Friday, April 25, 2008

The "Galileo Affair"

On June 22nd, 1633, Galileo Galilei was condemned by a tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church for teaching that the Earth revolves about the Sun, rather than the other way round. On his knees before the assembled cardinals, the seventy-year-old man recanted his belief in the Earth's motion and renounced his life work. So doing, he escaped torture or death by burning at the stake, and won instead the lighter sentence of house arrest in Florence. It has been said that after reciting the official recantation he whispered under his breath, Eppur si muove -- "Yet it moves."

Whether Galileo actually whispered the legendary words hardy matters; he surely thought them. He returned to Florence, frail and blind, and continued his experiments in physics. And the Earth went on revolving about the Sun.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II formally proclaimed that the Church erred in condemning Galileo. The condemnation resulted from a "tragic mutual incomprehension," said the pope, and became a symbol of the Church's "supposed rejection of scientific progress."

The photograph that accompanied the newspaper story about the church's "rehabilitation" of Galileo showed John Paul II dressed in Renaissance garb sitting on a Renaissance throne in a Renaissance palace, surrounded by other men (no women) also dressed in Renaissance clothes. All that was missing was the seventy-year-old man on his knees on the marble floor. The photograph was symbolic: in spite of the pope's cautious and carefully-worded proclamation to the contrary, orthodox theology and science remain essentially at odds.

The heart of the Galileo affair was not the question of whether the Earth went around the Sun or the other way around. And the ongoing tension between science and religion has nothing to do with heliocentricity, the big bang, evolution, or neurobiology. At issue is the fundamental philosophical assumption that underlies all science: that the universe unfolds in an ordered way that is susceptible to analysis by empirical observation and mathematical logic. Or to put it more bluntly: No supernatural agency intervenes arbitrarily in nature.

The only proof of this metascientific assumption is the pudding: Natural science has been spectacularly successful. Moreover, supernaturalists have yet to offer anything other than anecdotal evidence for any supposed miraculous event.

There is nothing new about this clash of understanding. As Philip Ball shows in an essay in the April 17 issue of Nature, the same question was argued by Catholic scholars as early as the 12th century. For example, William of Conches, a teacher at Chartres, insisted (I quote Ball) "that the divine system of nature is coherent and consistent, and therefore comprehensible: if we ask questions of nature, we can expect to get answers, and to be able to understand them." William did not countenance a Creator who was constantly intervening in the world -- and he got into trouble for his opinion. He was nevertheless devoutly Catholic. Today we might call him a religious naturalist.

Embracing heliocentrism did not resolve the Galileo affair, nor do soothing words about the "supposed" antagonisms between science and religion. The conflict is not between science and religion; it is between naturalism and miracles. The Church remains as committed as ever to an anthropomorphic God who intervenes in the creation. As a consequence, the Church has cut itself off from participation in one of the great adventures of the human spirit -- the flight of the human imagination into a universe of unanticipated majesty and mystery.