Science, Religion and Authority: Lessons from the Galileo Affair
By Richard J. Blackwell
Publisher: Marquette University Press
Review Author: Christopher Kaczor
In this published version of his 1998 Aquinas Lecture, Richard J. Blackwell of St. Louis University offers his reflections on what we can learn from the Galileo affair. He begins by sketching two very different stances taken through history by Christians in respect to scientific knowledge. One stance — that of separation — is exemplified by Augustine. Augustine, says Blackwell, sought to downplay the importance of science. He portrayed it as an inquiry whose relevance to the believer is minimal at best. Science, Augustine famously said, concerns itself with how the heavens go, while religion concerns itself with how to go to heaven. Science and religion do not contradict each other, for they do not treat the same areas of human concern.
The other stance is that of Aquinas, who exemplifies the strategy of integration. In Aquinas’s view, all truth comes from God, who is the Author of two books, the book of nature and the book of revelation. Christians can and should learn from both books, and nothing learned from one can ever come into conflict with something learned from the other.
(Blackwell’s sketch, with its binary division, strikes this reader as a bit too simple, insofar as Augustine sometimes employs strategies of integration and Aquinas sometimes employs strategies of separation, and both understood the relationship of faith and reason in a more sophisticated way than this rudimentary division allows. Readers interested in a contemporary account of faith and reason should consult John Paul II’s masterly encyclical Fides et Ratio.)
Trouble arose with both approaches in the case of Galileo. A preliminary trial of Galileo in 1616 condemned as contradictory to Scripture the idea — first published in 1531 by the Polish priest Copernicus — that the earth revolves around the sun. A second trial in 1637 ended with Galileo confined to house arrest because, by advocating the Copernican theory, he had violated a disciplinary action of the Holy Office.
Cardinal Bellarmine argued that the infallibility of the Church’s teaching office with respect to faith and morals meant that one could use Scripture as a guide to true natural science as well. (He was in error, as the Church later recognized.) Galileo and others argued that though the authors of Scripture characteristically used commonsensical descriptions of natural phenomena, they could hardly be said to be asserting these descriptions as scientific explanations. (In various passages such as Joshua 10:12-14 and Psalm 19:4-6, the sacred authors speak as if the sun went round the earth, just as a modern astronomer may do when he says “the sun rose at 6:43 this morning,” but neither the authors of Scripture nor the scientist is thereby asserting a Ptolemaic cosmology.) Bellarmine, however, was adamant that until science proves beyond a doubt that the earth revolves around the sun, the Church is right to interpret Scripture as setting forth a Ptolemaic worldview.
What lessons can be learned from the case of Galileo? Blackwell lists five. First lesson: “There is a fundamental difference between a description of the way things are, and a justification of a description which authorizes its truth.” In other words, a belief (e.g., that F = MA or that Christ rose from the dead) is one thing, and the justification of that belief is quite another (repeated tests show that F = MA; Scripture teaches that Christ rose from the dead).
Second lesson: “Science and religion sometimes agree, sometimes disagree, at the descriptive level, but they are always different from each other at the level of authority.” Scientific justification comes through repeated public empirical testing; religious justification comes from the authority of Christ, the Scriptures, and the Church.
Third lesson: “At the authority level, neither science nor religion is purely rational in character. Each involves a volitional component derived from the human will, albeit in very different ways.” Blackwell observes that disagreements between science and religion are so emotional and antagonistic because religious people commit themselves to living according to religious belief, hence when their self-commitment seems threatened, their ire is aroused. (Let me interject two remarks at this point. Though science, as Blackwell notes correctly, presupposes many tenets — such as the reliability of sense experience — which science itself cannot verify by the scientific method, this does not mean that science’s commitment to these tenets is merely volitional or, as Blackwell also says, “non-rational.” There may be good philosophical reasons for believing that the presuppositions of the scientific method are indeed justified. Also, Blackwell’s account does not explain why perceived conflicts between faith and science agitate scientists as well, since in his view only religious belief and not scientific belief involves self-commitment.)
Fourth lesson: “Tensions at the authority level have become amplified as science and religion have gradually become institutionalized over a long period of time.” Science is institutionalized as pluralistic, public, fallibilistic, and self-corrective. Religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, is institutionalized as monolithic, centralized, esoteric, infallible, resistant to change, and self-protective.
Fifth lesson: “At the authority level, scientific truth is understood to be thoroughly fallibilistic; however, that is not the case in regard to truth in religion. This difference in their respective conceptions of truth makes reconciliation between science and religion considerably more difficult.” Science accepts many things as true but does not exclude the possibility that in the future, given further data, these beliefs may turn out to be false. “On the other hand, Christian theology, especially in the Catholic tradition, maintains that some fundamental religious beliefs, for example…the articles of faith in the Nicene Creed, are beyond the possibility of being in error.” Hence, “the mindset of fallibilism is not congenial to infallibilism, and vice versa.” What Blackwell overlooks is that a consistent advocate of fallibilism should hold that fallibilism itself may not hold true for every area of knowledge. This would leave room for the religious belief of which he speaks. Hence, it is only the infallibilist fallibilist who runs into the problem he notes.
Science and religion, in Blackwell’s view, are natural antagonists. “Although elements in the world views may change over time, the underlying authorities do not change. As a result the same basic forces of scientific and religious authority, which resulted in the Galileo affair, are still operative today. That is the reason why fascination with this case continues unabated today, and why it is quite possible that tomorrow another clash similar to the Galileo affair may occur again.”
Although Blackwell’s book is informative and insightful, his thesis as expressed above remains to be proved. As he notes, “The disagreements [between science and religion] arise first and explicitly at the descriptive level, but they soon cut through to the more fundamental level of authority.” This does seem to be the case, but, contrary to what Blackwell asserts, disagreements at the level of description are not frequent but are extremely rare. Aside from the Galileo affair, which arose because of Bellarmine’s overly broad understanding of what is covered by “faith and morals,” there has been only a handful of cases in which there has even seemed to be a contradiction between faith and science.
The creation-or-evolution debate occasioned by a literal reading of Genesis is the controversy best known to the contemporary mind, but Catholics since before Augustine have read Genesis in an allegorical way that eliminates the possible conflict with evolution. Creationism vs. evolution is a major issue for fundamentalists, but not for Catholics (though Catholics seem to be the focus of Blackwell’s remarks about religious faith).
Another possible conflict at the descriptive level could arise from the debates over the eternity of the universe. But just as in Aquinas’s time, with the recovery of Aristotle, the eternity of the universe does not seem to be something that can be demonstrated scientifically, in the modern or ancient sense of science. So far as I know, most scientists believe that the evidence suggests that the universe did in fact have a beginning, which is what Christians believe.
For the most part, science simply has nothing to say about the fundamental truths of Christianity. God’s existence cannot be proved or disproved by empirical methods, nor can one prove or disprove any articles of the Creed insofar as they have to do with historical events (Christ’s resurrection) or foretold events (Christ’s second coming). Nor could science contradict the Church’s moral teaching, for that teaching has to do, not with what is, but with what should be. Science has to do with the laws of nature, not with natural law. Had Blackwell spoken not of empirical science but more broadly of philosophical knowledge, the room for possible conflicts would be greatly expanded. The relationship of theology to philosophy raises more problems of possible contradiction than the relationship of theology to natural science, insofar as various philosophies treat matters of concern to the believer — morality, the immortality of the soul, miracles, and more. It is here, not in the realm of natural science, that real difficulties exist.
Modern science and Christianity have coexisted for about four centuries. The conflicts between them have not been frequent but very rare, limited in fact to the cases mentioned. Science, as Blackwell, notes — and as Stanley Jaki has spent a career showing — arose first among those with religious faith who believed that God created a universe that is comprehensible by the rational human person made in the image of God. Galileo, Copernicus, Pascal, and many other founders of the scientific method, as well as many distinguished scientists today, such as Dr. Jerome Lejeune, have been devout Catholics, seeing no contradiction between practicing the Faith and practicing science. Neither should we.
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