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Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and ReligionReview - Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion
by Ronald L. Numbers (Editor)
Harvard University Press, 2009
Review by Ed Brandon
May 19th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 21)

It is hardly news that history is often distorted for partisan reasons.  With a little help from the John Templeton Foundation, Ronald Numbers has here assembled 25 scholars to deflate an assortment of supposed "myths" relating to science and religion.  The recurrent targets are two nineteenth century American writers, A.D. White and J.W. Draper, and their shared belief that science and religion were essentially at war with each other.  Richard Dawkins, a modern exponent of a similar idea, also receives a fair share of quotation and criticism.  The authors take up, in short essay-lectures, a variety of ideas, some frequently encountered, some rather more esoteric, that bear on the general topic of the relations between science and religion (or theology).  The 25 topics and their commentators are listed at the end of this review.

Some are definite, comparatively clear-cut issues, however difficult it may be for us now to resolve them.  Thus it is clear that either Galileo went to jail, or he didn't; was tortured or wasn't.  In a very careful and judicious discussion, Maurice Finocchiaro argues that our evidence now suggests he didn't and he wasn't, though there are three days unaccounted for when he might have been confined somewhere.  Finocchiaro leaves us to form our own opinions of the justice, wisdom and charity of the institutions and people responsible for the undoubted fact that Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life, and as Shackelford puts it in another essay, was "free to believe what he wanted about the position and mobility of the earth, so long as he did not teach the Copernican hypothesis as a truth on which Holy Scripture had no bearing" (p. 65).  Finocchiaro, who tells us by the way that the Inquisition required every cry and groan of the tortured to be recorded (p. 76), maintains that the threat of torture ought not to be regarded as a form of moral or psychological torture since that would start us "down a semantic slippery slope with no end in sight" (p. 78).  I hope Dr Finocchiaro will never have to discover how distant from physical pain is the mere threat of the "torture of the rope".

But quite a few of the myths are too obviously overblown, exaggerated, or diffuse to yield worthwhile discussion.  It would be very surprising if no Catholics had contributed to the scientific revolution (myth 11).  Christianity and the Churches were not the only causes of the demise of ancient science (myths 1 and 2), nor the only causes of its later rise (myth 9).  The story is more complicated than that.  But these essays of a few pages can hardly scratch the surface; they give no statistics, few comparisons.  

Let us take for granted the general accuracy of the history and the ideas reported here.  Do we find that the case for peaceful co-existence between science and religion/theology has been made?  I think not.

One problem that our authors do not seem to sufficiently acknowledge is that it is not what an author says that matters but what he does, or putting it in terms of his theory: what the theory implies takes precedence over what a theorist asserts in addition.  Your theory may entail or strongly support P, but you may believe not-P and tell us that not-P.  Implicitly you have contradicted yourself, or at last confronted yourself with a difficult dilemma.  If we hold you to your theory, which is the interesting thing, we ignore your protestation of not-P; your theory implies or supports P and that is what matters.

This is pertinent to a lot of the reports here of what scientists believe.  As Robert Park maintains in a book recently reviewed here, scientists, like anyone else, can easily compartmentalize their intellectual lives: believing the gods need appeasing in one compartment, and observing eclipses of the sun or planets circling distant stars with a telescope in another.  Vast numbers of people can continue to hold vague views about personal survival of death while taking the physical medicines that presuppose such views are superfluous.  The rebuttal of myth 18 tells us that Darwin did not put natural theology out of business.  True, no more did he, or "science", put astrologers out of business.  People are often irrational.

The second point I would insist upon is the importance of the contrast made just now between entailment and support.   The important issues on the borders of science and religion are not matters of strict deductive logic, of what is consistent or inconsistent with what, but rather of what supports what, or better, what supports X rather than Y.  One traditional dialectical sequence in the debates between religion and science goes schematically like this: A says "God makes X happen."  B says "Here is a mechanism (in a very general sense) whereby X happens naturally."  A says, "Oh well, God made the mechanism."  This allows theology to defuse any scientific discovery, such as Darwin's, that undermines what it had previously stood upon.  If having a consistent position was all that mattered, theology could survive.   But what matters is more: whether, all things considered, the theological package of doctrines provides a better account of what is to be accounted for than the non-theological.  And here, the dialectical path to consistency for the theologian can incur considerable costs.  Crudely, if the divine wanted human company, a few days' wait might seem warranted, but why create a process that takes millions of years and incalculable animal suffering to reach us?

Once we recognize these non-deductive links between our beliefs, we can query the ease with which Shackelford deals with myth 7.  Bruno was burnt, yes, but for heretical theological beliefs not for his scientific ones.  Leaving aside the impression one gets that our author seems to think it acceptable for people to be burnt for any of their beliefs, the point now is that Bruno's scientific beliefs supported, though they did not entail, his theology.  Similarly, Dawkins is right, I think, to say that Darwin's theory supports atheism, though of course it doesn't entail it (supporting "myth" 18, and more generally myths 13 and 25).

Given the range of issues addressed I think it unfortunate that no one looked at what seems to me a centrally important element in the recent secularization of the West: the rejection of special status for the books that make up the various Bibles in use among Christians.  When people have faith, it is more frequently tested by their personal experiences of living in this world than by the findings of science, and what matters then is very often the authority they continue to give to the institutions and documents of their religion.  Once people see these as simply one more institution among others, or one more literary tradition, with all the uncertainties of authorship and reading that afflict our understanding of the rest of ancient writings, it seems to me that the hold of religion is on its way out.  Again it is not inconsistent to think some of it was divinely inspired or dictated by an angel, but there is absolutely no reason to do so.  The studies that "naturalized" supposed revelations count as Wissenschaften in the German in which many of them were first conducted; it seems an unfortunate linguistic idiosyncrasy that they are not sciences in English.

Let me close with some comments on a few of the essays.  A message for our times is perhaps implicit in chapters 2, 4 and 9 that emphasize the crucial role of early Muslim states in transmitting and expanding upon Greek, Indian and Chinese science and technology.  They show at least that Islam is compatible with any number of attitudes to the natural world and its investigation, but none of them explore the doubtless complex reasons for the long periods in which Muslim societies ceased to play these roles.    

Myth 6 I found particularly interesting.  One certainly associates the Copernican revolution with a dethronement of humans in the scale of things.  Denis Danielson reminds us, however, that in an Aristotelian world-view the centre was the sump of corruption, with the most divine things situated at the periphery (Aquinas says the central "earth is the most material and coarsest of all bodies" and Dante put the lowest pit of hell at the very centre of the universe).  And of course there were Catholic supporters of Copernicus and his ideas, at least with an operationalist, non-literal reading of its theoretical claims.  So what remains of the usual conception?  I think Nick Everitt's argument from scale (The Non-Existence of God, ch. 11, Routledge, London, 2004) captures the truth here. The Aristotelian bubble universe with a unique earth at the centre in full view of the divine mind fitted the homely stories of Genesis much better than the infinite spaces that affrighted Pascal.  (Of course, Copernicus' own picture only shifted the earth from the centre to the middle of the sequence of planets surrounding a central sun; but soon enough the vastness of the universe and our non-special place in it was revealed.)

Chapter 12 offers to rebut one of the more bizarre "myths": that Descartes invented dualism.  Peter Harrison does not, however, make much of the obvious fact that Descartes was not the first to espouse two distinct separable substances in living humans (they are implicit in any belief in personal survival of death, and then there are the explicit accounts offered by Plato and later thinkers), but prefers to show that Descartes wasn't even a dualist.  He observes that Descartes himself insists on the union of mind and body, and says that the mind is not in the body in the way a pilot is in a ship.  Relying on Cottingham, Harrison suggests that Descartes is better seen as a "trialist": he works with three basic kinds of entity, "extended material things (matter), thinking things (minds), and mind-body composites (persons)" (p. 111).  Now that may be what we should say in fairness to Renée Descartes; but nothing is said in this chapter to take away from the clearly enunciated dualism of the works for which Descartes is famous.  It is the position in those works that the culture now associates with his name; what he thought at school or at Princess Elizabeth's court is perhaps of interest to biographers, but is of little relevance to most philosophical discussion.  Cottingham himself observes that the dualism is the "official" position.  The third category represents perhaps recognition of a truth that would not fit that theory.

I was disturbed by Michael Ruse's account of what is wrong with "intelligent design" in chapter 23.  Ruse seems to suppose that we can rest here on definitions of "science" that speak only of natural phenomena, so any appeal beyond the natural world is unscientific.  He thereby rules out significant chunks of Newton's Principia.  They may be wrong, but it is their wrongness, not their not fitting some definition of science, that is the pertinent fact about them.  Ruse here in effect denies my earlier point that scientific claims about the physical universe can support, or undermine, claims about supposed entities beyond that sphere.  It betrays an authoritarianism that is not prepared to argue, in his case against Steve Fuller's defense of the scientific legitimacy of questioning some scientific ground rules (p. 213).  I do not presume to speak for Fuller, but it does seem to me that what is needed are arguments to show that Behe and Dembski fail to carry the day, all things considered, rather than definitions that exclude their claims as non-science. 

While one can cavil at some of the positions adopted here, and while one may not be prepared to accept the intellectual truce being proffered in many of the contributions, these essays engage with a good number of interesting and important issues and remind us that in most cases simple answers are insufficient.

The "myths" treated in the book are:

  • Myth 1. That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science
    David C. Lindberg
  • Myth 2. That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science
    Michael H. Shank
  • Myth 3. That Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat
    Lesley B. Cormack
  • Myth 4. That Medieval Islamic Culture Was Inhospitable to Science
    S. Nomanul Haq
  • Myth 5. That the Medieval Church Prohibited Human Dissection
    Katharine Park
  • Myth 6. That the Copernican System Demoted Humans from the Center of the Cosmos
    Dennis R. Danielson
  • Myth 7. That Giordano Bruno Was the First Martyr of Modern Science
    Jole Shackelford
  • Myth 8. That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism
    Maurice A. Finocchiaro
  • Myth 9. That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science
    Noah Efron
  • Myth 10. That the Scientific Revolution Liberated Science from Religion
    Margaret J. Osler
  • Myth 11. That Catholics Did Not Contribute to the Scientific Revolution
    Lawrence Principe
  • Myth 12. That René Descartes Originated the Mind-Body Distinction
    Peter Harrison
  • Myth 13. That Isaac Newton's Mechanistic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God
    Edward Davis
  • Myth 14. That the Church Denounced Anesthesia in Childbirth on Biblical Grounds
    Rennie B. Schoepflin
  • Myth 15. That the Theory of Organic Evolution Is Based on Circular Reasoning
    Nicolaas A. Rupke
  • Myth 16. That Evolution Destroyed Charles Darwin's Faith in Christianity—until He Reconverted on His Deathbed
    James Moore
  • Myth 17. That Huxley Defeated Wilberforce in Their Debate over Evolution and Religion
    David N. Livingstone
  • Myth 18. That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology
    Jon H. Roberts
  • Myth 19. That Darwin and Haeckel Were Complicit in Nazi Biology
    Robert J. Richards
  • Myth 20. That the Scopes Trial Ended in Defeat for Antievolutionism
    Edward J. Larson
  • Myth 21. That Einstein Believed in a Personal God
    Matthew Stanley
  • Myth 22. That Quantum Physics Demonstrated the Doctrine of Free Will
    Daniel P. Thurs
  • Myth 23. That "Intelligent Design" Represents a Scientific Challenge to Evolution
    Michael Ruse
  • Myth 24. That Creationism Is a Uniquely American Phenomenon
    Ronald L. Numbers
  • Myth 25. That Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture
    John Hedley Brooke

 

© 2009 Ed Brandon

 

 

Ed Brandon is, by training, a philosopher, and now is working in a policy position in the University of the West Indies at its Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.


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