Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Galileo Affair

Into the present mix of ideas and arguments with regard to Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design, the observations from Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist by Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., shed much-needed light.
I am going to quote rather extensively from the chapter on Galileo, hoping that the interested reader will take the next step and consider reading the book in its entirety (see below for publisher.)
This quote comes from a chapter entitled, "The Rift of Popular Culture."
"Those worshippers of science who want to beat up on the Church will always have to start with the Galileo affair. They have to...precisely because his trial was a unique event in Church history. Never, before or since, did the Catholic Church try to put a strict-construction interpretation on Biblical statements that might be relevant to natural science.
"In fact, the whole tradition of Church teaching, including Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, and St. Aquinas,is that the Bible is a book about God, not nature. It's a book that uses human language in a poetic way to describe things that ordinary language cannot contain. And there's the first rub to the science fundamentalists, the science literalists. They don't understand how poetry can express truth, why a metaphor can be stronger than a syllogism.
What is less effective is when religious thinkers try to illustrate and communicate religious ideas about transcendent things by using the language and concepts of the best scientific and historical knowledge to date. Unfortunately, this practice only weakens religious arguments, since it relies on knowledge that will inevitably go out of date as our understanding of the universe grows.
"The "cosmology" of Genesis, for example, is not something that the author of Genesis invented. It was the standard cosmology, attributed to the Babylonians, at the time Genesis was written,(or at least created orally, and one that the author could assume all his listeners were familiar with. Starting with this standard cosmology, the author added the "stuff" about God. But as the millennia passed and our scientific thinking developed, naturally this old cosmology became dated.
In fact, there are several different creation stories within Genesis itself that were obviously added at different times with different levels of cosmology. What's consistent is the idea that however you picture the universe being formed, it was the action of a creator God.
"Yet these outdated images have not always caused an irreconcilable problem. The cosmology of Genesis was ancient and out of date even by the time of the Romans. It is, after all, not the cosmology of Ptolemy, but that of ancient Babylon. No one in first-century Rome still believed in a flat universe surrounded by "the waters" as described in the Psalms. But those Romans, unlike most twentieth-century atheists, were sophisticated enough to be able to read beyond the poetic words to the content they intended to convery. The "God stuff" that was new was still relevant, just in need of a new retelling.
"It was only with the rise of literacy in the 1500s that a lot of people who knew (barely) how to read, but otherwise did not have much of a sophisticated education, started interpreting the Bible for themselves as if it were some sort of "magic book." And the more the Church tried to stop this sloppy theology, the more that the English (and thus anti-Roman) historians--on whom our culture is based--condemned the Church for restricting "freedom of thought."
The anthor goes on to point out that the idea of a 6000-year-old earth, supposedly evident in the Bible, was actually an invention of Bishop Ussher, who misinterpreted Genesis to arrive at this figure.
"But what about the very cause of the trouble that Galileo found himself in?" he goes on. "Didn't the Church teach that the Earth was the center of the universe, and the Sun and everything else revolved around it?
"Actually, that's neither in the Bible nor was it ever official Church teaching at any time--except implicitly during the brief period around the time of Galileo. Indeed, it was never debated at Galileo's trial, according to the official transcript. It was merely assumed, as a convenient stick to go after someone who was both unpopular and politically vulnerable. The prosecution of Galileo by the Church was a terrible crime, but it was not an attempt to define formally and dogmatically something we now know to be untrue."
Brother Consolmagno then points out that Catholic scholars, including members of the clergy, had been involved with scientific study from the time of the early universities. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris asserted, in the face of opposition, that God, in his omnipotence, could have created alternate universes.
Nearly 300 years before Galileo, John Buriden and Nicholas Oresme, "both churchmen," suggested that the earth might be moving through the univrse. Copernicus, 100 years antecedent to Galileo, was encouraged by the Church.
So where did Galileo go wrong? Essentially, he was a popularizer, like such as Carl Sagan, and, as such, he began to rile the masses. He also made the fatal error of ridiculing important members of the clergy. His was a political error, not one of science.
The author refers us to The Galileo Affair by M.A. Finocchiaro, published by the University of California Press. I would also refer the reader to a book review at FWOMP.COM, which presents a slightly different view of the well-written book by Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter.
Brother Astronomer was published in 2000 by McGraw-Hill.

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