Lessons from Galileo on Science and Religion: Eric Salobir and Maria Zuber at the Defiance Conference | MIT Center for Civic Media

Lessons from Galileo on Science and Religion: Eric Salobir and Maria Zuber at the Defiance Conference

Today at the MIT Media Lab's Defiance conference, Jonathan Zittrain facilitated a conversation about the story of Galileo and what it means for our understanding of research and activism that violates deeply-held boundaries. Joining the conversation were Father Eric Salobir and Professor Maria Zuber.

Father Eric Salobir is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Order of Preachers (known as Dominicans). As part of the General curia (government) of this religious order, he is in charge of media and technology. He is also the founder of the OPTIC network aimed to promote researches and innovation in the field of digital humanities.

Maria T. Zuber is Vice President for Research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT, where she has responsibility for research administration and policy, overseeing MIT Lincoln Laboratory and over 60 research laboratories and centers at the Institute.

Jonathan opens up by asking Father Eric how he started on a career as a person of faith, especially after a career as a banker. Eric responds, "while I was a banker, I found myself loving my work to bring people joy and hope and engage around ideas. Over time, I realized I wanted to do this all the time. I discovered the dominicans." Joining an order is like entering a bath time and time again. I met with many people inside and outside the church. I learned that one of the big problems in our time is a lack of hope. When you have two dominicans, you have three opinions: you don't have to enter a box or deny anything of who you are, he says. Jonathan asks: is there a moment when you have to take an oath? Father Eric responds that the Dominicans have an oath: a vow of obedience to God. After you make that decision, Dominicans have to follow the decision they made on their own.

Jonathan asks Maria Zuber: "you're a planetary scientist studying plate tectonics. Was there a moment when you felt: that's my calling?" No, says Maria; it was genetically-encoded in me to become a scientist. There are stories in my family about me in my playpen, rockets taking off, and me pointing at the rockets. Maria started reading science textbooks in elementary school. She always wanted to do astronomical research and has never deviated from the plan.

Jonathan asks about the story of Galileo. When most people hear about him and his work, what's the canonical story and the real one? Maria responds that Galileo was convicted of heresy for his support of the Copernican system, our understanding of the solar system where the sun is at the center. This system replaced the Ptolemaic system, which put the earth at the center. It is true that Galileo was accused of heresy by the Catholics. But Galileo didn't help himself, she says. The church was open to the idea of Galileo exploring the Copernican idea. He took observations that showed things like the moons of Jupiter, showing that things went around other things than the Earth. The church was open to him publishing material that treated the idea as a theory, but he wanted it viewed as fact, and there were still things that were unexplained. Was the church more scientific about this than Galileo, asks Jonathan? Maria notes that Galileo went after passages in the Bible that were consistent with the Earth being fixed and claimed that it was incorrect, despite their being multiple possible interpretations. It wasn't what Galileo said, says Maria, but rather how he said it.

In the latter part of his life, Galileo moved away from collecting data and dedicated himself to seeing that it be adopted. Perhaps if he had continued to collect data, things might have gone in another way, says Maria. Jonathan next asks Father Eric what the story of Galileo is within the Dominican order. Father Eric thinks there was an epistemological over-reach on both sides. Galileo wanted to think about the consequences of his theory for theology, but the theologians did the same. They were not able to be challenged and should have faced the evidence, says Father Eric. In the time of Galileo, people saw science as unifying–so changes in one area were seen as threats to others. In-between the scripture and the science is the interpretation of the scripture. In John Paul II's statement on Galileo, he argued that the theologians were unable to reconsider their understandings, and they preferred to shut out Galileo.

In 1979 John Paul II wrote of Galileo that, he "had to suffer a great deal... I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in frank recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come, dispel the mistrust that still opposes, in many minds, a fruitful concord between science and faith." Why 1979, asks Jonathan. Maria points out that as early as the mid-1700s, pope Benedict allowed the publication of Galileo's book. It had been on the banned list, and then it was given approval; people in the church thought the matter was settled then. But that wasn't universally understood within the church or outside it.

What lessons might we draw from this history? asks Jonathan. Maria says that religion can help provide order to people who would otherwise fear their world. Science wasn't seen as a full understanding of nature; it was viewed as a way of explaining the observations we saw. People were afraid of eclipses, but the Ptolemaic system could still predict eclipses, which people feared. We should always be open to data, and if it causes us to change our idea, we should change it. But we also have to think about the pace of change. Even within science, change can occur in a way that's so quick that other scientists don't accept it.

Father Eric points out that at Galileo's time, the organization of all society was linked with religion. Galileo's work shook the whole societal system in ways that people weren't ready to face.

Jonathan notes that there had been a blurring between science and society at the time. Is it actually possible for people to de-conflict by keeping different conversations between science and religion. Father Eric says it's important for people from the humanities including theology and philosophy to ask questions that scientists might not always be able to ask.

Jonathan asks, if you're being spiritual, it's a set of values that you're reflecting upon and making the case for them. Do you think science has values as well, or is it a view from nowhere? We recently had a March for Science, where Joi spoke. Jonathan recalls some nervousness from scientists that it makes it just another player among many rather than an over-arching framework? Father Eric thinks that technology has taken the leadership; people expect a certain kind of help from technology. It brings a new set of questions. Science is about discovering what already exists, he says. It puts you in a situation of seeing reality as bigger than you. If you are a creator of technology, you don't have the same mindset of humility. You can have the same superpower feeling. Jonathan asks: if there were a march for science next week, would you happily march and what would your sign say?

Science provides the knowledge that provides the framework for technology, says Maria. It tells us what we can do and it doesn't tell us if we should do it, and it doesn't tell us what the implications are. Jonathan asks Maria about her institutional role as VP of research for MIT, would you ever find yourself looking at a massive research project and saying to someone: you need to have a values analysis or person involved. Maria explains that at MIT, we like to think that we create and use technology to help the world. Our fundraising campaign is "the campaign for a better world." Yet we hear about the negative outcomes as well, from things like automation.

Jonathan asks: is there knowledge better left undiscovered? Maria would say that more knowledge is better than less; the challenge is to choose a prudent pathway in order to progress. Father Eric agrees; what matters is how something is implemented. Is the technology mature enough, and is society ready for it? Jonathan asks: could you see a scientist making the judgment: humanity isn't ready for this. "Why only the scientist?" asks Father Eric. Society needs to answer those questions together.

When the floor opened up for questions, I asked a question. I mentioned that it seemed odd for a conference celebrating defiance would include a panel advocating for sticking within one's lane, especially with a prize that celebrates scientists who went into politics, citizens who do science, and people who create great art and ideas despite substantial resistance. I asked if maybe the story of Galileo locks us into an individual versus collective understandings of defiance, and where we might find inspiration for being defiant in productive ways.

Maria talked about evangelical groups that support Christians to better understand climate change, groups like the Evangelical Environment Network and climate scientists like Katharine Hayhoe.

Father Eric describes a Dominican in Brazil who works for farmers around land rights. he says, "There is only one thing you cannot disobey: it's your conscience. If there's something you see as fair and right, even if it's dangerous: no worries, do it. Conscience doesn't mean that you will never move. It's not like a compass: if you're in a boat, when the boat moves, the compass moves. Instead, it's like GPS, many sources combine to tell you where you are."

Jonathan responds, perhaps we have the Galilean model of the individual encircled by opposing forces, and the Pope's recent encyclical on climate change, which is an institution using their power to challenge and overturn assumptions as well.