Thursday, 22 May 2008

Galileo, Darwin and the Law of the Medes and Persians

When Galileo presented the inconvenient truth that the Sun did not orbit the Earth the people for whom it was most inconvenient was not the Pope and his cardinals but the scientific community. For some two thousand years the Aristotelian view that the Sun orbited the earth had prevailed, was the received wisdom of scientists everywhere and was not seriously challenged except by the odd nutcase who received short shrift from those who knew what they were talking about.

However, Galileo was not the first serious scientist to make the claim. Copernicus had already discovered the truth but, for fear of ridicule by other scientists and the possible ruin of his reputation he had his work published posthumously. Galileo was not so coy, indeed he was rather loud, abrasive and temperamental, as is the way with those who work on the edges of knowledge. It's so frustrating waiting for everyone else to catch up!

The story is popularly told in terms of science verses faith but this is not quite true. The church never was and still isn't as anti-science as people like to believe and, as in all ages of the world, scientists were as subject to dogmas and prejudices as anyone. Galileo was throwing over the received wisdom of the scientific world and the church was cautiously interested while the scientific community was positively hostile and reactionary. It was the scientific community that eventually persuaded a reluctant Rome to get involved in the controversy.

Of course Rome was cautious and questioning about scientific progress and its implications. There are often spiritual and theological implications to scientific discoveries and experimentation; witness today's hot topics of embryology, saviour siblings, IVF treatment and fatherless families, not to mention larger issues such as climate change. Contrary to popular myth, however, the received wisdom of the day was not that the earth was at the centre of Creation with science daring to question its elevated position and that of the church, but at the bottom of Creation, reflecting the biblical view of its fallen nature. Galileo was not demoting the earth but elevating it above its true and fallen station in the order of things. In today's sceptical, cynical and decidedly two-dimensional world this may seem trivial but people's world-view can't be simply overturned based on new and untried science and people trusted the church for guidance in these things. It's not just religion that shouldn't mess with people's heads.

No one comes out of this story covered in glory. Science showed itself as capable of prejudice and stubborn dogmatism as anyone as it silenced Copernicus and bullied the church into getting more involved than it really wanted to be. Galileo was an irascible and bad-tempered man who would never have won friends and influenced people. But he had often discussed his theories with his friend Pope Urban VIII, who was cautiously interested and encouraging, asking Galileo to give arguments for and against heliocentrism in a book, but cautioning him to be careful not to advocate heliocentrism because that theory had no decisive proof and was contrary to the literal meaning of Scripture. Hard to imagine these days but Galileo's claims were still considered no more than a hypothesis even by the scientific community.

Unfortunately, when he finally presented his theories to the world in the form of a classic Greek dialogue he advocated his theories as fact and, to add insult to injury, he put the Aristotelian view including the ideas of his friend the Pope in the mouth of an incompetent adversary he named Simplicius. Thus he lost the support of a strong and powerful advocate and supporter.

The church finally lost patience and overreacted, taking an entrenched position and reinforcing a not altogether deserved reputation for being anti-science and imperious in its attitude, keeping his books on the index of prohibited books until 1835. In 1990 Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, spoke about Galileo in Rome and observed, "The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's teaching too."

"The Law of the Medes and Persians" is a reference to a verse of the Bible and is a term used to describe that which is unalterable:

"Now, O King, establish the decree, and sign the writing, that it be not changed, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not" (Daniel 6:8)

It is easy to see how things can seem unalterable, either because the powers that be, like the scientific community or the state, seem to be beyond challenging or because everyone 'just knows' the truth and any alternative to the received wisdom is unthinkable. For many Christians, today's geocentrism is Darwin's theory of evolution and it seems that, despite its failings, gaps and missing links, it is beyond challenging. History teaches us otherwise but we must be careful to learn the lessons of history.

It was science that stood in the way of progress but it was also science that made that progress and we mustn't dismiss her findings because they don't suit our preconceptions otherwise we will fall into the same trap as Galileo's scientific contemporaries.

The church was much more involved in encouraging that progress than popular perception will allow but in doing so it did try to exercise reason and counsel caution. We too must be careful not to present what we believe as scientific or our pet theories as proven facts. We must also not overreact to what science seems to tell us because she is a good servant and we don't always give her the credit she is due. We should remember this when next we board a plane, take a painkiller or even now as we read this off a computer screen. We should work with her, always seeking to remain faithful to the God whose thoughts, Einstein once said, science is thinking after him.

We should never say never for where is the Law of the Medes and Persians today? Where is Aristotle's geocentrism? The truth is only God is unchangeable and even our understanding of God is subject to revision as we grow in our knowledge of him and his creation. Darwinism is still a minority view in the world and evolution is a hypothesis that is still being tested, revised and reviewed. The last thing needed is a stubborn scientific community that will not allow for the possibilities of alternatives as this process goes on, or a church that is backed into a dogmatic ghetto and has nothing positively scientific to contribute to the debate. There needs to be humility on all sides because history teaches us that, in the rush to progress, we can all be wrong yet still capable of finding and appreciating the truth eventually.

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