Thursday, January 29, 2015

How should we then understand?

"In Carl Sagan's rendition of this legend these anti-Copernican scholars are not merely transformed into 'skeptical ecclesiastics' but--for added dramatic effect--high officials of the Church.  Sagan accomplishes this embellishment by borrowing an illustration, a painting by Jean-Leon Huens that was originally used in a National Geographic rendering of the legend. Instead of scholars Huens shows two cardinals adorned in scarlet robes and skull caps.  One puzzled-looking ecclesiastic in the painting's foreground is actually shown squinting into the eyepiece of Galileo's instrument.  It is the other Cardinal who depicts the anti-empirical church.  A caricature of haughty religious dogmatism, this fellow stands nearby, his nose slightly elevated, hands folded across a plump belly, peering with nonchalant disdain at a sketch of the moon held up to him by an animated Galileo.  The faces of the Cardinals are pallid, bathed only in the dim and greenish glow of the moon.  But Galileo's face is illuminated by a distinctly different light.  As if it reflected the sun itself, Galileo's countenance burns with intelligence and just the slightest hint of righteous anger."--Thomas Lessl*

I was simply going to read this article linked at Thought Criminal, but I couldn't resist noting how its examination of the "Galileo legend" also examined popular thinking about science and religion; and not, as it turns out, just popular thinking.

Begin with this quote:

…examination of the Galileo legend suggests that the scientific culture embraces an ideology of progress that has its roots in a positivist vision of history similar to the one popularized by August Comte in the nineteenth century.  Such tales depict science as the vanguard of an evolutionary movement whose march toward the future advances even in the face of bitter opposition from a religious competitor which is destined by nature to be replaced by science.  Evolution necessitates a struggle for survival, and thus science’s progressive character can be shown in its ability to outbid religion for existence.  Religious culture, by contrast, must then be shown to exhibit features which make it unsuited for survival in a changing human environment.   If science is the culmination of evolutionary progress then other knowledge cultures must be shown to be antiquated.  Thus science is almost never demarcated against commerce, government, or art.  Only other cognitive cultures such as religion and occasionally philosophy can serve as suitable antagonists.

By making Galileo the definitive founder of modern science, this tradition creates an exaggerated sense of division between secular science and other intellectual traditions.  If scientists can construct the origins of science in a way that makes it appear to have arisen out of whole cloth, completely distinct from the other currents of western culture, they can also assure that its institutional autonomy will be respected by outsiders.  Science’s honor belongs to itself.
The legend is that Galileo was punished for heresy; that he barely missed the fate of Giordano Bruno; and that his story presents us with a parable of the conflict between science (reason) and religion (superstition).  I leave it to Mr. Lessl to give you all the particulars of the legend and its transmission; I'm interested more in the implications of that legend for the modern understanding of science, and of religion.  (What he has to say in passing about the limits of empiricism, limits identified by the historical truth of Galileo's story, is fascinating; I'd like to spend time just exploring it.)

Lessl develops the idea that the legend of Galileo became central to how science understood itself, and even to how we understand modernity.  Does that seem like an exaggeration?  Then consider this quote from Bertrand Russell which Lessl provides:

He is therefore, the father of modern times.  Whatever we may like or dislike about the age in which we live, its increase in population, its improvement in health, its trains, motor-cars, radio, politics and advertisement of soap—all emanate from Galileo.  If the Inquisition could have caught him young, we might not now be enjoying the blessings of air-warfare and poisoned gas, nor, on the other hand, the diminution of poverty and disease which is characteristic of our age.

The “he” in the first sentence is Galileo, from whose brow all modernity sprang like Venus from the brow of Zeus.  And they say mythology is an ancient practice irrelevant to modern understanding.  As Lessl notes:  “A  science that sprang from Galileo’s head would owe nothing to any other institution or intellectual culture, while remaining indispensable as the source of modernity’s greatest benefits.  A perfect balance is accomplished here [in the passage from Russell].  Science needs society, and thus should offer it its wealth.  But science owes nothing to society, since it sprang up under its own power.”

I am reminded again of the singular genius of Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz.  The church preserves human knowledge after a holocaust unleashed by science.  The church even recovers modern science when a monk is the first person to understand the principle of generating electricity and using it to power a light bulb (which he also invents; although it’s an arc light, not a vacuum sealed bulb).  Eventually science recreates the conditions for holocaust, and the church, in the form of a handful of monks, leaves Earth for colonies in space.  Science, as ever, owes nothing to society, even as it destroys it twice.  Religion, on other hand, offers society both an alternative, and continuation.  It is in the world and not entirely of the world.  Science, entirely in and of the world, still imagines its place is above the world, and superior to it.  Human arrogance loves to be fed, no matter the consequences.

And interestingly, Galileo’s fate seems to have rested in the hands of a small group of academic critics:  his peers, in other words, who resented his efforts and their results.  Never, ever, cross swords with your professional colleagues:  not, at least, in certain settings.  Forgiveness is the hardest act of all, and apparently the least natural to humans.  “It is helpful to think of this in the most personal terms possible:  Galileo’s science nullified the life’s work of a majority of the natural philosophers then in the employ of the Italian universities.  Lives, careers, and reputations were at stake for these secular academics, but this would not have been so for the clergy.”

Ox.  Gored.  Whose.  Or, as Deep Throat put it:  “Follow the money.”  Always wise advice.

One reason for this continued view of Galileo’s trial is that “It serves as a reminder that non-scientists—and those of a religious bent in particular—cannot be trusted to subject their judgments to the rigors of scientific discipline.”  I’ve encountered this on websites (especially the deep thinkers who toss out Plato and Aristotle with the Hebrews and the first century Jews, since both are products of the Bronze Age), and it prevails in academic settings where any expression of religious belief can be career poison.  I met a pastor who worked in Europe in a non-ministerial capacity.  He said he kept his ordained status, even his relationship to the church, a secret because in the academic and professional circles he worked, such a status would be career ending.  Today one is simply not allowed to be rational, if one is religious.  I’ve been told my thinking is obviously flawed since I have a seminary degree.  I’ve been told this, however, by anonymous and small minded people on the internet.

So it goes.

I don't want to recreate and discuss the entire article.  It is quite fascinating, especially as it details how much modern popular thought is shaped by a mythology which its adherents find abhorrent when that term is applied pejoratively to religion.  I’ve actually encountered people who deride my citation to Mendel because he was a 19th century figure, and so out of date.  Yet Galileo continues to be the font of the modern world, and the first proof against the vile superstitions of religious belief (and all the better that his opponent is the Roman Catholic church, as that feeds the latent Protestantism in Anglo-American culture, with its lingering opposition to all things “Papist”.).

I should just mention one of the last themes identified in this story:  that Galileo represents disinterested objectivity, while religion represents emotional adherence to faith, which becomes “believin’ what you know ain’t so.”  This is the last redoubt of the religion v. science battle:  that the former is irrational because it is subjective, the latter wholly rational because it is objective.  Post-modernism had, I thought, marked “paid” to the idea of objectivity (Kierkegaard eviscerated it in the mid-19th century; then again, that was the 19th century, we are modern now!), but still it lingers on, as does logical positivism, a zombie idea that truly won’t die.’  Or:  “Though classical positivism has long been dead as a philosophy of knowledge, the widespread following that the Galileo legend seems to enjoy suggests its persistence as a philosophy of history.”

Without any reference to Kuhn, Lessl points to a number of studies indicating even scientific research is guided by “an emotional commitment to a particular research outcome.”  After all, curiosity itself is an emotion.  The article also references the story of the “church officials” who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope; except they weren’t church officials, but secular academicians with a vested interest in rejecting Galileo’s ideas.

On and on it goes:  this legend is reproduced and repeated by such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking; by Fred Hoyle and Isaac Asimov.  And why not?  It is a story that very much supports a particular view of the privileged place science must hold in modern society:  a privilege it earns by resting its history on mythology.  (And the citations to Einstein and Hawking illustrate the perils of popularizing science in order to make it "accessible."  The value of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan and Bill Nye deserve even more reconsideration.)

At the end of his discussion Lessl quotes Richard Lewontin, a passage I think deserves especial attention:

Either the world of phenomena is a consequence of the regular operation of repeatable causes and their repeatable effects, operating roughly along the lines of known physical law, or else at every instance all physical regularities may be ruptured and a totally unforeseeable set of events may occur. One must take sides on the issue of whether the sun is sure to rise tomorrow.  We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit.

Lewontin’s argument, that either the world is an Aristotelian (another Bronze Age thinker!) series of cause and effect, in which every effect, however small, can be said to have a cause, or otherwise the entire edifice of science falls because one miracle undoes all, is pure nonsense.  Life itself is miraculous, in the sense that we cannot explain why matter should be animate, and why animate matter should pass on animation, even as animate matter itself becomes inanimate.  And why?  When does animate matter cease its animation?  Because it can “no longer sustain life”?  That’s as circular an argument as you can find: it begins with no answer, and ends with no answer.  The answer simply is:  “Because it’s always been that way.”  My daughter is a miracle:  she is sui generis and irreproducible as well as irreplaceable.  Does this mean the universe ceases to make sense, or that it actually makes more sense.  On which subject must I take a position:  that my daughter is unique and marvelous to me, or that the sun will come up tomorrow?  Which is more important to me?

And love?  Do we explain love as simply cause and effect, as simply chemical reactions in neuro-transmitters?  What is love, then?  Why is it powerful, why do we devote so much energy to it?  Why art?  Why music?  What are the causal relationships that makes us musical, loving, artistic, curious, philosophical, religious?  The answers from the Lewontin’s of the world always involve a reductio ad absurdum:  we are religious because we fear death; we love because we mistake lust for something nobler; we create art because we like to keep busy; we are philosophical because we like to chase our own tails.

It is an answer which is no answer at all, and which simply wishes to foreclose the questions, because the answers are not as simple as even quantum mechanics; are not reducible to mathematics; because we run from the implications of Godel’s proof of incompleteness.  And we run, inevitably, to mythology:  especially the mythology which affirms our special place in the world, and sets boundaries between us and them:  whether "they" are people of different ideologies or religions, or simply of a different economic class.

I cannot let go of the fact that modern religion provides us with a stronger critique of poverty than does modern philosophy or modern science.

*I would just add to Lessl's analysis of the painting above, that Galileo is shown turned toward the light in the painting; the Cardinals look into the darkness.  Such things are not accidental; and imagery is a very powerful force in socialization; it always has been.


  1. Excellent post, I kept reading it and knew something should be said, I just couldn't get a handle on it.

  2. Brilliant!

    "And love? Do we explain love as simply cause and effect, as simply chemical reactions in neuro-transmitters? What is love, then? Why is it powerful, why do we devote so much energy to it? ... The answers from the Lewontin’s of the world always involve a reductio ad absurdum: ... we love because we mistake lust for something nobler"

    A question I'd like to put to the happy, skipping people (and movie awards voters) coming out of watching Eddie Redmayne in "The Theory of Everything". Funny, how the commercials don't show these two lovebirds as "mistake lust for something nobler" (I confess, I haven't seen it. I think that's what Netflix is for)

  3. Those who actually inaugurated the scientific revolution--I'm thinking mainly of those whom I have a little familiarity with, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton--didn't "compartmentalize" like we do. They recognized that science, religion, ethics and the sense of beauty are different realms, but they never seemed to have dreamed of setting one up against the other. The following is a passage I found in about a minute in Copernicus' de revolutionibus:

    "If then the value of the arts is judged by the subject matter which they treat, that art will be by far the foremost which is labeled astronomy by some, astrology by others, but by
    many of the ancients, the consummation of mathematics. Unquestionably the summit of the liberal arts and most worthy of a free man, it is supported by almost all the branches of mathematics. Arithmetic, geometry, optics, surveying, mechanics and whatever others there are all contribute to it. Although all the good arts serve to draw man's mind away from vices and lead it toward better things, this function can be more fully performed by this art, which also provides extraordinary intellectual pleasure. For when a man is occupied with things which he sees established in the finest order and directed by divine management, will not the unremitting contemplation of them and a certain familiarity with them stimulate him to the best and to admiration for the Maker of everything,
    in whom are all happiness and every good? For would not the godly Psalmist in vain declare that he was made glad through the work of the Lord and rejoiced in the works of His hands, were we not drawn to the contemplation of the
    highest good by this means, as though by a chariot?"

  4. Rick--exactly. Religion more and more, rather than being a part of life, is meant to wither away into a tiny personal space, kept more private than one's sexual preference or proclivities, more personal than what one does in the bathroom.

    As if we were merely a discrete collection of interests clustered round a central core that is "reasonable," and only the reasonable part (or the sexual part, or even the gustatory part, or the athletic part) are allowed to be seen in public; the rest are personal preferences best kept private, intimate, even hidden.

    It's a curious way of seeing being human.