the Flat Earth Game. Flat-Earthers generally struggle to challenge these without just getting things wrong.

Things disappearing over the horizon

One of the earliest ways people have shown that the surface of Earth is curved is by watching distant ships. You will notice that, as a ship moves away, the hull disappears first, and the mast is the last part visible on the horizon.

<a title="By Anton [CC BY-SA 2.5
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5Edward_the_Confessor
)], from Wikimedia Commons” href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shiphorp.jpg”&gt;Shiphorp
A ship partly obscured by the horizon
By Anton [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

This is difficult to explain on a Flat Earth, but makes perfect sense on a globe.

Another example, that is very easy to observe, is a sunset. The bottom of the sun is very clearly the first part that ceases to be visible, and then the top. If you watch a sunset through a filter that removes glare (I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t look at the sun without a filter), you will see that the angular size of the Sun (how much of the sky it takes up) changes very little.

Time Lapse SunsetA time lapse of a sunset, showing the sun being obscured by the horizon.
By Odd Høydalsvik, http://www.hoydalsvik.net/astrofoto/sun/timelapse.html

This is totally at odds with the Flat Earth model’s version, where the Sun recedes into the distance.

On a related note, in the Flat Earth model, you should be able to use a telescope to see the Sun at night. I have yet to see anyone try it.

Stars in the Southern Hemisphere

In the Southern Hemisphere, the stars appear to move in circular paths around a central point (the South Celestial Pole).

Star trail and aurora over Mount Wellington, TasmaniaStar trails seen from Mount Wellington, Tasmania
By Shu1188 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

In the Flat Earth model, all the stars move around the North Pole.

Also, in the Flat Earth model, places in the Southern Hemisphere are a very long way apart, so you shouldn’t be able to see the same stars from Australia as from Argentina. You can, which shows a deep flaw in the Flat Earth model.

Flight paths and shipping routes in the Southern Hemisphere

A trend we’re seeing here is that the Flat Earth model works much better in the Northern Hemisphere than the Southern Hemisphere.

perth joburg flight The route of a flight from Perth to Johannesburg, which makes sense on a globe, but would bend weirdly outwards on a flat Earth
http://flatearthdeception.com/flights-prove-the-flat-earth-deception/
Screenshot from https://www.flightradar.co.uk/

In the Northern Hemisphere, flights and shipping routes are explained quite well. Great circles (the shortest paths between points along the surface of a sphere) on the Northern Hemisphere of a globe become straight lines on the Azimuthal Equidistant Projection used by the Flat Earth model. In the Southern Hemisphere, however, it’s a very different story. The great circles routes followed by ships and planes end up curved outwards towards the Edge, while if they were following straight lines on a flat earth, they would travel towards the Centre and then back out.

Long summer days in the Southern Hemisphere

The Flat Earth model, with the sun close to the Centre in the Northern summer and closer to the Edge in the Southern summer, works quite well for explaining varying day lengths in the Northern Hemisphere. However, it falls apart in the Southern Hemisphere. To explain the varying day lengths in the Southern Hemisphere, the patch of light cast by the Sun has to take on a very odd shape indeed. The argument Flat-Earthers tend to use here is that it reflects off the firmament, but that’s a total fudge, and would lead to times when, in the Southern Hemisphere, there appear to be 2 Suns – a real one and a reflected one.

Conclusions

You can argue convincingly, based purely on things that you or other amateurs can observe, that the Flat Earth model is incorrect. That is not, however, to say that I know with certainty that it is round. My position is that, given the evidence at my disposal – things disappearing over the horizon, the apparent symmetry of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, the implausibility of a vast, international conspiracy to hide the true shape of the Earth, etc. – the Globe model has far greater explanatory power, and is simpler and more satisfying. These advantages are so great that you would need very convincing evidence to persuade me that Earth is flat, and I’ve yet to see any evidence like that.

The assumptions inherent in all science

Science is very important. If it wasn’t for science, we wouldn’t know very much at all. Science, in a very broad sense (learning about the world from repeated empirical observations) has presumably been going on at least as long as humans have existed, and probably earlier. More formal, rigorous approaches have been developing as civilisation has become more advanced, culminating in what’s now known as The Scientific Method™.

The Scientific Method™ is often considered to be pretty much infallible with regard to determining facts about how the universe works. You make observations. You make a hypothesis to explain them. You use that hypothesis to make testable predictions. You do experiments to check whether the predictions are correct. If the predictions are wrong, you make a new hypothesis. If they’re right, and you can repeat the experiment and get the same results, then you’ve got a theory, and after a while, if nobody can prove it wrong, everyone just sort of accepts that it’s right.

But we’re still actually dealing with a fuckload of assumptions, that we have no real justification for, but we kind of have to stick with if we’re going to be able to do science.

Assumption 1: My senses present the world to me in a way that has some relation to the way the world is

I’ll admit, this one is a bit silly. The problem is, though, it’s very difficult to disprove. Descartes tried it, but just ended up digging himself into a massive hole with an argument about an Evil Demon that’s putting ideas into my mind and couldn’t really get out of it without some very dodgy reasoning.

The philosophical establishment seems to have largely given up at trying to rigorously prove that there’s not a Cartesian Evil Demon. Instead, we’ve got things like George Edward Moore’s argument:

  • p1: *holds up hand* “Here is a hand”
  • p2: *holds up other hand* “Here is another hand”
  • Therefore external objects exist.

Or Wittgenstein’s argument that we can’t disprove global skepticism but we still shouldn’t take it seriously because then we wouldn’t be able to do any philosophy or science or anything really.

Of course, if we don’t know whether there is an external world at all, we can’t do science, so we just assume that our senses are basically reliable (barring known exceptions such as optical illusions, dreams, intoxication etc., and with the help of scientific instruments).

Assumption 2: Induction works

Science is based on the idea that, if something’s happened lots in the past, it’s going to happen again in the future. That’s how you make predictions from a hypothesis. Karl Popper tried to say science doesn’t use induction, but if you’ve ever actually studied science you’ll know that it totally does. That’s why you repeat an experiment lots of times, and the more times you repeat it and get the same result the more seriously that result is taken.

The problem here is that, as pointed out by David Hume, 18th Century Scotland’s greatest troll, there’s no way to know that induction actually works. The fact that the sun has risen every day in the past is not a good reason to believe that it will rise tomorrow. Much like global skepticism, this turns out to be very difficult to argue with. I could say induction has always worked in the past, but that would be circular.

Again, we kind of have to stick with this assumption, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do science.

Assumption 3: The Cosmological Principle

The Cosmological Principle is the idea that the universe is basically the same wherever you’re looking from. There are no particularly privileged viewpoints. Essentially, it can be viewed as a spatial analogue of the induction principle. According to the induction principle, a physical law that has been observed in the past will also hold in the future. Similarly, according to the Cosmological Principle, a physical law in one part of the universe also holds everywhere else.

Much like induction, this is essential to make predictions about distant parts of the universe, but it is also subject to a similar problem. Empirical evidence of the Cosmological Principle consists of the fact that the universe looks roughly isotropic and homogeneous from Earth, and then the generalisation from that to the idea that it looks isotropic and homogeneous from everywhere because Earth isn’t special. This is clearly circular. We have no good reason to use the Cosmological Principle, but we kind of have to in order to study the universe.

Assumption 4: Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is the well-known idea that a scientific theory should not use more concepts than are necessary to explain what it explains. You should prefer simpler theories. This isn’t especially critical, and is generally overridden when a more complicated theory has greater explanatory power than a simpler one. However, it is still used to choose which of two theories to prefer, all other things being equal.

But there’s no reason to believe simplicity leads to truth. It’s just a rule of thumb, nothing more. It’s used largely arbitrarily, because we need some way of distinguishing between theories and choosing which to investigate. It’s another unjustified assumption that we need for science to work.

Conclusions

We need these assumptions. Sure, science is not totally justified, but we still need science. Without science, we wouldn’t be able to know anything. As Wittgenstein pointed out, if we were to take this kind of skepticism seriously, it would end up getting silly. We wouldn’t be able to function. So we need to assume things. Maybe somewhere else, there are some aliens that have developed a scientific method with different, but similarly arbitrary, assumptions, and come to different conclusions that still work. But we can’t do away with arbitrary epistemological assumptions altogether and expect to have a functional civilisation.

What are the continents?

Conventionally, there are generally said to be 7 continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America. In this set-up, all the land on Earth is assigned to a continent, and the boundaries of the continents are often rather arbitrary, or based on a tangled mess of cultural and historical variables that tend to be applied inconsistently. For example, Iceland is generally classed as Europe on the basis that it is culturally and historically Scandinavian, while the culturally Slavic majority of the population of Novosibirsk are held to reside far to the East of the Europe-Asia border.

Continents by colour.png
CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The conventional, 7-continent view of the world. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

I am proposing a new system, with 6 continents. These continents are defined purely geographically, without trying to work in any cultural notions, and, crucially, the do not include all the land on Earth. This system accounts for the fact that remote, volcanic islands and island groups, such as Iceland or Hawaii, do not necessarily need to be assigned to particular continents.


new continents

The continents, according to my system. Original image source: Canuckguy (talk) and many others (see File history) – Adapted from Brianski‘s File:BlankMap-World3.svg by Canuckguy and originally based on CIA’s political world map, Public Domain, Link

The continents of the new system are as follows:

Africa

Africa is very straightforward. It is pretty much unaltered from the conventional definition. Its only land border passes through Egypt, following the shortest distance from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, fairly close to the Suez Canal.

Antarctica

The same, pretty much. Just the main landmass of Antarctica and its offshore islands. I guess there’s not much cultural baggage here.

Australia

This continent consists of the landmasses of Australia and New Guinea, and their surrounding small islands. in Indonesia, the islands east of the Wallace Line are part of Australia, while those to the east are part of Eurasia, reflecting the extents of the 2 landmasses before sea levels rose a very long time ago and created the archipelago we see today.

Traditionally, these areas are considered to be part of ‘Oceania’, along with New Zealand and the rest of the South Pacific, but Oceania is not a real continent, as will be explained in the section on Remote Volcanic Islands.

Eurasia

Europe and Asia are the same continent. There, I said it.

Conventionally, the border between Europe and Asia is considered to follow the watershed of the Ural Mountains in Russia, the Ural River in Kazakhstan (or, if you really don’t give a fuck, just the border between Russia and Kazakhstan), and the Caucasus Watershed between the Caspian and Black Seas, usually close to (but not exactly following) Russia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia.

This, however, has little geographical, or even cultural or historical, significance. The Ural Mountains are a relatively small (albeit long) mountain range, and the Ural River is not an especially significant river. Normally, these kinds of geographical features would not be seen as the boundaries of continents.

Geologically speaking, there is no meeting of 2 great landmasses, no major fault line, along the Ural Mountains. There’s no bottleneck of land here, like there is between North and South America. If someone with no prior knowledge of the history of Europe and Asia were to look at a map of the world, they would say Eurasia was obviously a single continent.

The only reason they are considered separate is that the Greeks (who were not using the same idea of ‘continents’ that we use nowadays) divided them (along the Don River, far to the west of the Urals). It sort of stuck, especially since it was convenient for the pretty, symmetric, ‘T & O’ worldview of the Middle Ages, with Jerusalem at the centre. And now nobody wants to let it go.

North America

Basically as traditional. The border with South America follows the line at from the Caribbean to Pacific the point where the land stops tapering inwards North-South and starts bulging out into South America.

South America

See above

Remote Volcanic Islands

Many islands can be classified as belonging to a particular continent because they broke away from that continent’s mainland (eg. Madagascar) or they were separated from it by rising sea levels (eg. New Guinea). Others, however, just emerged out of the sea as a result of volcanic activity. Examples include Iceland, or New Zealand, or Hawaii, or the Canary Islands. Some of these, such as Japan, or the Aleutians, are clearly parts of a volcanic chain that continues onto a continental mainland, so can be classified as that continent. Others, such as the Canary Islands, are simply close enough to one continent’s mainland that they can be effectively viewed as that continent’s offshore islands. However, there are some, such as Iceland, or Hawaii, that are too remote to fit these categories. They cannot reasonably be said to belong to a particular continent.

And this is fine. Not everything needs to be classified like that. People like to think about things as if they’re in neat categories, but the world doesn’t actually have to stick to that. Continents aren’t necessarily everything. We’ve put nearly all the land in the world into continents, and isn’t that enough?

This is also why I’ve ditched Oceania as a concept. It originates in the idea that everywhere has to be a continent, so they’ve made up a ‘continent’ that can include all the remote volcanic islands and atolls of the Pacific,too far from any large landmass and stuck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean’s tectonic plate. For administrative purposes, sure, it often makes a lot of sense to group them together, but don’t call it a continent when it isn’t.

The false dichotomy that took over Popular Cartography

In March 2017, public schools in Boston changed their standard map projection from the ubiquitous “Mercator Projection”, in which Greenland is displayed bigger than Africa, to the “Peters Projection”, where the areas of landmasses appear proportionate to their actual areas. This received a lot of praise, including an article in the Guardian saying the move “cut the developing world down to size”. However, the Peters Projection is far from the ideal solution to the Mercator Projection’s distortion problems.

The hard problem of cartography

Maps are flat, but Earth is (unless you belong to certain strange subcultures)round. That is the essence of what could be considered that hard problem of cartography. It follows that it is impossible to perfectly represent the surface of Earth on a flat surface.

So when you design a map of the world (or the moon or the cosmic microwave background or anything else that’s round), you have to compromise. You have to favour one thing at the expense of the other. You can go all out for preserving relative areas, but you’re going to end up distorting shapes. You can preserve directions, but you’re going to fuck up all the relative areas. You can compromise and try to sacrifice a bit of one benefit to get a bit of another. There’s all sorts you can do, which is why people have made so many different map projections over the years.

The Mercator Projection

One such ”projection”, and probably the best-known, was developed by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, with one crucial selling-point: a constant bearing is a straight line. For reasons that should be obvious, this is very useful for maritime navigation (and during the Age of Discovery, when the Mercator Projection was created, this was the main thing people used maps for). You can draw a line on the map showing your route, and at any point on that line, it’s going to make an angle with the vertical which is the same as the angle at which your compass should be pointing.

The problem, though, is that when you’ve gone all out to make a constant bearing a straight line, you end up with areas being enormously inflated towards the poles (and even going to infinity at the poles themselves). The classic example is the way Greenland appears a similar size to Africa, then there’s also the way Scandinavia appears to be the size of India, and the islands of the Canadian Arctic appear to dwarf the much larger islands of Madagascar, Borneo and New Guinea. An interesting curiosity I once stumbled across is that the Lena River, in North-Eastern Siberia, has the distinction of looking like the longest river in the world in the Mercator Projection.

But, for whatever bizarre reason, the Mercator Projection has ended up as the classic image of ”what the world looks like”.

Peters’ solution

Needless to say, this is far from ideal, and that is what the German historian and filmmaker Arno Peters exploited when he announced, in 1973, that he had developed a ”new” projection, which preserved the relative areas of landmasses.

Peters argued that the equatorial regions compressed by the Mercator Projection are generally poor and marginalised, compared to Europe and North America, which the Mercator Projection stretches.  According to Peters, this led to people’s perception of the world being skewed, and excessive emphasis being placed on these areas.

An equal-areas projection, according to Peters, would help to fix this skewed perception.

In fairness to Peters, the Mercator Projection does inflate the size of Europe while diminishing that of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, and it’s reasonable to suggest that the ubiquity of the Mercator image of Earth could lead people to place a disproportionate psychological emphasis on the inflated regions. Some credit’s due to Peters for pushing that idea into the mainstream. The problem, though, is that the projection doesn’t actually have half the qualities he claimed as its advantages.

Peters claimed that the projection has “no distortion”. It quite clearly does, as any map projection does. It is a trade-off between different types of distortion, like any other projection. Relative areas are shown accurately, but the shapes of things are all over the place (for example, Africa comes out very long). There is distortion of shapes everywhere except along the standard parallels.

Perhaps worse than all of these is Peters’ claim that he was the first person to come up with the idea of an equal-area projection. Equal-area projections have been around for centuries, with the sinusoidal projection appearing in 1570, a year after the Mercator projection (although it looks very weird).  Cylindrical equal-area projections (formed by wrapping a cylinder around the Earth, projecting onto that, and then unwrapping it, giving you a rectangular map) have been around at least since the Lambert cylindrical projection, first described in 1772, where the standard parallel is the equator. Since then, many cartographers have put different standard parallels into the same formula to produce different projections. These included James Gall who, in 1855, published a cylindrical equal-area projection with standard parallels at 45° from the Equator, identical to the Peters projection.

In fairness to Peters, Gall’s projection was never well-known, and he had probably never heard of it. But even if he is not guilty of intentional plagiarism, his wilful ignorance of the whole history of equal-area projections and his anti-intellectual caricature of the cartographic community as some kind of weird Mercator cult was just straight-up arrogant and irresponsible.

Other projections

Peters projection propaganda typically presents the world of cartography in terms of a dichotomy between Mercator and Peters, with Mercator grossly distorted (it is), and the Peters projection as totally accurate (it isn’t). However, the ways of representing the world on a flat surface are so much more diverse than that. If you want equal areas, you’ve got sinusoidal (which is weird) or Mollweide (which I like because it doesn’t look like it’s meant to be flat). If, like Peters, you’re hung up on the idea that maps have to be rectangular (which actually makes sense if you’re looking for something to blu-tack to your classroom wall), you’ve still got a whole host of ‘cylindrical’ equal area projections (so named because they’re formed by wrapping a cylinder round the Earth, projecting the surface onto that, and then unwrapping it, giving you a rectangular map). In fact, you can make your own cylindrical equal area projection just by multiplying the longitude of a point by the cosine of the standard parallel (an arbitrarily chosen latitude where there is no distortion) to get the x coordinate of that point, and dividing the sine of the latitude by the cosine of the standard parallel to get its y coordinate. Just (unlike Arno Peters) make sure nobody’s already used your standard parallel.

So why do people like the Peters projection?

Most of the hype that has surrounded the Peters projection since the get-go simply comes down to the way it was marketed. Peters, a filmmaker-turned-historian with no background in cartography, did not go through the conventional method for presenting a new map projection. Instead of publishing it in a cartography journal, Peters went straight to the media, presenting to the general public his manifesto for the anti-Mercator revolution.

cylindrical equal areas
Some examples of cylindrical equal area projections, with the standard parallels and aspect ratios indicated, and with Tissot’s Indicatrices showing distortion at different locations. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, created by Eric Gaba.

And of course, actual experts in maps, with their acne, terrible personal hygiene and distinct lack of social skills proved no match in this arena for a sexy, charismatic Hollywood historian. Peters’ unashamedly anti-intellectual wokeness played very well with the general public who, as any cartography enthusiast is likely well-aware, aren’t generally that interested in map projections. It’s easy to see how, for someone unfamiliar with the 400 year pre-Peters history of people trying to come up with alternatives to the Mercator projection, the idea of some kind of cartographic cabal, wearing hooded robes and chanting in Latin while they sacrifice goats to Gerardus Mercator. People like to feel special, and like they know something the so-called “experts” don’t. As such, the Peters cult was able to quickly gain momentum, ending up with many NGOs, including UNESCO, adopting it as standard in an effort to be woke and address the problem of ‘cartographic imperialism’.