Monday, January 01, 2007

Notes for a Galileo video

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." - Galileo Galilei

On YouTube, I've been having a fun little conversation with "Cortmeister," a political commentator and agnostic (or "soft atheist") with lots of interesting life stories and a pleasant attitude towards people with different beliefs than his own. We've traded a couple video responses about science and religion, and in his last video on the topic, he mentioned Galileo and even suggested that clerics at the time were still enforcing the belief that the world was flat.

That was a little while ago, but I wasn't going to be satisfied with leaving a comment that flat-earth believers were the minority since a century after Christ (with Pliny the Elder); by the 5th century, the educated populace was nearly unanimous. The notion that people in the middle ages believed the world was flat was popularized in 1828 by Washington Irving's The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus; Wikipedia on "Flat Earth".

I am preparing a more extensive video that explains the Galileo affair based on some simple Web research. I wanted it to be a little higher production value than my last videos, since anti-religious sentiments tend to run strong in the Tubiverse. Cortmeister is not my only audience member, but I couldn't ask for a better dialogue partner, owing to his patience and moderation.

Importantly, my goal here is not primarily to defend the Church. It is merely to complicate the picture. But there is a sense in which that is a defense in itself. After all, where the 17th century Church is concerned, a complex picture will typically be more favorable than a simplistic one.

Here are the links I collected just from Googling "Galileo".

Catholic Points of View
Other References

I wanted to use one or two real books, but the library was closed; thus I'll have to disclaim any scholarly pretensions. It's all just Internet sources.

A couple of notes on the sources

History is interpretation. That does not mean that it is entirely or even widely subjective, but human controversies will play upon different sympathies in different people, whether they are recent or thousands of years old. Factually, I saw only one glaring difference between two accounts: the author of the Catholic Encyclopedia has no knowledge of Douglas Linder's allegation that the 1616 injunction against Galileo was likely a forgery by his unscrupulous enemies. The book review from First Things gives us an interpretation somewhere in the middle: the injunction was not illegitimate, but it was secret, and was only discovered after Galileo's Copernicanism was brought to the Inquisition's attention a second time. But this is really the only factual difference between accounts.

One will notice also a significant difference in tone and interpretation in the different articles. Both of the articles from explicitly Catholic sources tend to have a defensive edge on them; the one from "Catholic Answers" in particular conveys a slight air of "the Church can do no wrong." That might rub some people the wrong way, but I still recommend it alongside the others, as it makes some good points. However, both the Catholic sources tend, I believe, to overstate the "kindness" with which the elderly Galileo was treated by his prosecutors. Relative to a serious criminal, perhaps, Galileo was treated like royalty; but relative to the earnest and faithful Catholic that he was, his treatment could only be called unjust and brutish.

What's at stake in the question?

I do not often encounter strong anti-Catholic or anti-religious people in my daily life; I wish that was good evidence to conclude that the "science versus religion" debacle has largely faded into a dead history of bad philosophy, bad science, and bad religion. Unfortunately, this is not true, as the Internet and sometimes even the print media often remind me.

Although the name of Galileo is not usually the first to come up in Internet debates, as one among a litany of historical embarrassments of organized religion, it's still a popular old chestnut--usually somewhere after the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the witch burnings. That's a little ironic, really, as none of those three things are the worst things Christians have done; the death tolls pale in comparison to the 30 Years War (~7 million), the French wars of religion (~3 million), or the higher estimates of the Albigensian crusade (~1 million). Those first two are probably rarely mentioned because they are, after all, the killings of Christians by other Christians, and thus apparently less of a scandal (Source). (As a further aside, I point out that the cynical human consciousness never seems to shed as much of a tear for the brutalizations of civil wars, especially when said wars occur among a people not "my" own. How much of that temptation lurks beneath certain Americans' enthusiasm about leaving Iraq to its own violent squalor? "Let God sort it out," indeed.)

But that's neither here nor there. When the name of Galileo does come up, it is bound to polarize debaters around one basic grievance: that given the choice between the sober conclusions of careful observation, and the security of a superstitious tradition, the Church not only chose the latter, but persecuted one of her own best and brightest in its pursuit.

This grievance is more or less universalized depending on the passion of the argument. Either the Galileo affair represents the darkness of the "dark ages;" the pathos of superstition inherent in the Catholic religion; the opposition of Christianity to science or even the whole of reason; or else the fundamental incompatibility between religion and critical thought since the beginning of recorded history. The battle between faith and science begins with the Galileo story and expands through time and space to develop a near cosmic significance. The Galileo affair long ago achieved a quasi-religious status as an icon of the birth of independent reason. Galileo is to modern rationalism what Moses is to Judeo-Christianity: its first emancipator, lawgiver, and standard. I do not believe that it is an accident that the number-one complaint I read against organized religion is not its moralism, its historical violence, its self-righteousness, or its sentimentalism. No; this dubious honor has always (in my experience) been reserved to the complaint that religion--and in particular, Christianity--is anti-intellectual.

A point on Catholicism and Galileo today

That Catholic authorities were, in part, to blame for all this I think is beyond serious dispute; hence Pope John Paul II did a good thing when he expressed regret for the way Galileo was treated. That was in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on October 31, 1992--the text of which has never been published on the Internet in English (the link is to the Babelfish translation of the French, which is very readable). However, the way the speech was presented in the media produced some serious misconceptions (worsened by the lack of an English version).

The first misconception is that John Paul was conceding the entire dispute between science and religion as it was being mythologically represented by popular culture. That idea is silly on the face of it; one need only look at any of John Paul's other writings to know that he stands firmly within the whole of miraculous and fantastical belief of traditional Christianity.

The second misconception (and most irritating to me personally) is that 1992 was some kind of watershed; as if Galileo--and by extension, rational scientific thought--was under censure in Catholic thought for 359 years, until we were finally "liberated" by John Paul's "pardoning" of Galileo, as suggested by news articles like this one. Galileo's Dialogues were in circulation again no later than three years after his sentencing, thanks to Matthias Bernegger; and his complete scientific works were officially released from censure in 1741 by Pope Benedict XIV. John Paul's speech was no more than a concession of irresponsibility on the part of the then-magisterium; not the momentous release of Christendom from centuries of thoughtlessness!

An outline of points

From the specific to the general, here are the points I would like to make.
  1. Some of Galileo's enemies may have been dishonest scoundrels; but they were neither as simple-minded nor as superstitious as they are often thought. His first opponents were not pious Bible thumpers, but professional scientific rivals who earnestly believed that heliocentricism was scientifically inferior to geocentricism (and not entirely with bad reason). In other words, Galileo's main enemies were not primarily concerned that he was a heretic; but rather that his theory was simply stupid and wrong and would turn back the progress of science. Heresy was just an easier conviction to win, especially when the authorities were generally not scientists, but fearful and reactionary theologians.

  2. Concerning the issue of Biblical literalism, Galileo's clerical opponents were not strictly Biblical literalists; even Pope Urban VIII and Robert Bellarmine were (cautiously) open to the idea that Biblical geocentrism was figurative rather than literal. Catholicism has a long tradition of nuanced and spiritual interpretation of Scripture going back to Augustine. But the theologians were petty and authoritarian, and they were offended that a layman would presume to tell them how to read the Bible correctly. [Autobiographical note: I know personally the sting of being told that one is arrogant and insubordinate when one initially believed only that he was only speaking commonsense truths. Although, to be sure, Galileo had much better credentials than I do.] One should also remember that one of the central sticking points of the freshly-remembered Protestant Reformation was the Protestants' insistence on the divine pedigree of the individual interpretation of the Bible. With that on the clergy's mind, there should be no surprise that the Inquisition would spook at Galileo's call to rework centuries of traditional Biblical interpretation, especially based on a theory that the scientists themselves were not unanimous on.

    An analogy: consider how successful today's conservative "scientists" have been at stymieing the progress of alternative energy by their continual suspicion of the truth of global warming, and you have a pretty good picture of the political environment three centuries ago.

  3. There is also the human and political dimension. Although we cannot really judge Galileo's personality with certainty, he was certainly more willing to take risks than was his predecessor Copernicus. I don't believe that it is a sacrilege to suggest, as does Stephen Barr in First Things, that Galileo may have made some political and even scientific mistakes; and that certainly he could have furthered his discoveries and thought within the boundaries of what was acceptable to the Inquisition. But where Galileo was sometimes criticized for his rashness in attempting to popularize his discoveries too soon (and some of them were, in fact, false), this could probably be forgiven him on the grounds that modern science was largely born with him. As such it had not yet developed the methodical, paranoid self-criticism which is today such an important part of it. To be sure, the greater weight of the blame rests upon individuals who, completely apart from Galileo, stoked the fires of controversy in order to see his influence removed--in particular (according to Linder's "The Trial of Galileo") Niccolo Lorini and Tommaso Caccini, as well as cardinals that seemed bent as much on making an example out of Galileo as they were on making sure they would never see him again.
So what?

Ostensibly, the reason I took up this project was simply to reply to Cortmeister's question as to whether the Church in fact proclaimed as a doctrine a matter of the physical sciences. In fact it did--though not infallibly--because it believed that not only that it was Biblical but also that the matter had already been sufficiently intellectually settled by natural philosophy.

But really I also felt that this was a good opportunity to give the whole issue some new exposure. When the Galileo affair is placed within a context of a brand new science competing with entrenched Aristoteleanism, the heels of the Protestant Reformation, the state of theology and the personalities that were at work, it loses some of its mythological status. Nobody denies that there was corruption and buffoonery among the clergy. But that was one of many factors that ultimately led Galileo to have his greatest work be rejected by the Church that he loved, and to live the rest of his life in compromised freedom. Indeed, although Galileo is proof that the best response to new ideas is patience and openness, he is also proof that even geniuses can be wrong, and themselves need to be patient with a world that has not quite caught up with them yet.

It is my opinion that the Church is far from the enemy of discovery and development of the sciences. Historically it has been ambivalent about philosophy, and over the centuries it has tended to oscillate between extremes--in one era being the sole preserver of enlightened human wisdom in a dark age; and in another, fearing the excesses and recklessness of unchecked studies vis-a-vis the saving faith of her members. In most eras it has been a little bit of both, in different areas.

Like every other natural thing, the Church appreciates and loves learning, since it is the right development of the faculty of reason which is a God-given gift. But the Church also recognizes that no natural virtue is free from the possibility of corruption, and thus everything must be tested (though it has been slower to realize that it itself is not free from the possibility of corruption). Says St. Paul, "Test everything: retain what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

1 comment:

Matt of CG said...

You formulated and dispensed with this inside of a week? Well, I..........................................................................................................................