Friday, November 27, 2009

Galileo's finger -- Part 2

On Wednesday I reflected on the unresolved issues at work in the Galileo affair. I believe that Galileo himself, in a way prescient for his time, understood what was at stake.

Let's be clear. It's not just about whether religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria" (to use Stephen Jay Gould's phrase). That depends on how one defines religion.

Overwhelmingly, however, throughout the world, religion invokes revelation and miracles, two things profoundly at odds with science. Not with the content of science; one can believe, say, in evolution by natural selection and accept on faith the interventions of a supernatural agency. Rather, we are talking about two ways of knowing that are not only mutually exclusive, but contradictory in spirit.

Why contradictory? The astonishing success of science came only with the exclusion of the supernatural and the miraculous as categories of knowing. After centuries of the exacting scrutiny of nature, scientists have not encountered a single reliably-attested event that requires a supernatural explanation. On the contrary, countless events that were previously thought to have supernatural explanations have been shown to have natural causes. As for "truths of revelation" -- well, the fact that there are as many revealed truths as there are religions suggests the fragility of that concept.

The essential tension is not between two sets of truths, but between two ways of knowing -- two worldviews, if you will. One can live with both at once, I suppose, since many do. But not, I would guess, without a considerable degree of cognitive dissonance.

This tension was present in an incipient way in the Galileo affair and remains unresolved in the Church today -- and perhaps to some degree in all of us.