Galileo and the Book of Nature

January 22, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 2:05 pm   Category: orthodox,Scriptures,Truth

A while back, Morgan over at BCC wrote a fantastic post about Galileo and his immense influence on modern science.  While the post was fantastic and well worth reading, it was somewhat tangential to the interests that I have in the “Galileo event”.  Yes, Galileo was a major figure in promoting heliocentrism, and the mathematization of natural philosophy, and a theory of gravity, etc. and, NO, I am not interested in defending the Catholic Church in any way or getting into the historical details and political intrigue surrounding the inquisition.  I am, however, very interested in using him as an example of the ways in which reason and science can come into conflict with religious authority.  I’m not sure that the case gives us clear advice on how to negotiate such tensions, but it does give us a clearer map of the terrain.

It’s very easy to see Galileo as a clear case of progressive reason being vindicated  against the authorities and prejudices that riled against him.  Again, since I’m not at all invested in that particular authority and or those particular traditions, I have nothing against this.  All the same, we should not allow ourselves to be too uncritical in our praise of Galileo and our appropriation of his metaphors and rhetoric.  This is especially the case with his “Book of Nature” metaphor.

The BBC post quotes Galileo as follows:

“Philosophy [i.e. physics] is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”

Galileo believed there to be two books of truth that God had given to us: 1) the Book of Scripture which has been written and interpreted by religious authorities, and 2) the Book of Nature which has been written in the language of mathematics and as such open to all you can read that language.  He insists the the truth of each book must, somehow or another, be fully consistent with the truth of the other.  From these claims follow what has become a fairly standard approach to the relationship between religion and science to the extent the same metaphors and claims can be found within the church.  Again, I am not necessarily hostile to the meaning that most people bring to these claims today, but I do want to insist that Galileo meant something very different than what we usually mean.

For starters, the proclaimed unity of science and scripture is by no means an invitation to inclusive harmony between the two sides.  Instead, it is a premise, accepted by both sides of the science/religion debate, by which each side demotes or excludes the claims made by the other.  From the religious side, they will speak of “‘true’ science” or “science, so called” and other such euphemisms that amount to “They’re wrong, and God will one day show them the error of their ways.  So, in the mean time, do not place too  much trust in them.”  The other side uses this same exact premise to label those passage of scripture that cannot be squared with science as “metaphorical”, “morally true” or some other euphemism for “less than completely true.”  Each side uses the idealized harmony of religion and science, not to show that they themselves are true and infallible, but to keep the other side from being the judge of and possibly falsifying their own claims.

Secondly, when Galileo said that the Book of Nature was written in the language of mathematics, he did not mean that math in general is really, really useful for studying nature.  He meant something much, much stronger than that.  By “mathematics” Galileo meant specifically “Euclidean geometry” and by the “language of nature” he meant it in a very deep, Pythagorean way.  In other words, Galileo is claiming that the natural world is the literal embodiment of Euclidean geometry.  Furthermore, since Euclidean geometry is demonstrably true in the sense of being a deductively sound system and since the axioms of Euclidean geometry are embodied within and therefore true of reality, then a Euclidean model of the world gives us truth in the exact same qualitative (although not quantitative) sense that God knows it.  Euclidean geometry, then, gives us knowledge of truth that is deductively certain, universal in scope and necessarily true for any and all possible observers.  This is an enormously strong claim that not only pretends to infallibility, but was seriously undermined with the invention of non-Euclidean geometries – like the one that Einstein used.

Given these two perspectives, we can more easily see why Galileo was bound to come into conflict with the church.  If a Euclidean geometry gives us God’s knowledge of reality and it the scripture contradicts it, then the latter quite obviously has to be demoted in some sense.  Within this context, it is worth mentioning that if Galileo had taken the “Book of Nature” metaphor in the way that we usually accept it today – saying that this particular mathematical model makes some elegant and breathtakingly confirmed predictions in the astronomical data, the interpretation of which is open to various interpretations –  it is not at all clear that the church would have acted the way they did.  This interpretation, however, sends up warning flags for those who are today on Galileo’s side since “mathematical model that is open to interpretation” also sounds like (is?) a demotion of sorts.

I hope by now the tension between science and religion is becoming clear, especially as it is expressed rather than dissolved in the idealized harmony of “true” science with “true” religion.  The first side wants to shake off those scare quotes by resisting an instrumental interpretation of scientific knowledge.  The other side wants to shake off their own scare quotes by resisting a metaphorical interpretation of religious knowledge.  Both sides today admit that they are fallible, but neither one is willing to allow the other side to be the judge of that fallibility.  Of course, us Mormons all reject both the authority of the Catholic Church and its geocentric model of times past, but this does not dissolve the tension that lies at the heart of the Galileo event.  We still find ourselves confronted with a tension between the ways in which science teaches us to read the book of nature and the ways in which priesthood authorities (that we do accept) teach us to read the book of scripture.


  1. Now that I have conceded that your project of opposing authority and reason and science is useful for a certain audience, I’m going to continue my attempt to convince you that a much broader audience is affected by change in worldviews and life options (ways of justification included) brought about by technology than by the science.

    Fro example, its not the opposition of science and reason that leads people from authority, its the considerable ground where religious authority has given up authority that leads religious authority to look less convincing in its own sphere.

    To me, the key point of the Galileo story is the telescope and looking through the telescope, not the science that explained anything. Scripture doesn’t address what is seen in the telescope.

    One common way of addressing this in our day is to say that “that stuff isn’t important” or “that won’t lead us to our Father” or “that doesn’t tell one how to act” or “don’t get caught up in the mysteries”.

    But in practice in turns out that it often does matter in a lot of ways. It is very hard, even for religious authorities to be “in the world but not of the world”.

    You seem surprisingly willing to concede that religious authority admits its fallibility. I don’t think it has conceded any such thing, but in practice there does seem to be some retreat from literalism in discourse.

    I’ve used before the example of the literal gathering of Israel example but that doesn’t seem to interest you, so I’ll go a different way.

    So, two obvious ways where technology has expanded the “world” is the very small and the very large. We can experience the very small and very large in ways that were not available when scripture was written and modern authorities rarely discuss them. Effectively, we have no way of telling what scripture says about these new areas of sensation. One can try to apply general scriptural terms to these situations “the world means the universe” or the scriptural reference to “man’s ways” means any way the a man may potentially act, even if that man is no longer just a man, but say a “man plus a telescope”.

    The best i can tell based on your “never in a million years” comment is that you conceive of the spiritual world and the pre-existence and resurrection and Kolob or whatever else as unknowable by man with mans powers of sensation. I don’t know why you think that, but likely its based on your interpretation of certain words and experiences that you have had.

    So to get more pragmatic in examples, the area where there is the most immediate intersect between religion and technology is in medical, psychological and biological areas.

    Take the new missionary booklet, it contains considerable input from non-religious authority on nutrition and emotional health, etc. Psychiatrists contributed substantially to it.

    So, from your point of view in terms of justification, all that is beside the point. The religious authority has conceded that area and it doesn’t conflict there is no issue.

    But I think it has tremendous effects on people’s lived experience and relation to authority.

    What is the “meaning” of depression for example. There is no clear connection and dividing point between the medical, the social, the moral and the religious in the experience of depression.

    Religious authority is just one voice among many in how to cope. Religious authority isn’t usually trying to make distinctions here, in general it uses all the tools and I would say there is a very broad range of interpretations of how depression relates to moral obligation. When is one “excused” from performing duties due to illness from depression. There are people who say never and people who say it depends and people who say always and the religious authorities tread carefully here.

    But do you really want to say that depression isn’t that “meaningful” in the big scheme of things?

    This is where I think the fact that religious leaders have conceded ground (or now look ill-informed or counterfactual in their claims) has major implications for the perception of authority.

    Your approach is to focus on religious authority being justified in its own way, separate from reason.

    But this seems very much at odds with the pragmatics of say, “what do i do about depression?” Pragmatically, it seems very fair to use an empirical measure of effectiveness (we could study the results by bishop and see what has been effective) but I think this is “out of bounds” on your way of thinking. Paradoxically it seems like you are OK with religion having a narrow sphere of authority and I’m thinking things only stick together if religion has a universal and all-encompassing sphere.

    Anyway, remember this is not a critique of your main project, it is trying to convince that your project needs to be expanded to meet real-world pragmatic tests of how religious authority is experienced and perceived.

    Comment by Martin James — January 23, 2015 @ 9:17 am

  2. Well, I was more focused on the point that Galileo was making, rather than the way he made it. But a focus on the latter doesn’t make him look so good either.

    “Scripture doesn’t address what is seen in the telescope.”

    Actually, you have it exactly backwards. The most defensible theory at the time, from the perspective of the Catholic Church, was not the geocentric model of Ptolemy, but the geocentric model of Tycho Brahe – and model that was empirically indistinguishable from Copernicus’s heliocentric model. Galileo conveniently forget to mention this third great world system in his book since he had no evidence whatsoever to refute it. Thus, what was seen in the telescope didn’t address what was in scripture.

    “its the considerable ground where religious authority has given up authority that leads religious authority to look less convincing in its own sphere.”

    You might be right. I”m simply haven’t given much thought to that issue since it seem pretty tangential to the points I am trying to make.

    “But in practice in turns out that it often does matter in a lot of ways.”

    I completely agree…. hence my appeal to pragmatism. Although I haven’t really gone very deep into my pragmatism in this forum. That’s a project that I’ve kept a little more private.

    “You seem surprisingly willing to concede that religious authority admits its fallibility.”

    When have I ever said otherwise? My point has always been that each side admits fallibility, it’s just reluctant to allow its competitors the privilege of measuring that fallibility.

    “So, two obvious ways where technology has expanded the “world” is the very small and the very large.”

    You seem to be implying that I think science is bad. Nothing could be further from the truth. My point is that no matter how good science is, there is always an extra step that is needed for us to call it “true” and it is this extra step that puts it in conflict with religious authorities. This exact same argument goes the other way as well, when secularists argue that no matter how good the Bible and its teachings are, we need an extra step to call it “truth” and this step is what puts it in conflict with science. I’m arguing that this same strategy goes both ways.

    “I think this is “out of bounds” on your way of thinking.”

    This is not the point, though. Both science and religion have conceded that the other is better suited to some tasks, so the fact that some things are “out of bounds” to each is irrelevant. What matters is who gets to decide those boundaries? The fact that authorities allow science to have certain issues is not different than a bishop allowing somebody else to speak in sacrament meeting in that he is still presiding whether he is the one speaking or not.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 23, 2015 @ 9:53 am

  3. I know this is tangential to your points, I just don’t think it is tangential to the issue of why people downgrade religious authority.

    In other words, its not that science contradicts religion, its that science has helped create a lot of areas where religion seems irrelevant.

    If one likes looking through telescopes, religion just doesn’t play much of a role. This is where I am conceding you that authority defines what true is. And then I’m saying people don’t care that much about what is true, they care about how they spend their time.

    Its the relevance of religious authority that I think is the big issue not the authority of religious authority.

    You are correct that for a particular type of mormon, understanding that science doesn’t apply to religious truth claims or mormon authority is relevant, but I think those are a very small minority of people affected by “modernization” or “secularization”.

    To use an extreme analogy, one could argue that in a Hockey fight, the hockey authorities should rule not the legal authorities and there are arguments both ways. And I’m arguing that it doesn’t matter that the Hockey authorities get to define what is legitimate if people decide not to play hockey at all based on preferences about violence that come from outside hockey.

    You are making an insider’s case for religious authority and I think the decision to be an insider or an outsider is not just an insider’s argument.

    Comment by Martin James — January 23, 2015 @ 10:58 am

  4. I think I understand and agree with you. You’re saying that inasmuch as the tension between science and religion is an issue, I’m probably right, or at least helpful. Unfortunately (for me), this tension is usually not the issue and my posts do nothing for such people. If that’s what you’re saying, then I agree. My goal has definitely been to block science from pulling people out of religion. Inasmuch as people are already outside of religion, or that they’re leaving for other reasons, my posts are of little help (they might even hurt a little bit). I would agree with all of that.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 23, 2015 @ 11:08 am

  5. Well, close. I would science as it relates to truth claims you are right. But I think science as it relates to technology and changing everyday life, then I don’t think it helps. Furthermore, I think separating religion and science in order to help keep religion’s truth claims “pure” in the long run hastens secularization.

    That is why I originally was arguing so much for authority’ need to be correct rather than correct by definition. In my revised way of looking at it, I’m saying religious authorities need to be relevant to our total experience including science to avoid being irrelevant.

    You can certainly see LDS authorities acting on that in the social media sphere – trying to participate and be relevant in that way. In science, I think it is been more benign neglect, but in areas like whether people are Gay by nature, it got away from them a little bit. There seems to be some vague recognition of sexual orientation as not being a religious question while maintaining the religious prohibitions on sex outside of marriage. While I see this as a logically consistent position it doesn’t seem fair to many people and also leaves religious people about what science legitimately tell us about who we are. Its a bit of a hash, which gives off a faint odor of expedience.

    I don’t think “in” and “out” of the church is that clear on all the messy science/everyday living/religion issues that I’m talking about. That’s why I used the depression example. Its an awkward conversation for a lot of people regardless of how In or out of the church they are.

    Comment by Martin James — January 23, 2015 @ 11:23 am