Sunday, 22 February 2009

On the topicality of Galileo

"I was astounded to discover how topical the issue of Galileo's trial still is in the Vatican", writes Colin Blakemore in the Observer. He is plugging his Channel 4 documentary, part of the History of Christianity series (uneven, but generally quite good) in which he tackles the thorny issue of religion v science.

I must say it doesn't surprise me. It would only surprise someone who thought the question at issue was whether the sun revolved around the earth, or vice versa, and that once that question was settled (it turns out that the earth revolves around the sun, sort of) there was nothing left for the church to do but issue a humiliating apology. But it was much more significant than that. More than anyone else, Galileo can be blamed (or congratulated) for driving a wedge between science and religion. Before his trial, the church neither endorsed nor condemned the heliocentric theory. Officially it taught the Ptolemaic universe, which seemed to be compatible with the Bible (it wasn't) and which matched closely with other facets of its theology (the notion that Jesus had "come down" from heaven, for example). But it was not a point of dogma: late medieval Christianity was not a form of Biblical fundamentalism.

Galileo deliberately set out to destroy the cosy consensus by which the ideas put forward by Copernicus were generally tolerated (if not officially supported) by the religious authorities and challenged them to disprove his version. In an open letter addressed to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany he argued that scientific statements apparently incompatible with scripture should either be accepted (in which case scripture would be reinterpreted) or repudiated - if they could be disproved. For him there was no middle way. He wrote:


As to propositions which are stated but not rigorously demonstrated, anything contrary to the Bible involved by them must be held undoubtedly false and should be proved so by every possible means.


The corollary of this was that:

Before a physical proposition is condemned it must be shown to be not rigorously demonstrated.


Galileo was (so he thought) challenging his detractors in the church hierarchy to put up or shut up. In that sense he was much closer to Dawkins than to the non-confrontational Charles Darwin, who never claimed that natural selection was incompatible with Christianity. He was not an atheist, but he was an early proponent of the view that science and religion had battles to fight on territory that overlapped. He would have had no truck with the argument that science and faith represented separate "magesteria" - that the one explained the "how" of things while the other explained the "why". For him, there was only one magesterium, one worldview in which everything had to be explained. And when the findings of observational science were set against the writings set out in scripture, scripture must ultimately cede the field.

By stressing the need to accept or to disprove his ideas about the nature of the solar system, for which he thought his discovery of the moons of Jupiter provided irrefutable evidence (it didn't) Galileo forced the church authorities back into a position of fundamentalism and opposition to science. Since they had most of the power, and since the Counter-Reformation was then in full flow, his stand could only be described as foolhardy. I suppose that is why he has gone down as science's great hero-martyr.

In a speech he made in Parma in 1990, the then Cardinal Ratzinger claimed that the trial - which ended with Galileo forced to recant his scientific discoveries, and confined to years of house arrest - was "little regarded at the time" and only later became a "myth of the Enlightenment... the force of progress and liberation of humanity from the chains of ignorance that kept it impotent in the face of nature". The future pontiff also quoted approvingly the words of the philosopher Paul Feyerabend

The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.


When these remarks were dredged up years later, the pope was roundly condemned as an obscurantist, defending one of his church's darkest hours. In fact he was thinking like a postmodernist. He was denying the special status of scientific knowledge - arguing that since Galileo was not right in every particular he was not, in some fundamental sense, right where the Inquisition was wrong. He went on to describe the current status of the trial as "a symptomatic case that illustrates the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology", and even entertained the speculation that if the church had been tougher on Galileo there would have been no atomic bomb.

Ratzinger a postmodernist? Bizarre, I know, but there you are.

It is trivial to say that Galileo was right about the mechanics of the solar system. It is much less trivial to argue that, therefore, Galileo was correct in seeing his scientific discovery as a defeat for religion. The church of the time, a less confrontational account of the trial might say, overreached itself by trying to exert control over an area of knowledge that did not belong to it. It knew about theology and salvation: by attempting to control science it was acting outside its natural competence. Today, the same charge is made against the "new atheists". His opponents charge Richard Dawkins with "scientific fundamentalism", of asserting that there is no limit to what might be brought within the sphere of scientific explanation.

While it is clearly nonsensical to describe Dawkins and the Ayatollah Khomeini as occupying two extremes of the secular-religious continuum, scientific realists and scriptural literalists do have something in common with Galileo and his clerical opponents: a unitary conception of knowledge. All religions make claims that are incompatible with science, however much they pretend to themselves and others that this is not so. It is incompatible with science (as it is currently understood) to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or was born of a virgin, or that an angel dictated the Koran, or that the human body is inhabited by a soul that previously dwelt in other bodies.

Ultimately, the notion of non-overlapping magesteria will not work, because it rests upon a denial of the possibility of absolute truth which both science and religion assert. Either the consistency of the laws of physics is dependent upon the forbearance of a Supreme Being (science is a subset of religion) or religion is a purely human construct/ genetic predisposition which might have valuable points to make about morality and personal behaviour, but is ultimately wrong. Religion and science may have different general concerns, but at important points - such as the nature of the universe, or the nature of human beings - they are interested in the same things, but expect different answers. Conflict is therefore inevitable.

It's not surprising to find Colin Blakemore in Galileo's camp. He writes:

Perhaps we humans come with a false model of ourselves, which works well as a means of predicting the behaviour of other people - a belief that actions are the result of conscious intentions. Then could the pervasive human belief in supernatural forces and spiritual agents, controlling the physical world, and influencing our moral judgments, be an extension of that false logic, a misconception no more significant than a visual illusion?

I'm dubious about those "why" questions: why are we here? Why do we have a sense of right and wrong? Either they make no sense or they can be recast as the kind of "how" questions that science answers so well.


For him, in other words, religion is something that science will ultimately explain, or even explain away. That is not the inevitable outcome, however likely it may appear. Even the bus slogan only claimed that there is "probably" no God. Dawkins believes that there is almost certainly no God. Other scientists believe that there is a God. That is a perfectly reasonable belief to have; what is more questionable is the assertion that God will always be outside or beyond scientific explanation. If God exists, or the soul exists, then they can in principle be known. Science is the procedure by which knowledge is discovered. If God exists, science will one day find him. Science has nothing to fear from such an eventuality, although scientific atheists would find themselves with some difficult explaining to do.

The danger for religion, of course, is that science will one day - perhaps soon - discover a theory of consciousness, a theory of cosmology, a theory of the origin of morality and of religious experience that, put together provide an entire explanation of both the nature of things and the phenomenon of religion. That really would be curtains for the God hypothesis; and I personally doubt that religion could survive it. It would have been exposed as a placebo, and placebos only work if you believe that they are genuine drugs.

The result is a strange inversion of Pascal's famous wager. One should bet that science, rather religion, is true, because while science may one day either prove, or destroy, religion, religion will ultimately have to accept science's answer.

9 comments:

Sarka said...

Hello Heresiarch. This is my first venture into commenting in your Corner, though I have often enjoyed reading it.

"Ultimately, the notion of non-overlapping magesteria will not work, because it rests upon a denial of the possibility of absolute truth which both science and religion assert. "

Perhaps, but it strikes me that both science and religion also at times and in different ways assert the impossibility of obtaining absolute truth...In science, this is less evident in biology or astronomy than in theoretical physics and cosmology, which often produce theories that can be formulated mathematically but defy our ordinary "common-sense" understanding of what is comprehensible empirical truth. In religion, propositions about the impossibility of direct rational comprehension of the divine or "ultimate nature of reality" are absolutely legion. And this is not necessarily mere "cop-out" retreat into mysticism. After all, the better sort of European Protestant theology, though of course not acceptable to Ratzinger and almost certainly unintelligble to Dawkins, has been bound up with the sorts of ontological, phenomenological and existential reflection that addresses the God problem in a way that simply passes by this "absolute truth: religion versus science" debate. It is a debate that strikes me as very very anglo-saxon, even in its confidence that it is the only sensible debate going and its very clunking 19th century tone!

The Heresiarch said...

Welcome Sarka: your first comment, I hope not your last.

An interesting point. You are, first of all, quite correct that both science and religion admit that ultimate truth may ultimately be unknowable. I'm no sort of expert on either, it must be said. But, from what I understand, in the further reaches of theoretical physics - superstrings, multidimensionality etc - mathematical models are put forward which are outside any prospect of being empirically verified. The best that can be said about them are that they are elegant, and that the maths works. This type of physics approaches Platonism. In the religious sphere, the mystical experience (again, as I understand it) is all about directly apprehending a transcendent reality that is not knowable in an intellectual sense.

The paradox I was setting up still works, however. Science may admit that the ultimate truth will always elude, or be beyond, reach; but it asserts, I think, that an ultimate truth does exist, and it is the job of science (at least in its further reaches) to approximate more and more closely to that reality. Thus the models proposed by Newton and Einstein were very different, but the represented the best available appproximation at the time. To give up and say, we can get no nearer, is to proclaim the end of science. Similarly with religion: God may be unknowable, but a religion that merely asserts the unknowability of God ceases to be religion and becomes either philosophy, a type of mystical contemplation ... or science.

Towards the end I fear you're turning into Theo Hobson! He repeatedly claims that scientists who attack religion don't understand the subtleties of modern theology. My response is that most religious believers don't understand the subtleties of modern theology either. The realist interpretation of religion found in the caricatures of Dawkins strikes me as closer to the actual beliefs of most believers than Hobson's airy-fairy witterings.

valdemar squelch said...

Good post, but it's Ptolemaic, not Ptolomaic.

Re: the subtleties of theology. Odd that these subtle arguments always seem to leave their proponents believing whatever they wanted to believe about reality in the first place. Rather different from the scientific method, where an attempt to test a particular view of reality often explodes a whole set of received ideas.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but I have to say I was disappointed.

I thought it was going to be a post about the pointless waste of money EU-sponsored duplicate GPS system.

Never mind. Good post.

Sarka said...

There is much in what you say. I certainly don't think that religion and science are somehow converging on some mystic ineffability common to both at their outer limits. I merely wanted to point out that Dawkins model of science and Ratzinger's (and/or US fundy) model of religion are not the only positions in either science or religion on the question of "ultimate truth".

Of course, what you may be arguing is that even if not every scientific or religious person takes the positions you outline, then this is just obfuscation/inconsistency on their part - that your dichotomy is "what it always boils down to"...but I don't think you can quite so easily dismiss the many thinkers (some explicitly religious, some not) who do not consider scientific knowledge in the narrow sense to be the only valid form of human striving for truth, and who are not even specially interested in "doing battle" with science for the right to explain the universe.

You are quite right that science is progressive in a way that religion is not (unless you are a Hegelian..Or even August Comte) but frankly you could say the same about art. Art, of course, has never claimed formal parity with science as a way of describing how the world works, but individual works of art often make very successful claims on our attention as insights into how the world is, and how we are in relation to it. But who would claim that art was false and doomed because it was not "scientific"?

It is, incidentally, significant that the scientific atheists have a rather problematic relationship to art, not assaulting it directly but embarrassed by its previous entanglement with religion and suggesting that it should in some rather crass way, reminiscent of socialist realism, celebrate science instead!

Not that I am trying to conflate religion with art - all kinds of difficulties there! - but if religion has in the past occupied explanatory territory that natural science has rightly pushed it out of, it also inhabits territory that is akin to that of art - dealing with primary human experience and search for meaning and glimpsed "truth" in areas where science by definition has little purchase...and where science becomes hopelessly clumsy and ideological and starts to parody itself painfully if it tries.

Unlike Theo, I'm an agnostic and not a theist, let alone a Christian theist. If I read some "theologians" (Kierkegaard, Tillich, Buber, recently Bonhoeffer on ethics), it is not with the aim of having some theist system proved to me at the expense of the scientific view, or being given some pseudo-scientific reason to believe in a creator God...It is because they speak with poetic but also rational insight to the human condition. This COULD mean that I am just gutting them for ethical/psychological insights quite separable from the religious faith aspect. I'd even agree that there is an element of that in my attitude. But on the other hand, their insights (which tend to beat the "results" of "scientific" psychological studies into cocked hats)have something to do with their principle - not that God demonstrably exists, but that man is demonstrably a theological, as well as a scientific and artistic animal, these being the different categories in which man strives for truth and argues about it...and that if you forcibly abolished all the religions in the world, this would still be the case - for science could not fill the gap without betraying itself and becoming a theology in its turn.

But that said, I am a libertarian in theology as in art, and hate most organised theology-pushing institutions like poison, since most of them inevitably become pseudo-scientific, repressive and superstitious!

Matt said...

"...what is more questionable is the assertion that God will always be outside or beyond scientific explanation. If God exists, or the soul exists, then they can in principle be known. Science is the procedure by which knowledge is discovered. If God exists, science will one day find him."

Time and of space only came into existence at the moment of the big bang. Any "creator" therefore, cannot be a part of space and time - or in other words has to be outside of our universe (or even multiverse)

Science can only tell us about the laws and nature of the universe or multiverse that we live in. So even if an omniscient alien landed tomorrow with a textbook containing a full explanation of how the whole thing works, one could still posit the existence of a creator god, because such a thing is intrinsically outside of the universe/multiverse, and therefore outside the scope of scientific explanation.

However, the concept of a "soul" as some aspect of sapient consciousness that is not "physical" in the normal sense, is certainly within the scope of science to prove or disprove I suspect.

Sarka said...

Mind you, Heresiarch
I've just had a read of your wonderful Bishop Williamson on trousers piece...
So forget the Theo-esque burble, at least for the time being...

I think after reading that I'll stick with science, which has come on a little since a number of scientists also, interestingly, lambasted culottes as liable to lead to infertility and the breakdown of social order....

Anonymous said...

Fascinating essay Heresiarch. Science, incomplete as it's reach may be, is the only workable model we have of explanation of reality. Post - modernism is a parlour game and religion is just a cocktail (with varying mixes) of magical thinking and "niceness". Some philosophers (notably catholics) argue that science = empiricism and that there are truths which can be arrived at by pure reason thus not all truth is scientific. Obviously there are mathematical proofs which do not depend on observation or experiment but to leap from that to saying that logic and mathematics and religious philosophy are all equally non-scientific and al lequally valid does not stand up. You can use (indeed you need) maths to build a bridge or a plane but you can't use the Bible to build the ark and you can't predict any events at all using theology.

WeepingCross said...

It may be otiose to stray into this debate just to say I agree, but I will anyway! I've never thought anything other than that 'science' and 'religion' describe the same universe; if I am to have any metaphysical beliefs they must have some arguably evidential basis, and I live my life assuming there is a 'truth' even if it may be finally inaccessible, and that some statements about the nature of things are truer than others. So I may be unlikely to be persuaded that God doesn't exist by purely philosophical arguments, because my belief is historically-based; but I can imagine ways of undermining that belief by disproving the narrative.

But I wonder about using the term 'science' as though it described a body of knowledge rather than a process of arriving at more-or-less true statements; is science 'stuff', or a way of deriving statements based on observations about 'stuff', which is what it's always seemed to me? Can you say more about that?