Déjà Vu All Over Again

David Mogk
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published Feb 22, 2010

February 15th was the birthday of Galileo Galilei (1564). It is worth revisiting, after nearly four and a half centuries, the arguments used by Galileo to defend his theory of a heliocentric solar system based on his celestial observations as presented in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science, 1615). Galileo begins his letter:

Some years ago...I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things...stirred up against me no small number of professors--as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences. They seemed to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment and growth of the arts; not their diminution or destruction. Showing greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth, they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end, they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments, and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill suited to their purposes. These men would perhaps not have fallen into such error had they but paid attention to a most useful doctrine of St. Augustine's ...'we ought not believe anything inadvisedly on a dubious point, lest in favor to our error we conceive a prejudice against something that truth hereafter may reveal to be not contrary in any way to the sacred books of either the Old or the New Testament'.

It would appear that the cultural divide between secular and spiritual human pursuits has been with us for centuries--a false dichotomy, as Galileo demonstrates in this letter to his patron and benefactor. Science seeks to understand the universe around us while Scripture speaks to the salvation of the soul--two distinct and perhaps complementary pursuits of human nature. The lessons delivered by Galileo via his Letter to Grand Duchess Christina are very much applicable today. In this contribution I've excerpted some of the key points of analysis and reflections presented by Galileo, not only to support the Copernican model of the solar system, but also, to expose the specious arguments of his antagonists who had inappropriately used Scripture to justify their own ignorance and erroneous prejudices. As you read these centuries-old passages, consider the contemporary arguments of the "creation scientists." As you read the following passages, substitute "evolution" for "celestial mechanics" or "motions of Earth and Sun" and you'll see that it is a case of "déjà vu all over again".

The politics of personal destruction so deftly applied today, apparently has a time-honored tradition. Rather than refuting the evidence presented in Galileo's scholarly work, the detractors of the day resorted to ad hominem attacks in an attempt to discredit his work. Destroy the man to kill the message....

...these men have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible. These they apply, with little judgment, to the refutation of arguments that they do not understand and have not even listened to... they have endeavored to spread the opinion that such propositions in general are contrary to the Bible and are consequently damnable and heretical.

Galileo's primary argument is against the purposefully deceitful application of Biblical passages, inappropriately used out of context.

...they make a shield of their hypocritical zeal for religion. They go about invoking the Bible, which they would have minister to their deceitful purposes. Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers, they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters--where faith is not involved--they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense...Copernicus never discusses matters of religion or faith...He stands always upon physical conclusions pertaining to the celestial motions, and deals with them by astronomical and geometrical demonstrations, founded primarily upon sense experiences and very exact observations. He did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved then it could not contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood.

Then, as now, one of the key points of conflict revolves around literal, absolutist reading of Scripture versus a more complete understanding of the full context (i.e. the metalanguage--what is the actual meaning that is being conveyed, and what textual devices are being used to impart understanding to the common reader?)

But I believe that no one will deny that the Bible is often abstruse, and may say things which are quite different from what its bare words signify. Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might fall into error....These propositions uttered by the Holy Ghost were set down in that manner by the sacred scribes in order to accommodate them to the capacities of the common people, who are rude and unlearned....Hence I think I may reasonably conclude that whenever the Bible has the occasion to speak of any physical conclusion (especially those which are abstruse and hard to understand), the rule has been observed of avoiding confusion in the minds of the common people which would render them contumacious toward the higher mysteries.... Who, then, would positively declare that this principle has been set aside, and the Bible has confined itself rigorously to the bare and restricted sense of the words when speaking but casually of the earth, of water, of the sun, or of any other created thing? Especially in view of the fact that these things in no way concern the primary purpose of the sacred writings, which is the service of God and the salvation of souls. This being granted, I think that in discussion of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations. Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words: "We conclude that God is first known through Nature, and then again, more particularly by doctrine; by nature in his works, and by doctrine in His revealed words."

Galileo also expounds on the God-given gifts of intellect and reason. Matters of the physical world are understood best through direct experience, intellect and reason (which God expects us to use); matters pertaining to the salvation of the soul rely on spiritual faith (which God also expects, but by definition, matters of faith must be accepted and cannot be proved).

But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can obtain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations. This must be especially true in those sciences of which but the faintest trace and that consisting of conclusions is to be found in the Bible. Far from pretending to teach us the constitution and motions of the heavens and the stars, with their shapes, magnitudes and distances, the authors of the Bible intentionally forebore to speak of these things...

...the intention of the holy Fathers appears to be (if I am not mistaken) that in questions of nature which are not matters of faith it is first to be considered whether anything is demonstrated beyond doubt or known by sense-experience, or whether such knowledge or proof is possible; if it is, then being the gift of God, it ought to be applied to find out the true sense of Holy Scripture in those passages which superficially might seem to declare differently.

The false dichotomy that you either have faith in God, or follow secular pursuits has been with us for centuries. But, faith does not obviate reason. Galileo writes:

Now if the Holy Spirit has purposefully neglected to teach us propositions of this sort (celestial mechanics) as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them (Copernican v. Ptolemaic systems), and that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: "That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how heaven goes."

And in St. Augustine we read: "If anyone shall set the authority of the Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation; not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.

Galileo also calls into account his detractors who assume singular authority to proclaim the correct interpretation of Scripture. (And whose interpretation of Scripture will you believe? Even among the many factions of Christianity there are great differences in doctrine and practice.) But the inappropriate use of Scripture to validate a particular agenda not only diminishes human understanding, but also tarnishes the majesty of Scripture itself. A declaration of scriptural authority does not impart immunity to open questioning when confronted with interpretations of the physical world based on evidence provided by experience and reason.

Moreover, we are unable to affirm that all interpreters of the Bible speak by divine inspiration, for if that were so there would exist no differences between them about the sense of a given passage. Hence I think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, and when at some future time the senses demonstrative and necessary reasons may show the contrary. Who indeed shall set the bounds of human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that "Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those we do not know..." In my opinion no one....should close the road to free philosophizing about mundane and physical things, as if everything had already been discovered and revealed with certainty.

I should say further that it would perhaps fit in better with the decorum and majesty of the sacred writings to take measures for preventing every shallow and vulgar writer from giving to his compositions (often grounded upon foolish fallacies) an air of authority by inserting in them passages from the Bible, interpreted (or rather distorted) into senses as far from the right meaning of Scripture as those authors are near to absurdity who thus ostentatiously adorn their writings.

Yet I cannot deny that I feel some discomfort when I hear them (theologians) pretend to the power of constraining others by scriptural authority to follow in a physical dispute that opinion which they think best agrees with the Bible, and then believe themselves not bound to answer the opposing reasons and experiences... They say it is sufficient for (theology) to determine the truth of a given conclusion with absolute authority, secure in her inability to err.

...those men expose the Bible and Church, who, with more regard for the support of their own errors than for the dignity of the Bible, attempt to stretch its authority beyond the bounds which it prescribes to itself....They do not consider that the more they cite these (Scriptures), and the more they insist they are perfectly clear and admit to no other interpretations than those which they put them, the more they prejudice the dignity of the Bible...If I am correct, it will stand them in no stead to go running to the Bible to cover up their inability to understand (let alone resolve) their opponents' arguments, for the opinion for which they fight has never been condemned by the holy Church.

Galileo makes a clear distinction between matters of faith and the secular and physical world he seeks to understand. And, the quest to understand God's creation is indeed a divine mission.

But the mobility or stability of the Earth or sun is neither a matter of faith nor one contrary to ethics....The most holy Fathers...knew how prejudicial (and how contrary to the intention of the Catholic Church) it would be to use scriptural passages for deciding physical conclusions, when either experiments or logical proofs might in time show the contrary of what the literal sense of the words signifies.

And to prohibit the whole science would be but to censure a hundred passages of holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of heaven.

Finally, Galileo writes:

The Bible was not written to teach us astronomy.

The Bible is a spiritual guide concerned with the salvation of the soul; it is largely mute on secular, mundane matters of the physical world. After all these centuries, isn't it time we put to rest the cultural wars between faith and science? Isn't it time for humanity to use our innate (God-given?) abilities of intellect and reason to figure out how to live responsibly on Earth through a greater understanding of the marvels of Nature (God's Creation)?

Check out the module on Teaching in the Affective Domain from the On the Cutting Edge program for advice about Teaching Evolution and other controversial topics in the Earth Sciences.

The excerpted passages are from:

Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, 1615, Concerning the use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science, IN Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, translated by Stillman Drake, 1957, Doubleday & Co.: New York, 302 pp.

Déjà Vu All Over Again --Discussion  

This post was edited by Tony Law on Mar, 2010
Generally this is a good logical exposition and I'm a million miles from being a creationist. But please don't restrict faith, or the Bible, to "the salvation of the soul". It's a great deal more than that.

If science answers the "what", "when" and "how" of the universe and our existence, faith addresses questions such as "why" and "who for". The tools of faith meet the whole realm of human life: our relationships with each other, our use of the "created" world (we all use the word, creationists or not!), exploitation, poverty, and humans' ability to be both caring and inhuman to each other. And it addresses our scientific endeavour, which a person of faith will understand as exploring the reality which God holds in being (however we understand that) and which, as you rightly say, flows directly from our use of our God-given intellect.

Yet yours is another version of "God of the Gaps", restricting faith to those areas that we currently believe science cannot address (in this case, "the soul"). History shows that such a god is progressively diminished, as science increasingly explains what we previously thought unexplainable. And the segregation of the so-called "spiritual" is one of the ways in which the impact of faith is contained, by denying its applicability to the business of human living.

I commend two twentieth century books as foundational reading. Charles Raven wrote "Christianity and Science" in 1955. Charles Coulson, professor in turn of Physics (London), of Mathematics (Oxford) and of Theoretical Chemistry (also Oxford) published "Science and Christian Belief" in the same year.

Coulson was a truly great scientist, developing many of the fundamental concepts of wave theory and of valence. He was also a great Christian thinker, preacher and communicator (he once received a letter addressed to the "Professor of Theological Physics"). Perhaps two quotes can stand alongside Galileo's:

"Science is putting a human face on God".

"Either God is the God of the whole of nature, with no gaps, or he's not there at all."

* Raven, Charles E. Christianity and Science. United Society for Christian Literature, London, 1955

* Coulson, Charles A. Science and Christian Belief (from the McNair Lectures, University of North Carolina). Oxford University Press, 1955; my copy is Fontana, 2nd edition, 1971


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