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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


When The Sun
Became the Center


David Lane

Recently in my Introduction to Philosophy classes at Mt. San Antonio College, one of my brightest students and I got into a heated, but fruitful, discussion about the role Roman Catholicism played in inhibiting scientific progress, particularly in light of how Galileo and Bruno were treated. This got me thinking anew about the conflict between science and religion. Essentially, most religions believe they already have the revealed truth and thus all future discoveries must, in some sense, comport with that revelation. Otherwise, the very core of such belief systems can be upended. Witness Christianity's reliance on the Bible and Islam's total acceptance of the Koran. Science, in contrast, doesn't hold to such a priori dogmas, and thus is a new and open-ended quest for understanding how the universe operates. Because of this it is consistently free to being wrong and hence it is intrinsically progressive. Where religion remains more or less stagnant (given its already accepted truth claims), science works precisely because it is always changing and adapting to new forms of information that shed a clearer light on previously held maps or paradigms.

Therefore it is not at all surprising that institutions like the Roman Catholic Church has a history of severely slowly down (or on occasion squelching) scientists who unearth findings that appear to contradict their core doctrines. While it is certainly true that Galileo was at times his own worst enemy (witness his disparaging characterizations of the Pope, with whom he once had friendly relations), his support of Copernican heliocentrism was regarded as heresy at the time and thus he was banned from preaching such views. Of course, the Church eventually gave up its earth-centric notions and formally apologized to Galileo's memory 350 years later.

It is an intriguing and instructive chapter in the often-tense relationship religion has with science. As Alan Cowell elaborates about the Galileo affair,

“Since then, the Church has taken various steps to reverse its opposition to Galileo's conclusions. In 1757, Galileo's 'Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems' was removed from the Index, a former list of publications banned by the Church. When the latest investigation, conducted by a panel of scientists, theologians and historians, made a preliminary report in 1984, it said that Galileo had been wrongfully condemned. More recently, Pope John Paul II himself has said that the scientist was "imprudently opposed."
"We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory," Paul Cardinal Poupard, the head of the current investigation, said in an interview published this week.
This theory had been presented in a book published in 1543 by the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus in opposition to the prevailing theory, advanced by the second-century astronomer Ptolemy, that the Sun and the rest of the cosmos orbited the Earth. But the contest between the two models was purely on theoretic and theological grounds until Galileo made the first observations of the four largest moons of Jupiter, exploding the Ptolemaic notion that all heavenly bodies must orbit the Earth.
In 1616, the Copernican view was declared heretical because it refuted a strict biblical interpreation of the Creation that 'God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.' But Galileo obtained the permission of Pope Urban VIII, a Barberini and a friend, to continue research into both the Ptolemaic and the Copernican views of the world, provided that his findings drew no definitive conclusions and acknowledged divine omnipotence.
But when, in 1632, Galileo published his findings in 'Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,' the work was a compelling endorsement of the Copernican system.
Summoned to Rome for trial by the Inquisition one year later, Galileo defended himself by saying that scientific research and the Christian faith were not mutually exclusive and that study of the natural world would promote understanding and interpretation of the scriptures. But his views were judged 'false and erroneous.' Aging, ailing and threatened with torture by the Inquisition, Galileo recanted on April 30, 1633.
Because of his advanced years, he was permitted house arrest in Siena. Legend has it that as Galileo rose from kneeling before his inquisitors, he murmured, 'e pur, si muove' — 'even so, it does move.'”[1]

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

I think it is vitally important not to forget these pivotal moments in history since they enlighten us about why it is so important for religion not to interfere with a scientific understanding of the cosmos. Otherwise, we obstruct the greatest pathway for gaining knowledge about how the world really works.

It is for this reason that we have taken the first few sections of Dorothy Stimson's brilliant book, The Gradual Acceptance of the Copernican Theory of the Universe, which was first published in 1917, and printed them in a new compact format. She has provided us with an insightful glimpse into the history of astronomy and how Copernicus, in particular, along with Bruno, Galileo, Kepler, and other great thinkers, have transformed our understanding of the solar system that surrounds us. It is a remarkable journey we are on. If science becomes unencumbered by superstition and religious authority, the better off we all are in the process.

When The Sun Became the Center


[1] Alan Cowell, “After 350 Years, Vatican Says Galileo Was Right: It Moves”, The New York Times, Oct. 31, 1992.

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