Friday, May 15, 2009

Still Crazy After All These Years

In January of 1610 Galileo discovered his eponymous moons of Jupiter and confirmed empirically that Ptolemy was wrong. Nearly 400 years later I read an article by Dr. Stephen Hawking that caused me to complain so vociferously my friends urged me to start a blog (presumably so they could just ignore my RSS feed instead of me personally). I'd like to comment on the article, then the incident.

The Article

Dr. Hawking, for those of you who have been living in a black hole, is one of the worlds' most famous cosmologists. He is a theoretical physicist who holds the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (but that's another blog post). His work on black holes (hence the earlier pun) is the work on black holes. In other words, smart guy.

However, smart does not (alas) make one right, and theoretical physics does not give one expertise in areas of history. Hawking misremembers, misinterprets, and misinforms. I can't repeat the entire article here, but the gist of it has been promulgated by him in various forms for years, as in this story from 2006.

The implication is that science and the Catholic Church are irreconcilably at odds today, and presumably the reader is supposed to come away thinking "well, I have to give up one or the other, and since science clearly works..." Since we're scientists, let's look at the "facts" Hawking uses to support his hypothesis.

Hawking claims that Pope John Paul II told scientists they should not study the beginning of the universe because it was the work of God. Just reading this red flags go up for me.

  1. But...all creation is the work of God, so why would the pope single out that one event as "unstudiable"?
  2. The Church (with a few exceptions) has always supported scientific inquiry, from Copernicus, who's theory it was that Galileo published to Monsignor George Lemaitre, who first proposed the Big Bang theory in 1927 (but that's another blog post).
  3. Why would the Vatican host a conference on cosmology for scientists if it didn't want scientists to study cosmology?
Apparently Dr. Hawking's memory is faulty, nor did he nor any of the publications in which this quote has been printed over the last 3 years think to use google. I did, and in minutes was reading the complete text of Pope John Paul II's address to the conference at which Hawking claims the statement was made. It can be found here. For those as lazy as I here is an excerpt:
Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.

Any scientific hypothesis on the origin of the world, such as the hypothesis of a primitive atom from which derived the whole of the physical universe, leaves open the problem concerning the universe's beginning. Science cannot of itself solve this question: there is needed that human knowledge that rises above physics and astrophysics and which is called metaphysics; there is needed above all the knowledge that comes from God's revelation. Thirty years ago, on 22 November 1951, my predecessor Pope Pius XII, speaking about the problem of the origin of the universe at the Study Week on the subject of microseisms organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, expressed himself as follows: "In vain would one expect a reply from the sciences of nature, which on the contrary frankly declare that they find themselves faced by an insoluble enigma. It is equally certain that the human mind versed in philosophical meditation penetrates the problem more deeply. One cannot deny that a mind which is enlightened and enriched by modern scientific knowledge and which calmly considers this problem is led to break the circle of matter which is totally independent and autonomous - as being either uncreated or having created itself - and to rise to a creating Mind. With the same clear and critical gaze with which it examines and judges the facts, it discerns and recognizes there the work of creative Omnipotence, whose strength raised up by the powerful fiat uttered billions of years ago by the creating Mind, has spread through the universe, calling into existence, in a gesture of generous love, matter teeming with energy".
Reading the Pope's speech in its entirety it is clear that there is no such injunction against studying the origins of the universe. The Pope clearly states that science is involved in the physics of creation, while religion concerns itself with the metaphysics of creation. There is no conflict.

Hawking goes on to say that he feared he would be the subject of an inquisition like Galileo because of the paper he was working on. According to Hawking's recount of the events, Galileo was given papal permission to publish his book, but when the Church realized Galileo's ideas becoming popular they forced him to recant and suppressed his work. So let's look at the events of Galileo's "incident" through the eyes of history, not opinion.

The Incident

Now that I've built up your expectations, let me start by saying I'm not going to rehash the whole thing here. There are a number of sources who have done a much better job than I could of presenting the situation. I do insist that you read sources who have actually studied the documents involved rather than articles by people who have heard things third and fourth hand and are spouting their own opinions. My first introduction to the issue was from the book "Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist" by Guy Consolmagno, but there are other accounts that have been well researched.

It seems to me that while Galileo was put under house arrest, it was not because of his support for Copernicus but rather his mocking of the Pope. To quote Wikipedia (not that it is a definitive source, but it is one of the better on-line sources):
The book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was published in 1632, with formal authorization from the Inquisition and papal permission. Pope Urban VIII personally asked Galileo to give arguments for and against heliocentrism in the book, and to be careful not to advocate heliocentrism. He made another request, that his own views on the matter be included in Galileo's book. Only the latter of those requests was fulfilled by Galileo. Whether unknowingly or deliberately, Simplicio, the defender of the Aristotelian Geocentric view in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was often caught in his own errors and sometimes came across as a fool. This fact made Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems appear as an advocacy book; an attack on Aristotelian geocentrism and defense of the Copernican theory. To add insult to injury, Galileo put the words of Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of Simplicio
So, Galileo was given papal permission to print his book provided he change it to include included the words of Pope Urban VIII, who had a contrary opinion to Galileo. He changed the book, but put the words of the pope in the mouth of the simpleton.

Now, Hawking says he fears for the inquisition because of his paper. But perhaps he should be more worried about putting his words into the mouth of Pope John Paul II.

The Truth

What else has the Pope said on the roles of religion and science, and about Galileo?

From "Address of Pope John Paul II to the Participants on the Vatican Conference on Cosmology" 6 July 1985 (4 years after the one Hawking complained about):
Please know that your diligent work, especially in the field of astrophysics, together with your ecclesial dedication, bears splendid witness to the Church’s profound interest in the world of science and particularly in the men and women engaged in scientific research.

I warmly greet the observational astronomers and the theorists in gravitational physics and cosmology who have accepted the invitation to take part in this important meeting. It is a joy to welcome you today, together with the members of your families.

Through the natural sciences, and cosmology in particular, we have become much more aware of our true physical position within the universe, within physical reality - in space and in time. We are struck very forcibly by our smallness and apparent insignificance, and even more by our vulnerability in such a vast and seemingly hostile environment. Yet this universe of ours, this galaxy in which our sun is situated and this planet on which we live, is our home. And all of it in some way or other serves to support us, nourish us, fascinate us, inspire us, taking us out of ourselves and forcing us to look far beyond the limits of our unaided vision. What we discover through our study of nature and of the universe in all its immensity and rich variety serves on the one hand to emphasize our fragile condition and our littleness, and on the other hand to manifest clearly our greatness and superiority in the midst of all creation - the profoundly exalted position we enjoy in being able to search, to imagine and to discover so much. We are made in the image and likeness of God. Thus, we are capable of knowing and understanding more and more about the universe and all that it contains. We can reach out and grasp its inner workings and designs, plumbing its depths with questioning reverence and with awestruck imagination.
There is, of course, more to the address. From "The Vatican's Turn to Recant":
In 1979, a year after he became Pope, John Paul II signaled that he wanted the Galileo case set right by giving a speech at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at which he declared in typically elliptical Vatican language that "theologians, scholars, and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply." In case anyone missed the point about the Pope's desire for a reconciliation of science and religion, John Paul II choose as the date for this speech the centenary anniversary of Einstein's birth.

In October 1992, Cardinal Paul Poupard presented the Pope with the findings of the Galileo study commission, which declared, "From the Galileo case we can draw a lesson which is applicable today in analogous cases which arise in our times and which may arise in the future. It often happens that, beyond two partial points of view which are in contrast, there exists a wider view of things which embraces both and integrates them." By Vatican standards, this rotund language was an apology. The Pope responded by saying that Galileo's realizations about the sun and earth must have been divinely inspired: "Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions." Through its 1992 ceremony, the church finally lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo, who went to his grave a devout Catholic, despite the church's treatment of him.
In fact the Vatican is erecting a statue of Galileo.
So, where does that leave the Church's position on Science? In 2005 Pope Benedict XVI addressed yet another conference with the words
"There is no opposition between faith's understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences," he said, quoting from Popes Pius XII and John Paul II.
He also cited Galileo, whom, he said "saw nature as a book whose author is God in the same way that Scripture has God as its author."
Where does that leave scientists' position on the Church? In 2008 Pope Benedict XVI was "uninvited" to speak at La Sapienza at the request of its physics department, because he had quoted a document on the Galileo trial (with which he did not agree). See The Curt Jester's blog post on that subject for more details.

Who's running an Inquisition now?


A+++++++++++++ Well done, Mike! I would love for you to post the link to this over at Deacon David Hess' "on the rock forum". A few there might (not) enjoy reading it and should :-) God bless.

Properly understood, I think the Galileo incident shows the wisdom of the Church.

The heliocentric model was widely held and was featured in a lot of theology but it wasn't doctrine. The Church had not hung Her hat on that peg, but many, many theologians, and individuals (Bishops and Priests as well others) had built their theology on that assumption.

So Galileo threatened the established order of academia and the 'faith' of the people. That was the spark of the controversy.

Galileo in advancing his argument against the opposition over plays his hand. Failing to fully distinguish between generally accepted belief and the True Faith of the Church he attempted to create his own theology.

Lot of lessons here for the present in my mind. Christians are not wise, in my opinion, to hitch their theology too closely to a particular scientific view. Similarly, scientists are unwise to think that because their science contradicts the assumptions of some Theologians that they have overturned religion.

The blessing is that the Church is very conservative with infallible statements.

I'm not sure I would agree with "wisdom" given the outcome, but I agree with the sentiment.

The Galileo incident is, of course, much more complex than I can describe in a blog post (assuming I knew all there is to know about it, which I don't). In addition to the "insulting the Pope" and "creating his own theology" there's the "misrepresenting biblical texts to support heliocentrism" and the "atomism" arguments as to why he was sentenced and censured.

Ultimately, I think there were multiple reasons, but of all those given the Church's fear of heliocentrism is among the least likely. Otherwise why permit the book to be published in the first place?

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