Thursday, July 10, 2014

Galileo Affair: Faith versus Reason/Science?

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/galileo6.jpg
In the past, I liked to play a Role-Playing-Game (RPG) called Diablo. Like other RPG games, player needs to overcome many opponents. So I had to fight with many characters in the game in order to win.

However, a strange thing about the game is that the characters that I have defeated can never die. They kept coming out again and again. And I had to fight them over many times.

Interestingly, such strange phenomenon also happens in real life. The past week, Vincent Wijeysingha, a local social activist and politician, wrote a Facebook note that criticised the Christian community to the effect that our faith is unreasonable. He pitted our faith against reason or science. And the example he gave was the “Galileo Affair”.

The “Galileo Affair” is the name given to a series of events surrounding the issue between the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century. What happened was that Galileo’s famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, challenged geocentricism (the earth is the centre of the universe), which was the accepted understanding in the academia at that time and of which the RCC followed.

Galileo, in following the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, argued for heliocentrism, that the sun is the centre of the universe. As a result, the RCC took upon itself to interrogate Galileo and had him recant of heliocentrism. As we now know, based on current astronomy, indeed heliocentrism is true. Galileo was right. 

Since then, this affair has been used by many people to criticize not only the RCC but the whole Christian community in general as against reason or science. The latest came from Wijeysingha,
 “…throughout history where science has conflicted with church teachings, the church has strived to stamp out the new knowledge made available by science even to the extent of torturing their discovers. Recall the papacy’s treatment of Galileo who showed that Earth was not the centre of the universe: he was forced under torture to recant and the papacy apologised only 300 years later. […] the evidence of church history is that faith does not transcend reason, it constrains it.”[1]
There is much historical inaccuracy in the statement. First, Galileo was not tortured at all. Richard Blackwell, professor emeritus of philosophy at Saint Louis University, who has published a few academic books on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:
“Galileo scholars now agree that no torture occurred, nor could it have occurred, given his age and poor health, according to the rules of the Holy Office itself, and Galileo would have known this.”[2]
Likewise, Maurice A. Finocchiaro, an authority on the “Galileo Affair” wrote:
“In view of the available evidence, the most tenable position is that Galileo underwent an interrogation with the threat of torture but did not undergo actual torture.”[3] 
Second, the “Galileo Affair” is not a case of conflict between faith and reason or science. Geocentrism was not only accepted by the Christian community but by most people in the academia of the 17th century. Although there were theologians who pointed out some Bible verses to support the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe, yet it was not the case that their appeal was to Scripture alone.

Geocentrism was mentioned by Aristotle in the 3rd century B.C. This notion was developed further by Ptolemy four hundreds years later. Hence, geocentrism is better known as ‘Ptolemaic system’. The academia and churches in the 17th century simply inherited geocentrism as accepted science of the universe.

On the other hand, neither Copernicus nor Galileo were the first to talk about heliocentrism. Aristarchus of Samos has proposed the heliocentric model in 250 A.D., more than 1,200 years before Copernicus and Galileo were born. Heliocentrism was a theory much less accepted than geocentrism back then. Therefore the “Galileo Affair” was not faith against reason or science, but a less-accepted science against a much-accepted science.[4] And the RCC has betted on the wrong side. As how Peter Harrison, the Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, sees it:
“In the case of Galileo, the Catholic Church was not opposing science per se. On the contrary, it was using its considerable authority to endorse what was then the consensus of the scientific community.”[5]
Third, RCC's respond to Galileo's book is not simply a matter of the church hierarchy suppressing individual's scientific inquiry. The internal tension between the Dominicans and the Jesuits over the application of the decrees of the Council of Trent, education philosophy and curriculum, and scientific discourse played a huge part that led to the “Galileo Affair”. 

The two Orders were in tense engagement to establish their school of thoughts as the intellectual milieu in RCC. Galileo's proposal heightened the tension and hence was being deemed critically. As Rivka Feldhay, the Professor of History of Science and Ideas at Tel-Aviv University, wrote:
“…the possible limits of Galileo's campaign expressed two cultural orientations of two rival intellectual elites within the church--the Dominicans and the Jesuits--who attempted to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent and were engaged in a struggle over cultural hegemony.”[6]
Despite historical works show the contrary, the “Galileo Affair” keeps coming up as the epitome case that Christians are against reason or science. This falsehood is so entrenched among people for whatever reason that it is irresistible to historical reality. Pretty much like the characters in RPG games that keep coming back despite being defeated many times.


End notes
[1] Vincent Wijeysingha,‘My Reply To Archbishop William Goh,’ Facebook Note, dated 4 July 2014. Emphasis added.

[2] Richard J. Blackwell, Behind The Scenes At Galileo’s Trial: Including the First Translation of Melchior Inchofer’s Tractatuc syllepticus (USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 23.

[3] Maurice A. Finocchiaro, ‘That Galileo Was Imprisoned And Tortured For Advocating Copernicanism,’ in Galileo Goes To Jail: And Other Myths About Science And Religion, ed., Ronald L. Numbers (USA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 78.

[4] See the discussion in chapter 1 of John C. Lennox, Seven Days That Divide The World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (USA: Zondervan, 2011).

[5] Peter Harrison, ‘Introduction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, ed. Peter Harrison (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 5.

[6] Rivka Feldhay, Galileo and the Church: Political Inquisition or Critical Dialogue? (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 293.

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