Monday, June 06, 2005

Science Monday 2005/06/06

Today we shall look at one of the usual topics brought up whenever someone tries to use both "science" and "Catholicism" in the same sentence. I refer to the great Italian Catholic scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and his work on the Copernican theory that the earth goes around the sun.

It is quite fitting for a Chestertonian to examine this topic, because the truth is a paradox. The Galileo case is paraded as a conflict between science and the Catholic Church. It was, but the gameboard was upside-down. Galileo the Scientist had the theology right; Bellarmine the Theologian had the science right. Bellarmine? Yes, that was Cardinal Bellarmine - who later became St. Robert Bellarmine.

The truth, strangely enough in this media-driven age, is not well known, because the Galileo case makes a nice stick for that media to hit at the Church. The paradox is that it hits at science first. It may be true that the Church pardoned Galileo. But it was Science that condemned him - it did in his own lifetime, and still does - for no astronomer, beginning with Kepler, thinks that Galileo had it right. He loved circles, and insisted that the planets moved in circles. Kepler did the math, and showed that they went in ellipses, but Galileo Would not listen. Thus we now have Kepler's laws of planetary motion. There was more, involving his "proof" of the earth's motion in relation to the tides, but when his "proof" came out, he was shortly shown to have made a serious error in math; it also denied the moon's role in the tides.

One should bear in mind that the "proofs" of the earth's motions took quite some time: our revolution about the sun was demonstrated by Bessel in 1838 when he used the earth's 180,000 mile shift in six months to measure the distance to 61 Cygni - this is called "stellar parallax". There is a nice quick demonstration for the kids: (1) hold up your index finger at arm's length. (2) Shut one eye, and notice where your finger is against the background. (3) Now, shut the open eye and open the closed one. Your finger will "leap" against the background! That is "finger parallax". If you could measure the angle, and knew how far it was between your eyes, you could find out (by trigonometry) how long your arm was. Well, of course I know it is easy to measure your arm! But it is not easy to measure the distance to the stars, and up until 1838, no one had ever done it! (61 Cygni is about 11 light years away, or some 65 trillion miles.) The other motion, earth's daily rotation, was demonstrated in 1851 by Foucault using a pendulum.

Now, let us proceed to the paradox. I will give it as Fr. Jaki phrased it in his 32-page booklets (available from Real View Books): that classic clash between science and Christian religion that Galileo proved to be a better theologian than Bellarmine and others, whereas the latter had the better of a strictly scientific point: They rightly insisted that Galileo in vain claimed that he had provided an experimental proof of the rotation and orbiting of the earth. [Christ and Science, 24]

Galileo consulted St. Augustine's great commentary on Genesis, De Genesi ad litteram) which rested on the guideline that whenever reason established something with certainty about the physical world, the Bible should be reinterpreted accordingly. [Augustine also warned Christians] who refused to make the necessary reinterpretations make the Bible a laughingstock of unbelievers. [Galileo Lessons 12]

Keeping alive all these and similar details is helpful, but not decisive in facing up to the most fundamental lesson provided by Galileo's conflict with the Church. The conflict was between the imperfect states in which two theoretically perfect entities would forever find themselves. [Galileo Lessons 21-22]

There is more in both of these little booklets about this important matter - more than I can reproduce here. But let us end with Chesterton, who as usual goes even deeper...

...for some mysterious reason this habit of realizing poetically the facts of science has ceased abruptly with scientific progress, and all the confounding portents preached by Galileo and Newton have fallen on deaf ears. They painted a picture of the universe compared with which the Apocalypse with its falling stars was a mere idyll. They declared that we are all careering through space, clinging to a cannon-ball, and the poets ignore the matter as if it were a remark about the weather. They say that an invisible force holds us in our
own armchairs while the earth hurtles like a boomerang; and men still go back to dusty records to prove the mercy of God. They tell us that Mr. Scott's monstrous vision of a mountain of sea-water rising in a solid dome, like the glass mountain in the fairy-tale, is actually a fact, and men still go back to the fairy-tale. To what towering heights of poetic imagery might we not have risen if only the poetizing of natural history had continued and man's fancy had played with the planets as naturally as it once played with the flowers! We might have had a planetary patriotism, in which the green leaf should be like a cockade, and the sea an everlasting dance of drums. We might have been proud of what our star has wrought, and worn its heraldry haughtily in the blind tournament of the spheres. ["A Defence of Planets" in The Defendant 56-58]


At 06 June, 2005 13:38, Blogger Marc the polar bear said...

Perception of reality. Do we fully grasp the meaning of what we see? How impoverished are they who see an evergreen as nothing more than a conifer of a certain species, and describe it purely in physical terms. Is that all there is to a tree? Nothing more than a living organism of a genus and species, or firewood, or lumber? That is certain the loss of the poetic. Good poetry is mystical and transcendental. It helps us perceive the greater reality, the true reality, wherein TRUTH=I+H+S.

When I look at a pine or spruce tree, I see as a symbol of what we Catholics should be in our lives. Branches stretched upwards in divine praise of God, yearning for Heaven, but still planted firmly in the ground, as not to be waylaid by every passing wind of a zeitgeist that comes along. To be a tree is to be bound by faith (outstretched upward point arms) and reason (strong roots in the ground.) That tree gives glory to God in the very essence of its being. Should not we, who are greater than the trees, less than angels, strive ever higher to give that glory?

The universe becomes a much smaller, colder, less wondrous place without that imaginative and poetic soul. You stick only with reason, and blammo, you become a rationalistic nutter:

"Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what breeds insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. . . . Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. . . . The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits." [GKC, Orthodoxy]


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