19 April 2008

Benedict's love of truth

News on the recent kerfuffle surrounding the Pope's cancellation of his visit to La Sapienza University in Rome seems to have roused John Waters' ample capacity for outrage. In his typically precise fashion, he had a quick look at the internet on the subject, checked that all his prejudices were firmly in place and then distilled the results of this tried and tested workflow into an article the Irish Times (21 January), telling us as usual precisely the opposite of what sensibly needs to be said about the issue.

Some of the academics at the ancient university had apparently been unwilling to provide a platform for Benedict, thus giving rise to the cancellation, and Waters, passionately concerned to defend honest truth-seeking, finds them guilty of making a savage attack on that quest. He is in very good company -- a great number of other people who should know better swallowed the same tired line -- but he couldn't have got it more wrong.

It might be useful to draw in a little background to the story. In March 1990, Joseph Ratzinger (wearing his well-used academic hat) addressed an audience in Parma with a speech (more than a little presumptuously) entitled "The Crisis of Faith in Science", in which he (in a nebulous sort of way) defended his church against that old secularist champion chestnut: viz. the way a 17th Century Pope treated Galileo when the latter stubbornly insisted that the earth orbits the sun rather than the other way around.

Now the secularist legend (as recounted by the then future Pope) goes as follows: Galileo, brave, enlightened and clever scientist, worked out that it made far more sense to follow Copernicus' theory that the sun was the centre of the solar system than to continue to believe the old Ptolemaic system that everything revolved around the earth. As soon as Galileo went public on this, Pope Urban VIII, an opinionated, know-nothing relic of the dark ages, made him take this view back and took away his freedom for the rest of his life as punishment for his presumption.

Ratzinger goes on (albeit extremely fudgingly) to try and debunk this "myth", recruiting for this purpose German Marxist thinker, Ernst Bloch, and firebrand Austrian philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend. Unfortunately for his case, the Galileo myth he outlines is by all serious accounts accurate in all relevant respects (though Galileo's own disastrous lack of diplomatic skills probably contributed to his fate). The truth is that Galileo did indeed write a work defending heliocentrism and ridiculing its rival theory, he did indeed incur the wrath of the Inquisition on this account and was indeed made recant and put under house arrest for the rest of his life. Also clear is that his trial court and the Pope who pulled its strings judged him not on the basis of evidence, but solely by reference to medieval interpretation of scripture.

Now all this is a matter of historical record. It seems strange having to repeat it, but unfortunately the crafty revisionism of the present Pope (amongst others) makes the repetition necessary.

But I jump ahead of myself. Stripped down to layperson's terminology, Ratzinger paraphrases Bloch as saying that Galileo's sun-centred theory wasn't a demonstrable thesis, but merely the result of Galileo's natural (but, it's implied, not altogether reasonable) desire to keep his maths simple. Further, whatever about the tidiness of Galileo's calculations, Einstein's theory of relativity, we're told, "cancelled" Galileo's reasonings anyway.

Therefore, the argument concludes, it's now legitimate to say , for example, that "in relation to human dignity", the sun actually goes round the earth (whatever that means -- apart from being an extremely soggy metaphor).

Ratzinger then goes on to quote Feyerabend's statement (notorious then and now to even the flightiest second-year philosophy student) that the Church at the time was "was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself" and that the trial decision on Galileo was "reasonable and just".

Of course, the then cardinal doesn't explicitly endorse either of these views, as to do so would be to put him in debt both to an important prophet of a heretical view he has been long famous for opposing, i.e. Liberation Theology (Bloch), as well as to one of the most important icons of his diabolical arch-enemy, Relativism (Feyerabend). To agree with them both openly would be equivalent to running with both fox and hare at the same time as chasing both victims in the company of two distinct packs of hounds. He sensibly doesn't attempt this feat and instead very skillfully abandons his "exploration" hanging in mid-air, thus leaving an impression that he takes a dim view of the classic Galileo myth yet at the same time preserving a position of complete deniability (which was to come in handy in the more recent propaganda battle). I don't know what Ratzinger's attitude to the Jesuits is but, to paraphrase James Joyce, he would seem at least as slippery as one.

But it should be emphasised (in contradiction to what Waters and others tell us) that Ratzinger does not disassociate himself from Feyerabend's position, in his speech or anywhere else. He describes the philosopher's position as "drastic", but neglects to give his own opinion on whether the drastic conclusion was justified. Despite the Vatican's subsequent apology for Galileo's treatment (issued by John Paul II in 1992) Ratzinger has still not clarified what his own opinion in fact is.

It was therefore unsurprising, if rather belated in 2008, when a large group of the academic staff at La Sapienza University in Rome took strong exception to the Pope's implicit approval of Bloch's flamboyant scientific illiteracy. In this they were quite justified -- though, as Waters' colleague on the Irish Times, Paddy Agnew, speculates (also on 21 January), their motivation may have been sharpened by an understandable left-wing irritation at the Pope's more recent repetitive one-sided interventions in Italian politics.

But, sticking to the historical facts (or, if you like, to the truth), the argument whether the planets make a regular, stately orbit around the sun or a mathematical rollercoaster ride around the earth has been satisfactorily settled at least since the time of Newton and is hardly affected at all by Einstein's theories of relativity (which, contrary to what Bloch is cited by Ratzinger as believing, have nothing to do with the Newtonian notion that movement can only be made sense of in relation to an object from which the movement is observed). As for Galileo's insistence on tidy maths; that's neither more nor less than his concern to fulfill an essential requirement for valid inductive reasoning (i.e. the famous Occam's razor), without which no useful scientific or even common-sense knowledge of the world would be possible.

But what the same Roman academics concentrated their wrath on was the present Pontiff's inability or refusal to disassociate himself from Feyerabend's extraordinary historical revisionism (to the effect that it was "reasonable and just" to make Galileo a prisoner in his own home for the rest of his life for the crime of openly asserting a position that contradicted revelation as interpreted by Roman Catholicism).

The professors therefore effectively disinvited Ratzinger from their university. The Pope's PR people then responded with the publicity counterattack which was apparently picked up on by Waters, and which very effectively steamrollered the whole theme under the laughably inappropriate rubric of "freedom of speech".

Unconsciously underlining Benedict's mala fides, Waters mentions in passing the Pope's unelaborated comment on C.F. Von Weizsacker, a German philosopher and nuclear scientist: "... Von Weizsacker takes another step forward, when he identifies a 'very direct path' that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb."

Now neither Waters nor Benedict explain what this sentence was doing in the speech. Its only apparent purpose was to add to the already murky brew an extra tone of innuendo that implicates the Scientific Enlightenment (represented by Galileo) in the very worst that humanity can create. The comment, like the rest of the speech, has no concern with establishing truth under any rubric. Indeed it brings to mind the way various religious and post-modern, full and part-time allies of the Pope's (for example, the Late Cahal Daly or English philosopher John Gray) crassly attempted to blame Nazism on secular Enlightenment values (despite the obvious fact that that foul ideology clearly owed far more to nationalist, anti-enlightenment romanticism than to anything else, and that it was at least as religious as it was otherwise).

The upshot of all this is the following: the whole affair neatly illustrates a few important issues that need to be highlighted in dayglow colour.

Firstly, it exposes a couple of instances of the extraordinary low quality of what in the 20th century all too often passed for philosophy. For a start, it might even be that Bloch's other work was admirable, but his philosophy of science as interpreted by Ratzinger was palpably not so hot. As for Feyerabend, while his philosophy of science was important enough to cause an intellectual battle royal in the 70's and 80's, his sense of proportion and fair play was certainly out of kilter when wrote the line on Galileo that Ratzinger found so fascinating.

Secondly, a further possible reason suggests itself as to why some of the staff of the University of Rome may have felt uncomfortable about Benedict visiting their campus: i.e. they were quite understandably unwilling to lend academic respectability to the Pope's archly evasive and essentially empty verbiage.

The language used by the academics, included a vocabulary of victimhood that they would have done better to avoid (they were, for example, "offended" and "humiliated" by the Pope's comments). However, their observation that it would be "incongruous" for such a figure as the Pope to give a speech at their university is right on the button. Someone who makes guerrilla attacks on scientific method and historical truth with the only apparent purpose of defending a world view he is already unconditionally committed to isn't playing the game of truth-seeking that a university should cherish, but another game altogether.

This brings me neatly to the third issue that this bruhaha has (or at least should have) laid open, and it is the awkward issue of the philosophical merits of the Pope's academic work (both before and after his elevation). The offending lecture still looks much the same as it did in 1990: i.e. a transparent attempt to trawl through the "canon" for quotations that seem to buttress a previously decided-upon position (i.e. the historical correctness of orthodox Roman Catholicism). This approach is depressingly common in contemporary academia, and is the very negation of any truly honest search for truth -- whether scientific, philosophical or moral.

The Parma speech wasn't a once-off either: his side of a famous recent collaboration with Jürgen Habermas, "The Dialectics of Secularisation", is a similar airy blend of the obvious with the absurd and the evasive. And who can forget the infamous 2006 Regensburg lecture? (Reminder for those who have forgotten: that was a predictably destructive speech, in which the Pope quoted one of his predecessors' nasty medieval comments about Islam without bothering to tell his audience what he thought of the opinion quoted, except to say that it was "forceful" -- he could equally have repeated the term "drastic".)

Perhaps one of the greatest shocks of the Sapienza episode is well described by Agnew, "In the end, that which had once looked like a major setback for Pope Benedict turned into a considerable triumph". La Sapienza's academics seem to have underrated the power of the Vatican's massive publicity machine, whose flattening progress was hugely facilitated by the same sort of taboo-revering self-censorship that prevents anyone in the media from questioning the pontiff's academic credentials.

That Benedict's words, "I am linked to [the academic world] by a love of the search for truth, a love of dialogue and confrontation, based on mutual respect for different positions" were taken automatically at face value the world media (despite copious evidence that respect for the rules of honest academic dialogue is not his strong point), is a sure sign that his status as the world's foremost religious leader keeps him effectively above criticism in the minds of far too many influential journalists.

On the basis of this evidence, one begins to suspect that the Pope's reputation as a philosopher of dazzling insight might just be less a product of his work's inherent quality and more the result of the stamp of approval given to his output (and a hell of a lot of output very similar to his) by the powerful organisation he leads. After all, this organisation has very substantial influence over university standards, subjects and appointments all over the world. It is, like its leader, protected by a supernatural force field from all but the most caustic of criticism (this armour apparently doesn't fully protect against accusations of clerical child abuse, for example).

If there is anything in this suspicion (which. drastic as it may be, requires no conspiracy theory, as anyone who's been about in Maynooth, Pamplona or Leuven can honestly confirm), the question automatically arises as to whether and how the church's influence in academia could and should be reduced, especially in cases where public funding is suspected of involvement in propping up either transparent nonsense (for example, that the sun circles the earth "in relation to human dignity") or dangerous demagogery (for instance, that it ever may have been "reasonable" to lock people up for publicly -- even rudely -- preferring to trust their reason than to put their faith in established church dogma).

My own personal response to Waters' bleating, is the following: the Roman academics attempt to prevent Benedict from further reinforcing his unearned reputation as a disinterested seeker of truth should be seen as a service rather than a disservice to that truth. However, it was probably not so politically clever to pick on a 17-year-old speech, however appalling and however unretracted, as the centrepiece of the academics' argument.

Whatever about that, as Agnew says, "... it seemed there was something faintly ridiculous about [La Sapienza being accused of censorship of the Pope] ... Far from being gagged, Pope Benedict has a high-tech [he could have said 'kryptonite-proof'] megaphone trained on the entire world." The professors simply attempted to subtract some academic respectability from Benedict's sly evasions. They were right to make that attempt, and I think it's a pity that their own tactical mistakes, a load of well-aimed Vatican claptrap about truth-seeking and the spineless or credulous swallowing of said claptrap by far too many professional journalists conspired together to stymie their efforts.

Another effect of the affair that will be regretted (at least by Italians more concerned with public ethics than private morality), is the contribution it undoubtably made to putting Silvio Berlusconi's dubious hands back on the wheel of power.

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