Galileo Now: Eating Of The Tree Of Knowledge

Galileo, our iconic hero of rationality in the face of the turbulent and overbearing Catholic Church of his day, wrote that the earth revolves around the sun.  He followed Copernicus in this.  The Inquisition famously tried him, and he recanted, saying "E pur, si muove!" ("And yet, it moves!") as he went into house arrest with his beloved daughter trying ever to save him.

But Galilelo's arguing that rationality was the pathway to knowledge, not revelation as handed down by Christ’s successor, the Pope, was just as much his mistake.

We scientists, particularly, hold Galileo our cultural hero.  He made the telescope say the moons of Jupiter rotated about that planet, was the third member of the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome, its Royal Society.  He saw to study motion, pure.  Newton would come along, unite Galileo’s earthly motion and Kepler’s heavenly motions with his stunning three laws of motion and universal gravitation.

I have always wondered whose genius was greater, Newton or Einstein.  I now think Newton, who gave us our entire way of doing science, until Darwin.

But that vast admiration is not the subject of this post.

We so easily, today, in our largely secular, global first-world society, see in the late medieval church a churlish, reluctant, obscurantist, if not evil organization standing in the way of what science would become.

Our subject, colleagues, is science and ethics.

So I ask you as myself a scientist: Was the Church wrong?  Was it wrong?

The too easy answer is “Yes.”

But are we so sure?

The Church rightly saw that with Galileo, science reason might replace faith — an entire way of being in the world in late medieval Christianty would be called into the deepest question.  

The Church was correct.  We are largely left with a theistic God of the gaps, and Creation Scientists vainly trying to  prove that the literal word of God, as revealed in the Old Testament, is factually true. Theirs is not science, but non-scientific shards.

But was the Church wrong?

Only, if we hold “truth” to be the highest good, the highest arbitror of what we should do and be.  

Is that, in a very deep sense, right — where right speaks to our being in the world or values and our grounding in what science tells us is our best grasp of reality?

I am a scientist and tend to hold “truth” as a highest good. But with others, I too have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge.  Seen allegorically, the Tree of Knowledge is precisely reason and knowledge versus faith.

“Batter my heart, three personed God”, said John Donne in Elizabethan times, struggling as a high Anglican Churchman with just this issue.

What then of today, among we so very modern, so very rational 21st Century, First-World people?

Do you think the same issues of eating with the Tree of Knowledge are not rife among us today?

Think again, say I, not knowing what is wise or best.

Were one to apply for a National Institutes of Health grant to study differences in intellectual and emotional capacities between men and women, any results of that research would be subjected to a slaughtering onslaught of methodological criticism that morally non-controversial topics would pass by, unnoticed.

The methodological criticism, whatever its merits, about which I am uncertain, if somewhat supportive, are the heritors of the Inquisition — the deep-felt need to protect what we hold to be morally right from the Tree of Knowledge.

Is this wise?  One can say, I among them, Truth first, for without it, we live in moral darkness as well as intellectual darkness.  Or we might say, “Truth, but slowly and very, very carefully here, the Tree spreads tentacles that may strangle and not yet be true.

Disrupt, we might say, but in a way that we can gently assimilate into the ongoing evolution of our cultures, much as British Common Law evolves.

Do I know what is “wise?”  No. Here before us is ethics and science — nude.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.