Brecht’s Galileo, or, Against Macho Science

posted by Kaihsu Tai on August 28th, 2006

Recently there has been some discussion about scientists who are religious here, after Mike “outed” the secret Caltech-alumni organizing principle behind this blog. I have also recently read Richard Hamming’s depressing macho-macho speech on research. It is then perhaps opportune that, this Saturday, I went to the National Theatre to see Bertolt Brecht‘s The Life of Galileo (in a version by David Hare).

With 20th-century hindsight, Brecht retells the life-story of Galileo Galilei. As Eric Hobsbawm points out in his book The Age of Extremes, 1914–1991 which I am now reading, no one in our times can be so sure of the liberating promises of rational progress anymore. Galileo’s 17th-century contemporaries did not have the benefit of retrospection: They were riding the wave of the Renaissance, pregnant with the prospect of rationalism’s triumph (if only temporary) in the 19th century after the revolutions.

The conventional wisdom blames the Church for trying to limit the progress of science, and counts it fortunate (or, inevitable) that reason’s march cannot be halted, if paused by the “martyrdom” of Copernicus and the recantation of Galileo (traitor of science! they cry, reluctantly). Brecht, a socialist, cannot bear to totally demolish this rationalistic paradigm upfront, but still questions it as any thinking person in the 20th century has to. The current production has images from Visible Earth (in part courtesy of Caltech) for the backdrop, but equally appropriate, if anachronistic and less subtle, there could have been a mushroom cloud, an utterly disappointing scene for gung-ho believers of absolute rationalism.

Following Brecht, I would also not go so far as to say that the Church had it right all along, but rationalism and blind (we now know) progress certainly did not. No, the Church definitely cannot smugly say “I told you so”. Perhaps she did not express herself in quite the right way? (Think “pyre”.)

Can we, both as Christians and as scientists, learn from history? “What are we for?”, Brecht’s Galileo asks: Are we scientists to be “inventive dwarfs for hire”, working for the highest bidder? Or can we have “science in the service of humanity” (attributed to Marie Curie)? “human-scale science”? “socialist science”? (That last one, sadly, is now a loaded phrase, as so many other things have become, thanks to the 20th century.) Is it possible for the scientist to work, not for fame or profit, not even for the gratification of gratuitous “curiosity”, “reason”, or “science”; but as a bird makes a nest, as a tree bears fruit, as a beaver builds a dam, as bees make honey? Or is this one of the human activities where it bound to be more complicated than that? Is it asking too much? or indeed, too little?

I am still trying to understand the last century. (Can one speak of “coming to terms” with it?) It is as if humanity, or at least a large part of it, after learning how to read, write, and take the square root, has now graduated from school and reached adolescence. He (allow me a gender-specific pronoun, which is not entirely inaccurate) then proceeds to squander the inheritance which his parents and ancestors stored up, all in a very short time, spending it in a self-destructive way, however instantly gratifying.

Sounds familiar? Perhaps, one day he will find himself down with the pigs (honorable beasts!) and suddenly change his mind (μετάνοια). I just hope it won’t be too late to go back to his dad. What would his brother, living in the South, say? “Dad, I have always worked for you, but you never cooked a little lamb for me. This chap, he spent all his money at the brothel, but now you give him all this bling-bling and throw a big party for him!” I now know slightly better how the prodigal son will feel upon hearing this.

Maybe he will eventually settle down, have a small family, and start thinking for his children. One can only hope. Time to read HH John Paul II’s letter Fides et Ratio again! By the way, the pig knuckle at Daquise is nice (pace vegetarian Mike).

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  1. On August 28, 2006 at 14:33 Adam (Southern California) said:

    If the 20th century is the story of both the triumph and the tragedy of rationalism, the early 21st century is setting itself up as a conflict between rationalism and anti-rationalism. Perhaps rationalism finds itself in a position similar to the Church at the time of Martin Luther— basically correct but in definite need of cleaning house. Perhaps it is necessary for a “reformation of rationalism” to occur, for Western powers to evaluate where their ideals have failed in the world, and where the abuses of rationalism can be fixed so that the forces of religious tyranny will lose their clout.

  2. On August 28, 2006 at 14:45 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    That’s insightful. Recently, Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft have been asking a lot about “why God is winning”. Search the web for more examples.