The Galilean truce


At the beginning of what we call the scientific age, there was for a short time a conflict between religious and scientific authorities over their different answers to certain questions about the structure and operation of the physical universe. The conflict was ostensibly resolved by what I call the Galilean truce.

Under the terms of this agreement, the churchmen and the scientists agreed to a separation of competencies. The church would limit its inquiries to matters such as theology, faith and morals -- what we might call spiritual reality -- while the scientists would restrict their inquiries to physical reality. The scientists agreed that they were powerless, with the tools at their disposal, to investigate spiritual matters, and this has been the scientific party line ever since. The mainstream church, in turn, has declared that the legitimate work of scientists can have no relevance to questions within its domain.

It is because of the Galilean truce that many people can say there is no real conflict between science and religion. The truce is an attempt to declare that there does not exist anything over which they could fight. The truce has worked admirably, even though a certain minority of Protestants never accepted it. The record is not perfect, but so far as I am aware, nobody since Galileo, in any democratic nation, has ever been imprisoned on sole account of his scientific beliefs.

The terms of the truce have been applied as well to potential conflicts between science and politics. It is asserted that political issues cannot be investigated scientifically because they involve questions of values, opinions and preferences rather than verifiable facts; and for the most part the scientific community has agreed with this assertion. In this area, the peace has not been so well kept, but the hostilities have been remarkably subdued, all things considered.

It has been said that science cannot answer meaningless questions. I agree, but the point is irrelevant. If a question is truly meaningless, then it has no meaningful answer, scientific or otherwise. However, many questions that seem to be without meaning may acquire meaning if their operative terms are well enough defined, or if they are restated in well defined terms, which is equivalent.

My own question may be so restated: Is the scientific method sufficient to provide an answer to any meaningful question?

The scientific method cannot be rigorously defined in a few words, but most of us have, I think, a fair notion of what it is. For our discussion, I think the crucial criterion is in the nature of its results. The answer to any question, if it is to qualify as a scientific answer, has to be falsifiable when subjected to tests conducted independently of its proponents. That is to say: A scientific theory will predict that under certain conditions, a certain outcome is to be expected -- a certain event will occur in a certain way. If a different outcome is observed, then the theory -- the proposed answer to the question -- must be either modified or abandoned.

It is characteristic of nonscientific explanations that no event under any conditions forces such a reexamination. Proponents of such explanations have no concern about being wrong, because they have answers for every possible contingency. This may be evidence that they are very clever, but it is also proof that they are not scientific.

When I say that the scientific method is applicable to any meaningful question, I'm suggesting only that it should be possible to state the question and define its terms so that a suggested answer can be tested against our observations of the real world. Science is not only about examining answers. It is also about examining our questions.

I suggest also that the Galilean truce has nothing to do with a real distinction between scientific questions and any other kind, but much to do with the realization among both religious and political activists that truly scientific testing would invalidate some of their current answers. It serves them well to maintain that science is incompetent to undertake such testing. And it obviously serves the scientists well to stay out of those arenas. There has always been plenty of work to do in those fields that everyone agrees are the proper domain of scientific inquiry.

The questions addressed by our churches and political parties are surely no less important than those addressed by conventional science. I suspect there is a consensus that they are rather much more important. And yet, we have this historic agreement that these most important questions cannot be asked or answered in such a way that we might know when we get the wrong answers.

At this point in human history, the Galilean truce seems to be necessary if we are to allow scientists the freedom they need to pursue their traditional studies. It may remain necessary for many more generations. But not for all time. We may not yet want scientific answers to all our questions, but someday our descendants will see that no other kind is really useful.

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(This page was last updated on July 10, 2009.)