The Galileo myths

Dr Marc Crislip

For a while there I had wondered if I was the only one who noticed the current attempts of theistically motivated historians and philosophers to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair. But no, greater minds have come to a similar conclusions. I picked up this quote from Marc Crislip on the most recent podcast of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe:

“Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious. Today, he is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say they are being oppressed by science. So 1984.”

So true.

Last year was the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating in part Galileo’s original use of a telescope to observe heavenly bodies. An important celebration for science.

But it was also taken up by Christian apologists, historians and philosophers. A number of books were published rewriting the history in a way more sympathetic to the church. Opinion pieces were written and the apologist blogs eagerly leaped on the bandwagon. An all too common atmosphere of martyrdom was spread. George Sim Johnston, wrote recently on the Catholic Education Resource Centre blog that “the Galileo case is one of the historical bludgeons that are used to beat on the Church.”

Galileo and Sakharov

Andrei Sakharov - credit Wikipedia

So there you are – the Church was the victim in the Galileo affair! Bloody hell – that’s like say the Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev was being persecuted by Andrei Sakharov when this great scientist and Nobel peace Prize winner (Sakharov) was exiled to the city of Gorky for criticising the Soviet government. And that history should be rewritten to reflect that interpretation!

So the honest history of the Galileo affair offends the church. It must be rewritten? The orders have gone out. Faithful historians, opinion piece writers and bloggers have followed their commands.

So we get claims that actually “Galileo was wrong!” That because of Einsteinian relativity one cannot detect a difference between a heliocentric and geocentric solar system! (That will have Einstein spinning in his grave.)

That Galileo was wrong about his support for heliocentricism because his detailed attempt to explain the tides was incorrect (so was everyone elses – gravitational theory had yet to appear).

Galileo was wrong because somebody thinks that an experiment he referred to using the leaning tower of Pisa may have been done by student or been a “thought experiment.”

Or that genuine historians are persecuting the church because they are perpetuating a myth that the church had tortured Galileo and imprisoned him.

A Clayton’s myth

This later myth is really a “Clayton’s myth.*” A myth you have when you don’t have a myth. Because no-one of any understanding promotes it yet those who wish to present themselves as victims claim it is being used as a bludgeon.

Maurice A. Finocchiaro puts this myth into context. He has investigated the available documents thoroughly and in his chapter of the book with the same name,  “Myth 8: That Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for advocating Copernicanism,” he concludes:

“We should keep in mind, however, that for 150 years after the trial the publicly available evidence indicated that Galileo had been imprisoned, and for 250 years the evidence indicated that he had been tortured. The myths of Galileo’s torture and imprisonment are thus genuine myths: ideas that are in fact false but once seemed true—and continue to be accepted as true by poorly educated persons and careless scholars.”

That is this myth gained traction initially because the only document available was the Inquisition’s sentence which implied torture had at least been threatened if not used and that he was to be imprisoned. Many years later, with our access to more material, no serious historian appears to be perpetuating the myth.

But apologists are perpetuating their own myth that they are the victims of misrepresentation.

The basic question

There is a sense in which popular understanding of the Galileo affair is not quite right or incomplete. When one peruses the documents we find that the real issue was not a conflict between Galileo’s support for  a heliocentric solar system and the Catholic Church’s insistence on a geocentric solar system. It was actually more basic than this.

Galileo’s crime in the eyes of the church was his temerity in holding a belief which the church had decreed he should not. They saw this as an intrusion into theology, and in arguments strikingly similar to those being used today against some atheist scientists, they charged that Galileo was intruding into forbidden territory. He should have left theology to the theologians. Sound familiar?

Galileo had effectively been arguing, as a faithful Christian himself, that when there was a conflict between evidence based ideas and scripture the evidence based ideas should be held as correct. Scripture being far more abstract required interpretation and these conflicts just meant that more interpretation of the scripture was required.

The predominance he gave to evidence and testing ideas against reality rather than scripture was a necessary step in the scientific revolution leading to modern science. This makes the history of the Galileo affair important for our appreciation of scientific progress today. It is this basic aspect, rather than Galileo’s’ support for Copernicanism, which needs more historical research and presentation.

And none of this is helped by religious apologists promoting their own myth – that they are the victims and the truth about the affair is being used as a bludgeon to beat on them.


* A local saying derived from the advertising campaign for a non-alcoholic drink – “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink”.

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39 responses to “The Galileo myths

  1. It’s an important and difficult chapter in the history of science but again you overreach.
    From a http://www.scientus.org/Galileo-Battle-for-Heavens.html (a far more factual account without Ken’s partisan overtones):
    In Against Method, Paul Feyerabend spends several chapters discussing Galileo and both the arguments and counter-arguments for Copernicism from a philosophical and scientific point of view. The noted philosopher’s conclusions are are at odds with the digested version of the controversy presented in the typical biography:

    …while the pre-Copernican astronomy was in trouble (was confronted by a series of refuting instances and implausibilities), the Copernican theory was in even greater trouble (was confronted by even more drastic refuting instances and implausibilities).

    Stellar parallax was a predicted empirical result of Galileo’s model and his contemporaries were rightly doubtful of a model that lacked evidence.

    The Galileo affair is a popular story in the public mind but if we look at who the scientists of the 1750’s were citing in their work, Newton was amongst the most commonly cited, but neither Galileo nor his contemporary cosmologists made it very high in the list.

    The solar system model taught in schools today is due to Kepler not Galileo.

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  2. Ropata the myth maker. Any lie to defend one’s ideology!

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  3. the 20 year Galileo Affair is a ‘popular story’? Give me a break. Few people understand the central importance of Galileo’s contribution: he put an end to the notion that objects possessed a ‘nature’. This more than anything else began the demise of the Church’s claim to scientific authority and ushered in the scientific revolution that not only altered the physical sciences as they had been practiced and preached for a millennium but established much of what we now call the scientific method.

    If not Galileo specifically, then on whose shoulders did Newton say he stood? Kepler’s?

    Give me a break.

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  4. Johnston: “the Galileo case is one of the historical bludgeons that are used to beat on the Church.”

    Ken: “So there you are – the Church was the victim in the Galileo affair”

    You’re mixing tenses there. I think the church learnt from the Galileo affair. I interpret Johnston as saying that those who keep bringing it up are like a wife who keeps bringing up the past in every new argument.

    “in arguments strikingly similar to those being used today against some atheist scientists, they charged that Galileo was intruding into forbidden territory.”

    The arguments today are less “you are wrong in your scientific results” and more “we think this scientific path is morally wrong”. Self appointed or no, morality is where they feel they have the ability to make such judgements.

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  5. Sure, Martin, mixed tenses. But in this case Johnson is painting the church as the victim. In the same way that a defender of Breshnev could paint his state as the victim of anyone who referred to the Sakharov affair. He could accuse them of bludgeoning the Soviet state.

    It’s a common trick of the religiously inclined to avoid facing up to facts they don’t like. To try and establish that any criticism of religious activity is offensive.

    You are a bit unfair on your wife here. This is more the case io a guy who decides to make disparaging claims about his wife. When she objects and attempts a correction he accuses her of being unfair and bludgeoning him.

    You mistook my comparison to arguments used against atheist scientists today. I am referring, for example, to those critics who have refused to engage the arguments in The God Delusion by telling Dawkins to piss off and keep away from theology. As Galileo’s case showed this had everything to do with science.

    This was not a reference to moral arguments at all.

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  6. Avoiding facts people don’t like is certainly a religious trait, but it’s not unique to religious people. Anyone who holds a very strong view on anything is likely to ignore contrary points otherwise they have to change their view (difficult to do when we are educated to avoid being wrong at all costs, or are heavily invested in the view) or somehow manage cognitive dissonance.

    Ah, I see. I figured because you were talking about Galileo that when you talk about “the church” you were referring to the Catholic church then and hence now. But you are evidently referring to Christians in general. Yes, I agree one Christian saying “leave theology to the theologists” makes more or less the same sense as a scientist saying “leave science to the scientists”.

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  7. Ken I am interested in historical accuracy, my motivation is to balance your sweeping generalisations with data, maybe I erred somewhere but name calling doesn’t help.

    Note I have never claimed that the church was an innocent party, nor have I denied that Galileo was an epochal figure in the history of science.

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  8. Re: ropata who write nor have I denied that Galileo was an epochal figure in the history of science.

    Well, you did… whether you intended to or not:

    The Galileo affair is a popular story in the public mind but if we look at who the scientists of the 1750′s were citing in their work, Newton was amongst the most commonly cited, but neither Galileo nor his contemporary cosmologists made it very high in the list.

    You are asserting that the affair itself wasn’t very important in scientific terms because not many cosmologists of the 1750s cited him. That’s a funny way to show epochal respect for a central figure in the history of science.

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  9. tildeb, The affair is of more interest to historians due to its philosophical and religious impact, to his contemporaries the science of Galileo’s Dialogue had a dubious basis.

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  10. Are you sure it’s the science that’s you say was dubious to his contemporaries and not fear of the church? His thought experiment for inertia was brilliant.

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  11. Ropata. What makes you qualified to judge the scientific impact of Galilleo on science?

    The fact that you are attempting such, from your obvious position, is pretty much proving Ken’s point.

    At the very minimum, the Galilleo affair is a good example of the church of the time exercising its unearned and undeserved authority.

    If you are after evidence of the church’s historical brutality, there are of course better examples. Galilleo is good hwever, as he is obviously a pretty important scientist, what with his astronmical observation, early experimental work in motion and momentum, not to mention his pivotal contributions in theory. Gallielean relativity anyone.

    and now for the ad hom….
    He is also pretty useful in modern litmus testy kind of way. Its illuminating when you see someone like Glen trying to argue against heliocentrism. You quickly come to realise, that contrary to his self purported rigorous logical abilities, he will adopt any position to try and defend his pre decided philosopical and religious views.

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  12. I have no desire to rehash the “Galileo was wrong” debate, except to note that a) his model of a stationary Sun was ultimately wrong (the whole Galaxy moves) b) despite being a more elegant model, heliocentrism had insufficient evidence to supersede Ptolemy

    Of course such as compelling story as Galileo’s will attract embellishments, for example his reputed muttering “and yet it moves” seems to be one such. Some irrational anti-theists still spread emotive fictions about Christians:
    The orders have gone out. Faithful historians, opinion piece writers and bloggers have followed their commands.

    The only “pre decided position” is Ken’s ongoing campaign to revive the long-discredited conflict thesis by imagining Church conspiracies.
    The truth is the church has recognised its error, has been open about it, and has attempted to make amends.

    Regrettably parts of the wider Church (not the RCC) continue to make the same mistake.

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  13. Ropata you are a joke: “I have no desire to rehash the “Galileo was wrong” debate, except to” – say he was wrong!

    Bloody hell, you don’t like the guy do you? It upsets you that the rest of humanity can credit him for his achievements. You have to invent distortions to excuse the church’s behaviors.

    You aren’t interested in the truth, are you.

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  14. Interesting that Copernicus and a few others were also advocating heliocentrism without penalty — they didn’t feel the need to piss off the pope in the process. Galileo went out of his way to annoy people. This does not excuse the reaction of some clerics, they forgot the ancient precedent set forth by Augustine regarding the relationship of theology to naturphilosophie; in a nutshell don’t be dogmatic about Biblical statements regarding the natural world.

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  15. Too funny, ropata! It was Galileo’s tone that was the problem and so the Church had cause to subject the man to house arrest for it!

    Hmm… what does that remind me of? Oh right… the current gnuminus debates.

    Copernicus had his work published on the condition it happened after he was dead. Tough to punish a dead guy. Kepler worked hard at trying to defend heliocentrism with a ‘proper’ interpretation of the bible and I note you fail to criticize Kepler’s polyhedral-spherist cosmology as wrong as you so willingly and graciously anoint to Galileo’s. Nor do you take any notice whatsoever of the active interference by the rc church to punish Kepler for his ‘failure’ to convert to catholicism through banishment. But beyond the active punishing handed out by the church to those cosmologists they found wanting, your ‘without penalty’ apologetic assertion to the rc church’s role in cosmological history is right on… with the slight caveat that it was an active agent not to find out and support what was true but to promote its own theocracy.

    Biased much?

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  16. If you are not interested in rehashing the Galileo affair Ropata, then perhaps you would like to have a go at the Bruno affair. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno

    I mean, Galileo should have been thankful that he only got a sentence of home imprisonment shouldn’t he. Somehow, I don’t find your vision of a magnanimus church’ only interested in the spreadof love and knowledge is convincing anyone.

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  17. James Phillips

    Ken states: “It’s a common trick of the religiously inclined to avoid facing up to facts they don’t like. To try and establish that any criticism of religious activity is offensive.” Guess what Ken. It’s a common trick of anti-religious people to avoid facing up to facts they don’t like. To try and establish that any criticism of the reigning scientific paradigm (heliocentrism) is offensive. As a matter of fact heliocentrism has never actually been proven and geocentrism has never actually been dis-proven. http://www.galileowaswrong.com and http://www.galileowaswrong.blogspot.com

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  18. James – care to provide some evidence for your silly claim?

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  19. “It’s a common trick of the religiously inclined to avoid facing up to facts they don’t like. To try and establish that any criticism of religious activity is offensive.” Guess what Ken. It’s a common trick of anti-religious people to avoid facing up to facts they don’t like.

    The magical balance fairy has made another appearance.

    James – care to provide some evidence for your silly claim?

    Let’s hope this one’s a Poe.

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  20. It does look like a joke. Nevertheless the websites are real. The conference actually occurred. They are selling books.

    But James could be having us on.

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  21. Pingback: Bias in the history of science | Open Parachute

  22. Whato – read my last sentence:
    “And none of this is helped by religious apologists promoting their own myth – that they are the victims and the truth about the affair is being used as a bludgeon to beat on them.”

    You are promoting a myth that scientists claim there is an invevitable and continuous/constant conflict between science and religion – the old matyr obsession.

    Facts show that this Chrsitian myth is wrong. Plenty of scientists are also Chrsitian, Muslim, Hinduy, Buddhist etc., as well as non-religious. there is no difference in the way these people do their science.

    However there is a conflict between the epistemologies of relgion and science. Religious epistemology relies on revealtion and its ideas often conflict with reality. Scientific epistemology relies on human reason and interaction with reality. its a powerful method.

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  23. Where do i say scientists claim there is a conflict?
    I definately think our Universities have mistakenly portrayed this in their Marxist leaning ideology which is thankfully coming to an end. But i didn’t say scientists do in any general fashion. Especially scientists in what i would call the serious disciplines (not the social sciences).

    Western scientific epistemology has its routes in Christian thought. Science is a tool that investigates the physical world. If people have the philosophy that the physical world is all there is then they believe science will solve, or at least can address everything. Religious epistemology has always been faith and reason. The two go together. It is only in later times that some non religious with a materilist view have separated them and some have cast them as even being in insurmountable contradiction. This is not the view from the Christian perspectve.

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  24. To suggest that there is little if any meaningful incompatibility between the epistemology science and the epistemology of faith-based beliefs is like suggesting that there’s no problem following all the laws, rules, and regulations of the road…except on Tuesdays. On that day anyone can follow whatever rules they choose or make up their own but, rest assured, there will be no meaningful consequences from this sudden and arbitrary change.

    Come on.

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  25. Richard Christie

    It appears to me that religious apologists often desperately try to cling to scientific epistemology, whilst, on the other hand, science is completely indifferent to, or dismissive of, the epistemology of religion.

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  26. I think that’s changing, RC, in the sense that many more scientists are now speaking out (through talks, the internet, and even – gasp! – books) to ever growing numbers of younger people enamored by technologies about the broken epistemology of faith-based beliefs and why that’s important to consider.

    Obviously, the technologies so many are using are fully based on scientific principles alone that work consistently and reliably well. So any argument put forth by those willing to suspend these principles to excuse and accommodate some faith-based belief has a very hard row to hoe. Those who wish to accommodate the two have to explain through mental contortions and epistemological gymnastics why and how any belief about reality should be equally respected (beliefs, contrary to the scientific method, that recognize no boundaries of limitation on their judgements about any subject supposedly under its purview, no equivalent method for determining the truthfulness of their claims, no equivalent method that produces any useful technologies or applications, no equivalent method furthers our practical knowledge in any field of study about this universe and everything it contains).

    What is equally obvious is that, in comparison to science, faith-based beliefs not only fail to deliver any useful or reliable applications of knowledge but cannot compete with an epistemology that respects reality to arbitrate its claims. As Hawking says, science will win this dispute – and the dispute is clear whenever a faith-based claim is contrary to a science-based claim – because it works. The more people that publicly support and accept reality as the arbiter of what’s true rather than the beliefs people would prefer to be true, the fewer apologists and accommodationists there will be to publicly fight this inevitable rising tide of knowledge.

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  27. Whatswrongwithatheism

    I think you have a false dichotomy between Christianity and science and hence you are arguing with yourselves. I see science as not only on my side, but a great legacy of Christian civilisation. I’m not in a war with science, i am proud of it’s conception and development. I find it strange that atheists do not fully investigate the rise of science but retrospectively assume it’s opposition to Christianity and claim it as a central plank in their own identity as opposed to Christianity. Perhaps it is the fear of this loss of identity that prevents the truthful study of the origins of science across Western Universities for the last 1000 years?

    http://whatswrongwithatheism.wordpress.com/did-christianity-or-atheism-found-western-science/

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  28. Whato – you may very well claim to see Science as a “legacy of Christian civilisation” but I notice you produce no supporting evidence. It appears to be a dogma for you – and a chauvanistic one. Actually a very arrogant, perhaps even racist one. It purposely ignores the great contributions from the rest of humanity. It ignores medieval Islam. The Romans. The ancient Greeks. The Persians, Indians, Egyptians, Chinese, etc.

    And it ignores the history of the modern scientific revolution which required a break with theology and religious philosophy. You ignore completely the epistemological differences between religious revelation and the objective origins of scientific knowledge and it’s validation against reality.

    You ignore completely the history of great scientific contributions to this epistemology made by people like Galileo and the attempt by religion to prevent thaose contributions.

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  29. Whatswrongwithatheism

    If you read my links you’ll find the evidence.

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  30. Whato – the discussion is occurring here.

    What about supporting your claims. After all, I do support my position in my articles here and you have responded with only a dogmatic assertion.

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  31. Science is the investigation of reality. If people have the idea that reality is all there is then they believe science will solve, or at least can address everything in reality. Religious blah faith blah reason blah go together blah materialism blah Christian blah. Also see my links and you will find evidence. Can’t just give it to you. That would be cheating. So there!

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  32. Whatswrongwithatheism

    Such an involved topic needs lots of research. It took quite a long time for me to stop being an Atheist. If you want to read then read. If not, it’s your choice.

    If something i have written on one of the links needs explaining i’ll be happy to reply.

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  33. Whato – you have come here. You presumably have been attracted by my articles. Now you spout dogma, refuse to support your claims and expect me to read something elsewhere.

    What’s the point?

    I don’t think you are at all able to support your claims.

    A complete waste of time.

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  34. Whatswrongwithatheism

    OK let’s talk here. Do you not think that Western science came from our Universities and the Universities were built, funded, staffed and attended by first just the clergy (it was their vision) and then later including non clergy.

    Isn’t this the vision that created many of our scientific disciplines?

    These two online books describe the level of scientific inquiry during those times. Doesn’t the scientific culture that has taken hold in the West trace its formation in this vision?

    http://www.archive.org/details/popessciencehist00walsrich

    http://www.manybooks.net/titles/walshjj3406734067-8.html

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  35. “Hey, it’s all hard. I’ve done lots of research. Trust me. It’s took me a long time to do something. Yay for me. You should do what I do. Read what I tell you to read. If you don’t read what I have read then you can never be like me. Read my links. Maybe then I will reply and say something to you.”

    (…doesn’t get the desired reaction from the audience…)

    “Ah, ok.
    Um….
    Well, let’s talk here. What do you think about this and that and something else? Let me fire off a couple of questions at you and then sit back and relax.
    Hey, look at these books. Read what I read. Hey, I have another question for you. More links to follow.”

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  36. Whatswrongwithatheism

    Hello Cedric,

    if you read the first link you will see that it mentions people have different views for different reasons and that anything that is presented will need further study as we can only believe that which is reasonable and makes sense to ourselves. It admits many atheists have come to be atheists through their own careful reflective study.

    http://whatswrongwithatheism.wordpress.com/about/

    that’s about as far away as possible from the description :

    “Hey, it’s all hard. I’ve done lots of research. Trust me. It’s took me a long time to do something. Yay for me. You should do what I do”

    The reason the links are there is because it presents my views. I’m not asking anyone to post there. Too often in these types of discussions people chase eachother around with generalised superficial sniping because we tend to assume certain things of the other person. Usually such discussion ends with both people thinking the other one doesn’t make sense because we have each different experiences and viewpoints and fail to comprehend those of the other. The links are there to try and circumvent that by giving an honest reflection of my thoughts.

    My experiences are valid but no more valid than yours.

    I was hoping this thread would be an honest discussion on truth but i fear it will be another exercise in ‘sniping’ that does not get us anywhere.

    Goodluck with your viewpoint Cedric. It would have been good to have known more about it.

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  37. “Hey, read the first link. It says this and it says that. It’s a great link.
    The links present my views. Discussions don’t seem to work for me. There’s this problem and that problem. But I do have links.
    There’s my experience and there’s your experience and probably someone over there has experience too.
    I want an honest discussion on truth. That’s why I’ve given you links. I’ve also fired off a couple of questions.
    Good luck with your viewpoint. I don’t know what it is.”

    Whatswrong, all you do is wave your hands uselessly about. You have said precisely nothing of value at all. If you have a claim to make then you should be prepared to state it clearly and defend it like an honest person.
    Grow a pair.
    Conduct a discussion like an adult.

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  38. Whato – my answers to the two specific questions you pose of me are no and no! That should be clear from my previous comments (which you avoid responding to).

    Our current science is built on a whole history of human scientific endeavor and it is chauvanistic to ignore cultures outside your own.

    Refer back to my previous comments.

    All cultures have had institues of learning. And don’t forget, for example, the way that the great Library of Alexandra was treated by Christian hordes. Or how it’s director Hypatia was brutally murdered by Christian monks.

    Of course Cristians have also played a positive role, alongside Muslims, Pagans and many other people’s.

    A feature of modern science is that for the scientific revolution to take place it had to break away from the grip of theology and religious philosophy. This is because there is an objective conflict between the two epistimologies.

    This was the revolutionary significance of Galileo who, as a believing Christian, argued that scripture was not a reliable source of knowledge about the natural world. That this should be sought in the “book of nature.”

    This was his theological crime. This is what he was convicted for. But this was also his great gift to science.

    Nowadays no responsible scientist attempts to understand reality through scripture. That is why science is so powerful and religion so ineffectual as a means of understanding reality.

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