Friday, June 10, 2005

Orac and Galileo

Via Brandon, I came across this excellent reply to the misgivings of a young creationist. Unfortunately, at the age of 14, his or her beliefs may be too set in stone to be altered by facts or reason. Still, Orac gives him both, and does so in an extremely respectful tone. Given the lack of civility that dominates the debate between science and religion, Orac definitely deserves recognition for the way he handle the situation.

I was particularly impressed with the way he ended the post, posing an extremely interesting and important question to the young creationist. Orac wrote:
I'd like to leave you with a few questions to ponder: If, as you almost certainly believe, God is indeed the source of all truth, why would He leave so much evidence scattered about His creation showing that the earth is billions of years old and that animals and plants evolved into different species over hundreds of millions of years if it were not the truth that this is so? Why would He endow humans with the intellect and desire to delve deeply into the mysteries of His creation to try to learn what His natural laws are, if the truth of creation and His natural laws are not the same as what His creation tells them? As a Christian, does it not make more sense to conclude, as the minister above (and others) do, that God set things in motion and evolution was His preferred mechanism to produce all the diversity of life on this planet?
This immediately reminded me of a point that Galileo made in his famous "Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany." In that letter, he defends his views concerning the relationship between the Earth and the sun against the criticisms coming from within the Church. His comments largely concern the relationship between science and religion, and I've often felt that the letter should be required reading for creationists. I won't post the whole letter, but here's a good chunk of it:
I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the holy Bible can never speak untruth-whenever its true meaning is understood. But I believe nobody will deny that it is often very abstruse, and may say things which are quite different from what its bare words signify. Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might; fall into error. Not only contradictions and propositions far from true might thus be made to appear in the Bible, but even grave heresies and follies. Thus it would be necessary to assign to God feet, hands ans eyes, as well as corporeal and human affections, such as anger, repentance, hatred, and sometimes even the forgetting of` things past and ignorance of those to come. These propositions uttered by the Holy Ghost were set down in that manner by the sacred scribes in order to accommodate them to the capacities, Of the common people, who are rude and unlearned. For the sake of those who deserve to be separated from the herd, it is necessary that wise expositors should produce the true senses of such passages, together with the special reasons for which they were set down in these words. This doctrine is so widespread and so definite with all theologians that it would be superfluous to adduce evidence for it.

Hence I think that I may reasonably conclude that whenever the Bible has occasion to speak of any physical conclusion (especially those which are very abstruse and hard to understand), the rule has been observed of avoiding confusion in the minds of the common people which would render them contumacious toward the higher mysteries. Now the Bible, merely to condescend to popular capacity, has not hesitated to obscure some very important pronouncements, attributing to God himself some qualities extremely remote from (and even contrary to) His essence. Who, then, would positively declare that this principle has been set aside, and the Bible has confined itself rigorously to the bare and restricted sense of its words, when speaking but casually of the earth, of water, of the sun, or of any other created thing? Especially in view of the fact that these things in no way concern the primary purpose of the sacred writings, which is the service of God and the salvation of souls - matters infinitely beyond the comprehension of the common people.

This being granted, I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages but from sense­experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God's commands. It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature's actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible. Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words:
"We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine, by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word."
From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy Scripture. On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths. I should judge that the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning could not be made credible by science, or by any other means than through the very mouth of the Holy Spirit.

Yet even in those propositions which are not matters of faith, this authority ought to be preferred over that of all human writings which are supported only by bare assertions or probable arguments, and not set forth in a demonstrative way. This I hold to be necessary and proper to the same extent that divine wisdom surpasses all human judgment and conjecture.

But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations. This must be especially true in those sciences of which but the faintest trace (and that consisting of conclusions) is to be found in the Bible. Of astronomy; for instance, so little is found that none of the planets except Venus are so much as mentioned, and this only once or twice under the name of "Lucifer." If the sacred scribes had had any intention of teaching people certain arrangements and motions of the heavenly bodies, or had they wished us to derive such knowledge from the Bible, then in my opinion they would not have spoken of these matters so sparingly in comparison with the infinite number of admirable conclusions which are demonstrated in that science. Far from pretending to teach us the constitution and motions of the heavens and other stars, with their shapes, magnitudes, and distances, the authors of the Bible intentionally forbore to speak of these things, though all were quite well known to them. Such is the opinion of the holiest and most learned Fathers, and in St. Augustine we find the following words :
"It is likewise commonly asked what we may believe about the form and shape of the heavens according to the Scriptures, for many contend much about these matters. But with superior prudence our authors have forborne to speak of this, as in no way furthering the student with respect to a blessed life-and, more important still, as taking up much of that time which should be spent in holy exercises. What is it to me whether heaven, like a sphere surrounds the earth on all sides as a mass balanced in the center of the universe, or whether like a dish it merely covers and overcasts the earth? Belief in Scripture is urged rather for the reason we have often mentioned; that is, in order that no one, through ignorance of divine passages, finding anything in our Bibles or hearing anything cited from them of such a nature as may seem to oppose manifest conclusions, should be induced to suspect their truth when they teach, relate, and deliver more profitable matters. Hence let it be said briefly, touching the form of heaven, that our authors knew the truth but the Holy Spirit did not desire that men should learn things that are useful to no one for salvation."
The same disregard of these sacred authors toward beliefs about the phenomena of the celestial bodies is repeated to us by St. Augustine in his next chapter. On the question whether we are to believe that the heaven moves or stands still, he writes thus:
"Some of the brethren raise a question concerning the motion of heaven, whether it is fixed or moved. If it is moved, they say, how is it a firmament? If it stands still, how do these stars which are held fixed in it go round from east to west, the more northerly performing shorter circuits near the pole, so that the heaven (if there is another pole unknown to us) may seem to revolve upon some axis, or (if there is no other pole) may be thought to move as a discus? To these men I reply that it would require many subtle and profound reasonings to find out which of these things is actually so; but to undertake this and discuss it is consistent neither with my leisure nor with the duty of those whom I desire to instruct in essential matters more directly conducing to their salvation and to the benefit of the holy Church."
From these things it follows as a necessary consequence that, since the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side, then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind. And the motion or rest of the earth and the sun is so closely linked with the things just named, that without a determination of the one, neither side can be taken in the other matters. Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation? I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: "That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven. not how heaven goes."

But let us again consider the degree to which necessary demonstrations and sense experiences ought to be respected in physical conclusions, and the authority they have enjoyed at the hands of holy and learned theologians. From among a hundred attestations I have selected the following:
"We must also take heed, in handling the doctrine of Moses. that we altogether avoid saying positively and confidently anything which contradicts manifest experiences and the reasoning of philosophy or the other sciences. For since every truth is in agreement with all other truth, the truth of Holy Writ cannot be contrary to the solid reasons and experiences of human knowledge."
And in St. Augustine we read:
"If' anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation, not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there."
This granted, and it being true that two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us. Now the Bible, as has been remarked, admits in many places expositions that are remote from the signification of the words for reasons we have already given. Moreover, we are unable to affirm that all interpreters of the Bible speak by Divine inspiration for if that were so there would exist no differences among them about the sense of a given passage. Hence I should think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary. Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that "Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know."

7 comments:

HH said...

There is a detailed analysis of Galileo's Letter available here (see the section at the end, in which Galileo's Letter is his response to Bellarmine's, itself in answer to Foscarini) and here. The hermeneutic principle he advocated dated back to Augustine and concerned not so much the separation of science and religion but the idea that two truths could not be contradictory. This meant interpreting the Bible in light of our experience of the world and not, as Bellarmine ultimately argued, the other way around. For Galileo, this was the only way of saving his Church from looking ridiculous if a physical truth contrary to Scripture should eventually be demonstrated (as he came to believe Copernicanism would be and as Augustine had also warned against).

Chris said...

hh, right, that's what I find most interesting about it, and why I think it should be read more often by anti-science Christians today.

Tim said...

On another note, something that really frightens me on the comments to Orac's reply is the medical school student, Alice, who says she doesn't believe in evolution. I hope by that she means macroevolution, because if doctors continue to fail to understand the evolutionary significance of overprescribing antibiotics and other drugs, things are going to get pretty ugly in 50 years.

Chris said...

Fortunately, I think most doctors believe in evolution, though I don't know of any actual data to support that conclusion. At least, there are plenty of doctors doing research on drug resistance who recognize that evolution is a fact, and a medically-relevant one at that.

My parents are both born again Christians (my mother is Italian, and was Catholic -- my father was confirmed about 15 years ago, and had been Southern Methodist -- until about 5 years ago, when she and my father both left the Church and became Presbyterians). They are staunch evangelicals, these days, but remain politically liberal and firm believers in science, including evolution. This is relevant because my father is an MD, and my mother a nurse. If you can have evangelical MDs who still believe in evolution, all is not lost.

Anonymous said...

Well here's the realization I've recently come to. The whole point of any type of religious belief (and the reason why these ideas are "fit" in the first place), is that they convince people who believe in a "higher force" that they will be punished if they behave in ways which have harmful effects on the population amoungst which they live. Basically, it's not enough of a deterrent to simply explain how things like murder are counterproductive to group life - as this is a fairly abstract concept. You need to lie. Religion is a lie that has worked for a long time, and thank goodness for that. But now general scientific knowlege amoungst most western populations is of a level where claims of invisible outter-space superheros watching over them (and recording their actions for later reprisal) simply aren't believable. It will be interesting to see what new, scientifically-valid, morality systems develop in the future. What do you guys think of what I've just said? Curious to have a bit of feedback on these thoughts...

Eyeraw

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