Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Angels, Demons and Galileo

With the science vs. religion question raised by the movie “Angels and Demons”, I thought I’d put these thoughts out there.

As someone who was born just after the theory of the big bang was posited and a couple generations after the Scopes trail, and born with an active imagination, the science vs. religion debate has always fascinated me. For many, it is not a debate at all, and I wish it was just a silly argument, but in this country there are very powerful people making decisions that need scientific evidence. I’m not sure what they are basing their decisions on. I haven’t found the part of the Bible that says, “don’t think’. There are times when all of the data does not add up to a simple answer, and prayer can be helpful, if you want it to be, but the Bible is full of people thinking for themselves.

So, where did this come from? Did the Catholic church suppress scientific inquiry for centuries until the Enlightment? I haven’t found evidence for that. I found some names and stories that get repeated often, but looking just one layer deeper, I can’t find support. I found an interesting article that traces the source for many of these stories to one book. The stories in this book get used repeatedly as if they are fact, but there are so called facts in this book that are not referenced in any other document.

Historical writings need sources, or they are just “history written by the victors.” I hope that the age of Google and Wikipedia will help to finally dispel this bad history. I’m not saying that truth has never been suppressed. The time of the inquisition was a horrible time and I do not defend it. I want to understand it and understand the forces that lead to abuses of power like this, not simply blame some guy in a funny hat. Maybe we can stop it from happening again if we do. We failed to stop it in our very recent past, and may be failing to stop it still, so this is valuable research.

The poster child for science standing up to the church was Galileo. This story would have you believe that the Roman Catholic Church suppressed the knowledge of the solar system for centuries. A simple review of history should lead to questioning that belief. Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer came up with the earth at the middle of everything around 100 B.C. That model stood for over 1,000 years, accepted in Arab and European societies, plenty of time for cultures not under the control of Catholicism to refute it. Also, in Galileo’s time, Catholics were losing control to the Protestants. I would say their motivations were more political than religious.

I imagine the most difficult thing to accept was that the earth is hurtling through space at 67,000 MPH and spinning at 1,000 MPH. You would think we would feel a little wind in our hair, or if you threw a ball straight up high enough, the spinning earth move from underneath it at least a little. That’s sounds silly, but only because we have been told since we were very small that the atmosphere and gravity or something compensates. How does that work anyway?

One point of confusion, that of course I will now clear up for you, is that Galileo was not condemned as a heretic for saying the earth is not the center of the universe. He was however told not to teach it. That is where some more research would be helpful. He was not thrown in to a dungeon, although he was given a tour, which I’m sure was enough to make their point. He even had some support of mathematicians in the Roman Catholic Church, but not all of them.

He published his findings in 1610 and the church decided not to condemn him for that, even though he had publicly stated that some parts of the Bible may have been misinterpreted. This wasn’t a crime, but it was stepping beyond the bounds of his job. Only clergy could interpret scripture. I’m not saying that’s right, but remember they didn’t have Google back then. In fact most people couldn’t even read, so just like we don’t go to a doctor today if they don’t have the degree, you didn’t ask just anyone what the Bible meant.

It was 16 years later when he wrote “Dialogue on the Two Great Systems of the World” that got him in trouble. The book had a character named Simplicio that appeared to be a caricature of the Pope. Again, today you can caricature our leaders and get away with it, but not so 400 years ago. His punishment was house arrest. That is, he got to live in a nice villa, and could and did leave with permission.

Throwing off these commonly held beliefs about history is not easy. When I was 19 years old I said, “there has been more killing in the name of God than anything else.” I immediately realized I didn’t know what I was talking about. I had heard it, but couldn’t really back it up. I didn’t renounce myself, but I didn’t keep saying it. It took a couple decades, but with such easy access to information that I now have, I’m pretty sure I was wrong. Check out this site and see what you think.

More important than looking back and condemning people in the past for what they did out of ignorance, how about we try to understand our own ignorance in the present. It was only 1920 that we found out that the universe extends beyond the stars that we see. Some of those spots of light turned out to be whole sets of stars themselves. Ptolemy calculated the size of the universe at 20,000 times the size of the earth. Probably more of a wild guess than a calculation. I don’t think we have come to terms with the vastness of space.

A half century before we found out we were not the only galaxy, we were dividing things into smaller pieces thinking we would eventually understand how everything worked, then we found out there is a point where a whole new set of rules apply. But we still act as if we live in the world that Isaac Newton described. We still act like the Victorian age men who believed they could build a big enough boat and sail across the North Sea. When their ship started breaking up in the ice, they still couldn’t let go of the things that represented their culture. The things they thought made them superior to nature. The indigenous people must have thought them strange and wondered why anyone would drag so many heavy possessions across a barren land believing they could survive. Of course, they did not. Perhaps 10,000 years from now an intergalactic archeologist from a more populated part of the galaxy will find the remains of our civilization and wonder why people on a lonely planet with one fragile Sun would not be more careful with it’s resources.

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