Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The complexities of the trial of Galileo

A popular narrative about Galileo and the Catholic church is it was a simply case of science versus religion, freedom of thought versus censorship and persecution, truth versus superstition, reason and evidence versus blind faith, ....

However, the reality is much more complex. This is nicely described by Lawrence Principe in his lecture course on Science and Religion. A few random points.

The greatest problem for Galileo was caused by his Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems, which considered heliocentrism [Copernicanism] versus geocentrism [Ptolemaic]. However, mostly the booked was concerned with his theory of the tides, which was wrong. He claimed the tides were caused by water sloshing around on the earth caused by its motion, rather than by the motion of the moon [as advocated by Kepler].

Pope Urban was no imbecile and had a philosophically nuanced view of science. He was an instrumentalist, whereas Galileo was a realist. i.e. Urban considered that scientific theories could not reveal how things really are but only produce formulas for describing observations, e.g. the positions of planets.

Galileo was not tactful in his relations, particularly with Pope Urban, who was originally his friend. He was particularly prone to sarcasm. He put some of the Popes views in the words of a character Simplicio [simpleton].

The role of Vatican "censors" was not unlike modern journal editors who send articles out for review.

Galileo never went to jail. Rather, he was under "house arrest" living in a mansion, and still working.

Monday, December 29, 2014

One of my favourite places in Australia.

A week ago I spent a special week hiking in the Kosciuszko National Park [snowy mountains]. This brought back many fond memories from my university [undergraduate] days. Then I did many wonderful hiking and cross country ski trips, ranging from one to six days.

Snowy River near Charlottes Pass
Blue Lake
The Main Range from near Mount Kosciusko
View of The Pilot and Victoria from Dead Horse Track near Thredbo

Wild Brumby near Dead Horse Gap
Mount Jagungal from the North
For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!
Amos 4:13 (ESV)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Something I wish non-scientists knew about scientists

Scientists have diverse philosophical, political, and religious views.
Just like any human community (e.g., Indians, lawyers, Canadians, football fans, ...)

Sometimes people ask me things like: are all scientists (except you) atheists?
Are all scientists political liberals?
Do all scientists believe that ...?

But, when it comes to well established scientific knowledge (Einstein's relativity, genetics, thermodynamics, evolution, climate change, the age of the earth, chemistry, ....) we are united and have the same view. The evidence is overwhelming.

How to interpret that knowledge philosophically is another matter.
Views are diverse. Science is not philosophy. Different interpretations are possible.

A recent book  by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund looked at the diverse religious views of a group of scientists.

For a related issue see
10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Deconstructing the face of evil

I really enjoyed the movie Hannah Arendt. It is based on the true story of the philosopher-political theorist who wrote a controversial account and analysis of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Rather than simply condemn him as a monster, Arendt considered his "mediocrity" and complete lack of humanity with his notions of "loyalty", "just following orders" and bureaucratic procedures. He had lost the ability to actually think and make moral judgements, a defining essence of humanity. This led to her coining the phrase "the banality of evil". Eichmann was "simply doing his job."

The impressive climax of the movie is the speech that Arendt gives to a group of her students, and some of her critical faculty colleagues, where she defends her perspective.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A problem with presuppositional apologetics

Presuppositional apologetics, as advocated by Cornelius Van Til is popular in some circles. Although there are certain sentiments behind it that I have sympathy with, it can be quite problematic, particularly in practical application, and its attitude to secular scholarship.

The latest issue of Science and Christian Belief has a review of a recent book What the Heavens Declare: Science in the Light of Creation by Lydia Jaeger.
The reviewer, William Simpson, has the following valuable insight.
Unfortunately the presuppositional school persistently confuses the ‘order of knowing’ with the ‘order of being’: from the insistence that God is ‘the foundation of everything that exists’, it simply does not follow that we must begin with God’s existence in order to explain anything. 
For example: in the order of being, the university town of St Andrews precedes any road sign that points to it; the one, presumably, would not be present without the other. In the order of knowing, however, the road signs may precede the town for a traveller trying to find his way to it. The theological twist behind the epistemic slip is more serious: in Calvin’s nomenclature, it involves an unbiblical refusal to seek common ground, grounded in common grace, with non-Christians.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Christian physicist on rationality

Andrew Steane is a Professor of Physics at Oxford. He has recently published a book Faithful to Science: The role of religion in Science. I am looking forward to reading it.

On the Oxford University Press site he has an interesting blogpost Questioning the question: religion and rationality. It gives the flavour of his thinking and writing. His blog also explores these issues.