Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Religion and Science, I: What Galileo Proved

In one of his earliest and, for many readers, least favorite books, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), C.S. Lewis’s protagonist from “Puritania” —very closely modeled on Lewis himself — meets with “Mr. Enlightenment,” who takes him up in his pony-drawn cart and asserts that there is no “Landlord,” the God-persona in the allegory.  “John,” the protagonist, ponders this a moment, then asks —

C.S. Lewis: Not lyin'.
“But how do you know there is no Landlord?”
“Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!” exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.
“I beg your pardon,” said John.
“Eh?” said Mr. Enlightenment.
“I didn’t quite understand,” said John.
“Why, it’s as plain as a pikestaff,” said the other.  “Your people in Puritania believe in the Landlord because they have not had the benefits of a scientific training.  For example, now, I dare say it would be news to you to hear that the earth was round — round as an orange, my lad!”
“Well, I don’t know that it would,” said John, feeling a little disappointed.  “My father always said it was round.”
“No, no, my dear boy,” said Mr. Enlightenment, “you must have misunderstood him.  It is well known that everyone in Puritania thinks the earth flat.”

That, of course, settled the question.  “John” only thought he knew the world was round, and the fact that the world is round instead of flat proves scientifically that God does not exist.  “John” was wrong, of course, because “everyone knows” that stupid people like “John” believe that the world is flat.  If they say otherwise, they’re obviously lying.  SciencehasprovedthatGoddoesnotexist.

Galileo: single-name celeb.
Except, of course, that “science” couldn’t prove any such thing.  “Proof” is a demonstration that something is so, not that something is not so.  It is therefore irrational to claim that reason proves that non-existence exists.  As the clincher, people almost always bring up “the Galileo Affair.”

The problem is that “the Galileo Affair” (okay, we’ll stop putting in the quote marks) doesn’t clinch the case against religion interfering in science, but against science interfering in religion!

Say what?

In brief, the issue for the Catholic Church was not whether the sun revolved around the earth, or the earth revolved around the sun.  That was a matter for science to decide.  The Church had nothing to say about it.

The issue was the proper interpretation of certain passages of Scripture.  Were these to be understood as statements of fact, or as allegories and metaphors?  This is an important point, because in Catholic belief, the Bible is infallible . . . but how is it to be interpreted?

God is on the left, with clothes.
For example, when it says in Genesis that Adam walked with God in the Garden of Eden, does it mean that a fellow with the name of Adam took a stroll with a Being named God in a place called the Garden of Eden?  Or does it mean that the progenitor of the human race while in a state of innocence was fully in tune with God’s Will for him (or something like that)?

The former interpretation would be the literal one, while the latter would be a metaphorical one.  Absent hard evidence, e.g., a newspaper report in The Heavenly Gazette on God’s activities that week, the Catholic Church has taught that it should be understood metaphorically.

That was an easy one for the Church.  But what about the passages in the Bible that were written and read by people who assumed — as scientists had been telling them for centuries and their own senses confirmed — that the sun goes around the earth?  Even today we say that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west . . . even though we know damned well that — as far as the solar system is concerned — the sun is fixed in the center and the earth is revolving on its own axis making it appear as if the sun is rising and setting.

Joking aside, Mr. Feynman, science needs proof, not assertion.
Yes, we “know” it . . . but can you prove it?  Not give the pat response, “Science has proved. . . .”  No, present your logically consistent proof supported by empirical evidence, and be able to answer objections — can you do that?  Chances are you can’t.  Neither can I.

And, believe it or not, neither could Galileo.

Oh, he thought he could.  He had a theory of how the revolution of the earth around the sun affected tidal motion and this proved that the earth goes around the sun.  There were two serious problems with Galileo’s theory of tides, however.  One, the motion of the earth around the sun has absolutely no affect on tides.  Two, it’s the motion of the moon around the earth that affects the tides.

Galileo, therefore, 1) had the wrong celestial body, and 2) the wrong direction of the effect.  If he had been right that the sun affected tides, then, Galileo would have proved not that the earth went around the sun, but that the sun went around the earth. . . .


As a matter of fact, despite popular acceptance long before, the heliocentric theory was not actually proved scientifically until 1838 when the German mathematician and astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784-1846) made the first successful measurements of stellar parallax for the star 61 Cygni.  This proved, absolutely, no question, the earth revolves around the sun, or the angle of observation would not have changed from the perspective of an observer on earth.

That, however, was not the problem that the Catholic Church had with Galileo’s theory.  The fact is, the Catholic Church had absolutely no problem with Galileo’s theory . . . as long as that’s as far as he went and he stopped there.


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