Of all the fresh hells we face in our long, chaotic slide into civilizational decay, the rise of the flat-earthers is the most encouraging.
Take a moment to appreciate that a whole small demographic has united with the power of the Internet to rebel against the curvature of the earth. This initial blow alone sometimes knocks unsuspecting members of the public to the mat. Your writer, however, has explored the dripping Reddit caverns and felt the heat wash over the pockmarked Twitter-field, and is long past feeling shock at Internet cults.
The flat-earthers are simply here. They’re around. And they have something to teach us.
Google them if you dare. They have slideshows, they have diagrams, they have hours and days and weeks of YouTube videos. They are far more organized than the recently infamous “incel” community, but rather than directing their anger at women and at G-d, they fight against the machinations of Big Astronomy.
Of course, we have known that the earth is round since the times of the Ancient Greeks. In a typical display of dazzling low-tech genius, they realized that the earth’s shadow on the moon during eclipses is round but does not distort as the sun changes angles, indicating that a proper sphere and not merely a disk is blocking the light. This does not matter one whit to the flat-earthers. I am certain that there is a YouTuber hiding behind a NASA-proof voice scrambler who has debunked this evidence.
Our most pressing question for the flat-earthers, once we get past our scoffing, snark, and virginity-shaming, is why they think anyone would care enough about the earth’s shape to create a vast conspiracy obscuring it?
There are, I think, a number of factors. It piggybacks off the faked moon landing conspiracy, since those who believe in one conspiracy tend to believe in a few.[i] Furthermore, to believe the earth is flat has become a modern idiom for a backwards fool, so naturally those who see themselves as intellectual outsiders would wish to make that king bleed. The idiom itself almost certainly derives from the myth that Columbus disproved a widely-held belief in a flat earth.
Where, however, does the myth come from? Why should anyone care what shape the earth is?
Perhaps they sense, deep down, that it’s a flat earth under the vaulted sky that denies the G-dless emptiness of the modern worldview we are fed as children.
After all, the party line on the universe is that space extends more or less uniformly in every direction. We occupy some node on an endless Cartesian grid. None of our intuitive directions map onto that grid. Also, the grid is imaginary. There is no true up and down in space, because the baseline of reality is emptiness. Emptiness is the rule. Emptiness is the canvas of reality. Where something exists, there is an exception to the rule, a blot on the canvas.
According to the party line, the universe is open, it surrounds us in every direction, but it is not open to anything. The emptiness does not give way at universe’s edge to a giant cardboard box stenciled with THIS SIDE UP. There is no context to the open universe. The universe is meant to be the ultimate context. You, on the surface of the earth, are put in your place by the vast void.
If this universe has a god, it is an impersonal god, a cold god. When you can see the earth and every one on it as whizzing through space at hundreds of thousands of miles an hour, who says you also see a leaf drift from branch to gnarled roots, sunk peacefully put firmly into the loam? The loam is a speck in violent whirling motion, and we only don’t see it because we cannot see the space beyond us, the space where the god presides over his grid, true space.
If the earth is flat, however, and we live beneath the vaulted firmament, everything snaps into a startling directionality. The earth is not an object in space; it becomes our space. What lies beyond the firmament is irrelevant, as it does not extend equally in all directions.
In this universe, there is an above and there is a below. These directions correspond with my intuitive sense of above and below, toward my head and toward my feet. No matter how the earth may move, these definitions remain fixed; the firmament remains beyond the brow of every human alive.
This fixed, consistent, shared directionality moves the mind toward the inner space of the earth’s atmosphere, and away from the wonders of the void beyond. If there is such a planet as Saturn (who knows what the flat-earthers think about the solar system), it is not another rock on the grid like our rock. Saturn always appears, when we can see her, in the firmament, in the sky above. Saturn is always up and the people watching Saturn are always down. How, then, could the watchers be just another thing up in space? How could we not matter?
No, the god of the flat earth is surely a god who shares our perspective; even though he may dwell somewhere beyond the sky or in a different dimension, when he sees us he sees the men who walk upon the earth below. He has created our universe in such a way that we stand apart from all we see, from every other planet and star.
It doesn’t sound all that bad when we put it this way, does it?
I wonder if deep down, I, too, yearn for the earth to be flat. The stress of being an ape at a random locus in an endless emptiness does eventually take its toll.
Thirsting for something more than intellectual proof can provide, yearning for more than the mathematical curves and the masses that move along them, I try to recall the last time I felt or perceived myself to be surrounded by G-d. When was the last time I thought of myself as a being embedded in the immanentized truth of the Creator, rather than a creature adrift on a cosmic life raft?
I find my mind has come to observe itself as yet another being, a pebble spat out by the furious gyrations of the cosmos, possessing no inherent direction, no settled orientation. My up may be G-d’s down or G-d’s sideways, and there is no way of knowing, since there is nothing about me that can tell me about G-d. He is outside the endless motion, with His own plans. My imagination is not broad enough to picture G-d beyond the edge of infinite space.
Is the mind of G-d indifferent to my mind? Why would He create a reality of such painful estrangement? Why is my up not His up, my down not His down? How could he send me on a mission deep into the bowels of a cold and lonely mechanism, and keep the true compass for Himself?
Okay, I tell myself, but is it actually true? The earth isn’t actually flat, is it?
I don’t think that’s really the correct line of inquiry. It’s a little question-begging, after all, to assume that the question of the earth’s shape is just a fact, a fact adrift on the grid. To categorically associate “actual flatness” with the mere material accident of the earth’s shape is to, in a sense, already assume the earth is round.
Thus, the question of the flat-earther is ultimately not astronomical but epistemic. We are not discussing the mere facts of earth’s nature, but whether earth’s nature is composed of mere facts at all.
Really, the question is, what is truth?
Is truth an absolute, a net in which I am caught?
Or is truth something that radiates from my own eyes?
These questions, I think, move in the secret hearts of those who would challenge the curving horizon.
They are not children, the flat-earthers. They do not represent some long-abandoned rung on evolution’s ladder. They are not afraid in the clichéd way we assume, as barbarians facing a new world.[ii] They are atomized and alienated and lost, but these things don’t scare them.
They feel only that most human fear. They fear themselves. They seek, quietly but persistently, with their clothes-pegged voiceovers and their awful bible camp photoshops, beneath the wash of the public’s irony, the answer to our deepest question—who are we?
[i] And to eventually hate the Jews, though this is neither here nor there; everyone seems to hate the Jews regardless, and obviously as Jews the justifications for this hatred are known to be false. Jews, largely immune from believing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, seem to fall for all the other ones at alarming rates.
[ii] The best very short story about barbarians’ fear of technology is this one.