Thursday, March 17, 2011

Eppur si muove

A few more words about Galileo.

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."

As I recall, 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, I wrote at the time, was symbolic: In spite of the pope's cautious and carefully-worded proclamation to the contrary, orthodox theology and science remain essentially at odds.

I recently searched the web (including the Vatican's website) for the photo, unsuccessfully. I know that some of you are better at this than I am. If you can track down the photo, I'd be grateful.

Essentially at odds? The heart of the Galileo affair was not the question of whether the Earth orbited the Sun or the other way around. The ongoing tension between science and religion has nothing to do with heliocentricity, the big bang, evolution, or neurobiology. At issue is the fundamental assumption that underlies all science -- that the universe unfolds in an ordered and consistent 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 (witness my sitting here communicating around the world, instantly, wirelessly). Supernaturalists have yet to offer anything other than anecdotal or hearsay evidence for any supposed miraculous event, including the one that is central to the faith.

There is not, of course, any way to disprove the assertions of supernaturalists, nor would I wish to. Perhaps the man Jesus was indeed the same person who created 100 billion galaxies. Perhaps he did rise from the dead. Perhaps his mother immaculately conceived and now resides somewhere in her uncorrupted earthly body, as Catholics are required to believe. All such assertions are immune to empirical examination. So the standoff continues, and Church authorities wear their patriarchal Renaissance garb with the same confident flair as they embrace their Renaissance cosmology.