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Science and Religion Friday: Christianity does have objective criteria

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time running through some of the critiques of religion generally, but Christianity more specifically, that are offered by atheists today, especially those who would fall into the category of the New Atheists.
I first examined the primary historical evidence they use to say that Christianity and Science, which they claim always leads to truth, are diametrically opposed: the Galileo Affair. I demonstrated that while religion was used as a tool against Galileo, the actual source of the conflict was something else entirely and theology had been co-opted in a way that violates its purpose (you can read parts 1, 2, and 3).

Then I explored one of the other primary critiques, namely that religion isn’t even intelligible and so should be ridiculed at worst, or excluded from public discourse at least. This position, actually, is not new. I traced it back to logical positivism and demonstrated how that movement, ultimately, failed (here are parts 1 and 2 of that).
Now I’d like to revisit that critique and take it in a new direction. The argument is that Christianity can’t approach truth in the same way that empirical investigations, like science or history, can. They claim that since belief in God is necessarily the belief in something outside of nature and natural occurrence, then we can’t really know about God, because we have no way of knowing, and so we should be either atheist or agnostic because “God hasn’t provided the evidence.” Setting aside the bias for empiricism as a the sole source of authoritative knowledge (keep in mind logical positivism tried to make that claim and failed), it’s also simply not true.

Seeking Objective Criteria

For the sake of argument, let’s take this claim at face value: all human knowledge must be verifiable through objective means and is attainable through natural phenomena and interpretations of them that seem to be the simplest and, therefore, most likely. Very well then. History fits this criteria very well. The thing about Christianity that one needs to keep in mind, provided one does fall into the liberal theology of the kerygmatic theologians that dominated most of the 20th century, is that it is fundamentally historical. The bible is not a collection of things that God dictated to writers or that fell out of the sky (the Koran makes that claim, the bible does not). The bible is, rather, a record of the historical actions of God mixed with interpretations of those actions.

Let’s take the interpretations presented in the bible out of the equation, because the critic may argue that these interpretations are fundamentally biased by a priori beliefs (beliefs assumed not proven). Alright, let’s just focus on the history. Now, if we do that, it may very well be true that many of the events, perhaps even most of the events in the bible that are interpreted as miraculous could be interpreted by appeals to coincidental natural phenomena (incredibly unlikely, but not impossible). So let’s, for the sake of argument, take those off the table as well. Even if we apply this liberally and remove most of the miraculous events, there is still one event for which a purely natural interpretation is not possible: the resurrection.

Here’s the thing about the resurrection of Jesus. According to the biblical witness, prior to his death Jesus a) predicted that he would die b) claimed to be God c) stated that the primary proof of this would be his resurrection. This is certainly how John’s Gospel interprets it. The seventh, and most important sign, for John is the resurrection. Let’s also look at the things specific to the resurrection that are historical in nature (beyond what Jesus said) as the bible tells them. The bible states that a) Jesus really did live b) Jesus was genuinely dead and c) More than 24 hours later (actually 3 Jewish days later) Jesus was suddenly not dead again, but alive in his physical body. The physicality of the claim is important. If it had been merely a “spiritual resurrection” then it would not be an objectively observable event. Jesus had to physically die and physically come alive a long period later in order to meet the criteria.

If this second set (that Jesus was a person who died and then much later was alive again) is true, then the only plausible interpretation is that there is a supernatural force. If it is the person of Jesus to whom this happened, and given the claims he made (predicting his death and resurrection while also claiming to be God), then we don’t just have good reason to accept the existence of a God somewhere, but specifically the Christian message of God as recorded in the gospels.

In sum, the resurrection provides an objective historical event that can be analyzed through historical methodology. If the non-supernatural causes of the event are true, they are objectively so. If they are objectively true then the supernatural interpretation and presumed causes are the simplest way to make sense of them and thus it is true. So there you have it: the resurrection event occurred in history involving the physical person of Jesus and as such provides an objective criteria by which to judge it. As Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it “the truth of the Christian faith rises or falls with the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus.” As I’ve heard many times in various settings, but I don’t know where the origin is from “we put all our eggs in the Easter basket.”

Next week, I’ll talk about why not only the resurrection is an objective historical event, but why we have good reason to believe it is true rather than not.


Where is heaven

Ok, keep in mind that on Tuesdays I’m not trying to be just informative, but really trying to delve into some questions that are difficult, or look at certain aspects of the Christian faith in a different perspective. While I hold the opinions I give in these posts, I recognize that I could be very, very wrong and that I’d consider these beliefs outside the core of Christianity (that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, it just means they are the essential things).

Today I’d like to explore a simple question that could potentially lead to a lot of discussion. The question is this: where is heaven?

If you recall, the last two weeks I had suggested that its possible we are not body and separate soul, but instead one unified entity. Further, I went on to argue that this is closer to the biblical view of the human person than the idea of an immaterial soul, which I suggested comes from Platonism. This leads to an interesting problem, though. If we are raised bodily at the end, then we need to ask where is heaven?

Heaven is a place on earth

No I’m not singing late ’80s ballads, and I’m not talking about it in the cheesy Hollywood sense, I’m suggesting that, at least at the end of history, heaven has a physical location, and that location is here on earth. The new Jerusalem is not somewhere else, but is upon the earth; it is not just a “new heaven” but the “new heavens and new earth” that are mentioned in Revelation. This is the language of the creation, but it is also different in that we don’t dwell in “new Eden” but “new Jerusalem”. In other words, the end of the world isn’t met with the undoing of human history, but the redemption of it (and in some ways the affirmation of parts of it). In this sense, then, it’s not about getting there (heaven as somewhere else), but about bringing about the Kingdom of God here (which will then become the new heavens and earth). So, in a very real sense, then heave is on earth, just not yet.

However, this doesn’t entirely solve the problem. We still might ask, then, where is God now? We might say that since God is spirit that a physical location is not necessary (indeed God is both in heaven and upon the earth). At this point, those who want to affirm the existence of a separate immaterial soul might think it would be good to avoid thinking of heaven as a place somewhere because immaterial things don’t need physical space to be in heaven. However, there’s a problem. Neither the one who believes in the immaterial soul nor the person who believes in an eschatological resurrection of the dead without an intervening “disembodied” period can avoid. The trouble is, Jesus was raised as a physical body, one that could be touched, held and seen; a body that cooked and ate and spoke with people; yet also a body that could move through walls or disappear from sight. And Paul makes the clear connection in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ’s physical bodily resurrection is vitally important. This isn’t a spiritual resurrection that contemporary religious cults might have talked about, but the physical body of Jesus. That body was the one who ascended to heaven. Another way we might ask this question, then is

Where is Jesus now?

At this point, we are left with a few options:

1) We could say that Jesus’ body transformed again to a non-physical one and it is this immaterial self is heaven.* There are a few problems with that, though, besides the total lack of scriptural support. First, if Jesus got rid of his physical self, then it seems the power of the incarnation is somehow diminished. Part of the remarkable nature of the incarnation is that it resulted in a permanent change in God, now one person of the trinity was human. Also Jesus was not human for a limited time, but remained human (albeit a radically different kind of human than we are, but a human nonetheless, and so our “elder brother” as Scripture says). If Jesus could have been transformed at any point following the incarnation, then the resurrection is that much less transformative of our world. I think I may need to reserve my fuller comments about the incarnation for another post (because it’s pretty in depth, and must be approached cautiously, for while Jesus is human like us, he is also presently almost nothing like us). Finally, if Jesus is spirit now, then why is there a need for the Holy Spirit at all? Jesus only left us and then came back as the Spirit. If that is the case, then we should be modalists (I’m not a modalist, which is a heresy that has experienced a bit of revival and denies the Trinity as three different persons).

2) Jesus is in heaven, which exists as a physical place in spatial (and possibly temporal) dimensions that are not observable by humans. This option is viable because there is nothing mathematically or physically, preventing there from being multiple other spatial dimensions outside of the four that we can experience (three spatial, one temporal). We can even predict what higher dimensional objects might look like to us were they to intersect our observable space-time. In fact, if Jesus was able to move between these various dimensions that would explain how he physically could go through walls or disappear from sight. While this is all very interesting, and may be a viable option, it has problems too. First, it is highly speculative and also has no scriptural support (though, honestly, it doesn’t seem like it could have scriptural support considering these are relatively recent hypotheses). Second, if Jesus is simply in different spatial dimensions that nevertheless occupy the same space as us (which this seems to indicate), then why does he remain there? It would not be difficult for him to come in and out, back and forth between the two. Why is he there rather than here? (although, again, this may be behind the general longing for Christ’s return seen in Scripture and most Christians’ lives).

3) (Yes I tend to reserve my views for last) The question is wrong. It’s not “where is Jesus” but “when is Jesus”? Hang on, because things may get a little weird. The Resurrection event was an eschatological (end of the world) event. It had been acknowledged by many Jewish theologians prior to Jesus’ birth that at the end of the world everyone would be raised from the dead. This is the only time that sustained resurrection (not temporary resuscitation) would occur. In this way, Jesus’ Resurrection was an end of the world event. This may also explain why Matthew tells us that at Jesus’ death, many dead people in Jerusalem rose form their tombs. It really was an end of the world type of thing and the end of history breaking into the midst of it at the crucifixion and resurrection had such a huge ripple effect that it became eschatological for other dead persons as well. The early church seems to have understood the resurrection of Jesus in these eschatological terms because they are waiting for the eminent end of the world. Yet it wasn’t the end of the world, instead it was the end of the world occurring in the midst of that history, localized to the person of Jesus. In this sense, Jesus’ time “jumped” to the end of history while he was still in the midst of it. Given the generally accept understanding of eternality as holding all times in unison, this is not a contradiction. Jesus continued to act and function from his eternal perspective in the midst of our temporal one. In the same way, then, we can continue to pray to him (or to the Father through him) by the Holy Spirit because his eternity includes our present, past, and future. So he is in heaven now, with all those Christians who have died (and in one sense with us who are Christians as well) waiting for history to catch up, and when it does, his return will be the new heavens and the new earth upon this time and space right now. So I guess I am saying heaven really is a place on earth.


* I’ve discussed this position before in the context of Transformation Theology at Kings, and why, ultimately, I can’t agree with the project because it begins with the assumption that the present Christ is somehow distinct from the resurrected Christ.

The Fall (and return) of Logical Positivism

So last week I began talking about logical positivism. It is, genuinely, the foundational philosophy for much of analytic philosophy that currently dominates philosophy departments in the US and UK. If you will recall, the logical positivist position can be boiled down to a single statement:

“All meaningful statements are either analytic or empirical”

I tried to give a brief explanation of what “analytic” means by saying that it is essentially something that is logically sound (both valid and true). I also defined empirical (as the positivists did) as those things that are derived entirely from sensory observation or a combination of sensory observation and analytic statements.

The result of such a strict criteria was the exclusion of many disciplines from the academic discourse (or any discourse) not because they were false, but because they were without meaning. In other words, if I start talking about religious things then I would be considered by the logical positivists to be spouting nonsense not falsehood. This strategy was actually wildly successful in the first part of the 20th century for marginalizing these other branches of the humanities. However, the victory would soon be short lived.

Cracks begin to form

A lot of the fervor for logical positivism came from a clearly optimistic perspective of what could be done in the world. In many ways, it was thought that if efforts were simply focusing on meaningful goals (as defined by the logical positivists), then most of the world’s problems would be alleviated. In particular there was a huge amount of optimism about the potential that science had to explain and revolutionize our world. This optimism, however, was shattered in World War I. Then, it became clear that science was not a purely positive thing, but could be used for negative as well as positive ends. This disillusionment with the ideal, though, could mean that the efforts of the logical positivists needed only to be increased (and that was the initial response). However, some more fundamental problems began to arise.

One of the foundations for reason in Kant’s writing was this idea that mathematics were synthetic a priori truths. In other words, they did not meet the criteria for meaning as the logical positivists had laid them out, but instead mathematics were things that we, essentially, constructed and yet could readily identify as being true. This did not sit well with the logical positivists and one of the primary goals of the movement was to give an account of mathematics that was entirely analytic.

This challenge was taken up by Bertrand Russell, a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, and Alfred North Whitehead. Russell’s initial work The Principles of Mathematics was meant to be a first volume, but the second volume was eventually expanded into three and became a much more important influential work in its own right. This work, Principia Mathematica, is truly a monumental and spectacular work in mathematics and was the most serious attempt to give an analytical account for mathematics. However there was a problem.

Three of the axioms that were needed to make the logical system work, axioms related to infinity, choice, and reducibility, could not be made into logical (read: analytical) axioms. Russell tried to avoid the problem by not necessarily affirming the axioms, but in the end the system was incomplete without these axioms.

Once one couples this with the other criticisms of the project, and the even more foundational criticism levied by Wittgenstein, who had once been seen as an ally to the logical positivists, and the entire project ended up a spectacular, if very insightful, failure.

So disillusioned was A. N. Whitehead by this that he eventually, upon abandoning the positivist movement, went in a very different direction as a founding member, in many ways, of process philosophy and process theology (a rather interesting, but I would argue also fundamentally incorrect) movement.

The Nail in the Coffin

The final blow might be traced to a few different criticisms. However, the one that seemed the most decisive was the one offered by someone from within the logical positivist group. In 1951 W. V. O. Quine published what might be the most important philosophical paper of the twentieth century. In his paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” he dismantles the logical positivist position in a number of ways. The first of his critiques, which itself has been questioned and criticized, it that the analytic-synthetic distinction seems forced and arbitrary. Admittedly, this particular section does not seem all the convincing. However, in his second argument, he attacks to dogmatic approach the logical positivists have to meaning. Recall that for a statement to have meaning it must be either a) analytic or b) derived from sensory experience. The problem is, this criteria for meaning is itself neither a) analytic nor b) derived from sensory experience. To use the phrase Quine does to describe it. It is “self-referentially incoherent.” Under no definition of analytic or empirical truth can the claim that those are the exclusive claims to meaning be established. Quine does reserve the final section to discuss what amounts to applying Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm views to the positivists. He notes that there may be attempts to reconcile the positivist vision with this attack upon the “core beliefs”. Surprisingly, though, in philosophy at least, the logical positivists quickly began to fade. By the 1960s it was largely considered a dead movement, built upon demonstrably false premises. It does exist in a few forms here or there, but these are not taken seriously by the majority of the philosophical community.

The Surprising Return

Perhaps its not that surprising that this movement has returned, particularly through a few science popularizers.  Specifically, I am referring to the New Atheists. Of course there arguments and calls to dismiss religious beliefs as ridiculous and general refusal to accept that religious and metaphysical claims have a say in society are not new; no they aren’t new, they are foolish and display a massive ignorance of philosophical history (and not obscure philosophical history, but some of the most foundational work in the 20th century English language). They are new in their surprising zeal, showing much more enthusiasm (and calling for the same among their untrained followers) than the positivists. If you will notice, though, there are virtually no philosophers (and really few scientists who are still engaged in active research) who are involved with the movement. It is, largely, a populist one. This is not because they want to bring “power to the people” or help save people from the “oppression of religion”. Rather, it is because the view can only thrive among those who are ignorant of this past movement. One of the surprising exceptions might be A. C. Grayling, a philosophy professor at the Univeristy of London (Brickbeck College). However, upon examining Grayling’s recent work, it becomes clear that he is less a philosopher and more a sensationalist (i.e. he likes being in the news). His Atheist Bible was a bit of an abomination, cobbling together bits and pieces of religious and literary texts, all of them horribly out of context, and with no citation whatsoever. Follow that up with his current project, a for profit college called New College of Humaniies which seems to exist primarily to grab headlines with ridiculous claims and to offer the children of wealthy parents who are unable to gain admission to otherwise respectable universities the chance to pretend theirs is an elite school. This project (which welcomed its first class this fall) has been almost universally criticized as misunderstanding almost everything known about higher education. In the end, the New Atheists like to ridicule and dismiss religion as foolishness, when in reality they need only look at their own history to see who really are the foolish ones sticking their heads in the sand.

Science and Religion Friday: From Positivism to Logical Positivism

So I’ve recently finished a series on one of the primary stories of the conflict model between science and religion: the Galileo Affair. I hope to have shown in that analysis (here are parts 1, 2, and 3) that while religious beliefs may have played a role, the only reason that such a conflict was even considered was primarily due to personality conflict and a lack of tact (plus fierce competitiveness) on both sides. Religious belief, in that instance, was merely a pretense and not the underlying motivating factor. Today I’d like to begin to look at the other major instance in the conflict model: positivism. Essentially positivism seeks to maintain not that any particular religion is false, per se, but that they are either incapable of making truth claims (lack authority) or else completely non-sensical. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the primary tact used by many of the new atheists today.

The basics of Positivism

Positivism is a general view of knowledge and authority and, for this reason, may be grouped in with the broad philosophical branch of epistemology. I admit that this deviates from the usual classification, which seeks to place it with philosophy of science, but given the claims that it seeks to make I believe it is appropriate. Positivism is a view, begun in the nineteenth or possibly late eighteenth (at least formally, it may have existed much earlier in informal ways) that states that the primary characteristics of authoritative statements are that they are either derived from sensory experience or that they are analytic. Positivism is concerned, primarily, with the correct source of authority for statements about the world. This is why I like to think of it as an epistemological movement: it seeks to give an account for what should be considered genuine knowledge (which is therefore authoritative). Statements that don’t meet the criteria for positivism may be true, but since they cannot count as knowledge, they are not authoritative. Leaving aside the Gettier Problems* of epistemology, we can say that knowledge is ‘justified true belief.’ Positivism, then, seeks to provide both the ‘justification’ aspect as well as a means for identifying ‘true’ beliefs and even, on most accounts, the source of the ‘beliefs.’ This, it is argued, are the things that count for knowledge. Given that, we can rephrase what Positivism is according to three points:

  1. Knowledge must fit the criteria established in either points 2 or 3. It need not fit both aspects, but it must fit one. If it fails to meet one of these criteria, it does not count as knowledge and therefore these statements or beliefs cannot be considered authoritative. In that sense, positivism is exclusive in its claims for what counts as truth.
  2. Knowledge can be analytical. This means that it is either true by definition, a logical truth, or a mathematical truth (technically, things that are true by definition and mathematical truths are both logical truths, but let’s not complicate things too much). Things that are true by definition tend to be tautologies, and thus, while meaningful, are not particularly helpful. Mathematical truths are, as is expected, anything that is true within a given mathematical system. Logical truths are, also, exactly what it sounds like. They must be based upon sound arguments (both valid and true). I won’t take the time now to spell out what that is because that would a) take a ridiculously long time and b) I think we all know what I’m referring to. OR
  3. Knowledge can be based upon sensory experience. In general this means that it must be empirical (conforming to the scientific method), but in general it must be observable.

In general. Positivism tends to focus on criteria 3. Knowledge/authoritative statements is/are based upon sensory experience. Historically there were a few things that fed into this. It was formalized by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century and is very clearly a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment thinking. However, it is also a rejection, in its later logical positivist form, of German idealism brought about by Immanuel Kant.

From Positivism to Logical Positivism

Around the turn of the twentieth century, some interesting work began to be done in philosophy to genuinely take seriously the

Immanuel Kant

positivist project. One difficulty was how they could consider mathematical truths to be analytic. As Immanuel Kant described it, mathematical truths were ‘synthetic a priori’ truths. In other words, the fact that we know mathematical statements are true is not due to anything about the various concepts of numbers. They are known apart from experience (a priori), but are not analytic. Here it may be helpful to give Kant’s distinction between analytic and synthetic.

  1. For Kant a statement is analytic if and only if its predicate concept is contained in its subject concept. (i.e. true by definition). So statements like “triangles are polygons with exactly three angles” and “all bachelors are unmarried” are analytic.
  2. For Kant a statement is synthetic if and only if it is not analytic

Kant did not believe numerical properties of mathematics could fit this criteria. For instance, he said that there is no property about ’12’ that is contained in the concepts ‘4’ ‘8’ and ‘+’ such that ‘4+8=12’ would be true by definition. We just know it is true and accept that. Thus it is a synthetic a priori statement. This idea (of synthetic a priori) was built upon and expanded by other German idealists such as Hegel (though I would argue more successfully by his early colleague later rival Schelling). It may have been the desire to eliminate such things as ‘synthetic a priori’ statements that drove the initial developments of logical positivists.

Whatever the case, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a group of philosophers (most of whom were also mathematicians) at the University of Vienna (known as the Vienna Circle) sought to revise Kant’s understanding of mathematics to describe it as analytic rather than synthetic prior to World War I. While there are several definitions given for what counts as analytic, in general they agreed with the spirit of Kant’s wording, though not the actual wording. They shifted the language to say that an analytic statement meant that a predicate was necessarily entailed by a subject (well not that language exactly, but that’s the uncomplicated version). So they set about to, essentially, express all of mathematics as a logical system so that it could be described as analytic rather than synthetic. (Usually this involved definitions involving prime integers. Thus the integer ’12’ is defined as the sum (represented by ‘+’) of the prime integers ‘5’ and ‘7’, or as 2^3 + 2^2, or something along those lines).


The two primary persons involved in this, at the start at least, were Gottlob Frege and Rudolf Carnap. Eventually the work was brought to Britain, in large part due to A. J. Ayer, and then included the philosophers and mathematicians Bertrand Russell and W. V. O. Quine. Russell, in particular, spent considerable effort to rework mathematics so it would fit this criteria, which had been presented in the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (who eventually immigrated to the United Kingdom).

The other branch of this was to focus on statements derived entirely from quantifiable data. This tended to limit the scope of what “counts” as meaningful activity to the hard sciences and some theoretical sciences (provided the later are mathematical).

Logical positivism, in part because of this early work of Wittgenstein,  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,went so far as to say that not only were statements that were neither empirical nor analytic non-authoritative, but they were non-sensical. Thus, not only should they not guide the actions of anyone, but they could not be true (sense they conveyed no information) and they could not have a voice in any dialogue. Thus they could be dismissed a priori.

What was the practical result

Logical Positivism (and to an extent Positivism) had the practical result of advocating (and to a degree achieving) the exclusion of certain types of dialogue/philosophical investigation. They thus sought to exclude the following fields from serious thought/investigation (and from the university):

  1. Metaphysics
  2. Ethics
  3. Religion
  4. Ontology
  5. Certain (most) social sciences including non-cognitive science psychology (i.e. psychology that doesn’t focus on brain scans or medical treatments)
  6. Many types of hermeneutics
  7. Most (if not all) of the humanities
  8. Aesthetics
  9. Most (if not all) of the arts

Among others. Thus, rather than go about trying to prove that statements in these fields were false (for instance one needed to be an agnostic (if not atheist) because Religion was non-sensical), they would simply dismiss conversation on these topics.

Next week, I’ll talk about the spectacular (in every sense of the word) failure that happened with later logical positivism and what it may mean today.


*Edmund Gettier III (yes we “the thirds” are everywhere) questioned the accepted definition of knowledge as ‘justified true belief.’ Gettier contested this by give two examples where a person has a belief that is both justified and true, yet does not strike us as counting as knowledge. This has led to a huge amount of response, with the most successful responses suggesting that there is some other factor (often given the letter ‘G’ for Gettier) that needs to be discovered in addition to something being a ‘justified true belief’ for it to count as knowledge. If you want to read the text of the paper (its fairly short) it has been reproduced here.

Science and Religion Friday: Quickie Quote

Hey guys, I’ve been a bit busy lately, so instead of fully fleshed out post I’m just going to give a quick quote:

From Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Basic Questions in Theology is this:

Science achieves its success, however, precisely in that, and to the extent that, it remains keenly aware of the finitude of every step it takes.

Do you agree? Disagree? How is the current state of science in line with this? What about popular science? Leave your thoughts below and have a great Friday!

Science and Religion Friday: The Galileo Affair, Part 3

In previous posts, I’ve noted how the central points of conflict between Galileo and his opponents were between different ideologies and personalities, and not religious in nature. Today, I’m going to talk about the actual period of trials Galileo underwent.

The First Examination of Galileo

Following the sermon by Caccini condemning Galileo, and after Caccini’s superior personally apologized to Galilelo, an investigation was opened into Galileo’s views. Another Dominican and friend of Caccini, Niccolo Lorini, submitted a formal complaint to the Roman Inquisition. This led to the respected theologian Robert Cardinal Bellarmine being appointed to arbitrate between the various sides. In general, it seems Bellarmine had no issue with heliocentrism and, for the most part, was very favorably disposed toward Galileo. At no point during this period was Galileo ever condemned, nor was he ever even under trial. The primary problem that Galileo would need to overcome, as he saw it, would be the issue of reconciling heliocentrism with Scripture. One attempt to do so can be found in Galileo’s lengthy letter, written the summer of 1615, to the Grand Duchess Christina. In the letter, Galileo quotes at length from older theologians, though tending to focus primarily upon Augustine, and affirms the absolute truthfulness of Scripture. At one point saying:

It being true that [these] two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of wise expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us.

Galileo himself thought that there was no genuine contradiction between the witness of Scripture and his support for a heliocentric universe.

However, in February of 1616, possibly under pressure from the current pope (who may have felt some pressure from the Dominicans), the “qualifiers” of the inquisition gave their report that heliocentrism was somewhat dubious and told Galileo to cease publicly promoting Copernican astronomy. It seems that, for the most part, Galileo complied until a new pope was installed.

More Popes, More Problems (or something like that)

In 1623, Pope Urban VIII was installed as the new Pope. He was considerably more favorably disposed toward Galileo, and so Galileo took this as an indication he could resume his work on the heliocentric universe. Roughly a decade later, in 1632, he published A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, defending his heliocentric ideas. Apparently, this raised the ire of some prominent Domicans, already a bit disgruntled by his lesser known, but equally anti-Aristotelian work, The Assayer. And the inquisition reconvened.

It should be noted that by this time, Galileo’s lifelong nemesis, the Jesuit Christoph Scheiner, whom I mentioned last week, was also in Rome and the records indicate he gave advice to the inquisition that was against Galileo. The result was, as we known, the censure of Galileo’s book, which he was ordered to recant of as “vehemently suspect of heresy” and Galileo was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It seems that not even a friendship with the pope was enough this time. It should be noted that Galileo himself was never condemned of heresy and, barely more than a century later, his book was removed from the censure list.


This brings us back to the primary question of this series, was the Galileo Affair an incident of Religion and Science in conflict. I have suggested throughout that the actual conflict was the result of competing secular philosophies, on the one hand, but more substantially competing personalities, on the other. It wasn’t Galileo’s ideas in and of themselves that were at issue, but the manner in which Galileo treated those he encountered. In other words, he embarrassed the wrong people. I’m not the only one who thinks so. A number of philosophers have suggested that the primary reason for the conflict was Galileo’s approach, not his thoughts, such as atheist philosopher Ernst Bloch. What do you think? Is this a valid example of conflict between science and religion?

Science and Religion Friday: The Galileo Affair, Part 2

Last week, I began looking at the Galileo affair by suggesting that the conflict had to do primarily with competing secular idealogies, both of which had their share of flaws, and was not fundamentally about religion. This week, I’ll continue that line of thought, but also introduce the idea that the conflict was more the result of competing, and strong, personalities.

The Trouble Begins

The trouble for Galileo, interestingly enough, did not begin with his suggestion of an alternate astronomical model for the universe, but in an entirely different realm of physics: fluid displacement. Specifically, Galileo sided with Archimedes rather than Aristotle in the explanation for why certain things sink in water while others float. To be sure, today’s explanation is prefigured much more so by Archimedes than Aristotle. Galileo first published his papers on the matter in 1586, twenty-three years before he began his telescopic observations. It is at this point he would have first earned the ire of supporters of Aristotle’s method.

Later, he Galileo would perform his study of the tides, suggesting that they were the result of the earth’s motion, again contradicting the prevailing Aristotelian model. It is possible that Galileo began to prefer Copernicus to Ptolemy and Aristotle by this point, but Galileo provides no concrete evidence of this fact. At any rate, by this point it seems that the Church was either indifferent to Galileo, or even possibly supportive of him. It is no secret that the official calendar had been updated in 1582 in light of Copernicus’s theories regarding revolution and it is possible that they might have been moving toward the gradual adoption of said theories (though, I admit, this is highly speculative; and in all likelihood, the Dominicans would have prevented such a shift without some sort of controversy). At any rate, Galileo seems to have come into conflict with one particular Aristotelian philosopher and astronomer, Lodovico delle Colombe.

Colombe, it should be noted, had no role in the church whatsoever. He was a private philosophy tutor who accepted only Aristotelian philosophy, and defended it vehemently in print. First, he began writing works denouncing the motion of the earth, instead favoring the static Aristotelian concept. By this point Galileo had begun his observations through a telescope and also suggested that the moon had craters, meaning that it was uneven thus further contradicting Aristotle.

Apparently you can buy a copy of one of Galileo’s responses to Colombe for a measly $2,250. Who knew?

Colombe attempted to defend the Aristotelian position against Galileo by offering alternatives to maintain not only a static earth, but a smooth and uniform moon. In this, it seems that Colombe was hopelessly outmatched. Although the standard rhetoric of

academic disputes tended to be more inflammatory than we typically think of such arguments today, it seems Galileo took things

too far. Not content merely to demonstrate his views were superior to Colombe, Galileo took to publicly and privately humiliating Colombe. Columbe’s surname sounded like the Italian plural for “dove”, and Galileo referred to him as Pippione, from the Italian (now archaic) for young pigeon, which may also have meant testicle. While Colombe may not have been Galileo’s scientific equal, it seems that Galileo grossly underestimated Colombe’s political savvy.

I should also note that during this time Galileo became involved in a dispute with a Jesuit, Christoph Scheiner. It seems they both claimed to have discovered sunspots first. This became a long running dispute between the two, with each clearly plagiarizing from the other while claiming that the other one had plagiarized from them. It is possible that this conflict would also later factor into other decisions.


Beginning around 1611, Galileo met with a variety of Jesuit scientists, almost all of whom were at least sympathetic to his position, if not outright agreeing with him. That same year, he received word from a friend that a plot was being made to discredit him, and possibly put him into severe danger. His friend referred to the conspirators in this plot as “the pigeon league” meaning that Colombe was almost certainly behind it. Since Colombe had failed to discredit Galileo academically, he decided to go after Galileo using the primary political tool in Italy at the time: the Roman Catholic Church. Not being a monk or in the priesthood himself, however, Colombe needed someone within the church to publicly label Galileo’s ideas heretical. It seems he had one such Dominican priest prepared to do just that in 1611, but he backed out of the plan. It is important to note that Colombe was using the Dominicans for a number of reasons, two of which are of particular importance:

1) The Dominicans held an obscene amount of power in the Roman Catholic Church, thus it was advantageous to have them as an ally. The only ones even remotely close to them in power (as a unified group) were the Jesuits.

2) The Dominicans have in the history of their ranks Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, if you are not familiar, was exclusively an Aristotelian in his philosophical, and subsequent theological, thought. This meant, in turn, that Dominicans were (and today still are) very committed to Aristotelian philosophy, which at the time included statements about physics and astronomy.

Once Galileo began to suggest that the universe was heliocentric rather than geocentric, the latter being an Aristotelian view, Colombe began to make his move. As mentioned, his first priest backed out at the last minute. Three years later in 1614, however, the group found another Dominican, Tomasso Caccini, to publicly criticize Galileo in a sermon, as well as all mathematicians and astronomers. Soon afterward, Galileo set out for Rome, apparently to clear his name, the trip would not work out so well, as will be detailed next week.

Science and Religion Friday: The Galileo Affair, Part 1

As I mentioned last week, I’m first going to examine the understanding of the conflict thesis between science and religion and demonstrate why that particular recollection of history is a bit hazy. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Galileo Affair.

According to advocates of the conflict model, the official Church (here being the Roman Catholic Church) placed Galileo under house arrest (in some versions he was officially condemned a heretic) because his acceptance of a Copernican model of the universe (that was heliocentric or centered around the sun, rather than geocentric, or centered around the earth) was at odds with the Church’s theology and he needed to be stopped. The church only relented, well after Galileo’s death, because of public outcry against this. The Church has been at odds with science (and an obstacle to it) ever since. It is primarily an ideological battle and therefore those who are the slightest bit religious are incapable of seeing past it. That’s the story according to advocates of the conflict model, at least.

This is not nearly the truth of what happened. While it is true that Galileo eventually was placed under house arrest (and that there was resistance to heliocentrism), it is more likely the result of political factors and commitment to Aristotelian philosophy than as a result of any genuine theological argument.

The Setting

Before going any further, I should note that this was almost an entirely localized problem. Although Copernicus’ book had been placed on the banned list of books, this applied only to Roman Catholic countries, the Protestant Reformation movement, which had begun roughly a century earlier, allowed for a greater amount of scientific and intellectual freedom and, it appears, Copernicus’ book was widely available. Galileo read it and thought that Copernicus’s ideas were correct. His observations with the telescope, it seemed, made more sense in a Copernican system than in the Aristotelian or the Ptolemaic system. In particular, there was the problem of the “retrograde motion” of the planets. This is the fact that, certain planets, in particular Venus, seemed to be moving one direction, but would periodically reverse their direction before changing direction again and continue moving the direction they had previously been going.

There were modified versions of the Ptolemaic model, however, that sought to make sense of retrograde motion. Keep in mind that Newton had yet to develop his mathematical system that included his calculation of gravitational force, which as a constant force would prevent some of the more exotic Ptolemaic models impossible. Also, it needs to be noted that the Copernican model could not entirely account for the motion of the planets that had been observed in a telescope, certainly not resolving all the problems of the Ptolemaic models. That problem would not be solved until Galileo’s younger friend, Johan Kepler, proposed his model which included eliptical orbits, thus matching his model more closely with telescope observations. This brings me to my first major point.

The primary debate around which the Galileo affair centered was not between an outdated religious world view that could account for none of the data and one that accurately fit the data but was more modern. Instead it was between two competing physical systems, both of which could account for the data observed, but in different ways (and not enough investigation into gravity had been done to rule out Ptolemy’s system). Neither system resembled our solar system as it is understood today. While the Copernican system may seem closer to what we now know, prior to Newton and Kepler, there was no way to know this would be the case, especially at the time of the Galileo affair.

I should also note, as it will become important later, that Ptolemy’s system was, as you may have gathered from above, an attempt to reconcile Aristotelian physics with the observed motion of the planets. The picture given above is just one such conceptualization. There were others, including some where Venus revolved around the sun, with the sun revolving around the earth. In all of these, including the Copernican conception, the overarching factor that seemed to limit them was from a concern with beauty. In order for the model to be correct, it needed to be both uniform and, above all else, beautiful. This problem held back both the Ptolemaic and the Copernican system. While Kepler’s model (of eliptical orbits) would eventually prove more accurate, it was not uniform and thus not beautiful or simple (a secondary criteria). At its root, this is what the genuine issue was.

Still, while these may have been idealogical issues that have little to nothing to do with Christianity, next week we will examine the deeper personality issues that may have in fact played an even more prominent role in the eventual censure of Galileo’s teaching. And the trouble really began, as we will see, with Galileo’s criticism of Aristotle in non-astronomy related physics.

Science and Religion Friday: Origins of the Conflict model

Origins of the Conflict Model

Well I’m beginning this series by exploring the validity, or rather lack thereof, of the so-called conflict model. The conflict model of the relationship between science and religion has its origins in the late 19th century. During that time two books were put out. One, by John William Draper, was initially very popular, but it was primarily focused on a particular attitude of, as he saw it, Roman Catholic opposition to scientific advancement, and did not cite other sources for support. The other, which was initially very unpopular, was by Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University, likely had more lasting influence.

White’s position was that religion, though primarily Christianity, could only stifle religion. The book was entitled History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, and was published in 1896. He cited numerous sources and this helped to give his position credibility. Throughout his later life he seemed to make this a priority, often giving speeches in support of religionless academic inquiry, often referring to Cornell as a “haven” away from such limitations.

Even though his book has had lasting influence, most modern historians of science do not take his position, nor the arguments made, seriously. In other words, those who are trained in this field do not believe there is, or ever really was, a conflict between science and religion

This conflict view became even more popularized following the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” where a teacher intentionally violated a ban on teaching Darwinian evolution to force a trial. Through the course of the trial the fundamentalist position of anti-evolution was portrayed as more and more ridiculous, but I’ll talk about that incident in detail later. Despite this, the question of religious interference was not actually considered serious by most Americans. It was the dramatic portrayal of the events, however, in Inherit the Wind that solidified this moment in some American consciousness.

It should also be noted that, at the turn of the 20th century, and well in to the middle part of the 20th century, there was a philosophical movement opposed to religion generally, not only on scientific grounds. This was known as logical positivism. Logical Positivism certainly produced a lot of interesting philosophy, but they believed that problems in the world could be solved if the correct language to address them was discovered. I’ll also say more about this later, but the positivists failed in the primary objective, and also failed to demonstrate the reasons why religion should be excluded from any conversation, in a rather famous self-critique that I will also reference later.

The Logical Positivist position has, unfortunately, experienced something of a revival among the highly vocal, and somewhat rude, group known as “the new atheists.” While their arguments are certainly not new, the type of combative, proselytizing, and arrogant attitude that most of their followers have is (it should be noted that the name “new atheists” was given to them in an article in slate by another atheist who sought to distance himself from what he recognized as a different movement. It was not intended to be a derogatory term put on them by Christians, despite what is sometimes given in forums). Unfortunately some scientific heavy weights are included in this group (most notably Richard Dawkins, pictured left). While they may be (or have been) good scientists, they are terrible philosophers and none of them seem to care much about the history of science or the philosophy science. Even though they would like to dismiss both of them, in a later post I’ll demonstrate why both the history of science and philosophy of science are not only valid, but quite useful.

In summary, the conflict model has had a long history that has managed to embed itself in many people’s cultural unconsciousness. Unfortunately, it is a highly flawed model that no serious academic of the subject takes seriously. Next week I’ll begin dismantling the conflict model in more detail by looking at the major historical episodes upon which it tends to focus, beginning with the Galileo Affair.

Question: Do you think the Conflict Model is Valid? Why or Why not? If you don’t, have you encountered it in your daily interaction?

Science and Religion Friday: An Introduction

Ok so this will be the last of the long running series I am introducing. I think this will give a nice structure to the blog. I’ll have a regular standing series on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, leaving Tuesday and Thursday (and weekends) open for other more occasional posts. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this going.

Where the idea for this came from

Well this involves two things. First, my own area of study is largely within the realm of science and religion. Particularly I am concerned with physics as it is interpreted philosophically and what that can say to theology (and vice versa). So it makes sense for me to feature a section of this research here, since that is, after all, what I’m focusing on.

Second, I chose Friday specifically to parallel the “Science Friday” segment from NPR’s talk of the nation. When I was in Divinity School, I got in the habit of listening to NPR when I drove to and from work and school. This was probably more motivated by the fact that they played fewer commercials than anyone, but I’m sure part of me wanted to be informed and didn’t want to pay for a Newspaper. Now, I doubt I’ll be interviewing anyone exciting related to this, but I always liked that segment and so Friday, to me at least, seemed like a good day to place it.

What you can expect

Well, there are a few things I would like to commit to doing.

1) I will attempt to avoid technical jargon and complex equations, though if I use them I will always try to explain them (and if I don’t call me out on it in the comments).

2) I am not a true scientist in that I have never done experimental research and never been on the forefront of theoretical research. I have been trained as a philosopher and a theologian. For that reason, I will primarily be examining science from the perspective of a philosopher of science and not as a scientist. (This will likely ensure the technical stuff is kept to a minimum). I may need to say a word about philosophy of science in a later post to defend its legitimacy.

3) I do not believe there is any genuine conflict between science and Christianity. I am unapologetically Christian (and if you’ve been reading a while you should know that), and I believe that all truth is God’s truth. If there is an apparent conflict, either someone has misinterpreted Christianity, misinterpreted scientific data, or is not doing science properly.

4) I have focused more on physics than on biology in my study. This blog will reflect that. I will likely not spend much time on biology, controversial as it is.

With that said, next week, when the series begins in earnest, I will begin by starting to look at the supposed history of conflict between science and religion (and in particular Christianity) assessing how valid such a point of view really is. After I do that, which may take a few posts, I’m going to dive right into where physics is today and how its claims might impact theology (or vice versa).

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