By Robert Fritz
When Galileo invented the telescope and began his monumental observations, his discoveries, aided by mathematics, brought him to inopportune insights. That is to say, inopportune given the historic period in which he lived. To think that the earth was moving around the sun was a contradiction to parts of the Bible that state: "The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved." "The LORD set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved." "And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place"
How could Galileo not know what he knew? Yet he was put on trial by the church, held under house arrest, forced to reject publicly his own views, and pay a price for holding them in the first place.
Are science and religion natural enemies?
This is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. He also made inopportune discoveries, based, not only on his famous five-year voyage on the Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, but on a life-time of observations of nature. He hesitated to publish his findings, knowing how controversial they would be in his day-and-age. Yet, most of his findings have been verified over the years, particularly since the discovery of DNA in the Fifties.
Like those who rejected Galileo's discoveries, there are many people who would disallow Darwin's ideas. They, like Galileo's adversaries, are duty-bound by beliefs that take the Bible literally. They cannot consider science as a valid way of discerning the physical universe when scientific discoveries fail to support their belief system.
What is telling is how this battle is waged by those who think in terms of belief. Darwin's discoveries are labeled "Darwinism." The "ism" is designed to made Darwin's ideas simply a matter of just another belief. Then it's one belief over another belief, so that facts, data, experiments, and the rigor of scientific inquiry can be ignored.
Darwin's discoveries are not a belief system, nor were they based on belief in the first place. But history has shown how humanity has organized itself around beliefs, which, too often, has led to wars, strife, prejudice, conflicts, and hostilities. Even the way we have learned the so-called "scientific method" has led us to misunderstand the way most discoveries are made. In school we learned that step one in the scientific method is to "start with a hypothesis." This translates to begin with a theory, a speculation, a worldview, a concept. The next moves are to conduct experiments that prove or disprove the theory. But, the organizing principle is the hypothesis.
This is not how many of the most creative scientists work. New discoveries would be made harder if they began with a hypothesis, because it would be hard to go beyond what you already know. In his book A History of Knowledge, Charles Van Doren said about Sir Isaac Newton, "Newton loathed hypotheses. He saw in them all the egregious and harmful errors of the past." Newton, himself said, "Hypotheses have no place in science." And Descartes said, "First rid your mind of all preconceptions." As in other aspects of the creative process, step one is to start with nothing: a clean sheet of paper, a new beginning, a fresh start. Observations may lead to new unknown areas of discoveries. We don't know what we might find. In fact, we may reach new territory that contradicts our pet theories, worldviews, beliefs and concepts.
But here's an interesting question, can we have religion without belief? The answer to this question can redefine the age-old conflict between science and religion if it turns out to be "yes." That is not to say that religion must be devoid of belief, but that something else might be the basis of it. Something like a personal experience of God, a miracle, Divine intervention, the Spirit flowing through you, a mystical experience, a moment of grace, a feeling of not being alone. These are some of the most profound experiences we may have in our lives, that science, with all its usefulness and possibilities, cannot touch.
Speaking for myself, I like both science and religion, and I don't see them as natural enemies. I see them as vastly different domains, simply different mansions within a larger house.
Can we respect a Darwin, even if, in the end, we don't particularly agree with him? I respect Freud, yet I don't agree with most of the conclusions he made. I am fascinated by his journey of thought, his originality, his fearless courage to let his ideas go wherever they led him. There is something honorable about such intellectual honesty, even if the results don't live up to their promise.
In the end, the Inquisition's ban on reprinting Galileo's works was lifted. In 1758 the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism was removed from the index of prohibited books, although the specific ban on uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus's De Revolutionibus remained. All traces of official opposition to heliocentrism by the Church disappeared in 1835. In 1939 Pope Pius XII, in his first speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, within a few months of his election to the papacy, described Galileo as being among the "most audacious heroes of research ... not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments." His close advisor of 40 years, Professor Robert Leiber wrote: "Pius XII was very careful not to close any doors (to science) prematurely. He was energetic on this point and regretted that in the case of Galileo.” On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture. In March 2008 the Vatican proposed to complete its rehabilitation of Galileo by erecting a statue of him inside the Vatican walls. In December of the same year, during events to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's earliest telescopic observations, Pope Benedict XVI praised his contributions to astronomy.
If we could take the factor of belief out of science and religion, what remains can be the best of each world. For science it would be extending the cognitive thought processes as far as that can take us. For religion, it is a relationship with God, or whatever name we give it, and the presence in our lives of what is beyond explanation, intellect, or belief.
© Robert Fritz 2009