Monday, December 27, 2010

God and Sex

A few months ago I was listening to a local radio program on my way to a job site. It was one of the morning talk programs where a few guys and one girl talk about and offer un-informed analyses of news and current events. Aside from serving as a strong reminder of the reason I usually only listen to NPR, the chatter that day also offered another example of an amusing / annoying lack of Biblical literacy.

Somehow the topic of God and sex came up, and the three (or maybe four) of them starting going off about how God hates sex and how the Bible teaches this and that about how sex is bad. This belief seems to be very common (Philip Pullman makes it a major issue in his anti-clerical but pretty good series His Dark Materials) yet, as is true of many beliefs about Christianity, it is false.

In their discussion of how God feels about sex, one of the hosts actually said something very nearly like, "have you ever read the Bible, God doesn't want you to have sex or have any fun." Apparently she missed that part of the creation story in Genesis where God creates males and females to join together "as one flesh" and how that union (physical, social, and spiritual) somehow fully encapsulates who God is. They apparently missed the verses in Proverbs emploring young married lovers to rejoice in each other's bodies as well as that whole book of the Bible, the Song of Songs, which is essentially erotic love poetry. Paul, in the New Testament, says that husbands and wives should offer their bodies freely to one another (though he also says he thinks it is better to be single, this is a separate issue and has to do with time rather than sex).

I think this myth probably has a variety of sources. Some Christians throughout history have thought that sex itself was sinful and have even thought that sex was the original sin that occurred in the garden of Eden. However, this view was informed more by certain strains of Greek philosophy (in which physical bodies, by their very nature, were considered corrupt) than the Bible. Also, I think that many of us somehow confuse a strong set of sexual ethics (forbidding adultery, etc.) with condemnation of sex itself. There is also the stereotype (too often true, unfortunately) of Christians as prudes. Lastly, I think a big part of this is willful ignorance: people believe what they want to believe. The radio host asked "have you ever read the Bible" but clearly had not actually read it herself. I was annoyed enough that I almost wrote in to the show to helpfully point them to some relevant passages, but it probably wouldn't make any difference.

Sigh...if only they knew that God thinks rather highly of business time; heck, he created it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who designed the designer?

A common objection to the Judaeo-Christian view that God created the universe involves pointing out that if you explain something by appealing to God you have not really explained anything because you would then need to explain God. Richard Dawkins has often written on this topic and his position is essentially this: by explaining an event or an object through reference to God (or, more generally, a designer), the explanation becomes worthless because you have invoked something that itself would need to be explained. The question would then need to be asked, who designed the designer? It would be much better to have a simpler, natural cause that would not require further explanation.

At first this sounds about right; indeed, walking around explaining everything by saying "God did it" would be about the same as not having any explanation at all. But upon closer inspection the argument breaks down completely.

After all, every explanation requires further explanations. Imagine a simple dialogue between a scientist and a curious inquirer:

"Why did that apple fall?"
"Gravity pulled it to the Earth."
"Where did the gravity come from?"
"Gravity is the bending of space-time around objects with mass. It is governed by natural law."
"Where did the natural laws come from?"

This line of questioning could go on and on no matter what answer the scientist gives. Either the scientist would have to explain one answer in terms of another, further, explanation or at some point the scientist would have to argue that one particular, arbitrary answer was somehow final. This illustrates two main problems with Dawkins' argument. First, just because an answer may require further explanation does not mean that the answer is worthless. No one would, after hearing it explained that the Earth's gravity pulled the apple to the ground, exclaim, "you haven't explained anything, because now you have to explain where the Earth came from!"

Second, an infinite regress of causes or explanations, as philosophers have called it, is an age old problem with explanations in general, not just explanations involving God. People of all worldviews have to take something as fundamental and not requiring further explanation. Aristotle had his Unmoved Mover, Christians have God, and some scientists believe the laws of nature to be "brute facts" not requiring explanation (Neil deGrasse Tyson begins a chapter of one his books with: "In the beginning, there was physics.") It is silly to single out one specific explanation with a criticism that applies to all types of explanations.

So what can we learn from this? My suggestion would be for Dawkins to stick to zoology and maybe stop writing publicly in areas that are so clearly outside his expertise.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Evolution to the rescue: why old men can't dance

Evolutionary psychology is an attempt to explain human behavior in terms of the evolution of our ancestors. While I do not doubt that who our ancestors were and what they did influence us today, I find many of the "findings" of evolutionary psychology to be hilarious. For example, see this explanation of why men go bald or this essay for a hilarious skewering of some of the claims of evolutionary psychology.

The latest example I, truthfully, had a hard time believing. I mentally double-checked that it wasn't April 1st. But, no, it's real. A psychologist now has an answer for one of the larger questions in life: why do old men dance so poorly at weddings? See his answer here.

Thankfully there seem to be a growing number of people who are properly skeptical of such claims.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Whose animals are more awesome? America's or Europe's?

I'm finally finishing Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (I started it a few years ago and for some reason stopped) and I am enjoying it very much. Intertwined in his popular tour of the history of science are interesting and sometimes hilarious anecdotes about the scientists under discussion.

During a discussion of the awkward rise of paleontology, Bryson writes about a surprising dispute between Europeans and Americans over the impressiveness of each continent's natural fauna. The great French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, writing about America, said that the animals and Native Americans were inferior in every way to those of Europe. According to Leclerc, North America was a country of stagnant water, sunless forests, and rotten swamps where the animals and even the Native Americans "lacked virility." "They have no beard or body hair, and no ardor for the female," and their reproductive organs were "small and feeble." Other Europeans joined in the attack, one writing that Native American males were so feminine that they had "milk in their breasts."

Thomas Jefferson was furious with this description and sent a general and some soldiers into New Hampshire to capture a bull moose to send to Leclerc as, in Bryson's words, "proof of the stature and majesty of American quadrupeds." Unfortunately, the moose they brought back didn't have horns big enough for Jefferson's liking, but the general had also included a large rack of antlers from an elk for Jefferson to attach if he would like. Apparently they figured no one in France would know the difference anyway.

At around the same time, other Americans were unearthing "the great American incognitum," a huge creature that would only later be identified as a mastodon (oddly, a Frenchman named Cuvier would be the first to formally describe and name it; even more oddly, mastodon means "nipple-teeth"). I'll let Bryson tell the story:

"In their keenness to demonstrate the incognitum's bulk and ferocity, the American naturalists appear to have become slightly carried away. They overestimated its size by a factor of six and gave it frightening claws, which in fact came from a Megalonyx, or giant ground sloth, found nearby. Rather remarkably, they persuaded themselves that the animal had enjoyed "the agility and ferocity of the tiger," and portrayed it in illustrations as pouncing with feline grace onto prey from boulders. When tusks were discovered, they were forced into the animal's head in any number of inventive ways. One restorer screwed the tusks in upside down, like the fangs of a saber-toothed cat, which gave it a satisfyingly aggressive aspect. Another arranged the tusks so that they curved backwards on the engaging theory that the creature had been aquatic and had used them to anchor itself to trees while dozing."

Unfortunately, Leclerc was not impressed. He insisted that the most telling feature of this animal is that it was extinct, "proof of its incontestably degenerate nature."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Judging an Idea by its Consequences

David Hume was a well-known Scottish historian and diplomat in his own time, but is better remembered today for his philosophical works. In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes, “There is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more blameable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavour the refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretence of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality.” In other words, the truth or falsity of an idea cannot be determined by whether one likes the idea or its implications. This seems quite obvious, but Hume wrote that it was a common problem in his time, and not much has changed since then.

The theory of evolution has often been the target of such critiques. The beginning of the Christian fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century was in part a reaction to the seemingly atheistic implications of explaining life without reference to a creator. William Jennings Bryan, famously known for his role in the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” opposed evolution largely because he saw it as undermining the existence of the soul as well as any objective basis for morality. Without a Creator-God who was also a Law-giver, morality becomes a personal or cultural choice and “good” and “evil” become euphemisms for whatever we like or don’t like.

Contemporary critics of evolution continue in this same vein, linking Darwinism to the Nazi Party and decrying naturalism for its apparent destruction of the possibility of an objective morality. The problem is that none of this actually has any bearing on whether or not evolution is true. To be fair, I do not usually see critics like Dembski or Behe actually using this as an argument against evolution, but it does seem to come up frequently in their blogs or other venues (e.g. the film Expelled).

Defenders of evolutionary theory are often guilty of the same tactic. From Darwin himself to contemporary philosophers and many evolutionary theorists in between, the argument has been made that if God did create nature he either did a terrible job of it or is an evil being (e.g. for making parasitoid wasps). Leaving aside the oddity of arguing for evolution by engaging in divine psychology, the arguments themselves are of course irrelevant to whether or not nature is a product of a creator. If indeed things like the parasitoid wasp were created on purpose, then it would be a genuine theological problem. But we must first accept that it was created, and then deal with the implications. Evolutionary theorists cannot reject the idea of creation because they do not like the implications. To be fair, no evolutionary biologist has argued for evolution based entirely on such theological objections, but these types of objections are indeed a common part of defenses of evolution.

Judging an idea by its consequences seems to be a natural reaction for most of us. While it may be worthwhile to examine the consequences of ideas one judges to be false, Hume is certainly correct that distasteful consequences should play no role in determining the truth of the idea in the first place.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pop Culture and the Bible

My wife and I were talking the other day about how it seems that very few people (at least, in our experience) know much of anything about Jesus and the Bible. Whether or not you're a Christian, it makes sense to be familiar with the basics because of the enormous influence the Bible has had on literature and our culture in general. While studying literature as both an undergraduate and in grad school, my wife was often in the minority in being able to understand or pick out Biblical references or allusions in the novels or plays they were reading.

Sometime last year I came across a great example of cluelessness (I know, not the most charitable word, but oh well) about the Bible when reading a review of Thrice's album, Vheissu. The lead singer and songwriter of Thrice, Dustin Kensrue, is a Christian and his faith often comes through in his lyrics. The song Like Moths to Flame tells the story of Peter and Jesus shortly before Jesus is crucified. Found in the gospels (e.g. Mathew 26 or Mark 14), this story involves Peter insisting he would never betray Jesus and that he would give up his life first. Later on, after the arrest of Jesus, Peter denies ever having known him, and then remembers Jesus' words foretelling Peter's denial. Peter weeps bitterly, having betrayed Jesus' trust.

Writing for Rolling Stone magazine, Christian Hoard gives a negative review of the album. He mistakenly assumes that the lyrics for Like Moths to Flame are about a bad break-up, writing that Kenstrue makes "a romantic betrayal sound like a nuclear holocaust, vowing to die for his lover."

This is despite lines like, "Once again the bread and wine / but it seems the meanings may be deeper still this time / you surprised me when you said I'd fall away / don't you know me? / I could never be ashamed of you." The song goes on to discuss the vow Peter makes that he would die for Jesus (I will follow you / lay down my life / I would die for you / this very night), the horror when Peter realizes what he had done (and calling curses down / from my lips lies, like poison, spill / then that awful sound / the sound of prophecy fulfilled / and then I met your eyes / as I remember everything / and something in me dies / the night that I betrayed my King).

At any rate, by mistaking this story for Kensrue's personal one, Cristian Hoard misses the whole point and comes away suspicious of Kensrue's "epic pain." The whole album is filled with Biblical references, so I guess I was surprised that a writer for a major magazine would have missed it. I don't expect everyone to read the Bible if they don't care about Christianity, but I thought it was a shame that Hoard's lack of Biblical literacy negatively colored his review of the album.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Climate Change News: the Gulf Stream is OK

For several years scientists have feared that the melting of land-based ice in Greenland would interrupt the flow of warm water from the Gulf of Mexico toward Europe. This could potentially cause severe winters and or even a regional ice age in Europe. At the beginning of Holocene, approximately 10,000 years ago, the melting of the land-based ice in North America disrupted the Gulf Stream enough to cause an ice age in Europe for centuries.

In 2003 one study detected a freshening of the Gulf Stream, a decrease in salinity that was seen as indicator that the meltwater from Greenland was having an effect on the ocean current. Since then, several other studies have suggested much the same thing. Fortunately, new research has found no overall change in the flow of the ocean currents in the Atlantic. This is good news, though some researchers say it may simply be a matter of time before start seeing an effect.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Galileo's Trial: a battle between science and religion?

Post #4

Galileo’s Trial

Seven years later Galileo’s old friend and admirer Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VIII. Urban VIII and his leading academic officials thought very highly of Galileo’s books, and promptly invited Galileo to come visit. During the visit Galileo brought up the idea of his being able to continue writing about cosmology and the question of Copernicanism. Urban VIII, having studied astronomy himself, appreciated the mathematical prowess of Copernicus. Urban did not think Copernicus’ theory to be true, but considered it a useful contribution to astronomy nonetheless. He told Galileo he could resume his writing, provided that he treated Copernicus’ theory as an unproven hypothesis (which, we must remember, it was).

Galileo immediately set to work revising parts of old manuscripts to create a new book on the arrangement of the universe. He wrote the book as a dialogue between three men in which they discuss the merits of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems. Framing the content in this way, Galileo hoped the discussion could stay at the needed theoretical level, avoiding any direct claims of the truth of Copernicus’ theory. Galileo worked on this book for many years, during which Pope Urban VIII decided to grant Galileo a yearly pension from the Church, merely for being such a valued intellect.

When the book was finally finished in 1630, Galileo sought permission to publish the book and submitted it to the relevant church authorities. It passed inspection with only a few minor changes needed, but due to the plague and other complications the book did not end up being published for another two years. When it was finally published, it became an instant success, selling out wherever it was printed. Cardinals, bishops, and Jesuit academics from all over wrote to Galileo of their praise and awe for his masterpiece, The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

Unfortunately for Galileo, the publication of the Dialogue would also result in a trial in front of the Inquisition and being sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Historians suggest that things would have been very different had Galileo or Copernicus lived one hundred years earlier or later. As it happened, several factors came together in precisely the wrong way for Galileo.

First, it was clear to readers of Galileo’s Dialogue who the victor was in the conversations and arguments concerning geo- and heliocentrism. The person arguing for geocentrism was named Simplicio and was clearly on the losing end of the argument. Galileo’s enemies within the church suggested to the Pope that Galileo was mocking the Church and him personally. While it is doubtful that this was the case (plenty of Church academics greatly enjoyed the book), these insinuations came to Pope Urban VIII at exactly the wrong time.

Urban VIII was a different person than he had been at the beginning of his office. He had made many political enemies around Europe, was involved in several wars, and feared attacks from Spanish assassins, among other concerns. Urban VIII also faced harsh criticism from Rome itself, accusing him of not taking a strong enough stance in defending the Catholic faith in the international arena. His paranoia and concern for his image resulted in determined anger and outrage, “especially if one is opposing, threatening, or defying him,” wrote a friend of Galileo’s who was close to the Pope. When Urban VIII heard remarks “insisting Galileo had played him for a fool by allowing Simplicio to espouse Urban’s philosophy,” he ordered an investigation into Galileo’s most recent work. The three person team told Urban VIII that, in their opinion, Galileo’s work was in fact an argument for the truth of Copernicanism. Urban was furious and summoned Galileo to stand trial before the Inquisition.

Galileo, almost 70 years old at this point, dutifully travelled to Rome to stand trial in 1633. Despite the portrayal of Galileo’s trial one sees in paintings, he stood before only two officials and a secretary. A full record of the transcript still exists (one can find them reproduced in Dava Sobel’s excellent Galileo’s Daughter), and the text is largely concerned not with “science” versus “religion” but with whether Galileo violated the earlier command from 1616 to not teach or write about Copernicanism except as a hypothesis.

But there was a problem: the official records of the Church concerning the incident in 1616 used stronger language then what Galileo had understood from Bellarmino. Galileo was under the impression that he was not to teach or write about Copernicanism as if it were literally true; according to the official records, he had been told not to teach or write about it at all. This came as a surprise to Galileo (and to Urban himself), and is still something of a mystery for historians today. It is possible that Galileo misremembered the original event, or that there was a miscommunication between the Inquisition and Bellarmino about the verbal injunction that had been served to Galileo (some have suggested that the Inquisition forged the document, but contemporary historians consider this unlikely). In any event, the Inquisition considered their own official records to take precedence over Galileo’s memory and letter from Bellarmino and found Galileo “vehemently suspected of heresy” and condemned to “formal imprisonment.” His Dialogue was also added to the Index of Prohibited Books, where it remained until 1835.

Later accounts would say that Galileo was jailed and even tortured, but in fact, after being forced to renounce his belief in Copernicanism, he was “imprisoned” in a sympathetic Cardinal’s palace for 5 months, and then allowed to return home to his villa near Florence. He lived out the rest of his life there, under what we would now call house arrest, with limited visitors and even more limited mobility for Galileo himself. He was crushed by the verdict and sentence, but, in a testament to his resilience, still produced and published (outside of Rome) what is probably his most important book, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. This book is considered foundational to modern physics and set the stage for the great scientists of the Enlightenment. Galileo died in 1642 at home, one of the most important intellectuals in history and a figure that still dominates discussion of science and religion today.


While this episode is unquestionably and unequivocally an embarrassment for the Catholic Church, it is also just as clearly not a simple case of science and religion coming into conflict. As we have seen, geocentrism was entrenched in the academy as well as within the Church and there was no clear evidence at the time to support heliocentrism over geocentrism. The main issues seemed to be Church politics (e.g. the Counter-Reformation) and scriptural interpretation rather than scientific progress. The Church was essentially acting as a political body, concerned with its own authority and power. We also must remember that Church is hardly alone historically in initially resisting new ideas. In addition, Galileo did have plenty of supporters within the church, including high ranking Cardinals, priests, and Church academics who clearly saw no conflict between religious faith and scientific discovery. Galileo himself was a devout Catholic who, along with almost every other major scientist in history, including Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, and Linnaeus, to name a few, saw the universe as being the handiwork of God and saw no conflict between their faith and scientific discovery (indeed, scientists like Kepler saw their scientific work as part of their worship and praise for God and his creation).

It is simply not the case that “religion” has any in-principal conflict with “science.” Have religious claims and scientific claims at times clashed? Absolutely. Have political/religious institutions hampered the publication of scientific work? Yes, they have. Is this the whole story? Not even close. The interactions of science and religion are many and complex, but one thing is for sure: the simplistic “warfare thesis” we have inherited from Huxley, Draper, and White must be discarded. Using their writings and revisionist history, one could argue that science and history are in conflict…

Previous Posts in the Series: Post #1, Post #2, Post #3

For further reading:

Science & Religion, edited by Gary B. Ferngren, John Hopkins University Press, 2002

Galileo’s Daughter, by Dava Sobel, Penguin Books, 2000

Making Modern Science: a historical survey, Bowler & Morus, University of Chicago Press, 2005

Galileo's Trial: a battle between science and religion?

Post #3

So we have seen in posts one and two some corrections to a few common myths surrounding the Copernican Revolution. Geocentrism, for example, was not a Christian idea but a Greek one adopted by the church. Also, the contrast between geocentrism and heliocentrism, which was proposed by Copernicus, a devout Catholic, cannot be seen as a contrast between science and religion because Copernicus did not have any scientific evidence for his views.

Now we come to the main event: the trial of Galileo. This episode has come to symbolize the conflict between science and religion, specifically between the Christian church and Western science. My intent in this post is not to defend the medieval Christian church or its behavior. There are dark spots in the church’s history, and I have no interest in pretending otherwise. Rather, I intend to show what contemporary historians have discovered upon a closer look at the trial of Galileo: that it was a complicated affair that cannot be reduced to a battle between science and religion.


Galileo Galilei was an Italian philosopher and mathematician who was born in 1564 and passed away in 1642 at the age of 78. A full history of his life and interactions with the church is impossible in a blog post, but I wish to focus on a few important points.

First, Galileo was a brilliant philosopher and scientist, as well as a devout Catholic. He is rightly regarded as the father of experimental science, being among the first to insist on empirical work in scientific investigation rather than reasoning from first principles as was standard in universities at the time. Galileo’s brilliance and willingness to question accepted wisdom brought him both international acclaim and some enemies in the academic and religious establishments.

Galileo first garnered international acclaim through the publication, in 1610, of his book The Starry Messenger, which contained the newfound astronomical knowledge he gained through use of telescopes he designed himself. This new knowledge included the discovery of the four moons around Jupiter, new stars, and the fact that our Moon had craters and valleys. This last bit was interesting because within Aristotelian natural philosophy, then dominant, everything in the heavens was perfectly spherical and smooth. Galileo did not hesitate to proclaim these new discoveries, but some devoted Aristotelian academics refused to acknowledge his work (some even claimed that the images seen in Galileo’s telescopes were illusions or tricks).

Contrary to the impression one might get from the standard story, Galileo gathered many friends and admirers within the church. He was befriended by Father Clavius, a leading Jesuit astronomer and the chief mathematician of the Collego Romano, a church institution which endorsed Galileo’s work and joined him in studying the heavens. Even Pope Paul V and Cardinal Barberini (the future pope Urban VIII) became fans, and Barberini a personal friend, saying to Galileo, “I pray the Lord God to preserve you, because men of great value like you deserve to live a long time to the benefit of the public.”

It is worth noting here that there were many university academics who objected to Galileo’s work and many within the church who embraced it. There is more to the story here, but in short Galileo’s disregard for academic tradition (i.e. Aristotelianism) earned him some enemies within the academy and, eventually, in the church as well.

Science and Scripture

Copernicus’ book which proposed the heliocentric (sun-centered) theory, De Revolutionibus, had been published in 1543, some 60 years before Galileo’s Starry Messenger. The heliocentric theory had never caused an uproar; many academics and theologians thought it interesting, a few embraced it as literally true, and others ignored it. Part of the reason for this was that at the time mathematics and astronomy were considered to be concerned with “appearances.” For example, as long as an astronomical theory could, say, accurately predict the motions of stars and be useful to navigators, it did not matter whether the theory was physically true. Part of Galileo’s legacy would be to elevate mathematics and astronomy out of the realm of “appearances” and into natural philosophy proper. This change, however, was difficult for his contemporaries to accept.

Galileo had embraced the heliocentric theory by at least 1597, but it was after he became famous in 1610 that his views on the matter became more widely known. In both public dialogue and a few published letters, Galileo made clear his preference for Copernicus’ heliocentric theory over Ptolemy’s geocentric one. This became one point among many for sharp disagreement between Galileo and other prominent university academics. Galileo appears to have had a gift for making enemies, for he applied his brilliance not only to academic topics but also to decimating and humiliating those who publicly disagreed with him. Within the church, also, there began to emerge some people who thought Galileo to be a problem, a mathematician encroaching too far into the domain of the philosophers. A priest friend alerted Galileo that a “certain crowd…put their heads together in a mad quest for any means by which they could damage you.” For those within the church who disliked Galileo, his heliocentric leanings provided a good target for them to attack.

As we have seen, geocentrism was the dominant cosmology and had been for centuries. While there were exceptions, most people at this time thought that both natural philosophy (science) and scripture supported an earth-centered universe. Scriptural passages such as Psalm 19:4-6 and Joshua 10:12, where Joshua commands the Sun to hold still, were seen to support a stationary Earth. This idea, that Holy Scripture supports the Ptolemaic geocentric universe, would prove to be central in the trial of Galileo.

The Catholic Church at this time was recovering from the sudden loss of power and authority caused by the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517. In 1545 the Council of Trent had declared, among other things, that only popes and bishops were allowed to interpret Scripture. Galileo’s enemies, then, could cast his espousing the heliocentric theory as being against Holy Scripture. They did exactly that, and attracted the attention of the Pope, who ordered Cardinal Bellarmino, an important Jesuit intellectual, to look into whether Copernicanism might be heretical. Bellarmino was an admirer of Galileo’s work, but was skeptical of heliocentrism and believed that it did contradict scripture. The Catholic Church had a long history of distinguishing between literal and figurative language in the Bible, but, due to the Reformation and the Council of Trent, Bellarmino was obliged to defend the current interpretation of the church fathers. The Catholic Church was in an extraordinarily defensive frame of mind, and in the words of historian Richard Blackwell, “[I]t was in no mood to adopt a new and revolutionary model of the heavens.”

This was especially true since neither Copernicus nor Galileo had offered clear evidence for their views. Galileo went to Rome to argue his case, but his main piece of evidence was an erroneous theory of his about the cause of the tides. His other astronomical observations cast doubt on some of Aristotle’s claims about the heavens (e.g. their immutability) but failed to comment on the truth of the heliocentric versus geocentric theories. Since both natural philosophy and scripture appeared to support geocentrism, Bellarmino sided with tradition, seeing no good reason to do otherwise. In March of 1616 a formal proclamation was issued, declaring the Copernican position to be “false and contrary to Holy Scripture” and De Revolutionibus was ordered to have a few passages “corrected.” Bellarmino had a private meeting with Galileo to give him a warning to only treat Copernicanism as a hypothesis, but did not put any restrictions on his published works.

Gossip and rumors spread by Galileo’s enemies suggested that Galileo had been denounced and forced to repent, but Cardinal Bellarmino wrote a public letter declaring otherwise, and the Pope even met with Galileo to assure him that he had their full support against his slanderers. Even so, Galileo took the warning seriously (as the Church had meant it seriously) and was quiet for many years in his public affairs concerning the arrangement of the universe.

Next Post: Galileo's Trial

Galileo's Trial: a battle between science and religion?

Post #2

The Copernican Revolution

In the first post in this series, we covered the standard story of the Galileo Affair and discussed one of its flaws. In this second post we will look at a few more.

In 1543 a specialist in Catholic law who dabbled in astronomy on the side published a book called De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). Nicolas Copernicus had been working on his book for several decades, and in it he laid out a new cosmology. The standard cosmology, as we have seen, was geocentric or earth-centered. Copernicus departed from this and instead proposed a sun-centered (or heliocentric) universe where the planets revolved around the sun. Though it was slow to start, the publication of De Revolutionibus would lead to a paradigm shift in cosmology known as the Copernican Revolution.

In the standard story, it is common for the Copernican Revolution to be cast as a battle between science and the Church or between reason and dogma. Copernicus was the brave rational soul who dared to defy those stuffy Christians and their religious dogma.

In fact, as we have already noted, Copernicus himself was a Catholic who specialized in canon law. The very source of the Copernican Revolution was a Christian who believed the universe was the handiwork of God. Copernicus also appears to have had some strong Neo-Platonic sensibilities. He had an almost mystical reverence for the Sun, and his motivation for proposing the heliocentric theory appears to have largely been due to his philosophical preference for simplicity and mathematical harmony. Ptolemy’s geocentric theory, while elegant, was extremely complicated. A common myth is that as time had elapsed since Ptolemy’s day astronomers had needed to add more and more epicycles (a feature of his model) in order to make sure Ptolemy’s model matched up with astronomical observations. The myth continues that Copernicus, realizing the evidentiary problems with the Ptolemaic model, took the needed theoretical leap to a new model. In fact, no new epicycles had been added, as Ptolemy’s theory was not easily modified. Indeed, Copernicus actually did not have any evidence, astronomical or otherwise, to support his model over Ptolemy’s. The heliocentric model, as proposed by Copernicus, was not any more accurate than Ptolemy’s (a testament to Ptolemy’s genius). Instead, it satisfied Copernicus’ devotion to mathematical harmony.

Copernicus’ theory did not stem from scientific observations but from his philosophical (and even mystical) preferences. We have already seen that geocentrism was not a product of religious dogma, but of Greek philosophy. Therefore the idea that the Copernican Revolution was a story of reason versus dogma or science versus religion is false.

But did Copernicus have to battle the Christian Church? Let us look at how the Church responded to these ideas.

First, we need to realize that there was no monolithic Christian response. It was certainly not the case that Christians in general rejected Copernicus’ ideas. In fact, several bishops of the Catholic church had written to Copernicus to encourage him to publish his work (this is before De Revolutionibus was published), thinking he would make a valuable contribution to astronomy. On the Protestant side, Lutheran scholars were responsible for finally convincing Copernicus to publish his book, helping him to do so. Afterward, Lutheran universities became the central institutions teaching heliocentrism.

Copernicus himself died within a few weeks of his book being published, and contrary to what one sometimes reads, was never persecuted by anyone. The initial response overall was rather muted, with many scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, thinking that the heliocentric theory was interesting but not clearly superior to Ptolemy’s model. A few key thinkers, Kepler and Galileo among them, did embrace the heliocentric theory wholeheartedly, eventually leading the latter into conflict with the Catholic Church.

It would be almost one hundred years, though, from the publication of Copernicus’ book in 1543 before the Catholic Church would add De Revolutionibus to its index of prohibited books. At first, some thinkers within the Church embraced the book’s ideas and others ignored it, but some within the Church began to build a resistance to the heliocentric theory that would culminate with the trial of Galileo. This is a complicated episode in the history of science which we will attend to in later posts. To close this post, though, let us compare how new theories have usually been received throughout the history of science. A major component of the standard story is the suggestion that religious belief is an especially potent force against new scientific theories. No doubt religious belief did play some role in the Church’s official rejection of heliocentrism (more on this later), but just how well do new theories usually do?

In 1915 Alfred Wegener proposed his new theory of continental drift. Did the scientific community welcome him and his new knowledge? Wegener was ridiculed (viciously) by the geological community, despite having some notable evidence for his views. As we have seen, Copernicus didn’t have any new evidence. Wegener’s theory was only accepted some 20 years after he died. This was in the 20th century and did not involve the church.

Einstein’s work on special relativity was largely ignored for several years. It was only when Max Planck, a giant in the field, started paying attention to Einstein’s papers that his theory got any traction. The theory was revolutionary, and therefore a tough sell for most scientists.

The big bang theory, now the standard model, was rejected or ignored for decades by the scientific community (in fact, some of the more zealous secular astronomers rejected it as being religiously motivated, but that is a story for another post).

Alexander Fleming made advances in proper medical treatment of deep wounds having to do with a correct understanding of the role of bacteria. The scientific medical community rejected his work, and many World War I soldiers died needlessly.

Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigm shifts within science is well known. A dominant paradigm in science is difficult to overturn. A prominent scientist (I cannot recall who) was once asked how it is that new theories become accepted. The answer was something along the lines of: the old scientists die out and the new ones grow up to be more accepting of it.

Rejecting or resisting new theories is clearly not unique to the church.

Next post: Galileo’s Trial

Galileo's Trial: a battle between science and religion?

Post #1

The Standard Story

One of the most famous episodes in the history of science and religion is the Copernican Revolution, which began with the publication of Copernicus’s book in 1543 and culminated with the trial and conviction of Galileo in 1633. It did not end there, but that is as far as we will go in this series.

The standard story goes something like this: medieval Church doctrine held that the Earth was at the center of the universe, as it should be, since this is the most privileged location in the universe and Earth, being the home to mankind, is the most important planet. Copernicus and other scientists like Bruno and Galileo challenged this doctrine with scientific evidence showing that in fact the Sun was in the center. The Church, furious that scientific progress was being made (progress which challenged its own doctrines), persecuted these brave souls who dared give voice to reason and evidence. In short, this episode is an archetypal example of the conflict between science and religion.

I cannot recall how many PBS or Nova TV specials have been aired on the trial of Galileo, pitting Galileo the brave scientist against the oppressive anti-science Church. This version of the story is simply assumed by a great many people. For example, in an article for Slate magazine, Nathan Myhrvold wrote:

“Ptolemy (second century) was the first and boldest in a long succession of spin doctors for the primacy of human beings. The whole universe, he postulated, rotated around us, with the Earth sitting at the center of heaven itself. Any marketing consultant will tell you that positioning is everything, and center-of-the-universe is hard to beat. A Polish astronomer named Copernicus (1473-1543) rudely pointed out: Sorry earthlings, we spin around the sun, not vice versa…Bruno's crime, like Galileo's, was to undermine the uniqueness of our planet, and by doing so, to threaten the intellectual security of the religious dictatorships of his time. People get cranky when you burst their bubble. Over time, advances in astronomy have relentlessly reinforced the utter insignificance of Earth on a celestial scale. Fortunately, political and religious leaders stopped barbecuing astronomers for saying so…”

Slate magazine, a well-respected publication, is part of the Washington Post and has associations with National Public Radio. The standard story, however, as well as Mr. Myhrvold’s particular version of it, contains serious historical errors. Historian Richard J. Blackwell writes, “An oversimplified and false view is that Galileo became a martyr of science because of the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to science, but it is now commonly agreed that the facts are quite otherwise.”

This will be the first in a series of posts intended to correct this common, but false, view of the Copernican Revolution.

Geocentrism and Greek Philosophy

The first myth we will tackle is the idea that geocentrism (the belief that Earth was at the center of the universe and everything revolved around it) was a Christian doctrine that entailed believing the Earth was special. In fact, geocentrism was an idea from Greek philosophy, not the Church. The Greeks devoted a lot of time to pondering the nature and structure of the universe, or cosmology. The geocentric theory was developed according to reason, evidence, and philosophical principles, not religious dogma or a special view of humanity. The geocentric model of the universe inherited by the medieval Church was the culmination of careful Greek thought, with Aristotle supplying the metaphysics and Ptolemy the mathematics. Ptolemy’s geocentric model was a masterpiece that matched up very well with astronomical observations. This model was adopted by Church scholars as well as by practically all the natural philosophers (i.e. scientists) of the time.

The geocentric view did not entail thinking the Earth was special. When Mr. Myhrvold, quoted above, asserted that the Earth was thought to be “at the center of heaven itself,” he could not have been more wrong (though at least he acknowledged the Greek origins of geocentrism). Within Aristotelian cosmology, Earth was thought of as corrupt and base, while the heavens were perfect and, well, heavenly. A more accurate description of Earth’s status at the time is that it was seen as the garbage dump at the bottom of the universe. Things were thought to fall to Earth because they were “heavy” and corrupt, and the Earth was the designated place for such unworthy things to fall. Indeed, Galileo saw his own work as elevating the status of Earth, not demoting it, writing:

“For I will prove that the earth does have motion, that it surpasses the moon in brightness, and that it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.”

Next post: The Copernican Revolution

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review of Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living

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Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living is a relatively small book that tackles a broad range of issues. As the title states, the authors cover everything from the science of climate change to the appropriate Christian response to climate change. They also offer some practical advice to help both individuals and communities live more sustainably.

Though the flow of the book suffers a little due to the wide range of topics that are covered, I think the book is successful on all fronts. The summary of climate change is concise and accurate, giving a good overview of past, current, and projected future climate change and its many effects on our planet. I especially like how the authors frame anthropogenic climate change as a "reckless experiment." This is an appropriate way to think about climate change because, though the authors do not mention this, this century might be the first time that CO2 emissions have risen far ahead of temperatures (ice core records indicate that, in the past, the temperature changed first, followed by changes in CO2 levels). While we have sophisticated computer models that can project future changes based on current levels of knowledge, by emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases we are essentially taking part in a global experiment with a complex, poorly understood climate system. This fact alone should be enough to warrant caution when it comes to our fossil fuel use.

After laying out the evidence for the reality and potential severity of climate change and its effects, the authors turn to the question of how Christians should respond. Their answers are both wide-ranging and compelling. Through a much-needed evaluation of our unsustainable (and unhealthy) consumer culture, a Biblically-based call to take care of God's creation, and a reminder of God's charge for us to care for the poor (who will be most affected by climate change), the authors articulate a vision of a total Christian response to climate change. They cast this response as an important part of bringing God's kingdom to Earth. As Christians we are familiar with the spiritual aspects of the transformation of old to new, but Spencer, White, and Vrobleskly challenge us to think about how this applies to the whole of God's creation.

Also integrated into the book are plenty of practical principles to help guide our response, updates on national and global policies, quick analyses of alternative energy sources, and a helpful list of Christian organizations devoted to realizing the vision of responsible, sustainable living.

Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living is being published in the U.S. by Hendrickson and can be found here. Christians looking for a substantive, thoughtful response to the often heated (and politicized) issues regarding climate change and what to do about it need to read this book.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Climate Change News: everyone has an agenda

A recent admission by the IPCC that part of their 2007 report on climate change was false has been getting, rightly, a lot of attention. The International Panel on Climate Change said in their report that the mountain glaciers in Himayalas could melt by 2035, an exaggerated claim without a scientific basis. Actual scientific estimates (e.g. Ren et al. (2007) in the Journal of Applied Meteorology) are that around 67% of the glaciers are shrinking and have the potential to disappear by 2100. Other glaciers are actually growing. The IPCC statement on these glaciers was apparently politically motivated.

Perhaps some people are shocked that the IPCC would include a false report to support an agenda. But why should we be shocked? It perhaps seems more clear that conservatives that reject climate science do so because of a particular political agenda, but, frankly, it's a bit silly to assume that other political groups do not also have a political agenda to pursue. As I read dozens of peer-reviewed climate change articles last spring, it became clear to me that Al Gore's pop-science presentation of global warming had quite a few flaws, perhaps born out of his desire to motivate people to change, or perhaps for more self-serving purposes. Either way, we should not be surprised when political parties end up distorting an issue in order to further their own ends.

All of this, to me, highlights a basic need when it comes to presenting climate change science to the public: nuance. This is something I try to achieve in my own treatment of climate change in the classroom. Response to news like this is predictable from both sides of the political spectrum: conservatives see it as reason to believe that all climate change science is fake while others wave it away as an error that somehow sneaked through. Is anyone else as tired of this as I am? We seem to have an unreasonable aversion to nuance. Climate change education should simply an honest look at what we know (and what we don't know). The evidence for anthropogenic global warming is strong; carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and will undoubtedly warm the planet. However, the "alarmist" spin on climate change is also scientifically inaccurate; the Earth has been much warmer and has experienced more dramatic climate change in the past than it is now. By ignoring genuine uncertainties in the science and by exaggerating the immediacy of the threat, we open ourselves up to corrections by total skeptics, who then gain ammunition for their dismissal of anthropogenic warming. If we could just stick to being accurate in the first place, if we were the ones who openly admitted where the largest uncertainties are, if we could discuss the negative impacts of climate change without pretending that the Earth may not survive, it seems to me that there would be less room for disagreement in the first place.

Perhaps then we could stop pretending that only our political opponents have an agenda, partisan rhetoric could be replaced by (gasp) science, and we could reach a consensus about steps to take to curb our influence on our planet's climate.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Done with Bart Ehrman

The other day I posted on how I started listening to Bart Ehrman's book God's Problem: how the Bible fails to answer our most important question - why we suffer. I returned it to the library yesterday after getting a little over half way through it, not because I wouldn't have finished it but because it was overdue and the library was closed so I just dropped it off.

First, let me say that the book felt a little bit to me like a stealth attack. The book is ostensibly about whether the writings in the Bible can satisfactorily answer questions about why suffering exists. While this is certainly a major theme, the real point of the book seemed to be a long (and angry) argument that God himself, if he exists, is a despicable, evil tyrant. The tone of the book was often angry and condescending; Ehrman's disdain for both God and Christians was evident.

While this was grating, the real problems with the book involve strange misrepresentations of Biblical passages. For example, as part of a discussion of the idea that suffering can lead to redemption, Mr. Ehrman relates the story of when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. In this passage, Lazarus, a friend of Jesus's, becomes very ill. Lazarus' sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus that their brother is sick. Jesus does not visit right away, though, but leaves to see them two days later. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus has already died and has been in the tomb for four days. Mary and Martha are of course greatly distressed, and Jesus himself begins to weep with sorrow. Jesus turns to those there and tells them that he is the resurrection and the life and that those who believe in him will have eternal life. Jesus then, demonstrating his power over death and suffering, raises Lazarus from the dead. The fact that he had been in the tomb for four days made it clear that he had been dead.

Mr. Ehrman's interpretation of this passage is that Jesus wanted Lazarus to die so that Jesus could then show off his power. To me, this a surprisingly immature, even purposely obtuse reading of the passage. Mr. Ehrman tells us how his students are always surprised when he tells them that Jesus wanted Lazarus to die. Indeed, they should be surprised, as there is no reason to believe this. Mr. Ehrman conveniently leaves out the little verse "Jesus wept." Jesus wept with sorrow when his friend Lazarus became ill and died, but utilized the situation to teach an important spiritual lesson about nothing less than eternal life and salvation, demonstrating that suffering will not last. If Jesus had caused Lazarus to die, or if he had been happy when Lazarus died, then perhaps Mr. Ehrman's interpretation would be tenable. But it is not.

There are a few other examples from the book I was going to write about, but I don't feel like spending the time. On a positive note, Mr. Ehrman does a nice job of giving an overview of the Old Testament books and writers. It is clear his knowledge of the Bible is extensive; it's too bad his anger seems to color all of his thinking about it.