Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ratzinger on Relativity (Not Relativism)

From our old pal Joseph, in 1990:
In the last decade, creation’s resistance to allowing itself to be manipulated by humanity has emerged as a new element in the overall cultural situation. The question of the limits of science, and the criteria which it must observe, has become unavoidable.

Particularly emblematic of this change of intellectual climate, it seems to me, is the different way in which the Galileo case is seen.

This episode, which was little considered in the 18th century, was elevated to a myth of the Enlightenment in the century that followed. Galileo appeared as a victim of that medieval obscurantism that endures in the Church. Good and evil were sharply distinguished. On the one hand, we find the Inquisition: a power that incarnates superstition, the adversary of freedom and conscience. On the other, there’s natural science represented by Galileo: the force of progress and liberation of humanity from the chains of ignorance that kept it impotent in the face of nature. The star of modernity shines in the dark night of medieval obscurity.

Today, things have changed.

According to [Ernst] Bloch, the heliocentric system – just like the geocentric – is based upon presuppositions that can’t be empirically demonstrated. Among these, an important role is played by the affirmation of the existence of an absolute space; that’s an opinion that, in any event, has been cancelled by the Theory of Relativity. Bloch writes, in his own words: ‘From the moment that, with the abolition of the presupposition of an empty and immobile space, movement is no longer produced towards something, but there’s only a relative movement of bodies among themselves, and therefore the measurement of that [movement] depends to a great extent on the choice of a body to serve as a point of reference, in this case is it not merely the complexity of calculations that renders the [geocentric] hypothesis impractical? Then as now, one can suppose the earth to be fixed and the sun as mobile.

Curiously, it was precisely Bloch, with his Romantic Marxism, who was among the first to openly oppose the [Galileo] myth, offering a new interpretation of what happened: The advantage of the heliocentric system over the geocentric, he suggested, does not consist in a greater correspondence to objective truth, but solely in the fact that it offers us greater ease of calculation. To this point, Bloch follows solely a modern conception of natural science. What is surprising, however, is the conclusion he draws: “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.”

If both the spheres of conscience are once again clearly distinguished among themselves under their respective methodological profiles, recognizing 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 Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.”

From the point of view of the concrete consequences of the turning point Galileo represents, however, C.F. Von Weizsacker takes another step forward, when he identifies a “very direct path” that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb.

To my great surprise, in a recent interview on the Galileo case, I was not asked a question like, ‘Why did the Church try to get in the way of the development of modern science?’, but rather exactly the opposite, that is: ‘Why didn’t the church take a more clear position against the disasters that would inevitably follow, once Galileo had opened Pandora’s box?’

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 …

Here, I wished to recall a symptomatic case that illustrates the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology.
I think Ratzinger makes some very good points here. Adopting a world-view based purely on the ease of calculations rather than due to a divine (or even just humanist) perspective is the beginning of pure naturalism and materialism. The whole "Galileo" narrative stirred up in the past couple centuries is essentially a political and ideological one.

Of course, neither he nor I are claiming that Aristotelian physics was "right" overall (it is wrong on many points!) nor that it is essential to the Faith (though, the reason Galileo was put on trial for the question of orbit and not, say, his proving heavier things don't fall faster than lighter ones...clearly had more to do with Scripture than with Aristotle). Still, this video may help those not naturally inclined to Physics understand why "the earth revolves around the sun" and "the sun revolves around the earth" are ultimately equally valid formulations (albeit the latter requires to much more complicated calculations regarding the other planets):


James Kabala said...

I can't help but think that His Future Holiness was cheating a little bit (and so are you). Yes, games with frame of reference are valid at the deepest level, but the everyday meaning of movement is valid as well.

Imagine a car driving past a house - yes, in some sense the house is moving in relation to the car, but if someone were to insist that saying the house is moving is the best way to put it and that anyone who says it makes more sense to treat the car as moving is succumbing to "pure naturalism and materialism," most people (including off-duty scientists) would not find that very convincing.

A Sinner said...

Ah, but your example proves our very point!

Namely that, to human common sense, it is the EARTH which is taken as the frame of reference, the stable and seemingly unmoving point of reference for other motion.

It wouldn't just have to be the house moving and not the car, it would have to be the WHOLE EARTH moving "under" the car. And while this is a valid frame of reference too, yes, humans seem to naturally consider the earth stable.

When looking up at the sky, we don't think of the sun standing still and the earth simply turning away from it. No, we perceive the sun as moving across the sky. And from the human frame of reference which takes the earth as the unmoving point, this makes perfect sense and is TRUE.

Your example PROVES our point: it is counter-intuitive for humans to not take the Earth as the stable frame of reference, and so to do so in spite of that, to adopt the abstract frame of reference of some imaginary creature hovering over the Sun and taking it as unmoving (though it isn't either, it moves around the galactic center, etc etc) for pure ease of calculations, is a sort of bowing to naturalism/materialism in science.

James Kabala said...

But it is the gravity of the Sun that holds the solar system (hence the name) together and keeps in the planets in their orbits (just as the gravity of the Earth keeps the Moon in its orbit; therefore it is most logical to say the Moon revolves around the Earth). All the scientific evidence points to planets forming around stars, not vice versa.

Regardless, I think that making speculation about a matter dealt with in fewer than half a dozen Biblical verses (all of which expect the Joshua incident are clearly in poetic contexts) into a prosecutable offense was an error - not the monstrous crime of secularist myth, but an error.

A Sinner said...

I think what is the "most logical" way to SPEAK is according to what is clearly evident to our sense. The human frame of reference is clearly that which takes the earth as stable and the heavenly bodies as in motion relative to it. Anything else is a mathematical abstraction.

As for gravity, you are wrong. Remember Newton's third law of motion: "To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions."

Forces are balanced, and gravity is a product of BOTH masses involved. The sun's force of gravity on the earth and the earth's force of gravity on the sun are equal (but in opposite directions) even if the sun is contributing more to the equation in each case.