Interview of Wade Rowland, author of Galileo’s Mistake, by Rick Vassallo of CIUT 89.5 FM radio. The adoption of spiritual values in the workplace, business sector, and in our personal lives is the starting place for the concept of Rick Vassallo’s weekly radio show: Watching the Detectives. Heard from Buffalo, New York to Barrie, Ontario on 89.5 FM, and on www.ciut.fm on the Internet.
RV – The myth of “Progress”. How has our scientific, rational based society led us to the mess we’re in. How can we begin to undo this dangerous and unsustainable trajectory of planetary destruction and shift instead towards an experiential, faith based cosmology. Rick Vassallo spoke with acclaimed author and cultural critic Wade Rowland.
RV – Well, we’re going to explore this conflict of perception and the battle between science and religion, as you initially forayed with Ockham’s Razor. You subtitle the book, the archeology of a myth. Why does the account and the myth of Galileo hold such significance for us today?
WR – I think it is really one of the foundational myths of modern society as we live it today. It’s one of the wellsprings of the beliefs we have that science has all of the answers to everything all the time. It seemed important to me to try to retell that story in a more accurate way, as a means of trying to discover what it is that’s wrong with science in the way we use it today.
RV – Now this clash between the astronomer and physicist Galileo and the Church of Rome, can you just for the listeners’ sake elaborate on the historical account?
WR – Well we all know the story of Galileo, the father of science and upholder of reason and the scientific method in the face of an irrational and anti-intellectual church that threw him in the dungeon and threatened him with torture, etc… None of that is true, none of it’s true. The true story is all on the record and has been for centuries. It’s just been interpreted in a methodical sense to support the scientific, rationalistic world view that came out of the Age of Reason or the so-called ‘Enlightenment’, which we still live with.
The real story is that the core dispute between Galileo and the church was not over the Copernican system — whether the earth moves or not, whether the sun or the earth is at the centre of the system. The church had accepted that Copernicus was very likely correct even though there was no scientific evidence of that and there wouldn’t be until long after Galileo was dead, but they had come to believe that Copernicanism was probably true and that they had a major job ahead of them in re-interpreting scripture. There’s a few tiny points in scripture that point to the earth being stationary as opposed to the sun. Again, its all in the record in letters and other documents that the church understood this.
What the real dispute with Galileo was about was whether science was… and remember Galileo was really the first scientist to discover this rigorous new empirical approach to ascertaining the truth of things. The church’s dispute was not that Galileo’s approach didn’t work–clearly it did– but that it worked exclusively, so that it excluded all other approaches to ascertaining the truth.
Galileo’s mistake was on one level something that philosophers would call ‘naive realism’ and nobody’s accepted that in philosophy for 300 years, though I’m sure most scientists will believe that, certainly in the social sciences. But what that says is that science can discover, given enough scientists and enough time, everything there is to discover about the universe. And that what science discovers is exclusively correct, there are no other explanations. The church disputed that for obvious political reasons. It undermined their authority, in practical ways, more so than the Reformation did. But also that they understood that it was simply wrong and they were correct in that understanding.
RV – What would have been the motivation for Galileo being right and showing up the church of Rome at the time? What would have been at stake here for him: i.e., fame, fortune, ego, glory – the same things that people are motivated for today?
WR – Its hard to deny that Galileo had an enormous ego, but maybe he was entitled to it because he was also a genius. His motive certainly was not to undermine the church and that’s an interesting point. I think that somehow he was blinded to the truth of the church’s argument that there is a reality beyond that which science knows, there’s a gap that is always unbridgeable by reason. He wouldn’t accept that and there’s a whole host of reasons why he wouldn’t and I talk about Pythagoras and Galileo’s Pythagorean approach to things.
He was in a sense a very conservative man, more than, for instance, a contemporary like Kepler who was able to see for instance that orbits could be elliptical. Galileo could not accept that. He was stuck with conservative ideas, for example, that anything that happened in the planetary system could only be circular because that was the perfect shape. There was still a bit of Aristotle left in Galileo even though he, more than any other figure of the era, brought down Aristotilean physics. He was also at the same time a profoundly devout Catholic. He was a very good friend of the Pope that he had the run it with in 1633. He’s a very, very interesting, multi-layered character and its hard to just ascribe simple motives to him, its a complex of motives.
RV – I got the sense that his motivation was not the study of astronomy for its intrinsic values, more an empirical knowledge that he wanted, as a means to an ends, rather than an end in itself.
WR – – I think that is what distinguished him from Kepler, who is an interesting case. Kepler isn’t talked about much, he certainly isn’t a ‘saint’ of science the way Galileo is– there are even relics of Galileo’s body preserved in various scientific museums.
Kepler was a convinced astrologer and a sort of numeralogical mystic who did his research in exploring his mysticism and astrology and came to the correct conclusions about, for instance, the orbits of the planets being elliptical, or how tides worked, whereas Galileo who was more of a modern scientist came to the wrong conclusions about both those issues. Kepler was a also better telescope maker than Galileo was and made far more profound contributions to astronomical theory than Galileo ever did.
Galileo was a more practical man, I think there was a kind of a Thomas Edison side to him. He was a bit of an engineer as well as a pure scientist. He was a very practical man and very earthbound in that he constantly had problems with money, supporting his family, and so on. His first interest in the telescope was sort of a pecuniary interest. He saw it as a way to make money. It was a great gimmick and he thought …well I could manufacture these and improve on them and make a few dollars, a few “scudi”. But to his credit he became among the first to point it to the sky and began to make some discoveries and to consider what these discoveries said about the ideas of the universe as it was then understood, Aristotilian ideas.
RV – Are you familiar with the writings of Edward O. Wilson?
WR – Yes, a bit.
RV – He has a term that he uses called consilience, which he defines as the unity of knowledge. He says that there is no distinct separation between faith based and science based thinking. Its more a matter that most scientists are not, they don’t follow through a study or project long enough to lose themselves in it.
WR – My view of Wilson is that he’s really damning religious or spiritual insight with faint praise. I’m not sure that he’s convinced of what he’s saying in fact. Its nice for him to be conciliatory but he’s still of the position that science is the number one source of insight. I disagree with him, and I argue in the book that science and religion are equally faith based. Its not difficult to show the many, many ways that science or the foundations of science depend on faith. One is that the universe is organized in such a way that its accessible to human reason and mathematical interpretations. There’s no way to simply prove that – you have to accept that on faith. Starting from there, there’s a whole hierarchy of articles on faith that are accepted by science.
For instance, cause and effect. You cannot observe what happens in cause and effect, you can only observe that one precedes the other. The rest you have to take on faith. Science also works on authority in the same way religion does. After all, the bible of chemistry is a series of textbooks. You don’t start in chemistry where the science of chemistry began, you start when you go to school at some contemporary level, you accept what proceeds that as an authoritative statement of earlier knowledge. But that earlier knowledge is ultimately faith based.
I argue that you can’t say that one system is better than the other, you can just say that they’re different. I think that they’re both necessary and the church was absolutely right in being terrified of the prospect in seeing them split into two.
Up until Galileo’s time, philosophy had been just philosophy. There were two main branches of it– natural philosophy which was science,and moral philosophy which was religion and ethics and all that. The two had always been tightly interwoven with the same stream of enquiry. Galileo split that stream and the church was aware at the time of the danger and argued with him explicitly about that. He couldn’t see that it was a problem. The church saw that it would marginalize moral philosophy ultimately, that there was danger there. That’s why they were so worked up about Galileo – it had nothing to do with Copernicanism, or very little to do with Copernicanism.
RV – But, If Galileo helped to bring down ultimately the authority of the church, historically we could see that it was probably needed, given the incredible hold that the church had on people’s lives, the idea that you could barter your salvation with tithes, the amount of outright theft ..that the colonial power of Italy stole from the colonies. These are all examples of a church’s authoritarian rule that needed to be shaken no?
WR – Well, several things. First of all, Italy wasn’t a colonial power, certainly not at that time. In terms of the wealth of the church and all that, that’s all indisputably true and the complaints of leading the Reformation,….they had valid complaints. I do tell the story of the Council of Trent in the book. Certainly there are things to criticize about the church, plenty of them. It was the leading political authority in Europe, and even though that was around the time of the rise of the nation states the pope still had plenty of power. The popes abused their power as powerful people tend to do.
My interest is not in the history, although I do talk a lot about the history of the church in the book. My interest is in the ideas that we’ve carried through and how we express them in current society and how that leads to some of the problems, many of the problems we have. I don’t think for instance if we had carried on giving science some moral balast that we would be to this extent destroying the planet, that we would be having to deal with the repercussions of having developed instruments of mass destruction and just the general problems of modern society that we can see are related to our treatment of the planet as a hostile environment. Which is a scientific idea — it certainly isn’t a pre-scientific idea.
RV – Do you think there is a way out of this quandary within western thought? I think we need to look to pre-western cultures, largely Native American cultures for a cosmology that is sustainable for the earth. I don’t see it in faith based cultures either, for the most part, in my experience, experientially speaking, clerics are equally as out of touch as scientists are, particularly in the subjugation of the body. It really is a problem within western faith based cultures. Personally I think it is the native americans that will lead us out of this quandary. Their cosmology of the earth and the equality of all living things.
WR – Well you know, let me recommend to you that you do some enquiry into modern quantum physics, because I think you’ll find that there is a great deal of congruence there between, not only what the church was saying in the 16th century, but what Native American culture and for that matter, Buddhist culture and other Eastern cultures say. Its just not in the mainstream knowledge, we’re not taught this in schools.
One of the things that inspired me to write this book and the previous one was an interest in quantum physics and the discovery of leading edge scientists in the early 20th century that– two things — that there is a reality beyond what they are able to describe with mathematical equations and so on, and the second thing is that, in principle, it is NOT possible for reason or for science to have access to that knowledge in any kind of complete way.
There are a couple of areas worth exploring – Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ and Gödel’s theorems. Both of those different approaches, rigorously scientific approaches are accepted in modern physics and have been experimented with and have been proven sound over the last eighty or ninety years. Both of them say those two things: there is a reality beyond what science has access to, and in principle science will never have access to that reality. Those are scientific facts as it were.
That gives me some hope that once people begin to understand that this naive realism of Galileo doesn’t hold water, they’ll begin to forge other ways of looking at the world and begin to realize that the world is an ongoing creation, that its not something that is a given, that is ‘…out there’ , or ‘…in here’…. there’s a constant interaction between the two and in a very literal way, ….we create the world we live in. I think we’ve lost that idea which is in native culture.
We’ve lost the idea that we’re constantly creating the world around us which means that of course we’re part of it, …it is part of us and .. we’re part of it…. We’re all the one thing!
RV – Absolutely.
WR – I think that insight is there, it’s in science in some of the more thoughtful quantum physicists of the early 20th century have written extensively about it, it just hasn’t gotten into the popular culture. Part of the reason is that we’re still stuck with these myths like Galileo– and there are others, like the myth surrounding the interpretation of Darwinian theory.
RV – It strikes me that many of these myths are designed to make people feel comfortable and safe and the irony I suppose is that the end result is the reverse.
WR – You’re exactly right. If we never learned that before, I think September 11th indicated the extent that that is the case….
RV – After all, how long have we been fed this rhetoric of re-assurance …” We’ve got the answers…. you’re in good hands…we’re in control, and everything is on the up and up! And yet to speak of aspects of reality that we cannot see, and cannot comprehend, that are beyond comprehension, which is a way that natives interpret ….they don’t even attempt to answer. If you ask them, what began at the beginning, they’ll say, there is no beginning, there is no end, everything originates in the dream time. That’s a native response to cosmology. And yet, to a western mind that doesn’t make any sense.
WR -Doesn’t it? St. Augustine, back in 400 or 300 AD said, ‘Faith is to believe what we cannot see and the reward is to see what we believe”.
RV – I suppose there were moments where people were able to break through with these insights.
WR – Well, actually, that was bedrock Christianity. Maybe its not a branch of Christianity that’s very popular right now, but its certainly legitimate theology.
RV – What about the problems in the values placed around knowledge. I find, working on the campus here, its almost creepy the extent to which there are thousands and thousands of students and they’re all just taking all this information in, consuming it, soaking it up, and yet the information doesn’t seem to be leading them into any integrated sense of how to live. And with academics as well, they’re not any more alive than the average housewife..(no offense to the important work housewives do) …..with all this privilege, all this learning. So what is the point of knowledge? Is it just for its own sake, is it a means to an ends, as a means to a mortgage, a car, ….
WR – You’re asking the question that Socrates asked, and you’re right in sync with me here because the next book I want to do talks about that very question. In my mind I’m calling it Darwin meets Socrates. The reason is, the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were all physicists, and they had all these ideas we all know about, the earth is made up of water…. or the world is made up of earth…. the world is made up of fire ….no, its made up of fire and water,…. no it’s atoms, …no its something else.
Socrates came along and said you guys are wasting your time! What’s really important to know is, What is Good? What is the nature of good? How do we lead a good life?, What is a good person? And from that point on for the next 2000 years, that’s what philosophy primarily concentrated on.
We laugh at the Medieval church for taking a dim view of science and even of curiosity, which we rate so highly. The church had a position that not all curiosity was worthwhile, it could be destructive if it took you away from the important question, which were inward-looking questions.
Well, what about the argument that most scientific curiosity is destructive! Now that’s an idea that’s worth re-considering, as preposterous as it may sound in today’s culture. If we really do want to find a way out of some of the problems we’re in, we may as well start looking at some radical ideas. We may as well start looking back to find them.
The idea of progress is a modern idea that came out of the scientific revolution and the Age of Reason–this idea of linear progress, progress going in one direction. Well the question has to be, “Towards what?” If its not towards something, its not progress, its just change. If you ask “towards what,” science doesn’t have an answer! In fact it deliberately eschews having an answer to that question. It’s not scientific, it hates questions like that.
Religion does have answers, and if you put the two together, you can guide science perhaps in the direction that recognizes that there’s a teleology, that there’s some idea of the ends of things. Then your scientific knowledge begins to make some sense, because its knowledge about where we’re going, ….who we are and so on. But modern academia is so potently anti-religious it makes me laugh sometimes.
RV – And it’s also, to use the analogy of the church, as cloistered as the church. Do you not find it unnerving the extent to which these pundits that are espousing on the solutions or the problems of the Arab world, many of them have never read the Koran for example, and yet they’re supposedly experts in this area. So we’ve lost all sense of common sense in terms of “experiential” knowledge?
WR – Well, I go back to Socrates, I mean that’s exactly what he said, he challenged people like that, … where do you get this idea? … what’s your basis for this? That’s probably why he ended up being executed! He certainly made a lot of enemies. When I talk about the idea of linear progress and it’s craziness it doesn’t allow us to look back to Socrates and say, wow, there’s an idea worth retrieving!
We think that, if you have an idea of linear progress in your mind, by definition anything that happened prior to today was, in some sense inferior, because it was more primitive and anything that happened beyond today, in the future is going to be by definition, better, because its newer and fresher. That’s crazy! We’re ignoring 2,000 to 2,500 years of profound wisdom by some of the smartest people that have ever walked the planet. Certainly when we throw out religion, but also when we forget that people like Socrates had something of very crucial importance to tell us today.
People think that philosophy is a waste of time. I had a doctor say to me once “I never understood the purpose of philosophy”. He was a scientific man. What he didn’t understand was, science is just a branch of philosophy…. It’s all philosophy.
RV – We touched on this notion of materialism before but don’t you think that this whole obsession with empirical knowledge is really at the crux of it. The idea that knowledge should not really be for its own sake, it should be for a degree, a PHD, status, as leverage that we’re on the ‘right side of history” which then justifies us having the ‘good life’. That’s the problem I have with the term,’ the good life’ not in how you use it, but in the way it is perceived, that it is a value laden judgement, in western minds, good is equated with consuming, and affluence, because how can you have a good life without all the trappings that go with it? My argument is that rather than good, we should value life, life force, that that should be the ultimate goal. The million dollar question should be ….How can I be more alive ….more engaged?
WR – You know, there were plenty of Greek philosophers and Medeival philosophers who agreed with that 100%. They simply said, this is what I mean by good, exactly as you’re saying, that life is the ultimate good. The term “good” in a sense it is a technical term, to take in all of that thought. One of the problems is to figure out, … what is good? That’s an old, old, philosophical problem which includes the kinds of things you’re talking about.
RV – I would imagine that in Socrates’ time there were many more opportunities to just sit around a table and converse in ancient Greece, out in the natural world amid the expansive sky in the wide open horizon.
WR – That was one of the prime values of Greek civilization. Time to reflect. Aristotle said, the unexamined life isn’t worth living! That was their position. It’s one of the things that’s wrong with current society. We hardly have time to eat, let alone think!
RV – And the point of conversing is not for its own sake. It’s to make a point, it’s to get your argument across. We’ve probably never been poorer listeners!
WR – Oh, everything has to be instrumentally useful, and efficient and in the name of progress, all of which are deeply suspect ideas. But I think they go back to Galileo and the trial of Galileo, it’s all there in that trial, that’s why I think it is such a rich and interesting period of history.
RV – So you feel that Galileo has been unduly glorified, then how many genuine heros have been ignored by history?
WR – Well, there’s this guy Kepler, he’s not exactly a household word. Absolutely, there’s a whole host of philosophical, religious, spiritual thinkers we kind of need a hall of fame for … the way we have a hall of fame for scientists.
RV – Well I find that the people without history, the people who’s histories have been largely vanquished have as much to offer in many respects than those who’s histories we’ve heralded….but I’ve gotten you off track, I fear.
WR – No, no, everything we’ve talked about I’ve discussed in one way or another in the book. It casts a pretty wide net, I don’t think we’ve been off topic at all.
RV – These questions invariably are going to be coming to the surface as a society, how do we find our way out of the corner we’ve painted ourselves in? Are you an optimist then?
WR – Well you have to be, how can you be anything else? You’re either optimistic or you’re suicidal, right? And so yes, I’m an optimist. And again it goes back to what little I know about the direction that scientific enquiry has taken us in. It’s taken us right back in a loop, to where the church was in the seventeenth century, vis a vis the nature of reality.
Given that that knowledge is out there and it’s solid, sooner or later one hopes that people are going to start putting two and two together, beginning, I think with the one idea that could be attacked most fruitfully–this idea of linear progress. If people could start asking themselves,”Progress towards what?”, I think that’ll get us thinking about a lot of things.
The above interview of Wade Rowland, author of Galileo’s Mistake, by Rick Vassallo of CIUT 89.5 FM radio took place October 12, 2001. Rick Vassallo’s weekly radio show: Watching the Detectives can be heard from Buffalo, New York to Barrie, Ontario on 89.5 FM, and on www.ciut.fm on the Internet.