According to the liberal Paul Seely:
"Ancient peoples were scientifically naive [in] that they did not distinguish between the appearance of the sky and their scientific concept of the sky. They had no reason to doubt what their eyes told them was true, namely, that the stars above them were fixed in a solid dome and that the sky literally touched the earth at the horizon. So, they equated appearance with reality and concluded that the sky must be a solid physical part of the universe just as much as the earth itself. "
A few comments:
1. I don’t question the fact that uninspired people living long ago probably had many inaccurate conceptions of the natural world. I’m just dealing with Seely’s overarching principle that the cosmography of the ancients was a transcription of appearances.
2. Take the Argonauts. Did Flaccus and Apollonius Rhodius write about the fantastic adventures of Jason and the Argonauts because the world appeared to have all these fabulous creatures? Likewise, did Ovid write the Metamorphosis based on appearances?
And what about Dante? He is writing from a prescientific perspective. Is Dante’s detailed cosmography of heaven, hell, and purgatory based on appearances? Is this what the afterlife looked like to an earthbound observer? I don’t think so. Rather, this is a literary and theological construct.
3. Even if, for the sake of argument, primitive peoples do judge by appearances, would that give rise to a transcultural cosmography? But don’t appearances vary from one place to another? Doesn’t the world present a different appearance depending on whether you live in the Arctic circle or the equator, Nebraska or the Andes, a tropical forest or a river valley, the East coast or the West coast?
4. Are appearances consistent with a flat-earth cosmography? What do we actually see as earthbound observers? Of course, if we live in tropical rainforest, we see very little. But suppose we have a more panoramic view.
a) We see the sun, moon, and stars appear to move across the sky. We also see that they always move in the same direction: clockwise, from east to west. (For now I’m omitting retrograde motion, which puzzled the ancients.)
Yet if the earth were flat, and the sun touched down because it literally came to the end of the world, then why would we see it rise in the east the morning after?
Why wouldn’t the sun reverse course? Alternate between clockwise and counterclockwise motion?
For the sun to “set” in the west,” but “rise” in the east suggests, does it not, that the sun went full circle? That it went “around” the earth?
b) Indeed, if during the daytime, the sun is moving in a semicircular path (the “dome of heaven”), and the sun rises each day in the same place, then that suggests a circular pathway. But if the earth is flat, then why is that necessary–or even expected? What is under the earth that the sun can pass through? Empty space? Does this mean the earth is floating in empty space?
c) Observers would also notice that the return time is about the same. Day and night are roughly the same duration.
To be sure, that varies. But the variations even out over the course of a year. When the days are long, the nights are short; when the nights are long, the days are short.
Yet if the return trip takes about the same amount of time, doesn’t this also suggest that the sun is moving in circles? But why would it go around and around unless the earth itself was round?
If the earth is spherical, then that’s why the sun would seem to move in the same concentric line.
d) At most, then, appearances would suggest a geocentric setting, but not a flat-earth cosmography.
e) In addition, primitive people were acquainted with relative motion, such as passing ships. So appearances could be consistent with more than one frame of reference.