Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Pope and Galileo: Benedict Fails Whitehead’s Theory of Limits, Once Again

In a posting May 24, 2007, I commented on misstatements Pope Benedict XVI made about religious freedom and the forced conversion of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Applying Alfred North Whitehead’s Theory of Limits, I argued that the pope had pushed his assertions well beyond accuracy and truth.

In January the media gave much attention to a Rome university’s charge that the pope, in 1990 remarks as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, defended the Catholic Inquisition’s 1633 condemnation of Galileo. They found that position an affront to science and to academic freedom.

A group of professors and students from Rome’s La Sapienza University, including the entire physics faculty, wrote a letter protesting a planned January 17th lecture by the pope for the opening of the academic year. The pope eventually cancelled the appearance.

It strikes me that the 1990 remarks which the university protested and the January episode that Benedict failed to handle productively are other occasions where he could have learned from Whitehead’s theory.

Whitehead’s Theory of Limits provides an important tool for weighing the importance and accuracy of assertions. His oft repeated formula, “All things work between limits,” means that the truth or falsehood of an assertion depends on its scope of useful application. In other words, a given assertion is true only within strict limits; if those limits are forgotten, the assertion begins to do the work of a falsehood.

The 1990 remarks were delivered when Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the lineal successor of the Inquisition. His overall theme was that the Galileo verdict could be defended because the church was trying to emphasize the limits of science and the horrors science could produce if the limits were ignored. He sought to portray the church as being well ahead of science in appreciating “modernity’s doubts about itself.”

To bolster his argument, he cited the opinion of Ernst Bloch that by abolishing the notion of absolute space, the Theory of Relativity had made it impossible to say whether the heliocentrism advocated by Galileo or the geocentrism of his opponents was a more accurate description of reality.

Ratzinger quoted Bloch favorably: “From the moment that…movement is no longer produced towards something, but there’s only a relative movement of bodies among themselves, and therefore the measurement of that [movement] depends to a great extent on the choice of a body to serve as a point of reference, in this case is it not merely the complexity of calculations that renders the [geocentric] hypothesis impractical?”

So Ratzinger used Bloch’s interpretation to say that the church rightly condemned Galileo for claiming heliocentrism was an objective truth, when in fact its objective truth could not be empirically demonstrated. Summarizing Bloch’s interpretation, Ratzinger said “The advantage of the heliocentric system over the geocentric, he suggested, does not consist in a greater correspondence to objective truth, but solely in the fact that it offers us a greater ease of calculation.”

Ratzinger also quoted agnostic-skeptic philosopher Paul Feyerabend: “The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just…”

Ratzinger then iced that cake by saying that “C.F. von Weizsacker takes another step forward, when he identifies a ‘very direct path’ that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb.”

It is true that Ratzinger characterized Feyerabend’s opinion as “much more drastic” than Bloch’s and seemed to refer to all three commentators when he said at the end of his remarks “It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics.” But he never disavowed their positions.

It is no wonder that the faculty and students at La Sapienza found these 1990 remarks so incendiary. The observations push beyond valid limits in so many directions, it is difficult to know where to begin.

The limit exceeded most egregiously is historical accuracy. It would be convenient for Ratzinger’s 1990 analysis if the church had shown any concern in 1633 of anticipating Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by two centuries. But where is the evidence that the church ever raised this concern in the Galileo case?

Instead, the Inquisition’s verdict was: "The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.” The 17th century Catholic Church misread several scriptural passages as requiring geocentrism: Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, Psalm 104:5, 1 Chronicles 16:30, and Ecclesiastes 1:5. It was disingenuous for Ratzinger read any other motives back into the condemnation of Galileo.

Another limitation Ratzinger failed to recognize was the partiality of Bloch’s description of relativity. The fact that the earth and the sun are both in motion with respect to other bodies in no way rules out the sun as the gravitational anchor of our solar system. Calculations become easier with heliocentrism because the sun is the object around which all of the planets orbit. The sun and other planets do no orbit around the earth. Relativity does not change the objective truth of that observation.

Perhaps Ratzinger’s most careless and annoying failure to respect limits was his cavalier use of language. He tries to have it far too many ways. Like an attorney trying to make a jury aware of prejudicial information that the judge has ruled out of bounds, he wants to highlight the outrageous positions of Bloch and Feyerabend and Weizsacker but deny that he is trying to make a case for them, or with them.

What in fact he was trying to do was to suggest that the Inquistion had some valid reason to condemn Galileo. That, of course, flies in the face of the last three centuries, when the church gradually decided it had been wrong.

That trajectory began in 1718, when the ban on reprinting Galileo’s books was partially lifted. It continued in 1737, when Galileo’s body was moved from an obsure room off a back corridor of the Basilica of Santa Croce to a monument erected in his honor in the main body of the basilica. In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV authorized publication of Galileo’s complete scientific works. In 1758 all books on heliocentrism were removed from the Index of Forbidden Books except for those of Galileo and Capernicus. Theirs were finally removed in 1835.

Just after his election to the papacy in 1939, Pope Pius XII told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that Galileo was among “the most audacious heroes of research…not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks along the way…” And in 1992, as the result of study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, Pope John Paul II officially conceded that the earth was not stationary and expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled.

Thus the wise motivation and constructive role Ratzinger tried to attribute to the Inquisition’s verdict in 1633 are a throwback to a defensive position that no other reputable leader in official Catholicism salutes.

What is disturbing to scientists is that it renews the specter of the pope trying to block scientific research when it suits him and inhibit the academic freedom which is the raison d’etre of any university system.

Benedict could have taken advantage of the uproar at La Sapienza as an opportunity to show that he “gets it,” i.e., that he realizes how seriously his 1990 assertions go beyond reasonable limits and if he wishes to be taken seriously, how much he needs to reign them back within the bounds of accuracy and truth.

Instead he chose to continue his relentless march backward from the best discoveries of the postmodern world.

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