26 May 2009

The Galileo 2009 Conference: Faith and Science Have the Same Roots?

Today, 26 May 2009, sees the opening of the "Galileo 2009" conference, organised by the Jesuit Stensen Institute and held in Florence. The first day takes place in the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Galileo is now buried, with the last day being held in the Villa "Il Gioello di Arcetri", where Galileo spent his last years. Today's Osservatore Romano has two articles related to this conference.

The first is written by Ugo Baldini, and seeks to give a brief overview of the themes of the Galileo 2009 conference. The Vatican is desperate to rewrite history so that it can, in its own eyes, legitimately bring science into the service of Catholicism. The mantra that the Galileo case was due to a "tragic reciprocal incomprehension", first used by John Paul II in 1992, seeks not just to spread the blame but to eventually come to the conclusion that both parties were blameless! A pity that Galileo himself is unable to witness these inexhaustible re-trials.

So what does the conference hope to achieve? The lectures cover the whole range of historical, philosophical and theological issues pertaining to the sequence of events that led to Galileo being placed under house arrest. It will be interesting to see the transcripts when published, as this brief article already points to a certain amount of rewriting of history.

The real issue at the time was whether the so-called Copernican system was a true and accurate description of physical reality. On a side issue, we are historically obliged to call this "Copernican" even though it should more accurately be called Keplerian. And yet even Kepler refers to it as “Copernican”, seeing the important philosophical shift from geocentric to a heliocentric planetary system, even though Copernicus was still semi-aristotelian in seeking perfect circular orbits. The system developed by Copernicus actually works worse than Ptolemy's! Kepler's system of elliptical planetary orbits around the sun at one focal point was the real success.

Baldini then tries to muddy the waters by reintroducing Tycho Brahe's system, which was still geocentric but had the inner planets of Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun rather than the Earth. The author claims that this system was compatible with the Bible and hence would have had some support from the Church. This actually shows that in spite of protestations to the contrary the Vatican saw the heliocentric system as a threat to their orthodoxy.

The conference is being held during the International Year of Astronomy so that although astronomy is very much the theme the organisers have explicitly excluded any technical aspects of the debate. As I said, what is left is an attempt to reshape the perceptions that most people have of this as a clash between scientific knowledge and religious doctrine. The technical aspects are absolutely fundamental to the debate. The fact that Catholic scientists quickly took up the new system is not in question, but what is obvious is that the Vatican wanted to control this knowledge until such time as it could integrate it within its theology. This was at a time when the Reformation had claimed many northern European territories and where scientists such as Brahe and Kepler were free to speculate. In contrast, the Catholic Counter-Reformation sought to reinforce Vatican supremacy and the Galileo case was just one manifestation of the Empire striking back. Truth was relegated to an expedient pawn at the service of Catholic doctrines.

The conference hopes to advance Galilean studies to a new level, but frankly, by excluding the actual science it will merely achieve what it really sets out to do, which is to show the Vatican in a better light. The real aim is sketched out at the very end of article where the author sees the Enlightenment and positivism, with their anti-religious philosophies, as the real targets. Their philosophical influences on the Galileo debate have shaped it into a clash of cultures whereas the Vatican now wishes to, in their eyes, redress the balance.

The second article, entitled "The Root of Faith and Science", actually proves this point. The Vatican seems to be on a mission to prove that the whole universe is Catholic. I wrote before of their abuse of language in trying to cast Europe and even atheism as having Catholic roots. Now we find them trying to define science and faith as being in essence two aspects of the same thing.

As another aside, although this may not be of interest to followers of the debates between science and religion, the Catholic Church is also on a mission to unite all the Christian churches. The Vatican insists it is the one and only path to salvation and therefore every other system is merely a poor relation. I think the attempt to reintegrate the Orthodox Churches under the Vatican is doomed to failure, but we shall see. The point here is that bringing science into the Catholic fold is just one part of the overall mission to evangelize the whole world.

Giuseppe Betori, Archbishop of Florence, hopes that the Galileo 2009 conference will lay to rest the myth that the Galileo case is a clash between science and faith. He outlines the old argument that faith grows deeper with the assistance of reason whilst at the same time reason without faith can become mere calculations without taking into account (Catholic) values. He looks forward to a new proposal for a "permanent and constructive collaboration between the Church and scientific research institutions." The Vatican is an organization that has backed itself into a scientific cul de sac and now proposes to turn around and offer science the hand of friendship. Be very, very careful! The Archbishop closes by saying that by bringing together so many respected authorities the conference shows that there exist the "conditions for a constructive division of responsibilities, on the understanding of the respective roles and aims [of science and faith]."

We're back to the notion that the Church has its job to do and that science should not interfere with that task. It is a reiteration that Catholic values (consequences of Catholic doctrines) have primacy on scientific issues. It is futile for the Vatican to attack scientific theories themselves – they've learnt that lesson - but it can influence the course of scientific research through what it sees as its moral authority. The ultimate aim is to create a Catholic science - similar to non-theistic science but with certain important interpretations guiding its philosophy and its relationship with theology.

Just to restate the abuse of language that this entails: the words 'reason' and 'rational' are by no means the same things when spoken by a theologian and by a scientist. Just check out the definition of reason in the online Catholic Encyclopedia. For the theologian, reason is the rationalisation of beliefs, and logic is only used insofar as it supports certain fundamental Catholic axioms. Reason is a tool of faith and a weapon of evangelization - it is not a dispassionate analysis of the evidence.

The Galileo case is ultimately being used as a test of the Vatican's new science-friendly theology. Astronomy is actually a fairly safe science on which to conduct this theological experiment as there are few contentious issues left, save for the metaphysics of what happened before the Big Bang. On that particular subject it is interesting to note how the Vatican often lets its guard down to reveal its true self, witness that John Paul II told Stephen Hawking that he should not investigate the physics of before the Big Bang as that was Catholic territory! However, I'm certain the Vatican is painfully aware of research in the neurosciences that is likely to shed more light on how the mind functions and especially on the mechanism of religious experiences and the state of belief. Now that is going to be a battle worth seeing!

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