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A History of Psychogeography and Psychocosmology: Humankind's Evolving Orientation on Earth and in Space



Although psychology has tended to focus on the individual, paradigms have emerged looking at people in context, such as social psychology. More recently, these have included fields attending to humans’ ecological context, such as ecopsychology. However, little has been conducted on spatial orientation, on how humankind has understood itself in relation to the Earth (“psychogeography”) or the universe (“psychocosmology”). To address this lacuna, this paper presents a historical narrative of psychogeography and psychocosmology, identifying four main perspectives that emerged over time. First, stretching into pre-history, belief in a flat Earth and a layered cosmos. Second, beginning around the 6th Century BCE, a spherical Earth and a geocentric cosmos. Third, from the 15th Century onwards, an expanded Earth and a heliocentric cosmos. Finally, in the 20th Century, an unstable Earth and an acentric cosmos. The paper illuminates the evolving way humans have understood their world and place in the wider universe, and highlights the psychological impact of these developments.
A History of Psychogeography and Psychocosmology:
Humankind’s Evolving Orientation on Earth and in Space
Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology
Tim Lomas, Harvard University,
Brendan Case, Harvard University
Although psychology has tended to focus on the individual, paradigms have emerged looking
at people in context, such as social psychology. More recently, these have included fields
attending to humans’ ecological context, such as ecopsychology. However, little has been
conducted on spatial orientation, on how humankind has understood itself in relation to the
Earth (“psychogeography”) or the universe (“psychocosmology”). To address this lacuna, this
paper presents a historical narrative of psychogeography and psychocosmology, identifying
four main perspectives that emerged over time. First, stretching into pre-history, belief in a
flat Earth and a layered cosmos. Second, beginning around the 6th Century BCE, a spherical
Earth and a geocentric cosmos. Third, from the 15th Century onwards, an expanded Earth and
a heliocentric cosmos. Finally, in the 20th Century, an unstable Earth and an acentric cosmos.
The paper illuminates the evolving way humans have understood their world and place in the
wider universe, and highlights the psychological impact of these developments.
Keywords: ecopsychology; psychogeography; psychocosmology; spatial; universe
Psychology has tended to prioritise individual humans as its object of interest. However,
recent decades have seen increasing recognition of the importance of interdisciplinary
paradigms that bridge psychology with other fields, including those exploring people’s
context. Historically, most of these have focused on socio-cultural forms, such as interactions
with other people (studied by disciplines like social psychology, family psychology, and
community psychology). In recent years though, increasing attention has also turned to our
relationship with the “natural world,” with our ecological environment. Of course, some of
the aforementioned paradigms also use “environment” and “ecology” in generic ways to
describe socio-cultural processes, reflecting the etymological Greek roots of ecology coined
by zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1866) as the “science of the habitat” (Lawrence, 2003). Indeed,
the boundary between the “natural” and the “socio-cultural” world is somewhat fuzzy, and
moreover the two realms reciprocally affect each other. Air quality, for example, could be
construed as an ecological factor, even though it is shaped by human activities (e.g., polluting
behaviour). Nevertheless, the concept of the natural world still makes sense to theorists and
the public alike (Rolston, 1991). Scholars have thus sought to understand our relationship
with that world, giving rise to emergent overlapping paradigms such as psychogeography
(Debord, 1955) and ecopsychology (Roszak et al., 1995).
These paradigms span various topics, although often with a common thread of
exploring the impact of ecological factors on human wellbeing specifically. In that regard, a
review by Lomas et al. (forthcoming) organizes research on the myriad factors into four
categories: climatic; geographical; geological; and environmental quality. Climatic factors
include temperature, for example, where although excessive heat is linked to noxious
outcomes (e.g., violence), there is a trend towards warmer weather having a positive impact,
though this is moderated by dynamics like time of year: analysing 67 countries, Rehdanz and
Maddison (2005) for instance found that although higher temperatures in the coldest month
increased happiness, higher temperatures in the hottest month decreased it. With geography,
Rentfrow et al. (2008) demonstrated geographic variation in psychological characteristics in
the United States, including vis-à-vis factors like crime, social capital, religiosity, political
values, employment, and health. Similarly, Van de Vliert and Van Lange (2019) argue for a
new field of “latitudinal psychology,” as cultural and psychological diversity are influenced
by latitudinal variation in “integrated exposure to climate-induced demands and wealth-based
resources” (p.860); moving toward the poles, for example, aggressiveness appears to decrease
while creativity, life satisfaction, and individualism increase. With geology, a growing
literature suggests the importance to wellbeing of proximity and access to green and blue
spaces (Gascon et al., 2015). Finally, with environmental quality, work includes research
indicating that poorer air quality lowers happiness (Zheng et al., 2019). Thus, there are
already efforts exploring the significance of human’ ecological context in myriad ways. Even
so, this is still a relatively new and niche area of scholarship, and much more can and should
be done.
In that regard, one aspect of ecology that has received very little attention is spatial
orientation: how people situate themselves in space. We do not mean in the narrow
physiological sense of the vestibular system, but the broader and grander sense of how we
humans are located relative to the great expanses of earth and water around us (for which we
use the generic term psychogeography) and the sky above us (for which we introduce the
term psychocosmology). This topic has perhaps been overlooked because, to many modern
minds, it might seem obvious and uninteresting; we often take for granted as natural and
inevitable the configuration of our directional understanding up, down, and the points of the
compass and do not ascribe it much psychological significance. However, if one considers
the history of humanity a process encouraged by Muthukrishna et al. (2021), who urge
psychology to consider itself a “historical science,” given that the phenomena it focuses on
have changed in meaningful ways over the centuries one realizes that our contemporary
modes of spatial orientation are not inevitable or pregiven, but are shaped by our modern age.
Moreover, this historical perspective provides an epistemic humility which does not allow
one the confidence to describe our present orientation as the “correct” one, superseding those
of our forebears. This point does not constitute a relativistic science denialism: in many ways,
our understanding of the cosmos is genuinely more accurate and comprehensive than those in
previous eras. Nevertheless, it is still fundamentally a contingent cultural construction of our
era, and may yet be revised in light of future advances. Moreover, it is a construction with
deep psychological significance, shaping not only how humans view their surroundings, but
how they regard themselves.
As such, this paper offers a historical narrative of human beings’ evolving spatial
orientation, focusing on four main perspectives that have emerged over time: a flat Earth and
a layered cosmos, stretching back into human pre-history; a spherical Earth and geocentric
cosmos, which began to develop around the 6th Century BCE; an expanded Earth and
heliocentric cosmos, which took hold in the 16th Century CE; and an unstable Earth and
acentric cosmos, which arose in the 20th Century. For each perspective, we discuss three
interrelated facets: the known world (i.e., which lands and peoples cultures were aware of);
the sense of direction (i.e., how people understood differences in location); and the cosmic
arena (i.e., how people viewed the earth in relation to other realms of existence). We should
emphasise that these perspectives are overlapping, and indeed may even co-exist to an extent.
While the emergence of new psychogeographical and psychocosmological perspectives may
constitute a new intellectual/perceptual development, this does not mean these just replaced
or superseded an older viewpoint. For many people and cultures, a previous stance may still
persist potentially even for centuries long after a new perspective appeared on the scene.
The image that comes to mind is geological strata. A new perspective may constitute a new
layer of stratification, but older layers could still be present in some way, both for a culture as
a whole, and for individuals within that culture. Consider that many religious people today
manage to hold to some vision of a layered cosmos (i.e., with heaven “above” the Earth), as
developed by religious traditions of earlier ages, together with a more modern scientific view
of an acentric cosmos (i.e., Earth a free-floating object in space). Thus, different perspectives
can meaningfully co-exist, even within one person’s mind. Nevertheless, there is still value in
identifying the emerging perspectives as significant developments in our perceptions of
ourselves and our place in the cosmos.
Finally, we should note up front the challenges involved in attempting this kind of
overarching historical perspective. This account constitutes our best effort to synthesize the
myriad literature we have encountered on this topic, to weave together the disparate threads
of ideas and facts into a pattern that makes sense. In general, our approach was as follows.
We initially listed all the developments we could think of relating to this topic, from the
invention of the compass to the heliocentric model of the universe. We then conducted a
Google search asking for their first instance (e.g., “First heliocentric model”), and read
through the first 20 pages returned. We would gather the relevant available facts, and then
check/corroborate them using academic sources located using Google Scholar. We would
then also look more deeply for nuance and complexity with each development. Primarily, this
involved re-doing the search, but now also including the term “non-European.” With many
topics, we found that most highly ranked sources tended to focus more on Western figures
and events, possibly reflecting the fact we were searching in English. With heliocentrism, for
instance, one generally encounters the suggestion that it was first proposed by Aristarchus of
Samos as early as the 3rd Century BCE, before being substantiated by Nicolaus Copernicus in
the 16th Century. However, including “non-European” in the search surfaces the notion that,
in between, the model was discussed by Arabic astronomers during the “Islamic Golden Age”
(roughly the 8th and 13th Centuries). In this way, we sought to make our narrative as globally
inclusive as possible. We also endeavoured to include counter-examples where relevant to
show the complexity of the topic and to avoid an overly simplistic narrative; for instance, in
terms of the cardinal directions, while many cultures emphasised the East-West polarity, we
note that China placed greater focus on North-South.
However, despite such efforts, it goes without saying that the subject matter is far too
vast and varied for our analysis to be systematic and exhaustive. Similarly, despite being
attentive to nuances, in tracing these broad-brush patterns certain details and complexities are
inevitably lost or obscured. We also note that we have not marshalled quantitative data in
making our arguments; although Muthukrishna et al. (2020) suggest historical psychology
would ideally focus on statistical analysis, we concur with Hutmacher and Mayrhofer (2022)
regarding the value of analyses that are “narrative and hermeneutic in nature. Nevertheless,
we still sought to ground our analysis in historical facts and realities, anchored in surviving
records of the past, such as books, maps, discoveries, inventions, linguistic etymologies, and
other such artefacts. As such, we concur with Sullivan’s (2019) “critical-historical” approach
to psychological theory, which includes “understanding individual and group experiences as
part of historically contingent forces” (p.78). For instance, one particularly relevant force are
technological/scientific inventions from the compass to the telescope whose emergence
was pivotal to the psychological changes we are suggesting here. Finally though, while we
sought to present a globally inclusive narrative, we also agree with Sullivan that our analysis
is necessarily biased and partial. As scholars situated in North America, we will inevitably
have been influenced by the perspectives and histories that have been centred in Western
cultures, such as the European enlightenment, even if we did endeavour to find examples
from outside the European context. In any case, limitations aside, we believe in the value of
this kind of historical exercise the tentative creation of stories that attempt to arrange the
near infinite complexity of past events and processes into a cogent and truthful pattern and
hope this paper fosters greater appreciation of and interest in the strangely powerful yet often
overlooked topic of our orientation in space.
Flat Earth, Layered Cosmos
In the long arc of human evolution, patterns of thought and behaviour broadly labelled as
“culture” emerged gradually over countless millennia, and indeed date back hundreds of
thousands of years. In Kenya, for example, there is evidence of tools made by early hominid
species dating back 3.3 million years (Harmand et al., 2015). Homo sapiens are then thought
to have emerged around 200,000 to 300,000 years ago (Hublin et al., 2017). Thereafter, our
evolution is tentatively marked by various milestones, leading to the incremental creation of
more recognizably human culture. For instance, modern tools of the San hunter-gatherers
of South Africa have been found dating to 44,000 BCE (d’Errico et al., 2012). In this process,
humans began to formulate ideas about the world in which they found themselves. While
much evidence has been lost to time, some traces remain. Although the earliest writing is
thought to have emerged only around 4,000 BCE, this is predated by information in the form
of cartography (i.e., early maps) and language (i.e., etymology). From these sources, we can
gain clues about the three facets pertaining to spatial orientation that we are interested in with
each broad perspective: the known world; the sense of direction; and the cosmic arena.
The Known World
The “known world” covers the way people perceived and understood the terrain on which
they stood (given that the notion of planet Earth did not exist for early humans). Here our
first source of evidence is cartography, for which the earliest extant examples include a
representation of a region in the Czech Republic, carved on a mammoth tusk, dated to 25,000
BCE (Wolodtschenko & Forner, 2007). The art particularly excelled in Babylonia, involving
accurate surveying techniques, such as a map of a river valley dated to the 25th Century BCE
(Clark, 2016), and most famously the Imago Mundi, dated to the 6th Century BCE (Delnero,
2017), the earliest known world map (though this is more symbolic than literal; for instance,
it omits peoples, like the Persians and Egyptians, who were well known to the Babylonians).
What do these sources tell us about the views of these early cultures regarding the known
world? In general, possibly universally, it was regarded as flat; not until the 6th Century BCE
do we find the first clear suggestions of a spherical earth. Then, within this flat perspective,
cultures generally developed conceptions of the Earth of lands and peoples of which they
were aware that were fundamentally ethnocentric, placing one’s own culture at the centre.
Thus, for example, the Imago Mundi centred on Babylon on the Euphrates, surrounded by a
circular landmass including Assyria, Urartu (Armenia) and several cities, surrounded in turn
by a “bitter river” (Oceanus), with eight outlying regions arranged in the shape of triangles,
thereby forming a star.
Further clues about how early cultures thought about their world are provided by
etymological analyses. To begin with, such analyses corroborate the ethnocentrism noted
above, with cultures often placing themselves at the centre of the world, and others at the
periphery. Perhaps the clearest example is China, whose name transliterated as Zhōngguó
literally means “middle country.” One of the earliest articulations of the Chinese sense of
location is the Yu Gong, which most scholars believe was written in the 5th Century BCE. In
this, as elucidated by Wang (1999), the term “four ends” (sizhi) was used for the utmost ends
of the world (East, West, North, and South), at which one could only encounter vast oceans
or deserts. Then, in later centuries, as awareness of other places and peoples developed, the
Chinese developed a conception of three zones expanding outwards from China at the
centre depending on cultural affinities to and spatial distances from China. First, a “Sinic
Zone” (Korea, Vietnam, and sometimes Japan). Second, an “Inner Asian Zone,” featuring
non-Han ethnic groups of nomadic tribes. Third, an “Outer Zone” including regions in
Southeast and South Asia, and Europe in later ages. Differences among the zones were
reflected in nomenclature: most places in the Sinic Zone were allocated names such as
Chaoxian (Korea) or Riben (Japan) which, if they did initially have derogatory meanings,
eventually were lost; by contrast, states in the Inner Asian and Outer Zones were referred to
by terms equivalent to “barbarian.” Comparable ethnocentrism is found in many cultures and
languages. Even if cultures did not invoke the “centre” in their name, they often referred to
themselves by terms that simply mean “people” (Graves, 2016). However, we should note
that ethnocentrism has not disappeared; although this perspective became joined over the
centuries by other perspectives, arguably human thinking is still dominated by ethnocentric
habits, even if people have also learned to think more globally (Hammond & Axelrod, 2006).
The Sense of Direction
Etymological analyses also illuminate our second perspective of interest: people’s sense of
direction. Above all, in this first era of cultural evolution, we are interested in the emergence
of the cardinal directions: North, South, East and West. In short, across most languages, they
are associated with the passage of the sun, especially East and West with North and South
being more ambiguous, as we touch on below which are invariably linked to sunrise and
sunset respectively. These English words themselves stem from the Proto-Indo-European
roots aus and wes, which refer to an upward versus a downward movement, hence also to the
rising or setting sun, and likewise dawn and dusk (Vasunia, 2012; Gąsiorowski, 2012).
Similar patterns are found cross-culturally. With the East, the Proto-Indo-European root aus
is also reflected in languages ranging from Greek (ēōs) and Latin (aurora) to Sanskrit (usah),
and Akkadian (asu). Similarly, beyond that specific root, numerous languages use words
connoting sunrise or more generically rising to denote the East, including Latin
(oriens), Greek (anatolé), Arabic (shurūq), Chinese (dōng involving a pictograph of the sun
rising behind a tree), and French (levant). Such terms are also roots for other labels for the
East, such as Orient (from the Latin oriens) and Asia (from the Akkadian asu). With the
West, the Proto-Indo-European root wes is likewise reflected in languages like Greek
(hesperos), Latin (vesper), and French (ouest). Again, beyond that specific root, numerous
languages use words connoting sunset or more generically falling or resting to denote
the West, from Latin (occidens) to Arabic (gharb) and Hebrew (maarab). As with the East,
these words are also roots of other terms linked to the West. For instance, Europe may derive
from the Semitic ereb also root of the Arabic gharb and Hebrew maarab above arising in
relation to the Phoenicians’ colonization of territories in the Mediterranean to their West from
the 10th Century BCE (Vasunia, 2012). We should emphasise though that as these concepts
were developing, East and West were not fixed in any stable location (unlike later epochs),
but were relative to the people creating them. So, for instance, although North Africa might
be deemed Eastern from a modern Western perspective, the Arabic term for this region is
Maghreb meaning sunset since this is how this region would be situated relative to an
Arabian Peninsula perspective.
As cultures developed concepts of East and West, symbolism began to attach to them.
Befitting the direction of the dawn and the rising sun, the East is associated with qualities like
birth, rebirth, renewal, life, and youth. These are reflected in the way cardinal directions were
often personified as deities as per the animistic and polytheistic mindset of this era with
the East symbolised by goddesses of the dawn like Ēos (Greek). Such symbolism continued
into the realm of history. In the Old Testament, for instance, the East is associated with the
creation of life; Genesis 2:8 states God “planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he
put the man whom he had formed”) (Meier, 1998). Likewise, in Christianity, the East and
similarly the sunrise and dawn was associated with Christ himself (the “light of the world”),
and with his Resurrection and Second Coming. For that reason, early Christians would often
pray facing East; as Origen wrote in On Prayer (231 CE): “It should be immediately clear that
the direction of the rising sun obviously indicates that we ought to pray inclining in that
direction, an act which symbolises the soul looking towards where the true light rises” (cited
in Lang, 2009, p.93). Conversely, similarly befitting the direction of dusk and the setting sun,
the West was usually associated with aging, death and the afterlife though these were not
necessarily negatively coded, especially if the afterlife was construed in beneficent ways. For
example, in various schools of Buddhism, the West is associated with enlightenment (Lye,
2002). Such imagery is found cross-culturally, and is frequently reflected in funeral and
burial practices for which evidence survives today, such as symbolism on Western walls of
tombs and with bodies arranged in a Westerly direction from Ancient Egypt (Omran, 2016)
to Bronze Age burial sites in Central Asia (Sollohub, 1962). Such imagery persists to this
day; in the Great War, for instance, the phrase “go West” was used poetically as an image of
soldiers dying (Seal, 2013).
In contrast to East and West, the origins of North and South are more ambiguous.
Indeed, North and South appear to have been less significant and symbolically meaningful.
As Gordon (1971) articulates, the genesis of identifying four directions is thought to have
emerged by people identifying a fixed point on the horizon and deriving the other three
directions from that. This fixed point was then given particular significance, which usually
meant placing it at the top of the map, as if the direction people are facing. Crucially, given
the symbolic significance of the East signifying birth, life, renewal, etc. it was common to
situate this at the top and West at the bottom. Thus, people often construed themselves as
facing East; in Hebrew, for example, the term for East literally means “the front” and West
“the back.” There are exceptions; ancient China placed more significance on the North-South
axis, even before but especially after their discovery of polarity and invention of the compass,
thought to be around the 2nd Century BCE (Guan & Bai, 2021), as discussed below. In any
case, North and South seem to have been mainly conceptualised in relation to East and West
and the passage of the sun. The word North for example is thought to derive from the Proto-
Indo-European unit ner, which can mean either “left” (possibly reflecting the way North is to
the left as one faces the sun) or “below” (possibly reflecting the way the sun is at its “lowest”
point when in the north). By contrast, South derives from the Proto-Indo-European sawel
also origin of “sun” – possibly because South is the direction of the sun at noon (in the
Northern Hemisphere). The general significance of the sun in conceptualizing the cardinal
directions leads to our third main point of interest: the cosmic arena.
The Cosmic Arena
Although Earth tended to be viewed as flat in this pre-historic era, when it comes to the
broader universe, many cultures developed a perspective we might call a “layered” cosmos.
Earth itself was one layer. But most peoples postulated at least two other layers: the heavens
above, and an underworld below. Indeed, in some cases, these layers were stratified into more
specific levels. However many levels were envisaged though, they were usually interpreted in
mythological ways, imbued with symbolic significance.
Let’s use ancient Mesopotamian cosmology as an example. In terms of the heavenly
layer(s), the sky was depicted as a series of domes usually three, but sometimes seven
covering the flat Earth, each made of a specific precious stone, and home to particular
celestial and mythological phenomena (Horowitz, 1998). The lowest dome, made of jasper,
contained the stars; the middle dome, made of saggilmut, hosted the Igigi (mythological
heavenly figures); while the highest outermost dome, made of luludānītu, was personified as
An, God of the sky. In this overall cosmology, celestial bodies were not necessarily restricted
to any particular dome given their apparent freedom of movement through the heavens
but were equated with or interpreted as specific deities. Venus, for instance, was conceived as
being or representing Inanna later worshipped by Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians
under the name Ishtar goddess of numerous phenomena including love, sex, and war, and
known as the “Queen of Heaven” (Stuckey, 2001). Similarly detailed conceptions of various
heavenly realms are found cross-culturally. To give an example from a different continent,
Mesoamerican thought such as Mayan cosmology included a layered system of 13
heavens and nine underworlds, each with its presiding god (Sanders et al., 2012). Or take
Judaism, where the Talmud suggests the cosmos has seven heavens, the highest of which
hosts the Throne of God, as well as various sacred beings, like angelic seraphim (Scholem,
1960). Such frameworks clearly prefigure later notions of heaven, although in these early
frameworks it seems the celestial vaults were often off limits for humans. In the Epic of
Gilgamesh for instance the oldest work of literature in the world, circa 2,100 BCE
Gilgamesh says to his companion: “Who can go up into the heavens, my friend? Only the
gods dwell with Shamash [the ancient Mesopotamian sun God, also known as Utu] forever.”
Similarly, in Judaism, the heavenly realms tend to be out of human reach, although certain
figures such as the patriarch Enoch are described as making the ascent.
Then, in addition to various layers above the Earth, most cultures also postulated a
layer (or more) beneath some kind of “underworld” – which likewise was viewed through a
mythological prism. In general, this was understood as being where people go after death.
This does not imply a “hell” as we might use the term today i.e., in contrast to heaven, and
a place of punishment for select people which emerged in later mythologies and traditions.
Although usually depicted in overall negative terms as dark, shadowy, damp, cold, dusty,
etc. it did not appear to function as a location of punishment in most early cultures, but was
a place to which all beings went after death, regardless of conduct on Earth (Sanders, 2009).
To use Mesopotamian belief as an example again, this depicted the afterlife as a dark cavern
deep below ground, known as Kur, ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal. In this, souls were
believed to continue a “shadowy” version of life on earth; for instance, they would still eat,
but only dry dust. People’s actions on Earth were not thought to affect their existence in Kur,
although there emerged the belief that this may be influenced by the nature of person’s burial
(e.g., with lavish burials leading to better treatment). Relatedly, some people thought that the
aforementioned goddess Inanna younger sister of Ereshkigal had power to bestow favours
on her devotees. One can find comparable visions albeit with meaningful differences in
many early cultures. To again use Judaism as a counterpart example, the Hebrew Bible
generally did not mention Heaven as a potential afterlife destination, and instead invoked an
underworld called Sheol, a spectral realm in which “there is no remembrance of [God],” and
in which none can give [him] praise” (Ps. 6:5), where humans after death are described as
“resting” (Johnston, 2002). Such ideas would subtly evolve in subsequent eras, as we explore,
beginning next with the Geocentric cosmos. As a final point here though, experimental work
by Meier et al. (2007) shows these metaphorical associations of heaven and hell with up and
down respectively have persisted into the present, even among non-religious people, and may
per the influential theorizing of Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have deep foundations in
human embodied perceptual experience.
Spherical Earth, Geocentric Cosmos
Gradually, belief in a flat Earth and layered cosmos was joined and somewhat superseded
by a spherical Earth and geocentric cosmos. This process was very incremental and staggered
through, with the former stance still persisting for many centuries after the emergence of the
newer view. Indeed, even today there remain apparent believers in a flat Earth (Mohammed,
2019), while many modern religious people hold to some version of a layered cosmos (i.e.,
with heaven “above” the Earth), even if they also accept the modern scientific view of the
universe. Nevertheless, as pre-history gave way to history a transition defined above all by
the invention of writing and creation of written records around the 4th millennium BCE we
see a dawning new spatial perspective involving two interrelated ideas, namely that the Earth
is: (a) spherical, and (b) the centre of a cosmic system around which other entities move. The
earliest clear evidence of these shifts was in Greece around the 6th Century BCE, though the
two ideas were not always connected: suggestions of a geocentric cosmos were made by
Anaximander in the 6th Century, though his Earth was shaped like a section of a cylinder;
conversely, around the same time, Pythagoras suggested Earth was a sphere, but was in
motion around an unseen fire (foreshadowing later heliocentric perspectives). But by the 4th
Century, (a) and (b) were usually combined in Classical Greek thought. In other respects
though, the era shared similarities with the previous one, including the notion of layered
heavenly realms above Earth and an underworld beneath. Nevertheless, the new beliefs began
to affect how people construed the world.
The Known World
While human deliberations on the nature of reality stretch back into pre-history, there appears
to have been a qualitative collective shift between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE. This wasn’t
precipitated by an individual genius or even region. In multiple places from China to India
to Greece profound and unprecedented cognitive and philosophical revolutions occurred
somewhat in parallel. Karl Jaspers (1949) called it the Achsenzeit the Axial Age to signify
a pivotal turning-point in our history. Among the changes wrought by this era were the first
glimmers of a modern scientific mindset. Although earlier people had engaged in empirical
observation and theory generation, their findings and insights tended to be filtered through
and interpreted according to prevailing mythological schemas. Indeed, this kind of thought
process still persists to this day; the post-modern critique of science has shown that even the
scientific endeavour involves interpreting data through a prism that could be viewed as
“mythological” not in the modern pejorative sense of “made up,” but rather, as per its
etymological roots in the Greece mythos, the creation of a narrative around observations that
goes beyond the data per se and is influenced by prevailing beliefs of the modern era (e.g.,
reductionism and materialism) (Kim, 2002). Nevertheless, the Axial age did seem to bring a
step-change in the nature of human enquiry, becoming more empirical and openminded, less
tethered to pre-existing mythological schemas. This change is reflected in its cartography, as
people in this era developed increasingly veridical maps (i.e., matching facts on the ground),
as opposed to mythological or symbolic representations. This was coupled with increasing
interest in exploring other lands and peoples, as well as technological innovations that made
such enquiry ever more feasible.
A seminal figure in this era is the aforementioned Anaximander (c.610546 BCE),
who developed the earliest known literal world map. Although no longer extant, surviving
descriptions depict it as circular with the known lands of the world grouped around the
Mediterranean at its centre (Couprie et al., 2003). The sea was bisected by a line through
Delphi the world’s “gnomon” (central axis) – with the northern half called “Europe” and
the southern half “Asia.” The habitable world – oikoumenê in Greek consisted of small
strips of land to the north (Spain, Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor) and south (Egypt and Libya)
of the sea, plus lands to the east (Palestine, Assyria, Persia, and Arabia). Lands to the north
were seen as cold, inhabited by mythical people, and to the south, hot countries of “burnt”
people. As such descriptions imply, these early cartographic efforts relied on accounts of the
few people who had travelled to other regions, and combined some accurate observations
with hearsay and superstition regarding more distance lands. But as the centuries proceeded,
travel became ever more common, as did encounters with people from elsewhere. These
developments are epitomised by the emergence of the “Silk Road” from the 2nd Century BCE
onwards, a network of Eurasian trade routes that fomented interaction economic, cultural,
religious, political between regions referred to today as East and West (Beckwith, 2009).
Starting with the Han dynastys expansion into Central Asia around 114 BCE in search of
trading partners and allies it eventually covered some 4,000 miles, spanning East and
Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, the Middle East, East Africa and
Europe. Through such networks, people began to not only meet those from distant cultures,
but to voyage outwards themselves. For instance, Gan Ying, a Chinese emissary, may have
travelled as far as Roman Syria in the 1st Century CE (Ying, 2004). In these ways, for many
cultures, the boundaries of the known world began to expand ever outwards.
Hand-in-hand with such expansion, people started to develop new ideas about the
Earth’s shape. The earliest clear references to a spherical planet trace back to Pythagoras in
the 6th Century BCE, though apparently more on aesthetic than empirical grounds (on the
basis that the sphere is the most perfect object) (Sanderson, 1999). His student Parmenides
then proposed that this spherical world had five zones (one torrid, two temperate, and two
frigid), and that the central torrid zone was uninhabitable because of heat from the sun’s rays.
However, the idea possibly emerged even earlier; it is suggested for example that veiled
references to a spherical earth can be found in the Vedas (Iyer & Ramakrishna, 2022), the
Sanskrit scriptural texts of Northwest India composed roughly between 1500 and 1200 BCE.
In cultures in which the idea emerged, it became a topic of much debate; in Greece, while
Herodotus in the 5th Century BCE maintained the earth was flat, in the 4th Century Aristotle
influentially concluded in favour of a spherical Earth. However, such debates began to be
informed by the new spirit of scientific enquiry, itself energized by various technological
developments. For instance, with sundials dating back as early as 1,500 BCE in Egyptian and
Babylonian astronomy (Whitrow, 1989), by the 3rd Century BCE, Eratosthenes could use data
from sundials, as well as other geographical information, to produce the first estimation of the
Earth’s circumference (a calculation which was relatively accurate) (Nicastro, 2008). Then,
by the 1st Century CE, Ptolemy (c.100-170 CE) was able to use data on the sun’s angles in
different places to chart geographical details including latitude and longitude of some
6,300 localities across the globe. Through such developments, a spherical Earth began to take
hold and gain acceptance in some cultures. Such dynamics also had implications for people’s
sense of direction.
The Sense of Direction
Although early maps tended to emphasise East and West (e.g., putting East at the top), the
discovery of the Earth’s polarity and the related invention of the compass soon led some
cultures to instead focus on the North-South axis. The Chinese were aware of this polarity
from the 4th Century BCE through observations of lodestone, a form of the mineral magnetite
that is a natural magnet (Charvátová et al., 2011). It was further realized that if suspended so
able to turn freely, it would always point toward the magnetic poles, leading to the invention
of the compass around the 2nd Century BCE, sometimes known as the “South Pointing Fish”
or “South Governor.” As the names suggest, the Chinese placed greater importance on the
Southerly direction, possibly because that was from where favourable winds came (Brotton,
2013). The compass appears to have initially been used for prophecy and geomancy, such as
arranging buildings according to principles of feng shui (Hwangbo, 1999), with the earliest
reference to its use in a navigational sense in a book dated to 1040. Soon after, compasses
began to be harnessed elsewhere, though it is unclear the extent to which these drew on the
earlier Chinese models. For instance, Alexander Neckam reported its use in navigating the
English Channel in texts written around 1180 (de Solla Price, 2019). Such devices began to
tie directionality to geographical Earth factors (as opposed to nebulous celestial movements).
Moreover, as cultures were developing ideas and practices around spatialisation, the
era also saw people begin to understand themselves in terms of directions. Pre-history was
dominated by a centre-periphery mindset, where people tended to put themselves centre of
the world, with other groups relegated to the periphery. However, the move into history also
saw an emergent spatialization of people: as cultures became increasingly aware of other
peoples, there emerged a view of oneself as existing in particular directions relative to them.
The first significant example is in Classical Greece, with the dawning of the perennial yet
shifting and complex distinction between East and West. This occurred in the context of the
wars between the Persians and the Greeks, whereby the Greeks in particular self-consciously
saw themselves as being in the West, relative to the Easterly Persians. The most famous and
influential account is the Greek Herodotus (c.485-425 BCE) in his great work, The Histories.
While the rivalry was long in the making, it reached a head in 479-80 BCE with the famous
Greek victories over the Persian king Xerxes at Salamis and Plataea. Recounting these
battles, Herodotus posits real differences between the Greeks and the Persians, hence also
West and East. That said, his analysis also subtly complicates these distinctions, positing
them as largely the product of convention and history rather than innate ethnic character or
environmental determinism (Thomas, 2000). In doing so, he depicts East and West in
perpetual, dynamic tension, constantly informing and transforming each other through their
interactions. Indeed, the East-West polarity would subsequently play itself out in many ways,
such as the tension between Western and Eastern schools of Christianity in the early centuries
of the church, leading to their eventual schism in 1051. In such ways, East and West and all
cardinal directions came to be embraced by many as important markers of identity and
cultural difference.
The Cosmic Arena
Finally, this era saw subtle but significant shifts in how people viewed the cosmos and their
place in it. In particular, the dawning spirit of scientific enquiry saw the early beginnings of
the cosmos being de-mythologised and the introduction of a geocentric vision. That said,
there are many similarities with the earlier era. In many ways, the layered cosmic perspective
was similarly geocentric, while new era also retained a layered view of the universe. But
despite these continuities, profound shifts were underway. In particular, the emerging view of
a spherical Earth invited the radical idea of it being an object in space. This is different from
the prior notion of Earth as the secure foundational “stage” on which the cosmic drama
unfolds. The earliest articulation of this new perspective is credited to Anaximander, who
imagined Earth as a “free-floating” body in space – rather than supported by other
cosmological structures that could yet stay anchored in place, an idea Popper (1998) lauded
as one of the boldest, most revolutionary, and most portentous ideas in the whole history of
human thinking” (p.198). For that reason, he is often considered the “father” of cosmology,
and even of science itself. Over subsequent centuries, astronomers developed this geocentric
perspective through detailed observations of celestial movements. In Mesopotamia, for
instance, clay tablets reveal that ancient Babylonians developed an incredibly sophisticated
record of such movements from around the 8th Century BCE onwards, enabling predictions of
phenomena like eclipses (Beaulieu et al., 2017). Similarly, at around roughly the same period,
in Mesoamerica the Mayans were developing their calendar based at least in part on lunar
movements with surviving references to this dated to the 8th Century BCE (Aldana, 2022).
These astronomical endeavors included speculative theories about how and why such
movements occurred. Plato for instance proposed that stars and planets orbited the Earth in
transparent spheres sometimes proceeding along several tracks, allowing for the apparently
irregular movements of planets in the following radial order: Moon, Sun, Venus, Mercury,
Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and finally fixed stars (in a celestial sphere). Despite its increasing
reliance on empirical observation though, the cosmology of this era remained as much
metaphysical as scientific in the modern sense. Plato and Aristotle alike, for instance,
conceived of planets as the bodies of divine Intelligences, which survived within Christianity
as “the spirits of evil in the heavenly realms (en tois epouranois)” (Eph. 6:12). However,
Aristotle introduced notable refinements into this Platonic cosmology, for instance by
proposing that the apparently changeless world above the moon must not consist of the same
elements earth, water, air, and fire which compose the changeable bodies below it, but
must be made of some fifth, specifically celestial element, which one of his students (the
author of the pseudo-Aristotelian De Mundo) identified with Plato’s “aether. That the
Aristotelian cosmos was “geocentric” was thus not necessarily a compliment to Earth, which
was conceived of as literally the bottom of the universe, a realm of flux and decay which
contrasted unfavorably with the changeless dance of the stars. Indeed, the physical contrast
between the volatile Earth and the serene Heavens seems to have inspired philosophers and
theologians to seek the possibility of an ascent, usually post-mortem, into the celestial realms
themselves. This idea was a common inheritance of the Platonic tradition, present in the
Sceptic Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, the Stoic Seneca the Younger’s Moral Epistles, and the
Jewish Philo’s exegetical and philosophical works (Borgen 2021). The most influential
ancient heavenly ascent, however, was surely that attributed by early Christians to Jesus after
his resurrection, which eventually became seen as a paradigm for his followers’ own post-
mortem aspirations (McDannell & Lang, 2001).
While these cosmological approaches the scientific and the metaphysical, to use
somewhat anachronistic terms would often remain separate or even conflictual, they were
also synthesized within great intellectual edifices. In a Christian context, these include works
like St. Thomas Aquinas’s (1125-1274) Summa Theologiae or Dante Alighieri’s Commedia
Divina. Aquinas and Dante identified the terminus of spiritual ascent the home of angels
and abode of saints in the intermediate state between death and resurrection with the
“empyrean” heaven. Aquinas (with the majority of the Aristotelian tradition) interpreted this
region as the luminous outer envelope of the entire cosmos, the uncontained container of all
physical space (Aquinas, 1888); Dante, more adventurously, described it as “intellectual
light, full of love,so apparently identifying it with the divine intellect itself (Paradiso 30.40,
quoted in Porter, 2021, p.450). Similar works of synthesis would also be found within other
cultures and religious traditions. For example, in the Muslim world, the “Islamic Golden
Age” – usually dated between the 8th and 13th Centuries saw an efflorescence of scientific
scholarship across myriad fields, from astronomy to mathematics (Falagas et al., 2006).
Indeed, astronomy reached unprecedented levels of excellence during this era, with celestial
observations and understanding attaining new peaks of refinement. These developments were
occurring of course in the wake of the emergence of Islam itself in the 7th Century, and much
of this work was in the service of articulating, developing and celebrating this new faith. For
instance, these astronomical endeavours helped to more accurately identify the location of
sacred sites and the precise time of day, both of which helped Muslims fulfil the injunction to
pray to Mecca five times each day. In such ways, many cultures sought to bridge religious
and scientific perspectives. However, with the emergence of the third main perspective, the
latter began to increasingly assume prominence and dominance.
Expanded Earth, Heliocentric Cosmos
The birth of the geocentric cosmic perspective was associated with the radical intellectual
ferment of the Axial age. This third new perspective emerged in force in a similarly epochal
period of cognitive revolution, namely the Enlightenment. Although not usually regarded as a
full-fledged movement until the 17th Century, its stirrings are generally regarded as beginning
with the astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). It was his work on
heliocentrism the radical idea that the Earth moves around the sun which transformed
humankind’s cosmic mindset and gave birth to the modern world (Tarnas, 2010). He was not
actually the first to advance this idea, with such a model proposed by Aristarchus of Samos as
early as the 3rd Century BCE (Heath, 2013), and likewise discussed by Arabic astronomers
during the Islamic Golden Age. However, these previous endeavours were unsuccessful in
dethroning the dominant geocentric model, and it was not until Copernicus that the theory
would eventually after much resistance, especially from the Church prove irrefutable and
decisive. We explore how this work transformed the cosmic perspective below. First though,
as with earlier eras, this new phase also brought new perspectives in people’s orientation on
Earth too, particularly through developments in travel and transportation, which above all
created the sense of an expanded world.
The Known World
As scholars like Copernicus were charting the heavens, this era also saw an unprecedented
wave of global exploration that likewise radically revised people’s understanding of the
world. Technological revolutions enabled a transformation of maritime capabilities, meaning
travel could for the first time be truly global. People in earlier eras had managed incredible
feats of adventure, like Norse explorer Leif Erikson (circa 970-1025), credited as the first
European to set foot on continental North America. Indeed, modern humans are thought to
have migrated from Asia to Australia at least partly on primitive seafaring vessels though
sea levels were lower, meaning some distances were covered by land bridges an astonishing
50,000 years ago (O’Connell et al., 2018). However, not until the 15th Century did sea-faring
become possible on a genuinely global scale, aided by ongoing refinement to inventions such
as the compass, and shipbuilding technologies like the caravel (a small, highly manoeuvrable
sailing ship developed by the Portuguese). Indeed, even well before then, many societies
were developing advanced sea-faring capabilities, with the first great “thalassocratic” (i.e.,
sea-faring) empire regarded as that of Srivijaya, based on the island of Sumatra, which as
early as the 8th until the 12th Century came to dominate large swathes of Southeast Asia
(Manguin, 2021). By the 15th Century, maritime technology had reached the point where it
was possible to reliably cross whole oceans, epitomised by the somewhat euphemistically
named European Age of Discovery, from 1400 to 1600. This certainly was animated in part
by a spirit of scientific enquiry, though arguably this was overshadowed by a drive towards
conquest and colonization. Either way, this new age saw a series of world-changing for
better or worse European seafaring missions, from Christopher Columbus’ expeditions to
America (1492-1504) to Ferdinand Magellans ships circumnavigating the world (1519-
All these developments wrought significant and lasting changes in how people saw
the world. In one sense, this is the beginning of globalization. From this point on, people
began to develop ever more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the world, and to
truly think of themselves as existing on a globe. However, such statements risk implying this
was mainly a beneficent process of increasing humankind’s knowledge and awareness. Also
crucial to note is how destabilising and even destructive these developments could be. That is
certainly so for the peoples colonized by the likes of Columbus; it has been estimated that,
from a high of nearly 55 million people at the time of Columbus’s arrival, the population of
North America declined by as much as 90% within a century, principally from epidemics of
novel diseases such as smallpox and cholera, but also because of violent conflict with waves
of European arrivals (Koch et al., 2019). Even among people of the conquering lands though,
these developments could be unsettling (though of course not to the same existential extent).
Before this time, even if one’s own society was imperfect, one could imagine this was the
natural state of affairs. However, this emerging age of exploration brought a troubling sense
of contingency and relativity, an awareness that other ways of living were viable. Likewise,
these explorations radically challenged established traditions and ideas, exemplified by
Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, which led to his theory of
evolution, in turn helping foment the erosion of Christian hegemony in Europe and the rise of
secularism. In such ways, despite advances in scientific understanding, this was also an era of
increasing existential uncertainty regarding the known world.
The Sense of Direction
With this increasingly detailed and accurate understanding of the world, this era similarly
impacted people’s sense of direction. This was the age in which cartography truly flourished,
with the creation of numerous relatively accurate world maps, such as the Tabula Rogeriania
created by Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in 1154, and China’s Da Ming Hun Yi Tu
(“Amalgamated Map of the Ming Empire”), drawn on silk as early as 1389, which spans the
entire Eurasian continent. Perhaps most famous is the German-Netherlandish Gerardus
Mercator’s 1569 world map. Its innovation was a form of cylindrical projection in which the
meridians are straight and perpendicular to the parallels, which greatly facilitates navigation.
Indeed, this aim is reflected in the map’s full title: “New and more complete representation of
the terrestrial globe properly adapted for use in navigation (Marino, 2015). Such was its
power and influence that it remains the most prominent and widely used global map, being
instrumental in the way modern people conceive and represent the world cognitively (Lapon
et al., 2017). However, to that latter point, so great are the influence of such maps on people’s
understanding of the world that any inherent biases or limitations of these projections can be
consequential. In that respect, it is today considered problematic that his map and others
developed by European cartographers in particular were shaped by the pernicious dynamics
of European expansionism and colonization, whereby cartography became intertwined with
the interests of the European powers.
Essentially, maps like Mercator’s were constructed in a fundamentally Eurocentric
way, with a relative denigration of other regions. To begin with, these European projections
placed North at the top, thus staking claim to its importance. This contrasts with earlier maps,
which tended to put East top, reflecting its symbolic value. Similarly, while the Chinese had
constructed the compass as South-pointing, European navigators re-oriented it to be North-
bearing (having been already accustomed to navigating by the fixed North star). The new
maps also placed Europe at the centre. In that respect, various claims to absolute centrality
were aired and contested, with most European countries proposing a meridian passing
through their territory; eventually, the International Meridian Conference in 1884 established
Greenwich, England as an internationally recognised single meridian. Besides these issues,
perhaps the most significant issue with maps like Mercator’s are their distortion of the sizes
of countries, with countries nearer the equator shrunk and those near the poles expanded.
Infamously, for example, while in actuality Greenland is only about 1/14th the size of Africa,
on the Mercator map they appear almost the same size. Crucially, it has been suggested that,
over the centuries, these maps have skewed people’s appreciation and understandings of the
various countries, leading them to elevate in importance the central and apparently larger
Northern European nations and conversely to disregard or downplay the apparently smaller
countries near the equator as insignificant (Abee, 2021). In turn, these attitudes are seen as
playing into the phenomenon of Orientalism, Said's (1979) term for the process by which 19th
Century thinkers in the West came to understand their society by contrasting it favourably
with the “Other” of the Orient, and which moreover was harnessed in attempts to rationalize
and justify colonialism.
The Cosmic Arena
Finally, arguably the most revolutionary change brought about in this era was the proposal
and eventual acceptance of a heliocentric cosmos, a cognitive shift so profound it has been
described as the most significant in human history. Although a heliocentric model had been
proposed in the 3rd Century BCE, it was not until the Prussian Copernicus published De
Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (“On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres”) in 1543
complete with detailed mathematical details and predictions that the theory was given a
serious hearing. That said, the idea had been explored by scholars in the preceding centuries,
particularly during the Islamic Golden Age; legendary polymath Abu Rayhan Muhammad
ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (973-1050), for example, discussed the rotation of the Earth and the
possibility of a heliocentric universe, although ultimately decided in favour of a geocentric
model (Scheppler, 2006). As such, not until Copernicus did the idea truly begin to take hold,
though it was not immediately contentious or revolutionary. Despite finishing the book by
1530, Copernicus waited until the year of his death to publish it, seemingly out of concern
with not destabilising the Church, having foreseen how problematic his theory could be.
Moreover, he sought to soften the blow by including a preface which argued that although his
system was better for computation, its hypotheses were not necessarily true, and should not
be taken as challenging the Church. Perhaps with this diplomatic attitude, reactions initially
seemed fairly mild (notwithstanding select denunciations from certain critics). For instance,
his work was not even discussed at the Council of Trent, the 19th ecumenical council of the
Catholic Church from 1545-1563.
However, by the early 17th Century, reactions within the Church had become ever
more forceful, seen most famously in the trial of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). This slow-
burning yet ever-mounting resistance is attributed to the Church only gradually realising how
challenging the heliocentric model was to Church doctrine, but perhaps more importantly
how strong its accumulating evidence. Here we see the significance of Galileo’s endorsement
at a time when most people still adhered to the geocentric perspective. For he was arguably
the pre-eminent scientist of his age, credited with among many breakthroughs inventing
the telescope in 1609. Given his stature, the Church had interest in strenuously challenging
his endorsement, despite him claiming it was not contrary to Holy Scripture (for instance, in
his 1615 “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” he drew on the arguments of Augustine
that not every passage in scripture should be taken literally). As such, in 1615 his writings
were brought to the attention of the Inquisition. The seriousness with which the Church
regarded the situation is revealed by Robert Bellarmine, the Cardinal and Inquisitor called
upon to adjudicate, who wrote heliocentrism was a very dangerous thing, harming “the
Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false” (cited in Feldhay and Rivka, 1995, p.34). In
1616, the Church banned all texts advocating the Copernican system, and although in 1618
they allowed a modified version of Copernicusbook to be used in calendric calculations, the
original was forbidden until 1758. As for Galileo, at his eventual trial in 1633 he was forced
to recant Copernicanism and was put under house arrest for his remaining few years. Not
until the mid-18th Century did the Church’s opposition to the model began to fade, and it
began to concede the argument. Indeed, by this point, tides of secularism were rising all
around, bringing further changes to people’s spatial orientation, as our final section explores.
Unstable Earth, Acentric Cosmos
There are many ways of understanding our contemporary era. Indeed, this wild multiplicity
of perspectives is itself characteristic of the age. In that respect, a persuasive diagnosis of our
time is offered by Higgs' (2015) book Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the
Twentieth Century. Essentially, he argues that, across all spheres of life, what had been the
“centre” began to fall away. Ways of being and understanding taken for granted as natural
were being radically challenged, and ultimately revealed as insubstantial and contingent.
Established truths and practices were being overturned, sometimes with gleeful abandon.
Bauman (2013) makes a similar point with his influential notion of “liquid modernity,” which
describes a process in which “all social forms melt faster than new ones can be cast” (p.303).
One can see these dynamics across myriad fields of endeavour, from art (e.g., the radical
disruption of post-modern avant-garde art), to science (e.g., the bewildering challenge to
Newtonian mechanics provided by the sheer strangeness of quantum mechanics). Inevitably,
this new uncertain age also brought significant changes to our spatial orientation.
The Known World
To begin with, the turbulent flux of the modern era upended people’s sense of the known
world, as dynamics already set in motion in the previous era became supercharged. For
example, the age of Enlightenment sowed the early seeds of globalization, epitomised by the
European Age of Discovery and its waves of colonization. However, global travel remained a
risky, privileged affair, and knowledge of other regions was still fairly rudimentary. But as
the 20th Century dawned, technological revolutions from transport to communication
began to radically alter this picture. Global travel became increasingly in reach of vast
swathes of humanity, as did access to other cultures through inventions like television, which
complicated their understanding of the world in intriguing ways. On one hand, these changes
shrank the size of the planet: places that previously seemed unfathomably remote were now
within reach, whether physically or through a screen. On the other hand though, the world
also became increasingly vast, complex and confusing. Before mass travel, societies were
arguably more static, predictable, and homogenous, with people more likely to live and work
near the place they were born, and interacting mainly with others who looked and thought
like them. That said, Graeber and Wengrow (2021) suggest that earlier eras were potentially
more marked by mass migrations, whether voluntary or involuntary, especially during times
of crisis (e.g., famine), and that populations were far more mobile than is often assumed.
Conversely, many people today do not have the power or freedom to move, and may be
relatively tethered in one place. Even so, the dynamics of globalization made it increasingly
common for people to move around, including cross-continentally, and to interact with
people from all regions of the world (Meyerson et al., 2007). Traditional ways of life were
thereby challenged and upended, with a dizzying array of new possibilities other ways of
living and being on offer, even if only through a screen. One might say the more people
began to know about the world, the less sure they were of their own location and place in it.
Moreover, besides globalization, other processes were in motion that would further
destabilise people’s sense of the world. Three are particularly worth noting: the instability of
nations and boundaries; the existential threat of nuclear annihilation; and the climate crisis.
First, the precarious state of nations and the relatively arbitrary and shifting nature of their
borders was laid bare in unprecedented ways by the two World Wars. Obviously, wars have
been a constant throughout human history. However, these were orders of magnitude larger
and more significant, bringing into question the whole world system, and indeed civilization
itself. Moreover, the advent of mass media meant their impact was more vivid and widely
disseminated (whereas people’s concerns in earlier centuries would have been mainly limited
to violence near them). Then, while these wars generated decades of existential uncertainty
and angst, such concerns became exponentially magnified by the advent of nuclear weapons,
and subsequently the simmering tension of the Cold War. For the first time, people had the
power to destroy the world completely, ending all human life. Finally, compounding these
existence-level threats, the past few decades have seen a dawning conviction not merely of a
climate crisis, but that it likewise threatens human life on Earth. This sensibility is reflected
in emerging concepts like “eco-anxiety, defined as “the generalized sense that the ecological
foundations of existence are in the process of collapse” (Albrecht, 2012, p.250). In all these
ways, throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st, Earth began to feel increasingly unstable,
with a perilous sense that the very foundations on which people stood the ground itself
were shifting, even slipping away, and could disappear completely. That said, these kinds of
developments often have a dialectical nature, where negative effects are also accompanied by
positive changes. Indeed, the upending of tradition and old certainties was undoubtedly felt
by many as liberating, especially those who had been constricted by those patterns of thought
and behaviour, as seen for example in the rise of feminism and the radical changes to sexual
and gender relations. Nevertheless, it is still the case that old habits and customs were starting
to dissolve, as per Bauman’s (2013) “liquid modernity.”
The Sense of Direction
These forces of disruption and destabilization also encroached onto humankind’s sense of
direction, with increasing doubt about the certainty and validity of the established cardinal
directions, and of the cartography founded upon them. Intriguingly, these challenges came
from two seemingly contrary intellectual developments: increasing accuracy of scientific
measurement; and the twin epistemologies of postmodernism and relativism that brought that
very measurement, and science itself, into question. First, regarding scientific accuracy,
advances in data collection and analysis led to previously held certainties about Earth
becoming contested. This is exemplified by the recognition that Earth’s magnetic North pole
based on Earth’s magnetic field, to which compasses point, rather than the geographical
North pole, where longitude lines converge is continually moving, shifting an estimated
1,100 km during the 20th Century. Moreover, since 1970 its rate of motion accelerated from 9
to 55 km per year in 2019 travelling Northwestward from Canada to Siberia due to large-
scale lobes of negative magnetic flux on the coremantle boundary (Livermore et al., 2020).
Such findings add to a body of observations indicating spatiotemporal variations in the nature
of Earth, from its poles regularly shifting by around 9 meters over the span of 433 days (the
“Chandler Wobble”), to it apparently gradually spinning ever faster (Jones & Bikos, 2022).
Taken together, such developments mean that issues of directionality like exactly where
North is are increasingly uncertain and contested.
Paradoxically, these uncertainties have been compounded by two other 20th Century
intellectual trends that, in many ways, challenge the scientific enterprise: post-modernism and
relativism. Summarising these is difficult, not least because they are umbrella terms for
various strands of thought, and moreover self-consciously resist neat description. Essentially
though, their central claim is that the pursuit of objective disinterested truth the defining
feature of science may be an unrealizable ideal. This does not necessarily mean truth claims
are impossible (Holtz, 2020); at the very least though, observers are regarded as situated
within frames of references and contexts which irrevocably bias not only their interpretations
but perception itself. Moreover, some postmodernists influenced by the likes of Foucault
(2019) distrust even the search for truth, regarding it as ultimately an expression of power.
This kind of claim is reflected in the arguments above about the Mercator Projection. First,
the warping of relative size of countries shows it is not an objective representation. Then, that
its warping is seen as aggrandizing and benefitting European nations is taken as evidence of
the power drives underlying claims to truth. Modern cartographers have therefore sought to
redress these inequalities by proposing new maps, notably the Peters' (1983) Projection, in
which all countries are correct in size relative to one another. This amends the Eurocentrism
of Mercator, and for that reason has been embraced in various fora, such as the Boston public
school system as part of efforts to “decolonize the curriculum” and “amend 500 years of
distortion” (Walter, 2017). However, this has its own accuracies, since to maintain countries’
correct sizes it is necessary to distort their shapes. Ultimately, in any case, from a postmodern
perspective, a truly accurate and objective representation that perfectly charts the complexity
of Earth is an impossibility, and all maps inevitably encode various limitations and biases. In
this unsettling new era, it is realized that there is no “true” map.
The Cosmic Arena
Finally, the processes of destabilisation and relativisation also made their mark on the cosmic
perspective. The prior emergence and then dominance of heliocentrism had displaced Earth
from the centre of the cosmic drama, with the sun instead the focal point in space. However,
the 20th Century saw such dizzying advances in fields like astronomy and physics that
humankind’s understanding of the universe was radically challenged, in unimaginable ways,
leading to what has been called an “acentric” cosmic perspective (Mendoza, 1995): as with
the considerations above, there is no stable centre; all is contingent and relative. These ideas
first crashed into human consciousness in 1905 with Einstein’s theories of relativity, which
showed there were no absolute objective ways of gauging space or time; everything is always
relative to the location and movement of the observer. From there, the universe only got
stranger still. The emergent field of quantum mechanics soon generated mind-bending
findings and theories, such as “non-locality” in which particles that are “entangled” can
seemingly immediately affect each other, no matter how far away a phenomenon Einstein
sceptically called “spooky action at a distance” (Salart et al., 2008). More recently, string
theory a leading unifying field account of the universe, merging quantum mechanics with
the general theory of relativity posits that our cosmos may have as many as ten dimensions
(Horowitz, 2005). Relatedly, some accounts of string theory argue for the possibility of
numerous parallel universes, whereby new bubble universes are constantly forming and
expanding indefinitely (Vilenkin, 2007).
Commenting on this proliferation of bewildering ideas, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane
observed: “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can
imagine.” In many ways, such developments both exemplified, and helped usher in, the kinds
of intellectual upheavals above. Although Einstein’s work for instance is light years away, in
form and content, from postmodernism, the latter has nevertheless been influenced by his
notion of relativity; indeed this whole era has been called the “age of relativity” (Corfield,
2015). Physics had long been valorised as “queen” of the sciences, exemplifying the kind of
sure footing to which other academic fields aspired, and offering a foundation on which they
would often seek to base their own work. When then physics was thrown into confusion by
its strange new theories, revealing human foundations both intellectual and literal to be
fundamentally unstable and potentially even unknowable, one could see how this would
create an elemental sense of insecurity and epistemic doubt across academia. And regarding
our place in the cosmos specifically, this modern perspective has essentially served to cut us
adrift, with deleterious psychological consequences. To the extent that contemporary
scientific scholarship offers a view of the cosmic significance of Earth, it is frequently
denigrated in the spirit of Carl Sagan’s remark that “we live on an insignificant planet of a
humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe (Coren,
2021, p.218). One can well appreciate how this perspective may contribute to a general mood
of meaninglessness and even nihilism that some theorists have diagnosed as a defining
feature of the modern age (Hoffmeyer, 1997). However, this may not be the end of the story,
as our concluding section considers.
This paper has traced the development of psychogeography and psychocosmology, looking at
how humankind has understood itself in relation to both Earth and the wider cosmos. We
identified four main perspectives. First, stretching into pre-history, belief in a flat Earth and
layered cosmos. Second, beginning around the 6th Century BCE, a spherical Earth and
geocentric cosmos. Third, from the 15th Century onwards, an expanded Earth with a
heliocentric cosmos. Finally, in the 20th Century, an unstable Earth and acentric cosmos.
However, taking a long view, humanity is hopefully still only near the start of its journey and
providing we do not wipe ourselves out may yet have millions of years ahead. If so, it is
almost guaranteed that our scientific endeavours will bring surprises and new perspectives. It
is common for people in any age to hubristically assume they are at the pinnacle of
intellectual development, and know all there is worth knowing about the world. But as the
history of science shows us as influentially charted by Kuhn (1962) in his analysis of the
“structure of scientific revolutions” – the state of the art in any given decade is likely to
swiftly become superseded, outdated, and even overthrown.
This applies no less to psychogeography and psychocosmology. Who can say what
advances in our understanding of Earth and the cosmos are around the corner, and how these
might transform our sense of identity and place? Indeed, significant developments may
already be afoot. Recent years have seen intriguing hints towards the possibility of, (a) life
elsewhere in the cosmos, (b) some such life even being “intelligent,” and (c) some intelligent
life even engaging with Earth, although these are decreasingly likely by orders of magnitude.
At the very least, (a) is highly probable, given the sheer size of the cosmos, with NASA
estimating that our galaxy contains at least 100 billion stars, while the observable universe
contains at least 2 trillion galaxies, meaning if galaxies were similar sizes there may be
200 billion trillion stars in the observable universe. With such numbers, it becomes almost
inconceivable to imagine Earth is the only planet to host abiogenesis (emergence of life).
Indeed, an analysis of “potentially habitable” planets – existing in a carefully calibrated
“Goldilocks” zone that includes being neither too cold nor hot estimated around 300 million
in our galaxy alone (Bryson et al., 2020). To that point, atmospheric analyses have even
indicated chemical markers of life on planets in our solar system, like phosphorene on Venus
(Bains et al., 2021).
However, the possibility of intelligent extra-terrestrial life generally taken to mean
attaining some civilizational complexity is far lower. Yet it is still a distinct probability.
Snyder-Beattie et al. (2021) suggest intelligent life on Earth required a “series of evolutionary
transitions” – including abiogenesis, eukaryogenesis, sexual reproduction, multicellularity,
and intelligence itself which may be “extraordinarily improbable, even in conducive
environments” (p.265). Nevertheless, they conclude that intelligent life elsewhere is merely
“rare, which is still momentous. Given the cosmological statistics though, this is reasonable:
Westby and Conselice (2020) estimated the number of “communicating extra-terrestrial
intelligent” civilizations in our galaxy according to various assumptions, and even under the
strictest criteria suggest there may be dozens. Finally though, the chance of such civilizations
having actually engaged with Earth is far lower still, given the challenges of interstellar
travel. As a result, the many reports of UFOs over the decades have tended to be dismissed
by the scientific community (e.g., as hallucinations or misperceptions). However, recently the
possibility of extra-terrestrial engagement with Earth appears to have been given greater
weight, in part because of various events involving military personnel and related concerns
around threats to national security. As a result, in 2020 the US military established a Task
Force to investigate these incidents. A preliminary report focused on 144 incidents deemed
most worth investigating; strikingly, in 143 cases, it determined that we “lack sufficient
information in our dataset to attribute incidents to specific explanations.” Although the
incidents were not positively identified as involving extra-terrestrial entities, comments from
key figures indicate the possibility is being taken seriously. John Ratcliffe, for example,
former Director of National Intelligence, said “we are talking about objects that have been
seen by Navy or Air Force pilots, or have been picked up by satellite imagery, that frankly
engage in actions that are difficult to explain, movements that are hard to replicate, that we
don’t have the technology for” (cited in Lewis-Kraus, 2021).
Although none of the above offers proof of extra-terrestrial existence, if the coming
decades do find such evidence, this would radically alter our perspective of the cosmos and
humankind’s place within it. At present, our age is dominated by an acentric stance, one
which moreover views the universe, somewhat nihilistically, as meaningless and lifeless
“disenchanted” as Weber (1958) put it denuded of qualities like purpose, and indifferent
to human existence on our insignificant planet. But imagine we found the universe to have
life elsewhere, potentially in abundance. This would surely result in profound changes in
cosmic perception, whether for worse (e.g., humans might feel even less special, given Earth
is no longer unique in hosting life), or better (e.g., the universe may feel revivified and “re-
enchanted”), or perhaps both. Historically, governmental authorities have expressed concern
that people would broadly react negatively (Durant, 1953). However, work by Kwon et al.
(2018) using a hypothetical announcement of extra-terrestrial microbial life found reactions
were significantly more positive than negative, and more reward (versus risk) oriented.
Similarly, Lomas (2022) reviewed the possibility and potential significance of non-human
forms of consciousness and wellbeing,” including that of extra-terrestrial life, and suggested
such a discovery could have profound implications for human psychology and wellbeing.
These include expansion in terms of moral concern (i.e., our sense of ethical responsibilities
may become further widened), intellectual understanding (i.e., our knowledge of the cosmos
will be radically changed), and human consciousness (i.e., our sense of identity and place in
the universe will likewise be transformed).
In any case, encountering extra-terrestrial life is just one example of developments
that may cause further shifts in perspective. More generally, regardless of future advances,
we would encourage psychologists to pay greater attention to people’s psychogeographical
and psychocosmological stances, not only historically, but in the present. These perspectives
constitute significant aspects of people’s identity and sense of existence, playing key roles in
psychological processes like meaning and purpose in life (Martela & Steger, 2016). However,
research in this area has been mainly limited to the impact of religiosity/spirituality on these
processes, with little attention to psychogeography and psychocosmology per se (i.e., outside
of religious belief systems). We have suggested, for example, that the perspectives here have
the potential to co-exist in people’s minds today, given for example that many manage to
maintain a religious worldview even while also accepting the cosmology of modern science.
However, the potential for such co-existence, and the nature of its dynamics, is ultimately an
empirical question which deserves attention. Similarly, the psychological and social impact
of the perspectives also needs exploring, including through experimental research like that of
Meier et al. (2007) on the metaphorical significance of various directions. We hope this paper
encourages interest in these important questions and leads to better understanding of this
crucial aspect of human existence.
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The current condition of (Western) academic psychology can be criticized for various reasons. In the past years, many debates have been centered around the so-called “replication crisis” and the “WEIRD people problem”. However, one aspect which has received relatively little attention is the fact that psychological research is typically limited to currently living individuals, while the psychology of the past remains unexplored. We find that more research in the field of historical psychology is required to capture both the similarities and differences between psychological mechanisms both then and now. We begin by outlining the potential benefits of understanding psychology also as a historical science and explore these benefits using the example of stress. Finally, we consider methodological, ideological, and practical pitfalls, which could endanger the attempt to direct more attention toward cross-temporal variation. Nevertheless, we suggest that historical psychology would contribute to making academic psychology a truly universal endeavor that explores the psychology of all humans.
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It is unknown how abundant extraterrestrial life is, or whether such life might be complex or intelligent. On Earth, the emergence of complex intelligent life required a preceding series of evolutionary transitions such as abiogenesis, eukaryogenesis, and the evolution of sexual reproduction, multicellularity, and intelligence itself. Some of these transitions could have been extraordinarily improbable, even in conducive environments. The emergence of intelligent life late in Earth's lifetime is thought to be evidence for a handful of rare evolutionary transitions, but the timing of other evolutionary transitions in the fossil record is yet to be analyzed in a similar framework. Using a simplified Bayesian model that combines uninformative priors and the timing of evolutionary transitions, we demonstrate that expected evolutionary transition times likely exceed the lifetime of Earth, perhaps by many orders of magnitude. Our results corroborate the original argument suggested by Brandon Carter that intelligent life in the Universe is exceptionally rare, assuming that intelligent life elsewhere requires analogous evolutionary transitions. Arriving at the opposite conclusion would require exceptionally conservative priors, evidence for much earlier transitions, multiple instances of transitions, or an alternative model that can explain why evolutionary transitions took hundreds of millions of years without appealing to rare chance events. Although the model is simple, it provides an initial basis for evaluating how varying biological assumptions and fossil record data impact the probability of evolving intelligent life, and also provides a number of testable predictions, such as that some biological paradoxes will remain unresolved and that planets orbiting M dwarf stars are uninhabitable.
The midnight sun is a fascinating phenomenon observed near the Earth’s poles. Whether it is known through observation or through theory, it is bound to provoke one’s curiosity, since it involves the most familiar object in the sky, viz. the sun. This paper seeks to investigate the various ways in which this phenomenon was understood or considered in ancient literature, focusing on Indian astronomical literature. It is found that some texts primarily describe the phenomena at the poles themselves, while the remaining additionally describe the latitudes at which one would see days that are a few months long. A comparison is made across texts in order to facilitate an understanding of the methods and the accuracy of the texts discussed.
The recent candidate detection of ∼1 ppb of phosphine in the middle atmosphere of Venus is so unexpected that it requires an exhaustive search for explanations of its origin. Phosphorus-containing species have not been modeled for Venus' atmosphere before, and our work represents the first attempt to model phosphorus species in the venusian atmosphere. We thoroughly explore the potential pathways of formation of phosphine in a venusian environment, including in the planet's atmosphere, cloud and haze layers, surface, and subsurface. We investigate gas reactions, geochemical reactions, photochemistry, and other nonequilibrium processes. None of these potential phosphine production pathways is sufficient to explain the presence of ppb phosphine levels on Venus. If PH3's presence in Venus' atmosphere is confirmed, it therefore is highly likely to be the result of a process not previously considered plausible for venusian conditions. The process could be unknown geochemistry, photochemistry, or even aerial microbial life, given that on Earth phosphine is exclusively associated with anthropogenic and biological sources. The detection of phosphine adds to the complexity of chemical processes in the venusian environment and motivates in situ follow-up sampling missions to Venus. Our analysis provides a template for investigation of phosphine as a biosignature on other worlds.
En 1569, le cartographe hollandais Gérard Mercator publiait une projection qui allait révolutionner la navigation maritime. Bien que l’importance de la projection de Mercator soit soulignée dans la documentation existante, la façon dont elle en est venue à jouer un rôle prépondérant dans la production de cartes du monde en cartographie thématique et en cartographie de référence n’a pas retenu l’attention. L’institutionnalisation de la projection de Mercator dans la cartographie de l’Europe occidentale et des États-Unis découle du rôle joué par les navigateurs, les sociétés et les organismes scientifiques, ainsi que les producteurs de cartes de référence et de cartes thématiques de même que d’atlas à l’usage du public. Les données, que l’auteure soumet à une analyse de contenu, proviennent du registre de publication de cartes du monde individuelles et apparaissant dans les atlas, et elles sont comparées et confrontées aux données historiques de sources complémentaires. L’étude révèle que l’utilisation impropre de la projection de Mercator a commencé après 1700, au moment où elle a été rattachée aux travaux des scientifiques auprès des navigateurs et à la création de la cartographie thématique. Au cours du dix-huitième siècle, la projection de Mercator a été diffusée dans les publications et les rapports destinés aux sociétés de géographie qui décrivaient les explorations financées par l’État. Au dix-neuvième siècle, l’influence de scientifiques bien connus faisant usage de la projection de Mercator a filtré dans les publications destinées au grand public. L’utilisation de la projection de Mercator dans la production de cartes du monde en cartographie de référence et en cartographie thématique est un choix qui résultait de la validation indirecte de cette projection par les milieux scientifique et universitaire depuis le dix-huitième siècle jusque tard au dix-neuvième siècle.