Professor Jason Rosenhouse has written an unflattering review of Michael Ruse’s new book, Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, which also discusses the trial of Galileo. Rosenhouse gets one important point right about Galileo, while lambasting Ruse’s assertion that “much of the problem was brought on Galileo by himself.” (In the interests of fairness, I should mention that Ruse’s book has been highly praised by no less an authority than Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson.) For my own comments on the Galileo affair, see my earlier posts here and here [scroll down to #2]).
Rosenhouse writes (bolding in all passages below is mine – VJT):
The fact is that the Galileo story is exactly what Ruse’s “anti-religious zealots” say it is. It so perfectly expresses the conflict between science and religion that the most hard-core atheist could not have scripted it better. Galileo got into trouble not just because he advocated heliocentrism, but because he argued that scientific questions should be answered by science and not by scripture. That was anathema to The Church. Church authorities spent years lecturing Galileo on precisely what he was and was not allowed to say. They exercised near-total thought control over acceptable opinion at that time. What does Ruse think a conflict between science and religion looks like?
As we’ll see, Galileo did indeed argue for a much stronger degree of scientific autonomy than his ecclesiastical contemporaries: Rosenhouse is right on that point. However, it turns out that Galileo also held that science could only establish truths deductively, which means that he would have regarded modern scientific claims which rely on inductive logic as open to reasonable doubt. In other words, Galileo’s conception of which questions can be answered by science was much narrower than ours. Also, Galileo accepted the reality of publicly observable miracles – which puts him directly at odds with the modern conception of the scientific method.
What’s wrong with leaving scientific questions to scientists?
“Leave scientific questions to the scientists” sounds like common sense – but it isn’t. First of all, what counts as a “scientific question”? Is it a question which scientists can answer, or a question which scientists should answer? If “scientific question” denotes the former, then why should the scientific answer to a question take precedence over the religious answer to the same question? But if the term denotes the latter instead, then how do we know which questions scientists should answer, and which ones they shouldn’t?
A second problem with the slogan, “Leave scientific questions to the scientists,” is that it implicitly assumes the truth of metaphysical naturalism: basically, it says that we should answer questions about the world as if there were nothing outside it, or as if the only causes in operation were those which scientists can investigate. The will of the Creator (if there be one) is not directly amenable to scientific investigation, any more than the characters in a story are capable of knowing what the author will decide next. But if a supernatural Being exists, then our relationship to Him is like that of the characters in a story to the author, or like that of the characters in a video game to the games’s creator – the only difference being that the human characters in God’s cosmic drama have been endowed with libertarian free will by their Creator, making them capable of defying Him (but not, ultimately, capable of thwarting His purposes). What science does is study the world as if God’s will were time-invariant – which it might or might not be, if His choices are genuinely free – or as if God’s will were unimportant – which it certainly is not, if God is real.
A third problem with Rosenhouse’s slogan is that it fails to distinguish questions which can be answered by direct empirical observation with questions which can only be answered by formulating hypotheses, which need to be tested. It is one thing to declare that we should trust the evidence of our senses – or for that matter, our measuring instruments – without letting religious revelations over-rule it. It is quite another thing to say that religious revelations should never be allowed to trump our scientific hypotheses about a class of events, some of which take place in the distant past or future, making them incapable of being observed by us.
What Rosenhouse forgot to mention about Galileo
Galileo was no naturalist. It needs to be borne in mind that despite his belief in the autonomy of science, Galileo firmly believed in publicly verifiable miracles, such as Joshua’s commanding the sun to “stand still” (even though he explained this miracle in a different way from his geocentric contemporaries). Galileo also believed that God had personally designed the bones, veins, flesh and feathers of birds, in exquisite detail (which makes Galileo an Intelligent Design theorist), and he also affirmed that “the human mind is a work of God, and one of the most excellent” (which makes him a “mind creationist”). Galileo was also something of a mystic: he saw himself as the recipient of great truths that were previously known only to God, and he expressed his gratitude to God for being the first to experience these revelations. Finally, Galileo died on good terms with the Church: indeed, Pope Urban VIII sent his special blessing to Galileo as he lay dying. After his death, Galileo was interred not only in consecrated ground, but within the church of Santa Croce at Florence. (For further references, please see my post on the subject, here.)
What Rosenhouse got right about Galileo
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition. Painting by Cristiano Banti, 1857. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Nevertheless, it needs to be acknowledged Galileo’s principles for Scriptural exegesis were quite radical, and this was one reason why he got into trouble with the Catholic Church. In a previous post of mine, I discussed Pope John Paul II’s 1992 address, Faith can never conflict with reason (L’Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) – 4 November 1992), which specifically addressed the Galileo controversy. I then went on to quote from an article by Dr. Gregory W. Dawes, titled, Could there be another Galileo case? Galileo, Augustine and Vatican II, in Journal of Religion and Society 4, 2002:
In his 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine, Galileo argues for a “principle of limitation”: the authority of Scripture should not be invoked in scientific matters. In doing so, he claims to be following the example of St Augustine. But Augustine’s position would be better described as a “principle of differing purpose”: although the Scriptures were not written in order to reveal scientific truths, such matters may still be covered by biblical authority. The Roman Catholic Church has rejected Galileo’s principle, opting rather for Augustine’s, leaving open the possibility of future conflicts between scientists and Church authority…
Perhaps the clearest indication of Galileo’s desire to limit biblical authority is to be found in a third set of passages [in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, written in 1615 – VJT], where he discusses what should be done when the results of the natural sciences seem to come into conflict with the Bible. Galileo first adopts the traditional line — for which he also cites Augustine — that biblical authority should not be invoked in opposition to the firmly established results of natural enquiry (GA, 96, 105). But he then goes further in suggesting that biblical authority should not be invoked to oppose any claims that might be firmly established in the future…. It is not only matters which have been demonstrated with certainty which are — in practice — to be exempted from the authority of the Bible. It is also matters which are capable of being “demonstrated with certainty or known by sensory experience.”
… Cardinal Baronio’s remark [viz. that the Bible was meant to tell us how to get to Heaven, not how the heavens go – a remark which was subsequently quoted by Galileo in order to buttress his arguments – VJT] can be interpreted to mean no more than that Scripture and science have different purposes, a point made by Augustine in the fifth century and by Vatican II in the twentieth. It does not exclude the possibility that, in pursuing these differing goals, the two fields of knowledge may overlap. Indeed the Pope’s address [i.e. Pope John Paul II’s 1992 address, titled, “Faith can never conflict with reason” – VJT] implicitly acknowledges this fact when it speaks of the problem faced by the Church at the time of the Galileo affair. That problem, the Pope writes, was that of “knowing how to judge a new scientific datum when it seems to contradict the truths of faith.” In the end, of course, the Pope believes that such contradiction can be only apparent, but this is not because religion and science represent “non-overlapping magisteria.” On the contrary, if there were no overlap in what religion and science teach, there would be no possibility of even the apparent conflict of which he speaks. It follows that — in the Pope’s own words — “it is therefore not to be excluded that one day we shall find ourselves in a similar situation” to that which prevailed in Galileo’s day. It seems that Stephen Jay Gould is too quick to conclude that the Catholic Church embraces his NOMA principle (Gould 1999: 70–82). Despite some apparent indications to the contrary, and despite the fact that its impact on the sciences today would be relatively insignificant, the possibility of another Galileo case cannot be excluded.
In my post, I then identified monogenism – the belief that the entire human race is descended from a single pair of individuals, named Adam and Eve – as an example of an issue where the claims of science and religion might appear to contradict one another. I then added a few references for those who are interested in what science says about the possibility of a primal couple:
It has been argued that science has ruled out the possibility of monogenesis (see Dennis Venema’s article, Does Genetics Point to a Single Primal Couple? for a non-technical summary of the evidence); for a response, see Dr. Ann Gauger’s chapter,”The Science of Adam and Eve,” in Science and Human Origins, by Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2012), pp. 105-122, and see also Dr. Robert Carter’s online article, Does Genetics Point to a Single Primal Couple? A response to claims to the contrary from BioLogos. For an online response to Francisco J. Ayala’s 1995 article, The Myth of Eve: Molecular Biology and Human Origins (Science 270: 1930–6), see here, here and here, and also here. For a response to Li and Durbin’s 2011 paper, Inference of human population history from individual whole-genome sequences (Nature 475, 493–496 (28 July 2011), doi:10.1038/nature10231), see here. For a response to Blum and Jakobsson’s paper, Deep Divergences of Human Gene Trees and Models of Human Origins (Molecular Biology and Evolution (2011) 28(2): 889-898, doi: 10.1093/molbev/msq265), see here.
For those readers who are interested, Dr. Dennis Bonnette’s peer reviewed article, “The Rational Credibility of a Literal Adam and Eve,” has just been published in the Spanish Thomist journal, Espiritu 64, n. 150 (2015): 303-320. It is available in downloadable form here (click on Texto completo (pdf) to open the file).
Just how radical was Galileo, anyway?
Galileo’s views on the autonomy of science were quite radical for his day. Nevertheless, I believe it would be a mistake to construe him as arguing for a NOMA-style separation of science and religion, along the lines of the late Stephen Jay Gould. Professor Craig Boyd’s article, Using Galileo: A Developmental and Historical Approach (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 59, Number 4, December 2007, pp. 283-288), highlights an important reason why Galileo was far less radical in his views than Professor Rosenhouse makes him out to be: namely, that the modern scientific method employs a notion of demonstration that is strikingly different from that of Galileo (and before him, St. Augustine), who mention only two kinds of scientific demonstration in their writings:
(i) a “pure” mathematical notion, based on self-evident principles (i.e. Aristotle’s narrow notion of a demonstration); and
(ii) an empirical notion, based on “the facts of experience” (a notion which was also appealed to by Augustine).
Combining these two, we might add a third notion which Galileo would also have accepted:
(iii) a deductive demonstration which employs reasoning, based on certain facts which are confirmed by experience – in other words, the kind of demonstration that Sherlock Holmes might use when solving a murder case. The phrase, “knowledge acquired by unassailable arguments or proved by the evidence of experience,” which was used in St. Augustine’s writings, could include this third type of demonstration as well.
What all these notions have in common, however, is that they are either immediately evident or deductions from what is immediately evident. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Galileo likewise envisaged demonstration as proceeding deductively. In this respect, he did not depart from Aristotle’s thinking. Galileo’s major modification of the Aristotelian idea of a demonstration was that it should proceed on the basis of sensory observation, instead of Aristotle’s fixed essences. However, modern science proceeds inductively, as Professor Craig Boyd points out in his article:
The assumption Galileo makes here is that demonstration itself can “prove” the truth of his own perspective along the lines of a modified Aristotelian notion of demonstration wherein a major premise followed by a minor premise produced a conclusion, in a deductive manner. For Galileo “demonstration” included this idea but instead of appealing to Aristotelian essences in the reasoning process, he employed mathematics and sensory observation. Today we no longer accept this view of demonstration and therefore Galileo’s commitment to this method would ultimately undermine his own arguments since on this view neither truth nor “demonstration” are possible since “scientific method” proceeds inductively. (Op. cit., p. 285.)
If Galileo was unable to even prove his own heliocentric theory in a purely deductive manner, on the basis of sensory observations that would rule out alternative geocentric theories once and for all (such as scientific observations of stellar parallax and Foucault’s pendulum, which were not made until two centuries after Galileo’s death), how much less would he regard a hypothesis such as the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (or for that matter, any other naturalistic theory of evolution) as being capable of scientific proof, since such a theory is forced to posit unobservable and non-replicable events, such as the origin of life and the relatively rapid and unrepeatable diversification of the various phyla of animals (the “Cambrian explosion”)? Galileo, with his strictly deductive notion of “proof,” would never have made the inferential leap to Darwinian evolution, as he would have regarded the question of origins as one which science can never settle.
In short: while Galileo might have agreed (in a qualified fashion) with Jason Rosenhouse’s catchy slogan that “scientific questions should be answered by science and not by scripture,” Galileo’s notion of what counts as a strictly scientific question was far narrower than our modern notion. To view him as a seventeenth-century advocate of the autonomy of science – as the term is understood today – is to commit an historical anachronism.
(Readers who would like to learn more about Galileo’s exegesis of Scripture, and how it differed from that of St. Augsutine and St. Thomas Aquinas, can find out more here.)