I’ve discussed this issue on other occasions, but I’ll return to the issue from a somewhat different angle. According to liberals like Paul Seely, the ancients judged by appearances. They thought the world was flat because, to all appearances, it seemed to be flat, and given their prescientific ignorance, they had no reason to question their naked-eye perception. Hence, we’re treated to that widely circulated diagram of the triple-decker universe.
I grew up in the Greater Seattle area. That’s a hilly, mountainous region. Depending on weather conditions, and where you’re facing, you can see rows of hills–hills behind hills. These turn into foothills, behind which you can see mountains or mountain ranges, like the Olympics, Cascades, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier.
It looks like mountains are the most distant objects. There’s nothing between the mountains and the sky. The mountains appear to be right up against the sky. So it looks like mountains ring the outer edges of the flat earth. The only thing beyond the mountains is the sky.
But there’s a problem with that inference. For sightlines depend on the vantage-point of the observer. If you stayed in the same area all your life, I suppose you might labor under the illusion that you were at the center of the world, while the mountains marked the outer limits of the world.
But, of course, ancient people also traveled by boat or by foot. If you took a boat down the Pacific coast, if you saw Mt. Hood looking East rather than looking South, then you’d see that Mt. Hood wasn’t the end of the world. The world continued on the other side of Mt. Hood. There was something between the mountain and the sky. That wasn’t the edge of the world. Your perspective undergoes a radical shift. The viewpoint is relative to your particular position.
Surely lots of Indians did that sort of thing. Moreover, explorers like to brag about their discoveries. So is it realistic to think ancient people were that clueless about the world they inhabited? And that’s even before we bring inspiration to bear.
Here’s another thing to consider: before the invention and popularization of three-point perspective, how could the ancients accurately depict a landscape even if they knew better? Many of us have seen geometrically inaccurate Medieval paintings. But lack of foreshortening doesn’t mean the painter lacked depth perception. He knew that what’s farther looks smaller.
And even if a painter knew three-point perspective, he might still paint objects out of scale because that’s a way of indicating the comparative importance of different objects: bigger is better. His culture assigns great importance to some objects.