Thursday, October 22, 2009

Galileo vs. Aristotle? Science vs. Reason?

Was Galileo really opposed to all of Aristotle's science and philosophy? Is modern science opposed to reason? Let us begin with a consideration of faith and reason. In September 2006 Pope Benedict XVI—the Pope of Christian Unity—gave his famous "Regensburg lecture" at his alma mater university in Germany. He treats of the relationship between faith and reason, opening a dialogue to those religions who do not recognize Λόγος (Logos) or creative order suggestive of a reason-abiding God in the universe. He begins by reminiscing about
a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas. [...] It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the "whole" of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole.
Then he continues with a quote from 1391 by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus on Islam which many mistake by synecdoche for the essence of his whole lecture but which the Pope of Christian Unity is using merely as an example of a disconnected faith and reason. He could have used a different example, possibly, such as by noting how one defines the phrase "Holocaust denial" most frequently as "the belief or assertion that the Holocaust did not happen or was greatly exaggerated"—equivocal by definition since one never denies something, i.e., claims its nonexistence, when he means it exists but to a lesser extent—but then he might have been accused of anti-Semitism instead of simply as pro-rationality. Reason, therefore, rarely exists separate from rational religion. The important point of his lecture is that acting reasonably is in accord with God's nature. This is not only important in "subjective" areas of life but especially in the natural sciences and mathematics, too.
"God", [Manuel II] says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death..."


At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the λόγος". This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
The Greeks, whether moderns want to admit it or not, have given us such a rich heritage, prominently: the mathematician Euclid and his Elements; Plato and his philosophy; the first physicist, Aristotle, and his Posterior Analytics, the basis of the modern scientific method of arguing through effects to the causes of things.
The ideal [of a unified science with a "progressive Aristotelianism" philosophy such as that of the Thomists and Scholastics] is that perhaps best set by Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albertus Magnus [both 13th century], neither of whom was a slavish follower of Aristotle (as was the famous Arab commentator Averroes), but instead used the analytical techniques of their mentor to develop sciences completely unknown to the Greeks. Paradoxically, the ideal is also suggested by Galileo [†17th century], who disagreed with many teachings proposed by the Aristotelians of his day, but who nevertheless was well acquainted with the methodology of the Posterior Analytics. Indeed, so well equipped was he that he could maintain that were Aristotle then alive and had access to the new empirical evidence he himself had made available, the philosopher would have sided with him rather than with his proclaimed disciples. Much more, of course, is here assimilated within an Aristotelian synthesis than could have been known to either Albertus, Aquinas, or Galileo, including information that has become available only in the late twentieth century.

Fr. William A. Wallace, O.P.'s The Modeling of Nature (pg. xv)

Commenting on Aristotle's Physics II, R. Nogar—in "Toward a Physical Theory," The New Scholasticism 25 (1951), 397-438—says: "Aristotle made it very clear how the approach of the mathematician, even in considering the same reality, was an entirely different approach from that of the strictly physical scientist." This is something worth considering in the light that many scientists, e.g., Faraday, were excellent experimentalists with the slightest clue about mathematics. Have we become too blinded by the utility of mathematics in Newton's successful Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)?

Returning to the Regensburg lecture, the Pope of Christian Unity continues by noting that we moderns want to forget that so much of science and technology owes its existence to Greek thought—Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, etc.—coupled also with the Church's amazing Medieval universities, funding, and support of technology's prerequisite scientific development.
Behind [dehellenized or non-Greek-based] thinking lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant's "Critiques", but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature's capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield decisive certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.


This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.
The rejection of God as Λόγος (Logos) thus leads to self-limited science and reason; therefore, not only atheism—exemplified in this debate between Richard Dawkins and Hugh Hewitt—but also belief in an irrational god is the biggest opponent to reason and true science.

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