Conflict between faith, scientific observation remains


In 1633, the Catholic Church’s Holy Inquisition condemned Galileo to spend the rest of his life under house arrest at his villa near Florence, Italy.

His “sin” consisted of his public support for the Copernican notion that the sun was at the center of what we now call the solar system.

Until he died in 1642, Galileo spent his house arrest performing groundbreaking experiments on falling bodies. His work formed the basis for Isaac Newton’s famous gravity equations, which set the standard for our understanding of gravity until Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1916.

Galileo’s condemnation and punishment have had repercussions that continue to this day. Along with Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Galileo’s defense of Copernicus sounded the death knell of the Earth-centered hypothesis, as Aristotle postulated it during the third century BCE and Ptolemy developed it around 150 CE.

It’s easy to overestimate Galileo’s contribution to the significant astronomical question of the day. After all, Galileo was wrong on a critical point of his defense of Copernicanism. He accepted the Aristotelian view that objects orbited the center of things, whether Earth or the sun, at uniform speeds in perfect circles, a notion called uniform, circular motion.

Neither Copernicanism nor the Ptolemaic model accurately predicted the positions of the planets in the sky. Exact planetary position was the fundamental question any solar-system model had to answer.

That question had been settled over two decades before Galileo published his grand defense of Copernicanism in 1632. In 1609, Johannes Kepler proved mathematically that the planets orbited the sun in slightly stretched-out circles called ellipses.

As planets approach the sun, they speed up. As they move away, they slow down. So much for uniform circular motion.

Galileo’s Earth-shaking telescopic observations did not resolve the fundamental issue of observed planetary positions.

Neither circular orbits nor Ptolemaic epicycles could predict the locations of the planets in the sky with extreme accuracy.

Kepler’s elliptical orbits produced accurate predictions of planetary locations. However, his densely mathematical arguments were not widely read and were thus widely ignored.

Ultimately, even Galileo’s gravity experiments fade when laid against Galileo’s most significant impact on the contemporary world. His conviction is the best example of the sometimes bitter conflict between faith and direct scientific observation that remains unresolved to this day.

The church trusted the Bible as holy revelation. They also had an abiding faith in Aristotle’s cosmological conclusions.

In our time, some Christians still refuse to believe that the universe is billions of years old because of their interpretation (or misinterpretation) of the “six days” of creation in the Biblical Book of Genesis.

It’s easy to see why some people choose Biblical faith over scientific experimentation and direct observation. Faith produces immediate answers to tough questions.

Science is slow but deliberate. Despite occasional missteps, science climbs slowly and surely toward the light, but the journey is often long and arduous.

Religious opponents of scientific conclusions frequently forget that scientific innovators like Galileo and Newton were profoundly religious. Additionally, many scientists today get great comfort in their belief in the scriptures of various faiths. But they also put their trust in systematic observation when it comes to understanding the workings of the physical world.

Consequently, those who get strength and courage from their religious faith must reconcile that faith with their scientific curiosity.

Cosmological passages in Genesis are either incorrect or badly misinterpreted, but let’s not blame God. Thousands of years ago, humans were at the start of their intellectual and technological development. God gave people explanations they could comprehend.

But God also gave us the mental acuity to develop the intellectual and technological tools to understand another magnificent book the Creator wrote — the book of the Creation itself. Our intellect is perhaps God’s greatest gift to us. The greater sin would be to waste that gift.

In his remarks on the 1992 decision to exonerate Galileo, Pope John Paul II commented that the “fundamental opposition between science and faith” resulted from a “tragic mutual incomprehension.” That “sad misunderstanding now belongs in the past.”

However, words, even Papal decrees, mean less than action. Galileo’s true exoneration sits on Mount Graham in Arizona. There, you will find the Vatican Advanced Telescope, a temple of knowledge where faith and science meet.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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