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My God! It’s full of stars… or journey to the true centre of the universe with John Waters (and Galileo) in the Irish Times… January 22, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, media, Media and Journalism, Pseudo-Science, Religion, Science, Skepticism, Society.
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Okay, this Monday we’re treated by John Waters to a remarkable overview of then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, and his intriguing relationship with Galileo (incidentally, credit where credit is due, Waters had a rather good piece on Wayne O’Donoghue a week or so back which was both sympathetic and rational albeit that his suggestion that O’Donoghue should just assume a ‘normal’ life was probably unfeasible). But talking about the rational… how’s this?

It was widely reported last week that Pope Benedict cancelled a visit to Rome’s oldest university, La Sapienza, after a number of academics and students accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo.

The Vatican said it was considered opportune to postpone the visit due to a lack of the “prerequisites for a dignified and tranquil welcome” following a sit-in by 50 students and a letter signed by 67 professors, including several allegedly eminent scientists.

The signatories said Benedict’s presence would be “incongruous” because of a speech he made at La Sapienza in 1990, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which he quoted the judgment of an Austrian philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, that the church’s trial of Galileo was “reasonable and fair”. The letter declared: “These words offend and humiliate us.” This episode is emblematic of our latter-day blogosphere culture in embracing both ideological spite and indifference to truth, manifesting the classic symptoms of a whirlwind created on the internet by neurotics exchanging bites of information by way of stoking each other’s narcissistic obsession with expressing their democratic right to make fools of themselves.

Truth, as I’ve taken some time to demonstrate on these pages, is very much what our correspondent defines it.
As to the rest? Oh sugar, he’s talking about many of us! Well, that’s a tad rude John, play the ball, not the women and men. And, so what? . Such a profoundly mean-spirited statement as regards perhaps the broadest number of people (yet still pitifully small) in human history to engage is telling. Sure, some of it is frivolous, shallow, tedious and self-regarding. But much of it is fascinating, informative and generous.

Anyhow, ever onwards…

His title was The Crisis of Faith in Science, referring not to declining belief among scientists but a wider loss of confidence in the capacity of science to address the core questions of existence.

Far from attacking science, he was highlighting instances in which scientists have questioned the basis of secularism in the modern world. Among his points was that there are implications, other than cosmological ones, arising from Galileo’s discoveries.

Never! Implications other than cosmological? Well, I never. But, then again, that’s not entirely surprising. For example, one might point to how Galileo’s discoveries undercut a considerable portion of the authority of the Church to speak on such matters with any degree of credibility. But… that’s not necessarily what our correspondent means…

[Marxist philosopher Ernst ] Bloch held that Einstein’s revolution meant it was possible to perceive the Earth as fixed and the Sun as mobile. Ratzinger quoted Bloch’s surprising conclusion: “Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.” In other words, once you accept Einstein’s theory, you could reasonably conclude that the Christian worldview should be kept out of astronomy, but Christianity is right to continue seeing the Earth as the moral centre of the cosmos, and placing human dignity at the centre of the creation equation.

Okay… now, I’m a tedious old rationalist and materialist. But what on earth is Bloch saying, and why on earth should Ratzinger quote it as if it actually means something? Or rather, sure it’s saying something, but it’s confusing two very different approaches.

“Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.”

An interesting quote, but one which is entirely problematic. The linkage between relativity and a ‘right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity’ is – on a rational level – meaningless. These are category errors, and no less so simply because one might put the prefix ‘Marxist’ in front of Bloch’s name. Bloch is making a broad rather diffuse point that is not uninteresting, but it’s not convincing. Yet again there is a blurring, deliberate perhaps, between cosmology in the scientific sense and a worldview generated from a religious perspective. Indeed whether Bloch’s words are as advertised is a different matter, but why does Waters see fit to take his view as of any significance on this matter one way or another? Well, the answer is that he does so because the then Cardinal Ratzinger quoted him.

It was here, somewhat agape, that Ratzinger cited Feyerabend, an agnostic and sceptical Austrian/American philosopher (1924-94).

Ratzinger said: “If both the spheres of conscience are once again clearly distinguished among themselves under their respective methodological profiles, recognising both their limits and their respective rights, then the synthetic judgment of the agnostic-skeptic philosopher P Feyerabend appears much more drastic. He writes: ‘The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimised solely for motives of political opportunism.’”

But again, why should we accept Feyerabend (agnostic and all) as being in any particular position to argue the faithfulness to ‘reason’ of the Church as against Galileo (indeed it’s interesting is it not how Waters reifies one sort of expertise or enquiry – that being the useful, but nebulous area of certain aspects of philosophy, over dull old scientific research or expertise as we’ve seen in his railing against those who use tedious statistics which undermine his argument)? Why not actually ask someone who understand the methodologies of reason – and in particular the scientific method, such as it was that Galileo was attempting to work within – such as.. such as… well, y’know, a scientist. Perhaps one who has attempted to deal directly with these issues. But to do that would be to move away from the rather fluffy terrain that the argument is constructed upon, one which tangentially engages with ‘reason’ but only in the limited terms that the argument is formulated and move on to dealing with it in the context of people who know precisely what they are trying to do.

Indeed if we examine what Waters writes we will see that at no point is there an engagement with ‘truth’ or ‘reason’ in any sense that allows us a clear definitions of these terms. Does he mean a process of deduction, the application of logic, empiricism? Any or all? We are left none the wiser. Or rather, we can be fairly clear that this is not at all what he means. Consider the following passage.

From here, Ratzinger moved to the failure of the church to deal correctly with the ethical implications of the Galilean perspective, which, in its wider interpretation, he noted, CF Von Weizsacker had identified as creating a “very direct path” to the atomic bomb. Ratzinger concluded: “It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics. The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality, but from its fundamental affirmation and from being inscribed in a still greater form of reason.”

I love the idea that the atomic bomb is the logical outcome of Galileo moreso say than being the logical outcome of the first sea dwelling ancestor of ours to flop a flipper onto the sand of some ancient shore and start the long slow crawl that took us to the Moon. It’s so brilliantly absolutist as if all modernity is summed up in that single device (and yes, Des Fennell, has argued something not disconnected from that idea, and no, I don’t buy it either). Why not penicillin? Gameboys? Cinema? The mapping of Mercury which is happening as we speak by a US probe? Could it be that these are insufficiently existential (although for my money the last is pretty existential if one wishes to see a useful purpose for humanity as the – so far – only fully self-aware and reflective aspect of the universe… a notion which as it happens fits right into a rational discourse and perhaps a religious one also). One too might raise an eyebrow at the idea of ‘hurried apologetics’. Just how long would it take? A millennium? Two, perhaps?

But how does that expression of the ‘absurdity’ of an hurried apology (367 years and counting as it was for poor old Galileo when Ratzinger made his speech in 1990) sit with those reprobates who ‘accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo’. Perhaps I’m being foolishly rational here. But at the very least he’s sailing close to the wind in terms of defending that condemnation. No, one could plausibly posit that he’s implicitly defending it.

One wonders though what Waters thinks about the actual Gallileo controversy? Does he know that this wasn’t some arcana with different cosmological (and the beauty of that term in the context of this article is that it diffuses meaning rather than pinpoints it) hypotheses in some sort of genteel dispute but that Galileo was able to prove empirically by observation that the Earth moved around the Sun. That he could point a telescope into the night sky and make these observations, and then make them again, and again, and again. And these observations were replicated by Jesuit astronomers. The Church – beyond the astronomers – was unable to dismiss or demonstrate that they were fundamentally incorrect. This wasn’t theory unsupported by evidence, but this was, in the context of the scientific method of the time, fact. Not belief, but ‘truth’. And that truth (or rather the potential truth based on observation) was directly in contravention of an entirely different sort of ‘truth’ based on a literal reading of the Bible. There’s no ifs and buts in this discussion. That’s it. It’s irrelevant if Galileo’s work did lead to the bomb. It’s entirely irrelevant what is said 367 years later in a lecture. Galileo, using a methodology based in science, imperfect and contradictory as science was at the time, produced evidence based theories which were proven correct and the other sort of ‘truth’ which isn’t truth at all, but simply assertion, wasn’t.

And all the handwaving that Ratzinger does by recourse to Weizsacker and Feyerabend doesn’t alter that one iota.

And here we have it, yet again. Shadow boxing as a substitute for argument. Consider again part of his opening piece…

His title was The Crisis of Faith in Science, referring not to declining belief among scientists but a wider loss of confidence in the capacity of science to address the core questions of existence.

Far from attacking science, he was highlighting instances in which scientists have questioned the basis of secularism in the modern world. Among his points was that there are implications, other than cosmological ones, arising from Galileo’s discoveries.

The problem with these arguments is that who is to say what the ‘core questions of existence’ are? I don’t know? Does anyone? Which means that we get a smorgasbord of complaints and worries and agonised fretting about some sort of ‘meaning’ which seems almost profound until it is examined at close range at which point it merely seems to be a sort of discontent that a religious interpretation of existence has been superseded by something arguably more honest if not approaching the rarified heights of ‘truth’ that our correspondent thinks we should all be herded (and I use that term deliberately) towards.

The universe is fascinating. Cosmology – the real stuff – is an area that any thinking human should consider deeply. There are implications that are profound, issues that are unresolvable, developments that some hardened materialist scientists suggest may point to interesting questions… even if they are unable to provide evidence of answers. It is an area that those of faith can find some comfort in as much as those without find intellectual satisfaction.

But… wouldn’t it be nice to hear something positive, something that doesn’t take the form of yet another attack on people both specific in terms of the scientists and students who quite reasonably find little in Ratzingers words but a sort of apologia for events that were profoundly anti-rational (and let’s not even begin to get into the socio-political reasons why the Inquisition acted the way it did which was for reasons rather more mundane than differing views of cosmology and considerably more rooted in preserving power elites) and general in terms of societies which find that religious interpretations are less and less useful as a means of judging and assessing the world and universe about us. One might find that depressing, or one might find it – as I do – an opportunity for religious thinking to move towards a more fully rigorous relationship with empiricism… as indeed those who have toiled long and hard for the Vatican in the area of astronomy have managed to do which brings me to the last line…

The theme of the pope’s planned address at La Sapienza, incidentally, was: “There is a danger in modern times that man may stop seeking the truth”.

Except let’s not look too closely at the Vatican Observatory, because, surprise, surprise a report in the Independent under the heading “Science bows to theology as the Pope dismantles the Vatican observatory” suggests that:

Science is to make way for diplomacy at the Pope’s summer residence, with the dismantling of the astronomical observatory that has been part of Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, for more than 75 years. The Pope needs more room to receive diplomats so the telescopes have to go.

The whole observatory is being moved some 10 miles to a nearby disused convent. While: Father Jose G Funes, the present director of the observatory, known as the Specola Vaticana, insisted that there was no sinister significance in the move. “It is not a downgrading of science in the Vatican,” he said. “To remain within the palace would have had only a symbolic significance, whereas where we are going we will be even more comfortable… The Independent notes that… But symbolism is exactly what close watchers of Pope Benedict XVI see in the move: confirmation of the view that he is far less receptive to what scientists – including scientists in dog collars – want to tell him than his recent predecessors. He has, for example, spoken in favour of intelligent design, in flat contradiction of the views of the observatory’s former director.

Whereas: The theological conservatism of the Polish pope (John Paul II) cohabited oddly with an enthusiastic acceptance of the findings of science. In a speech in 1996, for instance, he came close to accepting the theory of evolution.

Father Coyne’s (the previous director) tenure did not long outlast the reign of John Paul. When Coyne retired in August 2006, it was rumoured that hostility to intelligent design had been his undoing. Benedict’s rejection of the Enlightenment, and the reign of scientific truth which it ushered in, is well established.

Symbols are powerful. There I would agree with John Waters. But to talk of truth and to act in this way, even for the best of intentions, suggests that there is a fundamental problem.

The continuing efforts, and they’re not restricted to our correspondent, to elide issues of emotion, belief and a sort of starry eyed transcendence with the power of the empirical, rational and scientific and ascribe the authority that those latter methodologies contain in order to support contentions that seem some distance from ‘truth’ are depressing. There is a word for that sort of construct. It’s called a ‘belief’. But while beliefs are not necessarily of any particular harm it really is long past time that this strange effort to gift them that authority was discontinued. Isn’t it?

Meanwhile Pete Baker on Slugger takes a more benign view of this in an interesting piece

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Comments»

1. Eagle - January 22, 2008

It can be hard to defend the Church at times. What’s always baffled me about the whole Galileo controversy is that the Catholic Church was favorable towards Copernicus’s theory (whereas both Luther & Calvin condemned it). In fact, one of the great scientific moments of the 16th century was the Church’s decision to change the calendar (Gregory VIII). Protestants went a long time before accepting the ‘Popish calendar’. Kepler was more welcome among the Jesuits than among his fellow Lutherans.

And, I have no problem with people condemning the Church for the Galileo trial, but sometimes it’s way overblown. First of all, Galileo was more rudely condemned by his fellow scientists, most of whom still believed in Ptolemy.

Apparently Galileo had the kind of personality that made it hard to like him or hard to come to any sort of agreement with him. This was true in his dealings with men of science and religion.

Now, the problem is that Galileo was right, but he wouldn’t wait for the Church to come to terms with his rightness (although he couldn’t prove he was right). He insisted on reinterpreting scripture (in terms that are accepted today) and in taking his case to the public.

This was heady stuff he was producing and it just happened to be during the 30 years war. Pope Urban VIII actually liked Galileo and was happy to have him work on his theories, but Galileo couldn’t stop himself.

Anyway, for reasons that have a lot more to do with the petty differences among men and the falling out among friends when one (the Pope) thought the other (Galileo) had deceived him (the Pope was wrong – someone framed Galileo) and the fact that it was a turbulent time (Catholic vs Protestant wars throughout Europe) Galileo was wrongly condemned as a heretic.

And, there’s no getting around that.

2. soubresauts - January 22, 2008

Fair dos, WorldbyStorm. You deserve some sort of meddle, I mean, medal, for tackling Waters here. I suppose it’s partly out of respect for how the man used to have interesting and thought-provoking things to say. (OK, he’s not a total write-off these days, but… life is short.)

Anyway, I think you did a tremendous job on Waters and Ratzinger.

(Mind you, I was alarmed some weeks ago by the admiration you expressed for Dr Ben Goldacre, but I’ll come back to that later. I mean, stuff like: http://goodscience.wordpress.com/2008/01/13/my-blog-takes-a-turn/)

I have some further thoughts on Waters and Ratzinger. About ‘the core questions of existence’, is there any “more core” question than the old chestnut:

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Wittgenstein wasn’t the first to ponder that, but he, at least, attempted to show the impossibility of answering it. And succeeded in that attempt, according to some respected commentators. Let us note too that Wittgenstein did a lot of his pondering in Ireland…

As did Samuel Beckett:

“As one in his right mind when at last out again he knew not how he was not long out again when he began to wonder if he was in his right mind. For could one not in his right mind be reasonably said to wonder if he was in his right mind and bring what is more his remains of reason to bear on this perplexity in the way he must be said to do if he is to be said at all? It was therefore in the guise of a more or less reasonable being that he emerged at last he knew not how into the outer world and had not been there for more than six or seven hours by the clock when he could not but begin to wonder if he was in his right mind…”

(– from “Stirrings Still”, Part 2)

As for the Pope’s idea that “There is a danger in modern times that man may stop seeking the truth”, and the report that “the Pope needs more room to receive diplomats so the telescopes have to go…”

Sure don’t we all understand that the Pope needs physical space to entertain friends like Abdullah?
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7080327.stm

Unfortunately, the mental space seems to be diminishing.

Galileo and Kepler were two of the greatest scientists of all time. They may have been “hard to like” (thanks for all the info, Eagle), but I’m sure they weren’t in the Bobby Fischer category of genius. They were contemporaries and well aware of each other’s work, despite being separated by religion (Kepler a Protestant), by political problems, and by the Alps. They used to write to each other (I’d like to know exactly how the letters were delivered). I’ve seen the letters: in Latin of course; beautiful, clear handwriting.

Most people have heard about Galileo’s difficulties with the Inquisition and what he had to do to save his own skin. Kepler’s difficulties are less well known. While he didn’t have the Roman Inquisition breathing down his neck, he had to cope with the religious wars raging all around him in central Europe. And then in 1617 his mother was accused of witchcraft, a common occurrence in southern Germany in those days (thousands of women were put to death as witches there). During the next four years, Kepler put together a careful legal defence of his mother. She was acquitted but died shortly after being released. Kepler himself died a pauper, and we don’t even know where his grave is.

3. Starkadder - January 22, 2008

“I love the idea that the atomic bomb is the logical outcome of Galileo moreso say than being the logical outcome of the first sea dwelling ancestor of ours to flop a flipper onto the sand of some ancient shore and start the long slow crawl that took us to the Moon. It’s so brilliantly absolutist as if all modernity is summed up in that single device (and yes, Des Fennell, has argued something not disconnected from that idea, and no, I don’t buy it either)”

This is a standard topic among conservative
thinkers like Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin and Richard Weaver-that all
society’s problems stem from Machiavelli, Joachim of Fiore
or the Pelagian heresy. Not only does it imply that
society would have never gone wrong if someone had squashed
the offending thinker in time, it is merely the re-appearance
of the “great man theory” in reverse-one evil thinker caused
everything to go wrong. It ignores, for instance, the role
of economics and politics in history.

As for Des Fennell, I have noticed that his theory seems to
resemble those of Voegelin and Strauss-although I’m haven’t
read enough of him to say it conclusively. I know Mary
Kenny did say in her book “Why Christianity Works” that
all the problems of the modern world came from
“scientific atheism”-as opposed to artistic atheism or
philosophical atheism, presumably.

4. chekov - January 22, 2008

I thought that the arguments put forward by both Waters and il Papa about Galileo were toe-curlingly embarrassing. It’s pretty funny that the tacit assumption of Waters’ article is that the profundity of Ratzi’s words is self-evident.

“When we said that the sun went around the earth, we were refering to a seriously inaccurate and uninformed piece of amateur philosophical speculation about the implications of a theory of space and time which will be developed in 400 years. We were right all along – god is great, galileo is wrong!

It’s not only the most glaringly obvious example of post-facto rationalisation, but it’s evidence of an extremely childish refusal to admit they were wrong, despite the fact that every single person in the world with a brain knows they were wrong. To be honest, anybody who uses such pathetically transparent and childish arguments deserves to be laughed at, not listened to.

5. chekov - January 22, 2008

“(Mind you, I was alarmed some weeks ago by the admiration you expressed for Dr Ben Goldacre, but I’ll come back to that later. I mean, stuff like: http://goodscience.wordpress.com/2008/01/13/my-blog-takes-a-turn/)”

Oh my god – what a terrible, woefully inaccurate, ad-hominem, scientifically illiterate, downright dishonest attack blog that is! Lets hope that Ben isn’t judged by the quality of his enemies!

6. eamonnmcdonagh - January 22, 2008

Waters has been away with the fairies for some time. Ye’re worse to take any notice of him :=)

7. CL - January 22, 2008

I couldn’t give a rat’s zinger for Waters’ views on the pope and Galileo but his resentment of the peoples efforts to communicate is not new.

-All the common people have a whining tune or accent in their speech, as if they did still smart or suffer some oppression, and this idleness, together with fear of imminent mischiefs which did continually hang over their heads, have been the cause that the Irish were ever the most inquisitive people after news of any nation in the world: as St.Paul himself made observation upon the people of Athens, that they were an idle people, and did nothing but learn and tell the news- Sir John Davies, 1612.

8. Eagle - January 22, 2008

Most people have heard about Galileo’s difficulties with the Inquisition and what he had to do to save his own skin.

I don’t think there was ever any danger that Galileo would have been put to death.

Galileo and Kepler were two of the greatest scientists of all time. They may have been “hard to like” (thanks for all the info, Eagle), but I’m sure they weren’t in the Bobby Fischer category of genius.

I’m not sure that Kepler was hard to like. His problems were that his fellow Protestants didn’t want any part of his science, but at the same time he resisted many attempts by the Catholic Church (Jesuits, anyway) to convert him.

Galileo may not have been Bobby Fischer, but he was pretty clueless in terms of how things worked in those days. The Church wanted him to keep his ideas as “theoretical” (he couldn’t prove the Earth revolved around the sun – he tried with a theory based on waves, but I think it was 1830 or so when it was proven). They didn’t mind his writing intellectual documents and corresponding with other scientists, but he made a habit of publicizing his views. He didn’t just want to be a scientist, but to be an evangelist for science as well. That’s where his trouble came from. And, of course, he insisted on trying to reinterpret scripture, which annoyed Churchmen in a way that nothing he wrote about science could have.

He may have been right, but in the society in which he lived he may not have made a wise decision.

Galileo wrote a book – Dialogue, available here – about his thinking. The book was basically a discussion between two people representing two views: one the heliocentric view and the other as the geocentric view. The geocentric (or Aristotelian) view was put by a character called Simplicio. Simplicio was generally seen by the public as something of a fool and he was clearly modeled on the Pope.

From what I’ve read, it’s probable that Galileo didn’t intend that to happen, but he was so inept diplomatically that he didn’t realize what he’d done.

Obviously, ideally, the Church would have just let Galileo get on with it, but that was not how it went in the first half of the 1600s.

9. chekov - January 22, 2008

Eagle, to me that’s just bog-standard blaming the victim and terrible moral relativism. His diplomatic ineptness can also be construed as him simply refusing to grant the church the right to control his work – which was an entirely morally courageous and noble thing to do. The fact that they just wanted to suppress his findings and not actually kill him, makes it his fault somehow? The fact that he considered the church’s arguments to be weak and expressed this view in his dialogue was ‘inept’.

All this concentration on what Galileo did wrong – by any standards of morality, he did no wrong at all. He had every moral right to express and proclaim his views.

10. WorldbyStorm - January 22, 2008

CL, you have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of quotes – and all of them are relevant. That’s pretty neat…

It saddens me that the RCC is unable to appreciate that cosmology – and not the half-baked pseudo-stuff JW appears to think the term covers – is fundamental to any serious interaction between religion and science whereever one comes from as regards the two. And the odd thing is that the Vatican Observatory was very very much within the rational scientific community. I find John Paul II a most interesting figure in terms of his relationship with science. He appeared to be able to accept the primacy of scientific endeavour while retaining his theological beliefs… Benedict appears to be by contrast entirely antagonistic or afraid of science… and I think it’s very telling that he finds refuge in the same sort of wishy washy rhetoric born of the worst aspects of the softest side of the humanities beloved of JW…

11. sonofstan - January 22, 2008

“Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.”

Not sure I want to be lining up with JW or Ratzinger, but I’m also not sure I entirely see whats wrong with the view in the quote from Bloch; sometimes Bloch, Marcuse and even Adorno, of that first Frankfurt School generation can sound a bit like ol’ Bennies’s fellow fellow- traveller Heidegger, and the idea of the world as the, ahem, ‘horizon of being’ sounds like its being echoed here – and maybe he’s right, maybe the reason why ‘there is something rather than nothing’ , or at least why it makes any difference, is down to meaning, and maybe meaning is not down to science or ‘instrumental reason’ so much as ‘zuhandenheit’ or the ‘readiness to hand’ of the world; an ‘at homeness’ that gives us back to ourselves as ‘Being’ rather than as objects; in other words, the fact that we are adrift on a tiny planet in the middle of cosmic nowhere really has no bearing on our actual – ethical, social, political – concerns, on our being with others; in all those respects, since this world is our horizon, then we are not only justified, but obliged to ‘remain faithful to a method of preserving the earth in relation to human dignity’

12. chekov - January 22, 2008

sonofstan, to point out just one of the glaring problems in that passage

“Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification;”

This passage implies that there is some causal connection between acceptance of “the relativity of movement” and the right of an “ancient human and christian system” (whatever the hell that is) to interfere in sciency stuff. It does not even state the logic which links the two, as if it was self-evident! Far from being the case, there just is no way in the universe to make a remotely convincing case that the theory of relativity says anything at all about the rights of “ancient human and christian systems.” In a word – it’s drivel. A typical abuse of scientific concepts by a philosopher who thinks it make his work sound more learned, despite the fact that he hasn’t bothered to understand the first thing about it.

The use of the phrase “heliocentric simplification” is also a dig at the galileans – our earth-centric model was wrong but you guys were just as wrong. In fact, the helio-centric model of the solar system was a vast improvement on the earth-centred model and facilitated the discovery of a whole host of stuff about the universe before relativity. It was not a battle between competing systems, but one between rational enquiry and authoritarian control.

13. Starkadder - January 22, 2008

No post-modernism for our Chekov, eh?

I wonder did you ever read the book “Intellectual Impostures”
by Sokal and Bricmont….I read some of it years ago.

14. smiffy - January 22, 2008

Another very perceptive article, and some interesting comments.

I think there’s two main problems with Waters’ argument (and, by extension, with Ratzinger’s position). Firstly, the notion that he was simply quoting others on Galileo and that criticism of him is misplaced is a deeply disingenuous one. It’s rather similar to the controversy back in 2006 around his speech which touched on Islam. In that case, he deliberately included (without refuting it) a quotation about Islam which he would have known was bound to cause controversy, was irrelevant to the body of the address he gave, then, when criticism predictably arose, sitting back putting his hands up and, in effect saying, “It wasn’t me, guv”.

In this case, from what I can tell (I can’t seem to find the full text of the address online, and am relying on this lengthy extract), he’s using selective extracts from other thinkers to support his own position, but in a way which is fundamentally dishonest, given his wider philosophical outlook.

In the case of Bloch, sonofstan is absolutely correct to position them in the context of his association with the Frankfurt School and their critique of positivism (exemplified in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment). These thinkers can be located within the context of the wider critique of modernity which arose in the early part of the century, including literary modernism, and which questioned the centrality of the human subject or of Reason itself. While the movement itself is too broad for any generalisations about it to make much sense, it does take a certain amount of brass neck to employ Bloch’s criticism of modernity in defence of the pre-modern philosophical worldview of the Roman Catholic Church. If Reason is no longer the centre of the universe, you can be damn sure that God isn’t either.

Similarly, for someone like Ratzinger, who seems to hardly go a week without some new attack on ‘relativism’, and who claims that religion is perfectly compatible with reason and science, to employ someone like Feyerabend is deeply contradictory (or hypocritical). Either Ratzinger understood the thrust of Feyerabend’s philosophy when he quoted him, in which case he was being very disingenuous, or he didn’t and simply pulled a juicy quote without understanding the context, in which case he’s perhaps not the greatest intellectual of our times, as Waters seems to think.

The second problem with the Waters-Ratzinger position is much simpler. Ratzinger suggests that an apology about the Galileo trial might be premature, as there could have been firm grounds at the time to reject Galileo’s findings. This misses the point somewhat. Surely the main reason to apologise for the trial isn’t because Galileo’s heliocentric position was correct, but because people shouldn’t be put on trial for heresy at all, even if they’re wrong. Unfortunately neither Waters nor Ratzinger (from what one can tell from the extract of the speech).

As an aside, apparently Waters will be appearing on Newstalk’s Morning Show tomorrow, for more of his ranting about blogging (he tells us he never reads blogs, while at the same time telling us that all blogs, without exception are worthless). Certainly, 90% (at least) of blogs are rubbish; as Sturgeon’s Law tells us, though, 90% of everything is rubbish. However, he may very well have a point about blogs being full of narcissistic, pretentious, pseudo-philosophical, self-important claptrap. Perhaps readers might hazard a guess at which blog the following came from:

She had a beauty that suggested itself as emanating from an infinity within. She seemed to believe anything was possible and her smile convinced you, for an instant, that she was right. I wanted her dreams to come true.
She was a child. She was my daughter and Eoghan’s daughter and Eamon’s daughter and Pat’s daughter and Bertie’s daughter. She was your daughter, your little sister. She was a child of Ireland in the time of its rebirth.
I am crying, writing this. How can you cry for someone you’ve only once said hello to? Katy was the daughter of our dreams, in the sense that it was the dreams of her people that gave birth to what is tritely called her celebrity. We have these words to box off the lucky/unlucky ones who act out our fantasies, while we stick safely to the grandstand. We refer to them as celebs, implying a different species. But they are human beings, filled like the rest of us with desire, distinguished only by willingness/ opportunity to rush in where others fear to tread.

15. sonofstan - January 22, 2008

“Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification;”

Chekov,
It says ‘an ancient human and Christian system of reference has noright to interference’ in ‘sciency stuff’

I’m not sure I see how you’re getting an interpretation that suggests the opposite….
….nor am I sure Heliocentric simplification is pejorative either; I think it might mean ‘simplification’ in the benign sense of ‘rationalisation’.
And Bloch was no science-phobe; if anything he had a rather too optimistic view of a technological- socialist utopia

16. sonofstan - January 22, 2008

that should be ‘no right’…..

17. Pete Baker - January 22, 2008

Smiffy

According to the discussion here Feyerabend did respond to the use of his argument by Ratzinger.

Although it’s worth pointing out that the assessment in that discussion was that – “Today’s critics thus misunderstood Ratzinger’s claim while misunderstanding both Feyerabend’s and Ratzinger’s use of it.”

WorldByStorm

“a more benign view”

heh.

Can I quote you on that?

18. WorldbyStorm - January 22, 2008

Pete. You may indeed! :)

Re the larger debate… I have actually read Intellectual Impostures, and while I admire it on one level I think it disregards the useful thinking about philosophy and related areas that post-modernism has brought us and elides the bad with the good. However, taking Bloch, what he says is okay as far as it goes… which frankly in this context isn’t very far indeed because we’re not simply talking about systems of belief but about actual… well, y’know, empirical facts… So it is, as smiffy notes a complete (and arguably hypocritical) misappropriation by the good Cardinal and serves frankly as something of a mystification in the original sense of the word. But to be honest my interest in all this is the sort of cheerless boosterism of an asinine and rather ahistorical approach to Galileo which does no one any favours at all and the perpetual confusion that JW seems to labour under between the empirical and the emotive.

19. WorldbyStorm - January 22, 2008

Actually smiffy, that’s a very good point about the MO of the good Cardinal as regards argument by putting forward propositions that are untenable by couching them in others words… Presumably though the upshot of this won’t be a trip to reinstate the Vatican Observatory on its original site.

20. eamonnmcdonagh - January 22, 2008

“the useful thinking about philosophy and related areas that post-modernism has brought us”

For example?

21. Garibaldy - January 22, 2008

“it disregards the useful thinking about philosophy and related areas that post-modernism has brought us”

Maybe it’s because such usefil thinking never existed :)

22. Garibaldy - January 22, 2008

Eamonn,

Great minds think alike. And at the same time

23. chekov - January 22, 2008

sonofstan: “I’m not sure I see how you’re getting an interpretation that suggests the opposite….”

My point is that relativity says nothing about rights of these funny systems at all – saying due to relativity, this funny system has no right… is the same error as saying the opposite. Just as it wouldn’t matter if you said:

because of carrots, there is no right for….

or

because of carrots there is a right for…

24. sonofstan - January 23, 2008

Firstly, what has any of the above got to do with PM? none of the philosophers mentioned in WBS’s original post – Bloch, Feyerbrand – could be remotely considered to have anything to do with PM……

Secondly, thanks in part, to Intellectual Impostures, PoMo has come to stand for anything written by a French philosopher since Sartre, or anything difficult or counter- intuitive the writer doesn’t agree with. Derrida is not a post modernist, nor are Foucault, Barthes or Deleuze.

Thirdly, Y’all should read Lyotard’s the Postmodern Condition, or his Peregrinations; in particular a Memorial of Marxism – he’s a much tougher read than the sometimes apologists for the logic of consumerism that some adherents of PoMo – mostly in the Anglophone artworld – tend to be; and a lifelong activist.

25. chekov - January 23, 2008

starkadder, I’m no great fan of post-modernism. I read and enjoyed “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” by sokal but not intellectual impostures. I don’t reckon PM is all that influential anyway and the places that it is influential are pretty easy to ignore.

26. WorldbyStorm - January 23, 2008

sonofstan, perhaps a ‘critique of modernism’ might be more accurate than post-modernism. And the thing is that labels can be both useful and unuseful. But look, I’m not antagonistic to such critiques, but I think they only bring us some of the way. And taking Bloch’s point above which is more central to the argument, it has almost no relevance to the issue of Galileo, etc.

27. smiffy - January 23, 2008

At the risk of being pedantic, I think ‘critique of modernity’ might be more appropriate than ‘critique of modernism’, not least because the modernist movement in literature itself represented a critique of modernity (and not always a particularly progressive one).

28. WorldbyStorm - January 23, 2008

Indeed… it would certainly. The dangers of typing late in the evening.

29. Brendan Callaghan - January 23, 2008

In conclusion.

Ratzinger has never had the ride.

Waters has ridden the finest looking Jackeen!

Up Roscommon!

30. Dan - January 23, 2008

Ratzinger used the word “apology” in its sense of “defense” and not in its sense of “I’m sorry.” What he was saying is that the Church should not use his insights to defend what happened in the Galileo affair.

The Church handled the Galileo affair badly — Pope John Paul II recognized this — but so what? It was an abuse of power, nothing more or nothing less. Because it is the only thing that they have, opponents of the Church harp incessantly on the Galileo affair (which occurred over 300 years ago) as “evidence” to assert that the Church is anti-science. Meanwhile they ignore the big picture: Christianity embraced Greek philosophy (first through St. John (who speaks of the logos), then through St. Augustine (who incorporated Platonism) and then through St. Thomas Aquinas (who incorporated Aristotelianism)); like Greek philosophy, Christianity urges that there is truth that we must seek; because of its insistence on the existence of truth that we must seek, the institution of the university first arose in the Christian West (the Church created numerous famous universities, including the Sarbonne and, ironically, La Sapienza); and many great scientists were devout Christians (including Copernicus, Galileo and Newton) and some were priets (including for example LeMaitre, who came up with the Big Bang theory of the universe).

I have read through the comments above and it is evident to me that none of Ratzinger’s critics really have come to grips with the argument that he was making. His point was that even secularists are critical of the Enlightenment’s hyper-scientism, which swallows not only religion but also philosophy and thereby leaves science without moral guidance. Simply put, this is true.

Ratzinger is one of the great thinkers of our times. He is also a holy man — this is something that comes through quite strikingly in his books (I do not expect the readers of this blog to be able to understand what holiness is, much less recognize it in this Pope). It is very rare that a person combines such extraordinary erudition and great holiness. In this regard, Pope Benedict reminds me of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.

31. Garibaldy - January 23, 2008

I notice Dan there’s little space for the achievements of the Islamic world in the near east in your potted history of the Church and Western knowledge. I wonder why that might be.

32. ejh - January 23, 2008

Ratzinger is one of the great thinkers of our times. He is also a holy man — this is something that comes through quite strikingly in his books (I do not expect the readers of this blog to be able to understand what holiness is, much less recognize it in this Pope). It is very rare that a person combines such extraordinary erudition and great holiness. In this regard, Pope Benedict reminds me of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.

Can I just say it was worth reading all the way through the twenty-nine posts that preceded it just for this magnificent paragraph? Thank you, Dan. Thank you. God bless you.

33. chekov - January 23, 2008

“the Enlightenment’s hyper-scientism, which swallows not only religion but also philosophy and thereby leaves science without moral guidance. Simply put, this is true.”

I think it’s total rubbish actually. The enlightenment was most certainly not ‘hyper-scientist’ – what about the rights of man and all that copious philosophical material it produced?

Secondly, the claim that science swallows philosophy is just not borne out in realtiy. There just aren’t significant numbers of people who either
a) live lives without moral guidance
or
b) think science provides moral guidance.

Benny and the church’s real beef with the enlightenment is not just that it produced the methodological tools which fuelled the scientific revolution, it also provided the philosophical ideas which enabled the construction of a humanist morality – rendering the supernatural entities and their self-appointed representatives on earth irrelevant.

34. WorldbyStorm - January 24, 2008

Brendan, an interesting theory, but I dread to think that the jackeen you mention is the one whose name springs to my mind.

Dan, I appreciate your taking the time to comment, but I think that’s a straw man as regards ‘Hyper-scientism’? Really, after a thousand five hundred years of effective social, political and scientific stasis? If there wasn’t scientific progress – which entirely contrary to your thesis was tied into a broadening of humanist and philosophical thought we (the human race) would have been in massive trouble. Otherwise, what Chekov said.

35. sonofstan - January 24, 2008

I seem to be lining up with the uncool kids rather a lot on this thread, but, leaving his last paragraph aside, Dan has a point; if the CC simply went for the sort of bone-headed anti- intellectualism that fundamantalist protestants are fond of – creationism, intelligent design and the like, then it would be the anti- science straw target that you guys want; thing is, it doesn’t.

36. WorldbyStorm - January 24, 2008

I don’t think the CC is a target of anything, nor generally do I think has it cleaved to an irrational discourse, indeed it’s ability to accept and assimilate scientific fact has been fairly good across the 19th and 20th century (hence my praise for the Vatican Observatory etc, and that’s not the only place where RCCers are involved in scientific enquiry). I think though that Ratzingers speech was an attempt to diminish rational scientific enquiry at the expense of non-rational philosophy based in theological belief. And that Ratzinger dragged in a range of quotes from philosophers as a sort of cod referencing for his belief does not sustain his argument in any way. With ref to Bloch, etc, and perhaps as regards the utility of philosophical critiques or methodologies I always think it’s important to recognise that they operate on a near metaphoric level which allows us to relook at the world – hence swerving to post-modernism, that’s why I believe it, as almost any other process of enquiry, is of utility. But, taking a more concrete example I’m partial to Teillhard myself, but I don’t confuse his thinking with pure scientific thought, at least not his ultimate hypotheses. Yet I think they’re useful for anyone who is interested in the area.

37. chekov - January 24, 2008

sonofstan – it’s not all that much of a defence to point out that there are even more stupid opinions out there.

Plus, I don’t really think the catholic church have that much of a choice when it comes to their line on science. As an institution which sees itself as being the official church, they have to accomodate themselves to the needs of secular power. They couldn’t just adopt a loonie anti-science line without seriously undermining their own standing, loosing a whole social layer of adherents and relugating themselves to the ‘voice in the wilderness’ role of the evangelists. They accept science – in a mealy-mouthed sort of way – because they have to.

38. ejh - January 24, 2008

Incidentally, while it’s true that most or all early Western scientists and thinkers were churchmen, it doesn’t follow that they were believing churchmen. Educated people were churchmen of necessity for several hundred years, because the church had a monopoly of education and learning. It doesn’t follow that any given individual within that church believed a word of what they were told.


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