1 Feb 2009

Galileo, Neurotheology and the Vatican - Osservatore Romano review


With the International Year of Astronomy and the Year of Darwin, the Vatican is going to have a lot to say about science in 2009. In my previous article I looked at a conference on Galileo coming in May as well as the catholic Church's insistence that the Galileo case should not be seen as a clash between science and religion. Perhaps one should not use the broad brush of religion in general as it brings into this particular argument other faiths, but to be more specific we are talking about the clash between the Catholic Church and science - between dogmatic control of ideas and the liberal tendency of natural philosophy. The science of astronomy obviously won the argument. It won this argument a long time ago. So why are we still talking about Galileo? What is the Church really trying to achieve here?

The Jesuit-run Stensen Institute of Florence will host a conference entitled "The Galileo Case. A historical, philosophical and theological re-examination". To quote from their website: "For the first time after 400 years, members of the Vatican Observatory, the Pontifical Council for Culture, The Sciences Academy and many other Institutions, that were historically involved in the Galileo affair, are among the experts invited to the congress with a view to showing how "recent scientific and historical research" might alleviate the "tension and conflict" still clouding the relationship between the church and science."

The Osservatore Romano ran a brief interview with one of the organizers on 31 January 2009. It starts off by quoting John Paul II, who saw the Galileo trial as a "tragic mutual incomprehension"; as usual, always seeking to spread the blame. The interview is, however, interesting in that it mentions biotechnology almost as much as Galileo. Here we get an inkling on why the Church is so obsessed with Galileo. It seeks to separate the decision of the Inquisition from the philosophical standpoint of the Church. It seeks to legitimize itself as an arbiter of science and to place Catholic doctrines as guides to what can and cannot be researched. The article, indeed, goes on to say that it is of fundamental importance that the Church promotes biotechnology for the benefit of humanity, and that morality must be placed above science in order to achieve this. For the Vatican, the "politics of science" is to place Catholic doctrines above scientific progress.

Two things are immediately clear. For anybody who has looked closely at the Galileo case it is obvious that above the philosophical positions it was the political climate that ultimately condemned Galileo. The Inquisition needed to make a point and the Counter-Reformation was gaining impetus. Even the Jesuits who initially supported Galileo knew that survival of the Church was more important than one man. The same Jesuits taught Galileo's theories in the Far East, away from the troublesome Reformation in Europe. The Catholic politics of science continues to this day with the same aims. This is why they want the world to accept that their position is at least legitimate.

The interviewee, who remains anonymous to the end so probably a Jesuit at the Stensen, then goes on to discuss reason and faith. Scientific progress in the "bio-techno-sciences" is leading to a greater understanding of the human experience and a refinement in the categories of faith and reason. Here we are now looking at the neurosciences rather than biotech or genetics. Indeed, research into consciousness and mind is progressing to the point where it seems fairly obvious even to the faithful that a state of belief could well just be a function of the brain. The scientific attack on faith itself, rather than just antiquated or supernatural doctrines, would be the most serious challenge the Church will have ever faced. Philosophical and doctrinal positions have to be articulated before the research data comes out. Better still, by placing Church doctrines above science they may even be able to avoid research going down that road. "I believe because I think", says our respondent! He thus turns around "I think therefore I am" into "I think therefore I believe". A possible sign of belief as a mental disorder but that's for another article.

These are interesting articles and this particular interview ends with a shot across the boughs of scientists, but I suspect neuroscientists in particular. The neuroscience of religious experiences is often called neurotheology. I know, some people object to the name but it may well stick. Neurotheology is a branch of the cognitive neurosciences and seeks to use new techniques such as fMRI to investigate which parts of the brain are active during experiences such as meditation, praying and other religious activities. The serious problem here for theologians is the coming debate that once belief becomes just a state of mind then any claim that faith is a special kind of knowledge gets blown away. The primacy of faith and the theological logic that supports it have to be defended. If the Galileo case is admitted as an "error of faith" then we should be mindful that an attack on faith not be an "error of science". That was the conclusion from our mystery interlocutor.

Interesting times ahead for science and religion debates.

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