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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think - on the Galileo affair

I'm currently reading this volume by Elaine Howard Ecklund. It's not quite what I expected, in that it's much more upfront than I thought it would be about the fact that scientists in the US are more likely - far more likely - than the general population to be atheists, not to be religious or spiritual in orientation, etc.

Ecklund is candid about that much, and indeed emphasises it repeatedly, but she wants to argue that scientists should be more publicly supportive of religion. Scientists who are believers should communicate more about why they find religion and science compatible. Those who are non-believers should learn more about religious systems and speak of them with respect. Or so she seems to think.

In any event, there are many individual things in the book that are getting my hackles up. Here is just one:
Many of the scientists I talked with gave Galileo's torture at the hands of the Inquisition as a central piece of evidence that religion and science are in entrenched conflict. But really, Galileo was never tortured; that's a myth. Misconceptions about religion and science abound.
Oh come off it! This is extraordinary. It's well known that Galileo was not physically tortured, but only threatened with torture - and perhaps shown the actual torture instruments. That was enough to get him to recant.

Perhaps the scientists whom she spoke to were a bit hazy on this point, but so what? Does Ecklund really think that the Inquisition was not prepared to go through with its threat to torture Galileo if he had held out further with his insistence on the truth of the heliocentric theory? If so, where is her evidence that showing him the torture instruments was merely a bluff or a sham?

And how is the Inquisition less culpable if it was merely prepared to torture Galileo - but did not actually need to do so to obtain a recantation from him? Indeed, if we are going to be technical, is it really so clear that threatening a prisoner with these fiendish instruments of pain ... is not a form of torture in itself? Even if, as is widely believed by historians, he was actually shown them to make the point? Even if you don't classify this as torture, exactly, it seems pretty damn coercive, doesn't it?

If physically torturing Galileo would stand as evidence of entrenched conflict between science and religion, how does "merely" threatening to do so, and apparently being prepared to do so, not provide similarly strong evidence? And how is similarly strong evidence not provided by the fact that Galileo was effectively gagged from speaking any more about heliocentrism, was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life, and had all his scientific works works banned from publication? Are we supposed to ignore the whole dreadful sequence of events merely because Galileo was never actually physically tortured?

Even if it is argued that the Inquisition showed some mercy to Galileo - yes, mercy by its atrocious standards - how does its behaviour in bullying him, suppressing his speech, threatening him with torture, placing him under permanent house arrest, and continuing to suppress his views not attract Ecklund's condemnation?

She dismisses the story - in its distorted "Galileo was tortured" form - as a myth, but does not tell us what really happened. To be fair, she does have an endnote in which she mentions a book chapter by Maurice A. Finocchiaro, and in the same endnote she quotes at length from Arthur Koestler's tendentious and downright nasty discussion of Galileo in The Sleepwalkers. However, she provides nothing further in the main text. The quote from Koestler provides no detail at all about the Galileo affair, but merely makes fun of a mythologised portrait of Galileo that some people may or may not believe in (the total narrative is evidently Koestler's synthesis).

Nor does Ecklund tell us how the Inquisitors' actions merit anything other than the severest censure, or how the actual events are any less evidence of a rift between science and religion than if the torture instruments had been physically applied to the scientist's fragile human body.

Really, this is deplorable. It never ceases to amaze me how religious apologists and accommodationists can just blow off atrocious actions by the Church as if they are insignificant. Ecklund's handling of the issue could not be much more intellectually and morally obtuse.

Perhaps there is something to be said as to why the Galileo affair, by itself, is indecisive in the case for an incompatibility between religion and science. In this particular post, I don't even want to get into that, one way or the other. But whatever we should ultimately say about the Galileo affair, it is not conveyed in the callous whitewash that Ecklund has offered for our non-edification.


Bubblecar said...

Thanks for that, Russell. It's not a book I would read as it would make me too angry, but it's good to have someone else read it and vent the same anger (and its justification) much more eloquently than I would have been able to.

Darrick Lim said...

What a coincidence, Russell - only just an hour before reading your post, I had read a New Yorker (Jan 16) book review by Adam Gopnik ('Inquiring Minds'), where Gopnik takes revisionist historians to task for diminishing the horror and immorality of the Spanish Inquisition.

Here's Gopnik on Helen Rawlings's 2006 book 'The Spanish Inquisition':

Reading the revisionist histories, one is often startled by the introduction of shocking material that fails sufficiently to shock the author. Rawlings remarks blandly that, before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, "there were obvious anomalies between the position of Jews and of Jewish converts in Spanish society that had to be resolved," and then reproduces a "test of purity of blood," right out of the Nuremberg laws. (Applicants are to swear that they are "without stain or taint of Jewish, Moorish, or Converso origins.") Is it anachronistic, in the sense of imputing modern feelings to ancient acts, to be sickened by such things? Well, not if one imagines asking the threatened conversos how they felt about it. Pain is pain in any period.

And here's another:

[Rawlings] doesn't whitewash her subject. [...] Yet she ends with this chillingly condescending sentence: "While the Inquisition will never be totally divorced from the dark image that surrounds its activities nor its excesses condoned, recent research has enabled us to draw a more balanced picture of the nature and ambit of the authority it exercised." It sounds a bit like the self-congratulation of a cancer-ward patient for best tumor. Like a lot of modern academic historians, [Rawlings risks] turning history into all nuance and no news.

While not science related, I think Gopnik is spot-on in his criticism of historical revisionism that seeks to downplay the iniquities wrought in the name of religion.

Laurence said...

Are you going to get back to the Dennett vs. Plantinga stuff? I'm really curious what else you have to say on that topic.

Russell Blackford said...

Laurence - the short answer is, "Yes." I got a bit sidetracked from it, but I do want to return to it, including Plantinga's claim that unguided biological evolution could not have produced beings with sufficient cognitive capacity to discover the fact of biological evolution.

Darrick - good for Adam Gopnik. I'd noticed this tendency in recent times for a lot of people, even reputable ones, to gloss over these sorts of evils from earlier historical periods.

Ramases said...

The Inquisition certainly did torture and kill other scientists for advocating theories the Catholic Church did not like.

Astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for theorising that the stars were other suns and that the universe contained an infinite number of worlds.

On the other hand the Catholic Church was not singular in committing such atrocities for religious reasons.

Scientist Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 on orders of the Geneva governing council for alleged heresy.

Scientific advancment was actively suppressed by the Catholic Church of centuries, and by some prodestants as well. In the case of evolution this is still happening.

Given this historical context, nit picking that Galileo was not actuall tortured rather than simply threatened with torture seems self serving and ridiculous.

steve oberski said...

But don't you know that a 69 year old man hurt the feelings of Pope Urban VIII, one of the most powerful people in the world at that time, and made him cry.

That is when Urban could take time off from looting the Vatican and putting relatives into every possible position in an orgy of nepotism.

Even by the standards of the day the Barberinis (Urban's family) were considered excessively greedy.

As the natives of Rome at the time were wont to say "What the barbarians didn't steal, the Barberinis did."

I'm currently reading "The Earth Moves - Galileo and the Roman Inquisition" by Dan Hofstadter so this was a timely post.

GTChristie said...

On the other hand, you could just take her statement at face value and grant her point that torture was not actually done to Galileo, and to say otherwise is a mistake. (The scientist probably had Galileo's case confused with Bruno's, and I'd be willing to bet he simply mis-remembered Sagan's books which, incidentally, do not make the mistake in question.)

It makes me uncomfortable to see attacks on authors for things they didn't say, or worse, adding ideas "implied" but not expressed by a writer, and then attacking that. A lot of bullets are being fired here at a target (in this case a true statement) which is first elaborated by the critic into something larger than it was. Does Ecklund ever state that the Inquisition was not a terrible thing? Or that it does not exemplify the opposition of the Roman church to scientists? Must I now go read her book to find out how justified the criticism is, or can I rely on the critic to accurately present the author's views in the course of critique? While the points in this post about the evils of the Inquisition may be valid, the points lose punch for having launched from an irritation rather than from a point of fact (the author's words). I never like to see words put into people's mouths. It ruins the rest of the argument.

Michael Fugate said...

We can all admit that misconceptions about the Galileo affair abound and most scientists don't have a very complete understanding of it. That would be true of just about any historical episode. The problem is we will never know the gory details of the reasons behind the acts - we don't know whether the church authorities or Galileo were religiously or secularly motivated. We don't know how threatened each felt. The psychological aspects of the interactions are quite likely beyond historical reconstruction.

Galileo, much like Darwin, has long been part of a propaganda war - Galileo once a successful story in the triumphalism of science over religion, but now religion is fighting back. Not unlike the attacks on new atheists over their knowledge of theology, Ecklund and others are now trying to use history against atheism. It is a cheap ploy - ask about sophisticated theology or the Galileo affair - and when a scientist says something incorrect, claim victory for the compatibility of science and religion. That scientists are often wrong about the facts of the Galileo story in no way makes religion true or compatible with science.

The problem is the lengths Ecklund is willing to go to support her thesis or her funder's thesis (Templeton) that science and religion are compatible.

Darrick Lim said...

Pretty sure Jerry Coyne has criticised Ecklund on his blo- uh, website, for her intellectual dishonesty and obvious religious bias. If a historian selling accommodationism is taking Templeton money, you can bet their objectivity is compromised, if it even exists.

Anonymous said...

Ecklund came and gave her talk to small group in the religion department where I am in graduate school. I was less than impressed (starting with the horrendous cover, but that probably wasn't her choice). I asked her about the goal of her overall project and where she saw this work continuing in the future. Her response was something to the effect of "I just want everybody to get along."

No surprises there.