Phil-osophically Speaking – October 8, 2010

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Science and Religion: When Worlds Collide

It rocked the foundations of Western Civilization; cast a shadow over sacred truths and instigated an eternal enmity between those devoted to enlarging the frontiers of human understanding and those championing the unique dignity of the human race. Some 400 years ago, two worlds clashed on a moral battleground whose cannonading has grown ever louder.

This week’s column moves away from taxes, runaway spending and the November election — far away to the outer reaches of the Solar System where Jupiter, just recently, made its nearest approach to the earth in 50 years. The news reawakened my interest in the first controversy between religion and science waged centuries ago, across the Atlantic, in the city of Rome, when America was a wild and untamed frontier.

It all began when Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer, argued that the four moons he discovered revolving around Jupiter answered objections made against the heliocentric theory that if the Earth really moved around the Sun it would leave the moon behind. That the Earth was prime real estate in the cosmos fixed and centrally located, was proof that humankind was the flower of creation. To dogmatically state otherwise was heretical and hence Galileo was summoned to Rome, put under house arrest, tried and compelled to publicly recant his position that the Earth moves though legend has it that under his breath he lamented, “But it does.”

 Galileo’s symbolic martyrdom is grist for those who believe religion injurious to enlightened sensibilities, a rank superstition and an instrument to imprison the human mind. Pope John Paul II’s regrets about the Church’s actions has hardly dampened the chorus that God is, to paraphrase Pierre Laplace, a useless hypothesis, especially in light of an ancient Earth, the mind-numbing breadth of the universe and the wide acceptance, even among ecclesiastics, of evolutionary biology.

It is important, however, to see the Galileo controversy in context of what actually occurred, when it occurred, and how it was interpreted by the actors caught in its crosshairs. It was not Galileo but the polymath Nicolai Copernicus who first scientifically postulated the heliocentric universe. Copernicus had traversed the vastness of the mathematical problem giving his theory credence. This prompted Cardinal Nikolaus Von Schonberg of the Roman Curia to write:  “I have learned that you have not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers but also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the Earth moves; that the Sun is the central place in the Universe. I have a high regard for you most learned sir and, unless I inconvenience you, communicate this discovery to scholars and send me your writings.”

This hardly qualifies as a knee-jerk, Draconian reaction by the Holy See. Indeed, in his Revolution of Heavenly Spheres, a landmark in scientific thought, Copernicus dedicates his masterpiece to Pope Paul III. This diplomacy is not surprising since the two most celebrated Doctors of the Church, Augustine and Aquinas, had cautioned about reading the Bible as a scientific treatise. Genesis, said Augustine, was more an argument against polytheism than it was a blueprint on how the world was created. The plurality of divinities was a gnawing problem to an ascendant, monotheistic Judaism. If, however, as Genesis says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth … the waters, the light of day and all living creatures” then these things must not be worshipped as gods since they were created by the one and only God.

This is not to maintain that the Bible was bereft of influence in shaping Christianity’s view about the constitution of the universe. Joshua, after all, commanded the Sun to stand still and the Book of Psalms states that “God fixed the earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.” But the Church’s reservations to embrace the heliocentric theory was not only because it contradicted the explicit words of Sacred Scripture, but Aristotelian physics and Ptolemy’s computations, both of which systematically visualized the Universe as one of stationary planetary spheres, a belief that stood mathematically unchallenged for more than a thousand years.

Aristotle’s conception of creation had none of Plato’s religious romanticism and charm but his philosophy was so complete, his genius so comprehensive, his methodology so essential to scientific inquiry that Saint Thomas Aquinas literally converted and baptized him to Christianity. Even today, more than 2,300 years after his death, Aristotle remains among the most influential thinkers that ever lived. His impact on medieval scholasticism was so profound that the Aristotelian corpus was essentially elevated to Christian dogma and would play a critical and decisive role in the trial of Galileo.

But why Galileo, since less than a century separated him from Copernicus?  What had changed to cause such a radical reaction from Rome when its response to Copernicus was so mild? The answer is that during the time of Galileo Christendom was reeling from Martin Luther and the firestorm of the Protestant Reformation. The ensuing turmoil triggered an internecine war, political turmoil and seemingly intractable divisions among Christians. Bloodied, wounded and demoralized, the Church became inordinately heightened against dissent. Moreover, while Copernicus was careful not to be doctrinaire, Galileo, in his brusque and vitriolic manner, insisted on the inerrancy of his findings.

Later evidence by Kepler and others ultimately proved his findings correct; but at the time Galileo more disproved the astrophysics of Aristotle and Ptolemy than proving Copernicus. During Galileo’s inquisition, he was repeatedly challenged with the computations of the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brache whose scheme had the planets revolving around the Sun while the Sun revolved around a motionless Earth. The point being that Galileo had overstated his proof — wouldn’t he agree? Galileo refused to budge.

Galileo had his defenders in the Church, including the chief mathematician and astronomer at Jesuit Roman College, but no one had the prestige of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, Rome’s leading theologian who led the Roman Inquisition. Although Bellarmine was a better theologian than an astronomer, he chided Galileo’s insistence that the book of nature is written only in mathematical characters and that whatever could not be expressed by mathematical abstraction was either subjective or non-existent. This struck Bellarmine as the fallacy of Scientism, the belief that only through science is the truth known.

The real irony in this whole messy business, that far more than relying on Scripture to answer a scientific question, the Church’s big mistake was wedding itself too closely to a scientific view that was not only widely accepted but conceived by one who was considered history’s greatest philosopher, classifier and collector of knowledge and the other its greatest astronomer. That the geocentric view (an immovable earth at its center) was more congenial to the religious sensibilities of the time no more disqualifies the theory than the fact that today most theologians are deeply satisfied with the Big Bang theory proving that the universe was not eternal but had a beginning.

None of this detracts from the injustice done to Galileo only that the story is more complicated and entangled than the one usually told. It is, interestingly enough, the descendents of Galileo, the modern scientists, and not Galileo himself, the one actually victimized, that reacted most harshly toward religion. Despite his mistreatment, Galileo never blamed religion itself, only some of its flawed and fragile communicants (his beloved daughter was a nun) and his fidelity to his Catholic pieties never wavered.

I cannot help but be impressed by the reversal of roles today, whereby science seems far more intolerant and fearful of religion than religion is of science. The open-mindedness that science says was denied Galileo by religion can scarcely be found in their journals and observatories whenever there is even the slightest intimation that the universe’s many mysteries are theologically suggestive. Yet inside the walls of the Vatican you will find among the statues venerating the Virgin and her Son, the saints and martyrs, is a marble figure of Galileo Galilei, gazing upward to the stars and beyond.

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