The Galileo Syndrome


Phillip E. Johnson

The trial of Galileo is known to the public almost entirely as a one-dimensional morality play, in which freedom of thought, embodied in science, is persecuted by dogmatic oppression, embodied in the Catholic Church. Recent retellings of the story, such as Wade Rowland’s Galileo’s Mistake, challenge modernist prejudice by portraying a more complex tangle in which the over-bearing Galileo bears part of the responsibility for forcing a showdown with Pope Leo VIII, who had been Galileo’s friend and supporter until the great scientist’s contempt for authority exhausted his patience.

The Church did not object to the Copernican theory, provided that Galileo advanced it only as a useful hypothesis and not as the literal truth. Perhaps astronomers were finding the hypothesis of Copernicus preferable to the geocentric tradition for such scientific tasks as navigation and the prediction of eclipses. The Church was willing to leave such scientific questions to the scientists, while recognizing that scientific convenience is not the only guide to truth.

It was otherwise when Galileo, writing for the public in Italian rather than solely for the scholars in Latin, employed his immense prestige and rhetorical skill to teach that a rotating and revolving earth was not merely a fiction adopted for its convenience in scientific work, but was truly the way things really are, regardless of what the Church thought about the matter. By crossing that line, Galileo directly challenged the Church’s authority during a critical phase of the Counter-Reformation, and the Church understandably had objections, both scientific and theological.

Galileo Thought Otherwise

I will not go into the former, because my priority is to explain the “mistake” of Wade Rowland’s title, and to describe the intriguing parallel between Galileo’s situation and that of the Intelligent Design movement today as we confront the scientific community’s institutions, which are as powerful over questions of knowledge in our time as the Church was in Galileo’s. In brief, some esteemed theologians interpreted the Bible as implying or assuming geocentrism, whereas some esteemed scientists, notably Galileo, interpreted the evidence of science as requiring a sun-centered astronomy.

Assuming that both the Bible and scientific investigation are reliable sources of knowledge, as nearly everyone did at the time, then either the theologians were mistaken in their interpretation of the few lines of Scripture that seemed to create a problem, or the scientists were mistaken in their interpretation of the evidence of nature. It seems obvious that both possibilities ought to have been considered, but Galileo thought otherwise. He quoted Augustine to prove that Scripture often employs figurative language and so the interpretation of Scripture must be guided by what is known through reason and observation.

So far so good, but Galileo did not concede that the reverse was also true, because he thought that nature was its own interpreter, and presented reality directly to the scientific observer. To illustrate the mistake, Rowland paraphrased Galileo’s explanation from his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (the mother of Galileo’s patron Cosimo, the grand duke of Tuscany): “In any case, Galileo argues, the Bible is not a scientific text. It is a moral and spiritual document that should not be relied upon for information on the nature of the physical universe.”

Certainly, the fact that the Bible may appear to contradict evidence produced by scientific inquiry should not be enough to debunk the scientific claims. Moreover, Galileo insisted, Scripture should not be used to deny any scientific claim that is susceptible to confirmation, even if the confirmation may not yet have been achieved. How it is to be determined that a claim may be proved, in the absence of that proof, is a problem he does not address. Galileo clearly believed that there was little that science could not illuminate. This position left the role remaining to religion as one of filling in the gaps: temporarily providing explanations in areas into which science had not yet expanded its knowledge.

Galileo does not appear to have seen this implication, but the Church clearly did, and found unacceptable the inevitable marginalization it implied. Loyal son of the Church though he may have been, Galileo nonetheless came very near to stating the radical doctrine that nowadays we call positivism, or scientism. If Galileo could not foresee how granting this kind of epistemic supremacy to science would result in the marginalization of religion, we have no need for foresight because we have seen the outcome. No wonder the Church thought it had to assert its authority!

The Church of Science

I have turned to the Galileo episode not to compete with historians in assessing the blame for the tragedy, but because the elements of that conflict are present again in the hot argument between the Intelligent Design movement in biology and Darwinism. Today the scientific profession has firmly grasped the authority once possessed by the Catholic Church and contested by Galileo, the power to judge which claims have the status of knowledge and which do not. Like the Church of Galileo’s day, the Church of Science can tolerate almost any concept if it remains no more than a hypothesis or metaphor, provisionally adopted as an aid to understanding and not advocated as literally true.

That includes the observation that organisms seem in some respects to be designed. Articles by biologists of unimpeachable orthodoxy offhandedly refer to the genome as the “book of life,” and biologists without embarrassment sometimes employ “reverse engineering” to determine the function of some puzzling feature. The arch-materialist Richard Dawkins has described some of the most powerful examples of apparent design in biology, and yet he is outraged when others suggest the possibility that the design so powerfully apparent may conceivably be real.

The philosophy that governs contemporary biology requires that all features of organisms be attributed to a combination of random variation and natural selection, even though the alleged creative power of this mechanism has never been demonstrated. There is no objection to the design hypothesis when it is followed by an assurance that apparent design is an illusion produced somehow by natural selection, but there is violent objection to any suggestion that design in biology may be a truth of enormous cultural importance which stands as evidence that there may after all be a real Designer who cares about how people behave.

I do not think that the convenience of biologists can be the sole standard by which the reality of intelligent design is judged. The religious authorities of Galileo’s day did not care what assumptions astronomers preferred for their calculations, but they cared a great deal about preserving their own exclusive authority to decide what is real and what is merely a useful fiction or metaphor. The scientific authorities today govern a pragmatic enterprise in which scientists are generally free to try any hypotheses that seem useful, although professional ruin may be the punishment for taking a case to the public in a manner that threatens the authority of the scientific hierarchy.

The aspect of the Intelligent Design movement that most irks the mandarins of science is that we do not limit ourselves to submitting papers to peer-reviewed scientific journals, accepting the inevitable judgment of the reviewers that the papers should not be published. The bishops and Jesuit scholars of Galileo’s time thought it was unfair and unprofessional for Galileo to appeal over their heads to the public, and the mandarins of science today are equally determined to confine thoughts that endanger their authority to professional circles they control. The cast of characters has changed, and the penalties are milder, but the drama is basically the same.

There is always an orthodoxy in any important area of knowledge, and a class of mandarins who make and enforce its rules. While the orthodoxy is successful, it may seem so obviously correct that the rules do not need to be precisely articulated and rebellion is nearly inconceivable. On important occasions, however, insurgents may perceive a crucial weakness in the orthodoxy and defy the rules, contending that the mandarins have exceeded their authority or relied upon some false doctrine.

The challenge will always seem irrational to the orthodox, because by definition, it breaks the rules that define rationality. If the insurgents prevail, they may end up by imposing a new orthodoxy, which in its turn will seem obvious and permanent for a long time as “the way things are,” until some new rebellion inspires people to realize that the way we think today is not necessarily the way we are going to think tomorrow.