What did the Galileo affair say about science vs. religion?

December 26, 2021 • 11:30 am

Several readers sent me a link to this post by Patrick Casey on the Heterodox Academy blogs because I’m mentioned in it (and in good company too!). It’s an example of what historians of religion (who are often religious) write about all the time. Casey, like other accommodationists, most notably Ronald Numbers, maintains that:

1.) Religion and science are not continually at war with one another (a view called the “conflict hypothesis”), and

2.) The Galileo affair was not an example of the conflict hypothesis. A “nuanced” and complete analysis shows, says Casey, that other factors were involved, including history and philosophy.  This stance is often used to tout accommodationism: the view that science and religion are actually compatible. And it’s often held by people who want to make nice to religion.

I didn’t know of the author, Patrick J. Casey, but he is an assistant professor of philosophy at Holy Family University, a private Roman Catholic University in Philadelphia.  I can’t find him in the faculty directory, but I won’t worry about that; and I have no idea whether, even though he teaches at a religious school, he’s religious. But I won’t psychologize his motivations, I’ll just mention his arguments.

Now I don’t embrace the “simplistic” conflict hypothesis, characterized as arguing that science is continuously at war with religion(see below). Some people like Andrew Dickson and William Draper at the turn of the 20th century did pretty much embrace the “conflict hypothesis,” and I discuss this in Chapter 1 of Faith Versus Fact (p. 5):

The truth lies between Draper and White on one hand and their critics on the other. While it’s undeniable that religion was important in opposing some scientific advances like the theory of evolution and the use of anesthesia, others, like smallpox vaccination, were both opposed and promoted on biblical grounds. On the other hand, it’s a self-serving distortion to say that religion was not an important issue in the persecutions of Galileo and John Scopes. Nevertheless, since not all religions are opposed to science, and much science is accepted by believers, the view that science and faith are perpetually locked in battle is untrue. If that’s how one sees the “conflict thesis,” then that hypothesis is wrong.

But my view is not that religion and science have always been implacable enemies, with the former always hindering the latter. Instead, I see them as making overlapping claims, each arguing that they can identify truths about the universe. As I’ll show in the next chapter, the incompatibility rests on differences in the methodology and philosophy used in determining those truths, and in the outcomes of their searches. In their eagerness to debunk the claims of Draper and White, their critics missed the underlying theme of both books: the failure of religion to find truth about anything—be it gods themselves or more worldly matters like the causes of disease.

As I wrote on Christmas Eve:

My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.

Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and can use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.

So when Casey says that I am one of the promulgators of the “conflict hypothesis”, as below, he’s just wrong. Is he familiar with my writings?  I’ve put the statement in bold below because I’m chuffed to be lumped together with such thoughtful men.

But simplistic narratives like the conflict thesis aren’t innocuous — they can warp our understanding of history (for example, here and here the historians of science Stephen Snobelen and Seb Falk address the myth of the “Medieval Gap,” which is grounded in the conflict thesis, as promulgated by writers like Carl Sagan, Jerry Coyne, and A.C. Grayling).

Nor do I think that Sagan promulgated the simplistic narrative of the “conflict thesis”, and I’m not sure that Grayling ever did (he’s too smart to think that). For this is how Casey defines the “conflict thesis”:

Yet anecdotes about religion suppressing science are part of a broader cultural narrative of conflict where science and religion have been locked in a zero-sum struggle — when science advances, religion is forced to beat a hasty retreat. This view of the historical relationship between science and religion is called “the conflict thesis” (see hereherehere).

Note that all of these videos were made by believers, including the DoSER wing of the AAAS (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion), headed by evangelical Christian Jennifer Wiseman and designed to “to facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities.”

Now, the argument by Casey is that the Galileo affair involves politics and philosophy and religion, and is not as simple as the Pope accepting a Biblically-based geocentric solar system, Galileo touting a heliocentric one, and Galileo going on trial for contradicting the Bible and then being sentenced to lifelong house arrest. Galileo was not tortured, but none of us believe that anyway; he was threatened with torture if he didn’t recant. And of course Galileo insulted the pope by putting the geocentric arguments in the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which surely pissed off the Pope.

Here’s the most important “nuance” that Casey adds to the argument

The Pope was a better scientist than Galileo, for he realized that there were arguments against Galileo’s hypothesis, and he just wanted Galileo to do good science and not assert he had “proof” of heliocentrism. 

I quote Dr. Casey (my emphasis):

In addition to a reasonable desire to keep with the Church’s previous ruling, the pope had a fairly sophisticated philosophical justification for his instruction — one that foreshadows what is now called “the underdetermination thesis” in the philosophy of science. The pope argued that whatever evidence Galileo may have had for heliocentrism, it couldn’t amount to a demonstration or proof of its physical truth, since it is possible for God to bring about whatever was observed through means other than heliocentrism. At the time, an obvious example would have been Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric system, which readily accounted for Galileo’s new observational evidence without needing the objectionable hypothesis of a moving Earth.

In taking this position, the pope was standing in a long tradition in natural philosophy that maintained that the job of astronomers was not to determine what the world was physically like but only to provide useful models for predicting the motions of planets. Stated charitably, the pope was instructing Galileo not to go beyond his evidence.

I love that last sentence: it’s more than charitable; it borders on dissimulation. And it’s FUNNY. And the tradition that astronomers are just supposed to make models and not find truth has long fallen by the wayside.

But Casey goes on.

Unfortunately, when Galileo published his Dialogue, he argued adamantly for the physical truth of heliocentrism, “clearly, though not explicitly” (in the words of Peter Machamer and David Marshall Miller), while sometimes making his opponents seem like idiots. To make matters worse, Galileo foolishly put the pope’s argument about the difficulty of ascertaining final scientific truth into the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which many have taken to be an insult to the pope. The pope was enraged by Galileo’s apparent deceit in defending the physical truth of heliocentrism as an established matter of fact, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to stand trial.

But Casey does admit that there was a conflict between Catholicism and Galileo’s arguments:

For better or worse, the trial of 1633 was not the site of a renewed debate about the status of heliocentrism. Rather, the trial focused on whether Galileo had violated the Church’s instruction not to argue for the physical truth of heliocentrism. In the end, Galileo was forced to recant and sentenced to house arrest at his villa in Florence for the rest of his life.

Is that not a conflict between science and religion? Galileo argued for a physical truth that the Pope didn’t want to hear, ergo he was found guilty.

Casey’s last resort is to deny that the conflict hypothesis predicts eternal enmity and war between religion and science. But that’s a straw man:

Third, and most important, even if this were a clear case of conflict, one incident wouldn’t by itself justify the grand cultural narrative of inexorable conflict between science and religion. Historians of the era have repeatedly pointed out that the Galileo affair was not representative of the norm.

But in the last 80 years or so, nobody said that this kind of conflict was the “norm”. Rather, people like Sagan and I argue that the method of finding truth in science is incompatible with the method of finding “truth” in religion, and this occasionally leads to clashes. The church doesn’t argue against the existence of electrons, or claim that benzene doesn’t have six carbon atoms, or argue against most of science in general, because most of science isn’t relevant to the Bible.

But there’s one important part that is: the story of creation. In particular, the first two chapters of Genesis, which 40% of Americans take literally—with another 33% thinking that God guided evolution. (Total percentage of those thinking God helped create life: 73%.) Only a measly 22% of Americans accept naturalistic evolution (including of humans) the way that we teach it in college. That’s about one in five.

And all modern creationism is, at bottom, rooted in religion: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as other creationist faiths, including Hindusim. There is no creationist or Intelligent Design organization that is not based on religion. And I know of only a single creationist who isn’t religious—David Berlinski (and I have my suspicions about him).  Is this not, then, a palpable conflict between science and religion? Of course it is! I look forward to Dr. Casey’s explanation of why the battle between creationism and evolution in American is much more nuanced than the simplistic narrative that evolution contradicts the Qur’an or the Old Testament.

Why do people like Casey feel compelled to repeat the same old narrative about Galileo? Well, they’re partly right: more than science is involved and lots of misconceptions (e.g., the Church tortured Galileo) litter the field. But I also think that this kind of accommodationism often comes from religious people who admire science, and fear that the “conflict hypothesis” will drive people out of religion since they feel they’re being forced to choose between science and religion.

That’s not the way it works, though.

If you talk to former creationists who became atheists because of science, it’s not because a scientist told them that “they had to choose.” No, you hear that they were curious about science and evolution in particular (often because the subjects were banned), and learned about it. They finally realized that evolution is true and Genesis is false, and, like Samson, this brought down the edifice of their faith. Plus they realized that there’s simply no good evidence for God—far less evidence than we have for the existence of atoms or the fact that infectious diseases are caused by microbes.

82 thoughts on “What did the Galileo affair say about science vs. religion?

  1. [ comment before reading carefully ]

    This unending match-up which extends to astrology etc. needs to consider an important element – the audience.

    I think an audience WANTS to hear something like a music, and all woo including religion can deliver.

    What is the audience for science? I don’t know precisely, but is is quite different from the latter.

  2. > And all creationism is, at bottom, rooted in religion […] There is no creationist or Intelligent Design organization that is not based on religion.

    That’s surprising. There is enough support for the simulation hypothesis, and I could see that as a form of creationism: that mortal computer programmers, bound by the laws of physics of their own universe, may have created/coded our universe. I’ve heard of prominent billionaires looking into whether we live in a simulation, and I suppose it’s possible that scientific research could be done. Maybe.


    It’s one of the comments that used to come up frequently in one of my other atheist groups, until people finally realized how unproductive the conversation was – at least for us non-scientists. We can’t prove or disprove it, so there is no point in even discussing it. Now, whether investigation of whether this is all a simulation constitutes a religion, I think, is a separate matter. I don’t the the definition of ‘religion’ is consistent or useful enough to be worth a label.

      1. Different people have different opinions on it. Just because you or Sabine Hossenfelder (who has got so many things wrong that I‘m writing an article—-for a proper journal—-to point them out) thinks that it is wrong doesn‘t make it wrong. Suffice it to say that it is taken seriously by many physics and philosophers. There might be good arguments against it, but I haven‘t seen any in typical internet discussions.

    1. That’s surprising. There is enough support for the simulation hypothesis,

      There is?
      That’s surprising, as it is fundamentally an utterly useless concept. Say that we are living in a simulation – which has been competently programmed. Then either the simulators choose to allow their simulees (?) to “know” they are in a simulation, or they don’t. At most, all that us simulees can discover about reality is what the simulators have chosen to put into the simulation. Or their bugs – and one would hope that bug-free programming is actually possible. It makes the universe devoid of interest.
      It’s rather like the panspermia hypothesis – sure it may not actually be impossible, or even wrong. But so what – if life on Earth originated elsewhere then all that tells us is that we don’t have any real constraints on where life did originate. By confining ourselves to the hypothesis that life originated where it is currently found, we make a lot more evidence available, allowing a much more interesting argument.
      I suppose I’d have to go an read that article now. I can’t say I’m expecting much of interest from it.

      1. Either we are living in a simulation or not. Either panspermia is the origin of life on Earth or not. Whatever the truth of those two proposals, choosing to ignore an alternative because it would make the universe less interesting to us doesn‘t cut it.

        A man said to the universe:
        “Sir, I exist!”
        “However,” replied the universe,
        “The fact has not created in me
        A sense of obligation.”

        —Stephen Crane


        1. If I’m choosing where to allocate my time and resources, then whether a proposition makes the universe more interesting to me is pretty much the first consideration.
          It’s not as if it’s going to be remembered a generation or ten down the line, is it?

      2. “Late night pub discussion is not a viable theory.”

        – ohh, catty!

        Also the proposition

        “A bigger proposal that builds on this idea is that Earth could be the end of a long stack of simulations. “

        stinks to me of human exceptionalism. Someone doesn’t like the Copernican principal that we are just boringly average in our place in the universe, of a dull and oft-repeated history. “Nothing special” is not how they want history to record their tiny, forgettable mark on the universe.

        Not so much an ad homenim attack, but

        Elon Musk firmly believes in the simulation hypothesis

        Being supported by Musk isn’t exactly the endorsement that some people think it is.

        Nope, I’m still not at home to Mr Simulation Hypothesis. Philosophy at it’s best – which is not a ringing endorsement either.

  3. I have a British Anglican friend who makes this same argument, that the Galileo affair was complicated and not a conflict with science but more about politics. I don’t buy it.

    As you say, it only becomes complicated when a scientific observation conflicts with religious doctrine. There’s no other reason that the Pope would care what Galileo was proposing. Copernicus’ and Galileo’s evidence was irrefutable, but the result was threatening to Church orthodoxy, so the Pope shut Galileo up. He wasn’t interested in further developing the evidence, he wanted it suppressed.

    1. I wish we could come up with a one-liner in response to these “the Galileo affair was nuanced” claims, much like “states’ rights to what?” in response to the Confederate claim that the US Civil War was about states’ rights.

    2. I don’t think Copernicus presented any new evidence at all. His argument was that a heliocentric system could make for simpler calculations than Ptolemy’s epicyclic system. And being confined to a method of calculation and saying nothing about the underlying reality, “The Authorities” could safely ignore him.
      The guy who brought new evidence to the table was Kepler, with some observations he made under Brahe, and a lot more of Brahe’s own records, from which he managed to show his three laws.
      Galileo then brought more new evidence (that anyone could check without making decades of systematic measurements), and had the misfortune to live under the secular authority of the Popes. Bad move!
      Thomas Harriot didn’t publish his evidence, so doesn’t matter.

  4. Galileo’s “sin” was being right when they were wrong.

    The author never addresses the centuries when the mere possession of Galileo’s writings was a capital offense.


    1. Galileo did not have proof with a capital P for his theory. Remember this is pre Newton. His proofs were either unprovable for the time (parallaxes) or completely wrong (tides). It was a useful hypothesis but wouldn’t have passed Karl Popper’s test

  5. … the pope was instructing Galileo not to go beyond his evidence.

    And also “instructing” him not to gather further evidence.


  6. I’ve heard similar arguments dismissing the ‘religious’ reasons for the murder of Giordano Bruno. For instance that he knew he was ‘playing with fire’ when he privately discussed agreeing with Copernicus, and otherwise violating the edges of the ‘cosmology with Catholic characteristics.’ In other words, “the edict against teaching that the universe is infinite is not a religious issue, it is the law of the land. Bruno was a criminal. Ignorance of law is not an excuse, he brought this on himself.”

    He almost got free in Venice, but the Big Boys got wind and extradited him to Rome to face the “major league” Inquisition. They incarcerated him for seven years, cancelled all his attempts to softly defend his position, and finally dragged him out into a public square and burned him alive. You can visit the site of this atrocity today in Italy. There is a statue (ha!) at the very place.

    Oh by the way, they gagged Bruno so he could not shout his truth and defiance as his flesh and hair was burning.

    1. Bruno was tagged with a long list of heresies, and his claims concerning astronomy (that the stars were other suns with planets) was pretty far down the list. Higher up the list were his views that Mary was not a virgin, and that Jesus was not a divine being.

          1. … particularly by the people with the pointy tools and an inclination to use them.
            Might may not make right in a philosophical sense, but it does when someone is holding the blunt end and pointing the pointy end at you.

      1. Yes, he was a trouble maker. Aren’t we all glad the Enlightenment thinkers were agitators, and made trouble for the thousand-year reign of mystic terrorism in Europe? There was no guarantee objectivity and reason would resurface, you know. It was only by the slimmest chance that it did. The trouble makers were heroes of humanity.

        Mark, you do not indicate if your post insinuates any responsibility for Bruno in his brutal tortuous fate, so I won’t say it does. I will ask though … are you saying some form of “he asked for it?”

        1. ? Of course not! Its just that I commonly see people making the rather sensational claim that Bruno was burned because of his views of astronomy. I’ve said the same myself, once upon a time, having read it from someone else. But really his main heresies were for statements that were more direct threats to the primacy of the church. Anyway .. no he did not deserve his fate.

  7. Casey is right. Science and religion are certainly not in conflict.

    I used to be an atheist and I became a theist, in part because of science.

    The most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century were unexpected from a naturalists/materialists/atheists perspective but are expected under theism (the discovery of the big bang which implies that the universe has a beginning, the realization that the constants of physics and initial conditions at the big bang are fine tuned for life, the discovery of quantum mechanics which implies that an objective independentely existing ontology of material objects without concsious obervers is untenable, and the discovery that life is based on a informatic/linguistic digital code). All these discoveries have been resisted initially and continue to be resisted, denied, or ignored by today’s naturalists/materialists/atheists.

    On top of that, science can’t account for the phenomenon of subjective consciousness and for the fact that a physical reality exists at all rather than nothing.

    But anyhow, God is of course not to be found empirically within the plot of nature. God is the author of the novel, not one of its characters. Failure to grasp that basic analogy (the distinction between primary and secondary causes as it is often called) is guaranteed to lead you to one form of fundamentalism or another. Whether one of the kind of Ken Ham or one of the kind of the New Atheists.

    “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

    ― Werner Heisenberg

      1. The basic metaphysical choice one has to make is between two options about the nature of fundamental reality:

        1) Mindlike and purposeful
        2) Mindless and purposeless

        My experience of reality clearly favors option 1).

        Everyone is free to choose between either option.

        1. I disagree. The fundamental metaphysical choice is this:

          1) “existence (reality, the universe) consists of a Phenomenal plane and a Noumenal plane, the first of which is only a poor echo of the second, which is the true ideal often called the supernatural. {Plato}

          2) “existence (reality, the universe) consists of this world of particulars, and only this world of particulars, and each thing possesses a unique finite identity. {Aristotle}

          Never the twain shall meet. Make your choice.

        2. > Mind[like/less] and purpose[ful/less]

          Both of those are meaningless terms. ‘Purpose’ can be ‘goal’ or ‘reasoning’, two very different concepts, but people keep shoehorning them together. ‘Mind’ is such a ridiculously broad spectrum that ‘mindlike’ is a useless term; ask a goldfish or an earthworm.

        3. jobla73, does your experience of reality lead you to see purpose in every event, or in just some events? And is your idea of a god that it is human-centric?

        4. What about
          1a ) Mindlike (but cruel) and purposeful (inflicting suffering).

          I’ve never understood why the god-squaddies assume that their choice of god is lovey-dovey sweetness and light, instead of the sadistic monster that his proponents wrote into their holy books.

    1. I doubt there is any way to persuade you differently. But you clearly are cherry picking through-out to get to your goal. I will only comment that the universe does not need to be fine tuned after all, and that realization is pretty old now. See for example The Fallacy of Fine Tuning by Victor Stenger (there is lots of math in that book, but one can skip that to follow the full story well enough). The gist of it is the the initial claims for F.T. assumed that one could nudge a constant to a different value, and that other values would not also be changed accordingly, resulting in an evolving universe that cannot lead to life. Not so, it turns out!
      There is another argument against F.T., which is that we could be in a multiverse with different physical laws and of course we are in one that is “just right”, while most are not. Although a multiverse seems pretty far fetched to some, not too long ago the idea that there were other galaxies and a Big Bang also seemed pretty crazy. A multiverse is predicted by the best model that we have about what caused the Big Bang in the first place.
      Anyway, not knowing about these things is in a way forgivable since its very common that popular media will push the Big Splashy Ideas, like a F.T. universe, but when the decidedly unsexy complications and retractions start to appear, well, that doesn’t get nearly as much attention.

      1. Oh Dear,

        There’s a large consensus among serious physicists (many of which are atheists) that fine tuning is real. Among these, Martin Rees, Bernard Carr, Leonard Susskind, Geraint Lewis, Luke Barnes, Robin Collins, Brian Greene. One of the best recent book on the topic is “A fortunate universe” by Lewis and Barnes. Lewis is an atheist by the way. I highly recommend it to anyone interested.

        You really shouldn’t rely on Stenger about fine tuning. He’s considered a crank. If you’re really interested by this topic, it would be a shame if you were led astray by someone like Stenger… At least look at the physics yourself !

        “A multiverse is predicted by the best model that we have about what caused the Big Bang in the first place.”

        I’m afraid you’re very confused about this issue. First of all, there is no such thing as a “model of what caused the Big Bang”. No one has the slightest clue about what “caused” the big bang.

        About the multiverse, there’s absolutely no reason to think that any such thing exists. The ideas commonly invoked in support of this (inflaton fields in the case of the inflationnary multiverse, and one dimensional strings in the case the string landscape) are completely speculative ideas developped to solve theoretical issues, not empirical ones.

        There are two fundamental laws of phyiscs, and this has been the case for about a century now. Quantum mechanics (or quantum field theory) and general relativity. None of which implies a multiverse…

        1. I always found the ‘fine tuning’ argument excessively weak. If fine tuning of these constants is necessary, it is inevitable that our universe has them.
          As Pangloss said: “Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”

    2. The Standard Model of Cosmology does not imply that the universe has a beginning. It is a classical model that describes the post Planck-era expansion of the universe. So we have to careful about using implicitly temporal words like ‘beginning’.

      1. According to our best theory of gravity, which is the relevant physical force to consider while modeling the universe, because we know the universe is expanding, when you extrapolate back in time, you end up at a singularity, before which there is no spacetime.

        Now you’re free to speculate about possible quantum effects, but as far as our best proven physics goes, the universe began about 13.8 billion years ago.

        1. but as far as our best proven physics goes, the universe began about 13.8 billion years ago

          No, according to our best proven physics – up to the study of high energy cosmic rays (a handful of orders of magnitude more powerful than toys like the Large Hadron Collider) – the universe had a hot, dense state about 13.8 billion years ago. Beyond that – in Stephen Weinberg’s book title, in the first several seconds – we’re beyond the physics that are experimentally or observationally available to us.
          Oddly, physicists know this. Even if journalists and “science writers” struggle with it.

        2. No. The universe as described by a classical model — which we know does not apply at small scales — has been expanding for about 13.8 billion years. The word ‘began’ need not make sense in a more general model. The same goes for words like ‘before’ and ‘space time’. The singularity signals the breakdown of the theory.

    3. The Big Bang isn’t expected under theism, as you would know if you read Aquinas or Anselm or anyone else.

      The simple fact of the matter is that theism *can’t* expect anything, because expecting opens it up to disproof.

      As for the Heisenberg quote, is there any purpose to it other than smugly declaring to atheists that you consider yourself superior?

      1. The point is that a universe with a beggining is much more easily reconciled with theism than with atheism. That’s uncontroversial and that’s why for example atheist physicists like Fred Hoyle were so hostile to the big bang when it was stil being debated up until the 1960’s.

            1. I told you earlier that you were trying to dominate the thread with your own concerns, and nevertheless, you persisted. I suggest that if I ask you to stop something, you do it.

              Read the posting Roolz on the left, which you apparently didn’t. Do not post on this thread any more. I have put you in moderation, so be civil and ton’t try to hijack a comments section, especially with your ideas about the existence of God.

        1. As pointed out above, the word ‘beginning’ could be nonsensical in this context. That the Big Bang is ‘easily reconciled’ with theism is neither here nor there. It is not difficult to construct grammatically correct nonsense that can be ‘reconciled’ with the Big Bang.

          I think it is important to admit that we don’t know the answers to these early-cosmology questions. We may not even know the right questions. Early in the development of quantum mechanics, we realized that classical language was sometimes inappropriate for the formulation of physics questions. For example, the concept of the trajectory of a particle is different in quantum mechanics, so asking for the trajectory of an electron inside an atom is meaninglessness — the meaning of the question is, at the very least, different. That is why we should be careful when using current language to pose questions about things unknown — there is a danger of using words that are no longer meaningful.

    4. On top of that, science can’t account for the phenomenon of subjective consciousness and for the fact that a physical reality exists at all rather than nothing.

      Science can’t answer those questions yet. I don’t see anything fundamental about that that says science can never answer the questions.

      On the other hand, religion can’t ever answer any questions because it has no methodology for finding out if the answers it gives are right. You say “God is the author of the novel”. OK How can you find out of it is true?

      Religion and science both make guesses about how the World works but only science demands that you test your guesses to find out if they are right and that is why science has improved the lot of humanity and religion (or at least some religions) is still executing people with inconvenient opinions.

      1. You say “God is the author of the novel”. OK How can you find out of it is true?

        Could we find out whose bank account cashes the royalty cheques?

    5. I know this user’s comments are in moderation, and cannot necessarily respond, but I suggest an important concept, from an important holy man, indeed, a man of the church – Reverend Thomas Bayes – the concept of updating beliefs.

      Bayesian inference has been critical for understanding and solving problems, and is related to likelihood. Starting with the premise that our ancient ancestors had, that of a supernatural influence on the world, we have so much more to point at and incorporate in our understanding of Nature than our ancestors. The premise of supernaturalism is understandable, but the updated belief which leaves it unchanged is simply ignorant – in a strict sense, not personally in the invective “ignorant”.

  8. Our host’s distinction between the methods of science and religion is indisputable. But the Roman Catholic Church has long held attitudes toward science that are either subtler, or fuzzier, or at least more heterogeneous, than the simplest version of the Galileo affair suggests. The Accademia dei Lincei, which was explicitly dedicated to furthering knowledge through science, had among its members not only Galileo but also some priests, at least one Jesuit, writers on theology, and one Chamberlain to the Pope (Virginio Cesarini). The Accademia supported Galileo, its most prominent member, in his earlier dispute with the Roman Inquisition, and published his “Letters on Sunspots” and “The Assayer”.

    Some historians suggest that Galileo could have gotten away with presenting the heliocentric case if he had slyly limited it to being just a subject for discussion—as the format of the “Dialogue” implies. But when he put opposition to heliocentrism in the mouth of the character named Simplicio, he pushed the envelope too far for Pope Urban VIII. The Pope was instructing Galileo not to be a wise-ass. The political context of the time included the Church’s conduct of the Counter-Reformation, and the 30-Years’ War between Catholic and Protestant forces in central Europe. After that finally ended, with a
    sort-of Catholic-Protestant cold truce, the Church tended toward a more neutral policy in regard to science. Much later, Pope John Paul II admitted, after only 359 years, that Galileo had been correct.

    1. Besides, many great scientists were catholics, including members of the clergy.
      Lets not forget that the founder of genetics was a catholic friar and the discoverer of the big bang theory was a catholic priest…

      1. This is an invalid argument as no one argued religious people can’t do science, as you would know if you’ve read the post. The argument is that the methods of science and the methods of religion are contradictory. Did Mendel or Lemaître use religious methods to show the truth of their discoveries?

        1. The methods cannot be contradictory since they don’t address the same kind of issues. One address a metaphysical issue, the other, physical issues.

  9. It is clear that Galileo was tried for doing science against the will of the religious institutions of the time [Wikipedia]:

    Galileo was prosecuted for his support of heliocentrism, the astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun at the centre of the universe.

    Here then we have a philosopher that argues against history of a religious institution. By his own words it declared on Galileo’s hypothesis that it “couldn’t amount to a demonstration or proof of its physical truth”. Which was wrong, e.g. Galileo observed the Galilean moons of Jupiter. And instead it wanted to declare its own “physical truth”.

    It reads like


    I found it funny that philosophy has stolen mathematical terminology of equation systems as some sort of untested and irrelevant “thesis”. If a system can be modeled by equations there are several possible outcomes of more or less helpful nature, but that isn’t a thesis as much as the nature of the beast (science).

    Off topic, but you know what I think of this:

    there’s simply no good evidence for [magic]

    There is now good evidence against magic – nature is 100 % a result of a natural process [LCDM cosmology]. You can of course always hide behind irrelevant “possibility” as Dr. Casey suggested was done against Galileo – but it isn’t based on evidence and it isn’t science. It is a way of not knowing.

    1. +1 on the evidence of magic. I’m of the opinion that “no evidence” is poor (or even malicious) scientific communication that conflates “we have no idea but we want you to think this is false” with “evidence against”.

      In this case, we have evidence against magic.

      1. Alternative Evidence
        Complementary Evidence
        Other Ways of Obtaining Evidence

        Works great in the court of law – for going to jail.

  10. Two thoughts on Galileo:

    1. Casey asserts that “popular culture” says, incorrectly, that Galileo was tortured, but he provides no evidence that “popular culture” says any such thing. I can’t ever recall having heard that, and a quick search shows that while the question of whether Galileo was tortured was a live debate in the late 19th century, it hasn’t been for decades. A 1951 paper in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada notes “There was no physical torture, there was no dungeon, but no humiliation was spared him.” Casey’s assertion is a straw man to show that his targets– Sagan, Grayling, and Jerry, one supposes– are being unreasonable in saying that Galileo was tortured. But no one has said that for a long time; it’s Casey who is trying to keep this claim alive, so he can tar his opponents.

    2. There is always a richness of detail, nuance, and context in any historical event of note. As I’ve had occasion to note here at WEIT, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Crow fought on Custer’s side against the Sioux, and this has important and interesting ramifications for understanding the battle, its causes, and its consequences for all involved. But these understandings do not detract from the overriding fact that the Plains Indian Wars were fought by the U.S. Army against the Plains Indians in order to allow white settlement of the Indians’ lands. There were many factors dividing the antebellum North and the South, but the cause of the Civil War was slavery. And Galileo’s personal relationships with Pope Urban and Cardinal Bellarmine are interesting, as are Galileo’s uses of humor in his writings, and the question in philosophy of science of instrumentalism vs. realism. But, bottom line, the Galileo affair is a case of the Church requiring a scientist to recant his views because they conflicted with those of the Church authorities.


    1. Interesting – I can’t remember what Tyson says in the Cosmos update on this but would likely be exactly what Sagan said. That, I’d guess, counts as “popular culture”.

  11. We can’t prove or disprove it

    You like to make these overreaching claims, but we obviously don’t know that or there wouldn’t be a discussion.

    It is easy to see that we can’t simulate to the precision of real numbers (infinite decimals), so it is in principle possible to test. And there are papers that model how to do that.

    The problem is perhaps that this is a philosophic argument, and like Simplicio some people then want to hide behind endless “possibilities” of deception. If so you can’t rationally argue against a conspiracy theory, since people didn’t use rationality to argue themselves into it in the first place.

  12. Perhaps we could settle this by creating and widely disseminating an annotated list of all those scientific and mathematical discoveries that religion, without the aid of Science, has given us?

    1. A list of the fruit that the tree root has produced without the aid of the branches would also be blank. But the fruit is owed to the root as much as to the branches, as a matter of logical priority.

      The natural sciences rest on the foundation of philosophy, and in the case of the West’s wildly successful sciences, a particular philosophical stream that began with the first Christians’ encounters with the inheritors of Socrates.

      It was not an accident that, despite the politics, pains and ugliness, as a matter of history, universities and science emerged from the Church (see Deacon Galileo et al). Western science rests on the Christian philosophical conviction that the universe is ultimately intelligible and that we are meant to know it. Western scientists, even those unaware of the philosophical presuppositions of the society and academy in which they were raised, have approached discovery with the eagerness of a child tearing open a present under the tree. What cost atheism?

      A delicate point: Most of the Atheist scientists I have known have not derived their Atheism from science, but rather brought it to science – or found with relief other scientists willing to make that argument, because it allowed them to jettison the uncomfortable presence of God.

      That doesn’t make them singular. All have fallen short. But the huge number of successful and notable Catholic scientists certainly proves, on the field of science, that there is no incompatibility, indeed an affinity, between the two.

      Christmas is a good time to recall that God is not an awful judge, as poor Christopher Hitchens feared, but a humble being, more humble than we. He has come not to judge, but to take us into himself. Merry Christmas.

      1. You clearly don’t know how I see incompatibility. Read Faith Versus Fact before you make the blanket statement that science and religion are incompatibe. As for an affinity? Piffle!

        You also clearly believe in God. Before you comment further, could you give us the evidence that drove you to that belief? And, if you’re a Christian, have you decided that that is the best religion? If you’d been born in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim. Those faiths are incompatible.

      2. Christmas is a good time to recall that God is not an awful judge, as poor Christopher Hitchens feared, but a humble being, more humble than we.

        But that is precisely how the biographers of this god – whether authorised or unauthorised – represent him. Evil, sadistic, judgemental and genocidal – to his followers and their enemies. Something to scare the children with when you want them to be gibbering in terror in their beds instead of annoying the adults.

      3. A claim that Christianity (Aquinas?) set the table for science is worth refuting and easily accomplished.

        However, I’d rather pose this: If so, does Christianity also take credit for the 600 years prior to the University of Paris? AKA “the Dark Ages?”

        The Hellenistic world was still alive in 400 CE in Alexandria. The combination of Rome’s brutality and Christian zeal to annihilate the hated Greek objectivity/reason let the Dark descend.

        I hope you have a good answer. Hypatia is waiting to hear it.

  13. “37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]”
    From the papal encyclical Humani Generis of Pope Pius XII promulgated on 12 August 1950.

    This passage of authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church, cast more or less in stone by the nature of its promulgation, is indeed in conflict with science.

  14. Stated charitably, the pope was instructing Galileo not to go beyond his evidence.

    That’s correct. When Giordano Bruno proposed his outrageous thesis, did the church respond in the same unduly manner? No, instead they asked kindly. But you atheists often make much ado over a little fire. Only once was the church’s behaviour towards critics and heretics portrayed correctly, by a british historical reenactment troupe:

    “Cardinal! `Poke her with a soft cushion!”
    “Fetch … the comfy chair!”


    1. Outrageous thesis? Really? Bruno made theological claims the Church considered heretical. And that mostly meant to be invited to the Church’s barbecue as the main course. But so did Martin Luther and so did and do Protestants. They all held and still hold heretical positions in the eye of the Church punishable anathema or worse. It shows one thing: Arguing over theology, on occasion violently, is a favorite pastime in Christendom

  15. No matter what you say, drag into it, or show lowbrow comedy against, the entirety of the Church’s response was: “Burn him alive for his beliefs.” There is no counter to that. No ado which can be too much. No mercy in excoriation for the brutal raw reality that is theism.

  16. [My post just above starting “no matter what you say…” was intended to be a response to Aneris. I hit “Reply” so I don’t know why it started a fresh comment number.]

  17. If revealed religion were actually true religious apologetics would not be necessary and hence would not even exist. Theists are always ready to defend their belief in magic, especially using the opposite of careful scholarship since their best argument was taken away centuries ago in civilized countries. Of course the less civilized countries continue to use that “best” argument (disagree and you die).

  18. Galileo was not tortured, but none of us believe that anyway; he was threatened with torture if he didn’t recant.

    I’ve generally taken the “showing of the instruments of torture” as having about the same weight as “reading one’s (Miranda) rights” in a cop movie – it’s a part of the procedure, a tee to be dotted and an eye to be crossed and a box to be ticked (or de-loused?); it doesn’t actually mean anything of substance.
    In the same vein, “Mirandising” does not, for example, protect the accused from being lied to by the police. That surprises some people. In the opposite direction, after not being “Mirandised”, Americans sometimes get very huffy about not being “allowed a phone call”. In Englandshire, you can nominate someone for the custody officer to contact and inform of your detention, but in Scotland you don’t even get that as a right. To find out if you’re in detention, you might have to fill out a missing person report. (That may have changed with the regional police forces being merged into one force – I’d have to check.
    Different countries have different systems. That doesn’t make one particular system intrinsically worse than another. The Renaissance Papal States (several centuries before “Italy”) included a tour of the torture chambers – but that didn’t mean they were going to use the gear, they were just letting you know that it’s on their list of “available techniques. Do the American police put you in an interview room with “the police can lie to you” painted on the wall?
    I note GCM’s comment upthread, and “There was no physical torture, there was no dungeon, but no humiliation was spared him.” is very much how police questioning works, at least in Britain. Different humiliations are allowed in different countries.

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