Rated 3 out of 5 by PDNY Too close to Christian apologetics
This course should be titled Science and Christianity since Prof. Principe confines the discussion to that religion. This is not a criticism, but a caveat for those expecting a broader scope.
As for the content, I think there are many problems with this series of lectures. I will only address a few here. First, there is Professor Princepe's claim that faith and reason have roughly the same relationship to one another in modern science as they do in Christianity. Of course this begs the question, "What exactly is meant by faith and reason respectively?" Whole careers have been spent tracing disputes within Christianity and science regarding the meanings of these terms. The definitions given by the lecturer are far from being univocally held in science or Christian Theology. But what I want to emphasize is the Professor's misuse of the term faith *given his own definition* as applied to modern science as an institution. The lecturer defines faith as a "method of gaining knowledge which involves either holding a belief or suspending disbelief." He anchors this in Augustinian theology. We take something on faith in order that we may come to truly understand it. For example, if we do not accept the existence of God on faith, for Augustine, then we cannot come to understand Him. Likewise, a scientist must take on faith various background assumptions and beliefs such as the reliable functioning of his/her senses, or the belief that the technology used to conduct experiments is reliable. I object to this analogy. Prof. Principe fails to mention that a working scientist has to be prepared to forfeit any such belief just in case it comes into conflict with evidence to the contrary. If there is reason to doubt the reliability of sensory reports (e.g. intoxicants, lack of sleep) then scientists will--in principle-- do so. Our senses tell us that hard objects are solid and impenetrable. Modern physics tells us that they contain mostly empty space and that our senses deceive us in this regard. Scientific beliefs and knowledge-claims are provisional; absolute certainty is denied. Individual scientists may have strong personal attachments ( e.g. Einstein was very reluctant to accept indeterminism in quantum mechanics), but science has no equivalent article of faith to those found in, for example, the Nicene Creed affirming the one God, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth etc. For Augustine, you must take these as non-negotiable, unconditional starting points for the acquisition of further or deeper knowledge. They are incorrigible (cannot be corrected). Science does not function in that way. The putative truths of science are not to be treated as eternal, but as strongly confirmed at some particular time and within some particular theoretical framework.
In terms of historical analysis, Princepe's treatment of the Galileo Affair seems to concentrate on irrelevancies and details that cloud the real issue, i.e. the long- term history of the Church's official position regarding Heliocentrism, and not simply one particular author or version of that theory. Princepe characterizes the Galileo Affair as an "Italian Soap Opera" and focuses largely on the personalities of those involved-- the Pope's big ego, Galileo's lack of tact etc. I would rather establish the more enduring facts of the matter which ought to be well known by all concerned. In 1616 the Catholic Church declared "Copernicanism" (i.e. Heliocentrism) to be a heresy. Copernicus' book, De Revolutionibus, was placed on the index of prohibited books. It was said to have no value as an explanation of natural events or actualities. No one (not just Galileo) was to teach "Copernicanism." Kepler's Astronomia Nova (1611) was also placed on the index, although Kepler was Protestant and thus continued working on the system.The Church ban on Kepler in 1616 is not mentioned in the course, yet Kepler's work was pivotal in vindicating the theory, and by 1617 he had published the Epitome Astronomiae Copernicae which presented his system and was immediately placed on the index. Thus, even before the famous trial and punishment of Galileo in 1633, the relevant writings of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were ALL banned, and "Copernicanism" declared a heresy. The trial of 1633 which resulted in the arrest of Galileo had more to do with whether or not he had disobeyed the Church orders than it did the already established heresy. What is important above all is the long term historical record. Copernicus' and Galileo's books were not removed from the index until the 1820s and 30s. As recently as 1990, the Church (Cardinal Carl Ratzinger later Pope Benedict XVI) made arguments about the soundness of the 1616 decisions; arguments similar to those in this course. He supported his argument by reading a passage from the well known critic of rationality, method and realism, Paul Feyerabend (strange bedfellows indeed!) In 1992 Pope John Paul II, breaking from Cardinal Ratzinger, gave Galileo some long overdue credit by stating that the "error of the theologians of those times was to think... the physical structure of the world was in some way imposed by the literal sense of the Sacred Scriptures." The fact that the Church elites in the 1990s were still unsure about which way to lean on these matters is more telling than either statement taken alone.
It is important to note that Princepe's analysis of the Galileo affair is in keeping with those of Catholics (including Carl Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI) who argue that the Inquisition's reasoning was scientifically sound, and arguably superior to that of Galileo who was right about Heliocentism but lacked good evidence at the time. It is true that he lacked good evidence and made mistakes, but again this doesn't explain the dismissal of Kepler's work on the subject as heresy. Obviously it was Heliocentrism and not just Galileo that was on trial. But returning to the claim that the Church position exhibited greater scientific rigor than Galileo, the argument proceeds on 3 fronts: 1) from anti-realism in philosophy of science (i.e. astronomy at the time was seen more as useful supposition for things like calendar-fixing than as a path to knowledge about the world) 2) a defense of literal interpretations of scripture (e.g. Joshua made the Sun stop moving) as having the overriding force of established knowledge in the absence of "proof" to the contrary. 3) the use of alternative systems that did not contradict scripture to make the point that Galileo's theory was unnecessary and sloppy (e.g. statements like "Even Tycho Brahe's system could save appearances better than Galileo's while keeping the Earth motionless"). But long after Tycho Brahe's system had importance, the Church refused to remove the books from the index or acknowledge Heliocentrism . Thus from 1616 to the 19th century the Church maintained a ban on seminal books that had introduced Heliocentrism which was now all but universally accepted by scientists and educated laypersons. Indeed Newton's system presupposed the works of Galileo and Kepler who were still banned by the Church. It is quite a stretch to say that in the early 19th century the best scientific evidence was still in the hands of geocentrists! Why not admit the obvious, i.e. that there was excessive institutional resistance to the theory for for centuries, to the point that some Catholics are still wont to play defense on the whole affair today!
These and a few other problems bedevil this short course. Though I cannot go into the intricacies of the Evolution/Design debates here, it is worth mentioning that Princepe blames the "low-level theology" of the fundamentalists for the conflict. Increased public awareness of "superior" theology (such as the Augustinian approach he adopts in this course) is encouraged as an antidote to the ongoing conflicts. I'm not convinced that any form of theology can show that the existence of a creator god is necessary at all for explaining the emergence and transformations of species on Earth. The theory of evolution as it stands does not require any theological commitments one way or the other. There is no need for "superior" or any other theology in order to account for the evolution of life-forms. Faith is a matter of conscience, not, as Prof. Princepe holds, a method for arriving at scientific knowledge. In sum, there are too many unwarranted assertions, convenient definitions and instances of selective history to make this a solid and even-handed review of the interaction of Christianity and science in the West. Finally, though you may learn a thing or two about how inquisitors and Church theologians reason, you will not learn very much about the manner in which Galileo and other scientists labored and arrived at the theories now associated with the Scientific Revolution. That's a missed opportunity. In short, this course comes too close to apologetics. (2 1/2 stars)
August 19, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by JinxCAR Science and religion have benefited each other
For the past few years, when people ask my religion I tell them "I'm a humble materialist." By this I mean, there are many religions, many gods, and each of their believers believes with the same sincerity. It clearly seems reasonable to many people that a God of some type exists. So, while I tend to assume that there is a materialistic explanation for unexplained events, I also recognize that there are many explanatory gaps yet to be filled and maybe someone's god will fill that gap. Further since most thoughtful people will arrive at similar decisions most of the time, and agree on more than they disagree, I find it more informative to find where people agree and then explore why they disagree. I often learn there is more than one way to answer moral questions, and the truth of the expression that if one cannot imagine how someone believes something then you don't understand it.
It is with that in mind that I highly recommend this six hour audio course. It systematically dismantles the idea that science and religion are at war with each other, and is a great reminder that for most of history science and religion have been intimately intertwined. They have informed and motivated each other.
There isn't one "religious" perspective, there isn't one Christian perspective, and there isn't one monolithic voice of science. Science is a method, one that allows a common ground for people of different religions. We may disagree on the primary cause of an event, but we can agree on the secondary causes.
As a side note, I asked a friend with a very different life if he would take this course with me. He's married, with kids, a musician, one the most eloquent Catholics, and a man I deeply respect for his perspective. I highly recommend asking a friend to others. I've come to understand natural law and Catholic reasoning much better. We may not agree, but I would never insult him by yelling across a picket line that he's an idiot. Just as no one insults the _Iliad_, so I would never again endorse the extreme Fundamentalism on either side which uses derision in place of discussion. I'd also suggest asking a friend because it just feels great when two people have a respectful exchange of ideas and understand another way to live. We need more of these conversations to defuse the false dichotomy and war between science and religion, and religion and religion.
June 23, 2015
Rated 2 out of 5 by MzMck Does not engage my interest
I have taken over as chairman of my retirement community's "Live and Learn" ongoing programs. In that capacity I previewed the first three lectures and was very disappointed. Professor Principe knows his subject well but his delivery is so static that I could not stay focused. I do not learn well by just listening to someone read and it was clear Professor Principe was reading verbatim from a prepared script. I will preview this by watching it with two or three regular members of the group, but if they become as disengaged as I did, we won't be using this series as part of our curriculum.
March 22, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Ukko Excellent historical summary
I am baffled by some of the negative comments. For that reason I simply had to weigh in. In short, this is good "history." It's not everything one could say on the subject for sure. It limits itself to, as Principe says, the Latin West. But, within those limits it is excellent. On top of that Principe is an engaging speaker. Reading claims that Principe is an apologist of religion reminds me of those criticisms of Bart Erhman's Lecture series "Historical Jesus" as bad theology. Both men are doing "history" and both men do a very good job of it. I think one of Principe's closing remarks says it best: "Strong anti-evolutionists and strong partisans of scientism have a great deal in common: they are both fundamentalists." From that observation, Principe makes a profound statement for our times: "Extremist positions have the effect of alienating moderates and deepening divisions." This is so true. Next time you step in the voting booth, ask yourself how much of the electoral debate was driven by the extremists on both sides to the exclusion of the real issues. I got a deal deal of useful historical perspective from this lecture series.
March 2, 2015