The Spirit of Galileo

Spiritual Information: 100 Perspectives. Edited by Charles L. Harper, Jr., 2005, Templeton Foundation Press, 2005.


Knowledge grows and information increases when we test ideas and beliefs against the realities they presume. This is true in all areas of life, including the personal and the spiritual.

When Galileo dropped weights from the tower of Pisa and performed other experiments with moving bodies, he tested ideas that had been accepted for millennia. He pitted them against the realities they dealt with—actual bodies in motion—and found them to be false. But he also discovered what was true of them and laid a foundation for a culture of testing and “research” that has continued to develop up to the present. Galileo provided an accurate, general model of purposeful increase of knowledge and information.

The burden of human existence is the need to find an adequate basis for action in knowledge. The ancient insight that people perish for lack of knowledge is a profound truth that can be gleaned from personal reflection, as well as from simple people-watching. It is not quite as obvious as “people perish for lack of oxygen.” The perishing involved is not as immediately striking. But it is often a more painful perishing at a far deeper level of human existence.

Reliable information is so vital to us because, in a sense peculiar to humans, we must act. We have no choice but to choose. What our individual and collective future holds depends largely on what we do. We are relentlessly thrown into a future of some sort, and we are always in some measure responsible for what that future will be—for the circumstances we will live in and the kinds of persons we will become. For us, even “doing nothing” amounts to doing something. And whether we act or “do nothing,” we desperately need to know what we are doing.

Knowledge is the capacity to represent respective subject matters as they are, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. That is an accurate portrayal of what we have in mind when we regard someone as having or not having knowledge in specific contexts of daily life—of knowing the English or Greek alphabet, for example, or of being qualified to operate on brains or use sewing machines. Knowledge grows through engagement with its subject matter and, as it grows, puts us in an increasingly better position to deal with our lives.

What “an appropriate basis” amounts to in the particular case will always depend on the nature of the subject matter of the knowledge in question. There is, from within our human limitations, no perfectly general formula for “appropriate basis” or “conclusive evidence.” Much of the skeptical results of “Modern” thought should be attributed to outstanding thinkers insisting on one or another supposed completely general formula for what is to be appropriate or conclusive evidence.

But regardless of our doubts and confusions, we do nonetheless perfectly well determine in specific contexts when people do or do not know a certain subject matter—how to pronounce the Greek alphabet, how to perform brain surgery, or how to operate a sewing machine.

Now “science” in the Modern sense (Classical and Medieval “science” is quite another matter) is the attempt, by thought, observation, and experimentation to theoretically organize the events and entities of the sense-perceptible or “natural” world under ever-more comprehensive generalizations or laws. That aim would permit, but does not require, that all such events and entities come under one set of laws or one science (e.g., the dream of the unification of all natural forces—the theory of everything—in physics). And it also does not require that every element of the observable world be itself observable in narrowly defined sense perceptibility.

Thus, to witness wedding vows or an eclipse, you must have sense perceptions of some kind, but not of every element of the event observed. And if all you had were sensations, you would never see such common things. Also, the “unobservables” of subparticle physics are a part of the observable world, although unobservable themselves. Even from within science we have learned that the observable world cannot be understood in terms of what is observable.

It is important to realize that science, given our current understanding of it, makes—and can support—no claim about all that exists. It also does not itself claim to constitute the whole of knowledge, although various philosophers make that claim about it. For its purposes, there is no need—or, indeed, possibility—of making claims about whether something exists in some manner distinct from the natural world unless such a conclusion were forced on it by examination of that world.

Further, science has no way of answering the question of why, in general, the laws of the natural world that are held to be true actually do hold true, or of why whatever “initial conditions” that obtained (at the Big Bang or whatever constituted the origin of the universe) did obtain. It simply takes the observable world as a given and seeks to bring its events and entities under natural law as far as possible. If we ever get to a completely “unified theory,” then it, and what it describes, will stand as a brute fact or arrangement with no “scientific” explanation at all.

The fate of completely successful science is to eventuate in the mystical, the ineffable; and the practice of science is itself a spiritual or personal activity, impossible to derive from the laws of nature that it discovers.

The inescapable limits of scientific explanation are galling, however, for they leave such interesting and important questions untouched. That often provokes brilliant and ambitious minds to speculate beyond all legitimately scientific research, and even to call such speculations “scientific.” Of course, anyone is free to speculate, and speculation rightly handled is one source of both information and knowledge. But to call one’s speculations “scientific” should mean something more than that they are carried out by certifiable scientists or by people talking about certifiable scientists. As history shows, certifiable scientists are quite capable of unscientific or even nonsensical views. Among them are views about all reality or all knowledge.

By contrast, religion as a human practice involves two essential elements: (1) the belief in “another” realm than the natural world available to everyone through normal sense perception, and (2) the belief that that realm has a claim on us and that we can make claims on it through appropriate personal responses (ritualistic or otherwise). Thus, none of the great historical religions is without forms of offering and prayer and ways of relating our actions and daily life to that “other realm.” That realm, whether beyond or within the realm of nature—or both—is usually thought of as a spiritual realm.

William James opens Lecture III of his Varieties of Religious Experience with the statement:

Were one asked to characterize the life of [personal] religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul.


Religions, in contrast to the sciences, do aim at descriptions and explanations of “the totality” of existence, and that always includes but transcends the physical world. Those explanations and descriptions are not, typically, of the same type as the explanations in the sciences. Usually they take the form of stories.

Stories, unlike scientific theories, are equipped, in ways peculiar to them, to deal with unique and total events and entities—with self-contained wholes. They characteristically convey a beginning, a “once upon a time,” and an end, a “happily every after.” These are “totalizing devices.” But that does not detract from their intent to be an account of fact and reality, which is by no means the absolute prerogative of scientific theorizing. For there is no reason in the general nature of fact or knowledge why stories of the religious type should not provide information to guide life and even constitute knowledge as above described.

There is a fact, a reality, in any case where some property actually belongs to something, giving it an actual character. And there is no reason whatsoever why the properties central to the natural sciences must be all of the properties there are.

Of course, the stories told by the various religions, or even within one religion or by various individuals, cannot all be true in any straightforward sense because they conflict. Scientists and “scientific” theories also frequently contradict each other. Nevertheless, the stories, like scientific theories, are intended to be true. Conflict of scientific theories does not cause us to wash our hands of them, but to refine them. And the same attitude should be taken toward the reports and stories of religion.

Another feature of the stories or sub-stories that make up a religious or spiritual outlook is that we can “slip into” them, identify with them, and receive guidance from them in approaching life choices. We can test the stories by thoughtful examination of them and by living them out in appropriate ways. In this way, it is possible to show that they are inadequate or inaccurate, or to verify them, or to gain further information by means of them.

Just as Galileo demonstrated that you cannot understand bodies in motion by abstract thought, so we have to accept the fact that spiritual reality, in the activities of the individual or in the cosmos, must be approached in terms suitable to its nature. Subject matter dictates method, not the reverse. To insist on examining a subject matter, whether spiritual or natural, by methods that don’t even deal with it can at best yield a vacuous self-satisfaction.

But while the spiritual and scientific approaches to reality differ profoundly, they are nonetheless overlapping enterprises. They both have wide-ranging implications for life and practice, and they can and do make conflicting claims about the same events or realities. In some cases, it may be possible to reasonably adjudicate such conflicts in favor of religion, or of science, or of neither—they might both be wrong.

But it is no use to say that they deal with different things and therefore cannot, when properly understood, come into conflict. That was the route taken by Stephen J. Gould in one of his last books, Rocks of Ages. In this regard, he followed a long line of thinkers over the last three hundred years. He assigned to science the realm of “fact” and to religion the realm of “meaning.”

The thoughtful advocate of spirituality will not think Gould is overly generous to religion with this allocation and will see that what Gould calls “religion” is nothing any sincere practitioner of it could accept. “Meaning,” understood as exalted sentiment and purpose, cannot hang in a vacuum. It is a peculiar folly of “scientifically minded” intellectuals and academics such as Gould to think that meaning and value, including what is offered by religion, is only a projection of human will, usually involving a social and historical process of some sort. Ethical theory since the nineteenth century is mainly an attempt to find life-governing norms that have no basis in reality. It is an attempt that has now manifestly failed, as is to be seen in the writings of the most well-known ethical theorists of our day.

Conflicts of opinion between spiritual and scientific points of view are not bad, although they are often handled badly. Appropriate openness and humility are often remarkably absent between people supposed to be learned. But it is a natural and good thing that any far-reaching view of things, scientific or religious, should come into conflict with other views. This is because all such views serve as a basis of practice and policies. If they did not, they would be irrelevant to life and to the pressing need to base collective and individual human action on knowledge. And since the way of testing is the only path toward the growth of knowledge and information, the tests that rival accounts pose to one another can be accepted as welcome occasions of increased understanding of human life and the realities that support it.

What is required of us all is an open and honest approach to all views concerning human life and well-being. There is a truth to be known about human life and its spiritual nature and context. The way forward is to learn from the Masters of the spiritual side of life and to test what they offer us by thoughtfully putting it into practice. The approach of Galileo is the right one and extends far beyond his interest in the motions of bodies.

The names on the list of spiritual Masters are well-known. But to take them seriously as providers of information and knowledge and to put them to the test is extremely rare. This remains true even for those who profess confidence in them or when they are presented in a popular form, such as in Stephen Covey’s very fine book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Few who buy that book or others like it actually do what it says. We sink in spiritual darkness, not because there is no light, but because we, for whatever reason, refuse to seek out the light, put it to the test of daily life, and share it.

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