Galileo’s Understanding of the All – Theology Paper
Enter the stage of one of the most famous battles of science vs. religion in history—Galileo Galilei pitted against the clergy, professors, and philosophers of his day who refuted his heliocentric model of the solar system based on their interpretation of the Bible.
Besides the obvious superficial issues such as the way Galileo’s opposition defined what Joshua meant when he said that the sun “stood still,” the problem stemmed from a much more important intrinsic issue. Essentially, this battle is a problem of inability to define and understand terms—applied to the particular conflict of science vs. religion, it means that one or both of the parties involved in the conflict do not fully understand what the terms “science” or “religion” mean; they make the devastating—and often deadly—mistake of failing to comprehend the implication that the two terms define and explain two completely separable concepts and need not ever be in conflict.
Rather than simply a problem of science vs. religion, Galileo’s problem is centrally one of authority of interpretation. In the Bible, Joshua commands the sun and the moon to “stand still” and they do (Josh. 10:12-13). The conflict arises when the learned men of the day take this to mean literally that the sun ceased to move, thus implying of course that the sun had been moving all along and it needed command from Joshua to stop. Galileo’s undeniable conclusion from his research and sensory data was that the planets, including the Earth, revolved around the sun, and not around the Earth as was thought in the Ptolemaic model of the solar system. Looking at this passage today, it is easy to reconcile the apparent conflict of the Bible’s verbiage and the modern findings of the day. In fact, today with our knowledge of relativity we know that not only do we detect that the sun and the Earth both move in respect to other stars and to the galaxy and the universe in general, we cannot conclude whether it is the sun or the Earth or the other stars that are actually moving—each is moving in respect to the others in its own reference frame. We could just as easily say that the Earth is standing still and everything else in the universe is moving around it, or we could say the same about the sun, or we could say they are both moving. It does not matter—“motion” is only a convenient term we use to describe changes in distance differences between objects over time, and does not imply anything having an absolute stationary form.
Understanding the current discoveries about motion, we can gain an even greater comprehension of the absurdity of the literal Biblical interpretation of the passage in Joshua. Most assuredly, Joshua says that the sun “stood still,” but it certainly does not mention anything about the other planets. Of course, it was a more difficult task for Galileo, who did not have the concept of relativity (and naturally assumed that one body or the other had to be stationary), to dispute the geocentric model. He did not understand that the sun could certainly be the center of the solar system, and still be moving. However, regardless of how he tried to explain the situation, the entire debate revolved around a deeper issue—the role of science and its place in the realm of religious and biblical authority.
Galileo took a definite stance on the issue of around which celestial body the planets revolved, but he held another, more general perspective on how to view science in the light of religion—a view which seemed quite peculiar for his time. Basically, Galileo believed in the truth and authority of the Bible, but held that for one reason or another, God often does not tell us the mechanisms or means by which he does His wonders, and that the world is one, i.e. if sensory evidence seems to contradict the Bible, then the interpretation that furthers the inconsistency must be mistaken, as God will never contradict truth. This view, however, it was certainly nothing new or revolutionary. Many others had held the same view centuries prior, and Galileo even quoted St. Augustine, a Father of the early Catholic Church, whom the opposition to Galileo certainly respected and held in esteem. Augustine says, “If anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation; not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there” (186).
Instead of simply presenting the evidence of his discovery to his opposition, which has already been proven to be ineffective, Galileo is defending the very value of scientific evidence itself. He has reached the level of maturity as a scientist and as a human being to step back and look at the “All.” The All is a term used quite infrequently—for example, we find it in the English translation of Spinoza’s Ethics, but rarely do we hear it spoken or even read it. Basically the All is defined as “that of which nothing is excluded;” it is a counter-definition of sorts. It means, basically, everything. The All is a simple term for all of reality: Earth, everybody and all atoms on it, the stars, and the electromagnetic waves—all of the cosmos. But not only that—anything that exists is encompassed in the All. That includes the thoughts of people, the existence of all intelligences, and all laws of reality including the ones by which God creates his worlds and universes.
And now we come to the problem of definitions and their applications, which was addressed above. Science is defined thus as nothing but the study of the All. It simply answers the question, “how?” “How does the All work?” Therefore, however God created the Earth and however Jesus turned water into wine is encompassed into science. However we think and how our thoughts lead to certain conclusions is also in the All, so it is science. There is no “supernatural world” in this sense. If there are spirits, ESP, and all that, i.e., if that exists, it is part of the All. It is part of the natural world. Religion is a little more difficult to define, but its concept is easily recognizable. It basically gives the All meaning and order. It answers two questions. The first is, “why does the All exist? (or, why do things exist rather than not exist—what is the meaning of all this existence?)” The second question is that of “who?” “Who is in charge? To whom are we to come for answers and guidance?”
Those who seek to understand the All generally approach it from three general directions. The first is the mythological approach. Usually initiated by fear and/or wonder, the mythological method seeks to answer all three questions through religion. They find that their “why” and “who” questions are usually well answered and clear, but by trying to answer “how?” through their sun goddesses and epic heroes and their Atlas holding up the Earth, they never arrive at anything conclusive or based on something real or tangible. The Christian contemporaries in Galileo’s time and even today who are constantly in opposition to science belong to this group. In direct opposition to the mythological method is the sensory approach—the second line of attack seeking to explain the All. Usually atheistic scientists and many philosophers of science hold this view. They use their evidence from their own perceptions and experiments to answer all three questions. This is a perfect way to answer the “how?” question, as the mechanisms of the universe can all be experimentally determined and realistically explained. However, a problem arises when these people use the same data to try to answer the “why” and “who” questions. Having never directly seen a god or been able to determine any reasons for why their experiments go the way they do, they generally come up with the nihilist answers “no reason,” and “nobody,” respectively.
Galileo takes the third, or synthetic approach, which looks to religion to answer the questions “who” and “why,” and finds its “how” through science and its methods. This is truly the only comprehensively correct way to approach the All. Modern experimental science cannot prove the existence of God or explain his purpose. We need religion and the authority of the Bible for the answers to those questions, and Galileo repeatedly remarks throughout his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina that he understands that very purpose of the Bible and believes in it. However, he tells us that the Bible does not give us scientific treatises or explanations of the mechanisms of “geometry, astronomy, music, and medicine” (193) as well as the books specializing in those matters. The Bible is a book that gives us religion and answers the questions that religion is supposed to answer. Now, it is true that if God came down and gave us an explanation on how He created a tree, this would be science. But, the point here is that God also takes the synthetic approach. With His understanding of the entire All, He can explain the “how” in terms of science and the “why” and “who” in terms of religion. Again, the terms “science” and “religion” are simply our man-made conventional terms for approaching the three different questions—God, being omniscient, has no need for such a distinction.
Galileo believes in the reality of the All. He believes in the Bible but understands that it answers only part of the truth in the universe. Although the questions “why” and “who” are arguably the questions for which our knowledge of the answers are the most important, they are not the only questions out there to be answered. Galileo knows that God sees his efforts to understand His universe as noble and worthy; he knows that he has discovered a valuable truth of the universe, and thus discovered a valuable part of God. It is unfortunate that those people who profess to be God’s very own could stray so far from the position of understanding truth to which He would have us lean.