Posted tagged ‘Copernicus’

The question of intellectual integrity

April 17, 2011

In evidence of the fact that a really good book should not go out of print, you can find Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican by Galileo Galilei (first published in 1632) on sale today; indeed in this edition you get the added benefit of a foreword by Albert Einstein. As many will know, the book was Galileo’s attempt to present a balanced view of astronomy and science, in which (through a series of dialogues) he presented the then competing theories of Copernicus and Ptolemy on the universe. While maintaining the appearance of balanced analysis, Galileo demonstrated his support for Copernicus, and in doing so opened himself to attack by the church authorities. He was accused and found guilty of heresy and, despite recanting, spent his remaining life under house arrest. It took the church the best part of 400 years to rehabilitate him.

The Galileo story is these days most often used as an illustration of the corruption of the church and of its interference in science, but while there is an important point in this about the appropriate relationship between theology and science, that is by no means the whole story. We know today that the basic premise of Copernicus – that the earth is in orbit around the sun rather than the other way round – was correct, but the evidence was not as straightforward back then, and along the way Galileo got some scientific facts quite wrong. The point of his analysis and his approach to the issues he was addressing is that he was committed to his search for truth and that he was willing to pursue it in the face of obvious personal and political risks, while still maintaing (or seeking to maintain) friendships with those who might disagree, including Pope Urban VIII.

Galileo was a leading academic of his day, and the controversy about the Dialogue was really about intellectual integrity. It is intellectual integrity that ultimately determines the value of the academy and the ideas it seeks to disseminate. But is this still understood in today’s universities, and are they actually able to host today’s Galileos? In some contemporary arguments this is described as the mission to speak ‘truth to power’, but I wonder whether that misses the point. As many of those who use it probably do not know, the expression comes from an 18th century charge to Quakers.  Today’s references sometimes carry an undertone of self-righteousness that doesn’t necessarily owe much to intellectual integrity. The task of the academy is not to preach, but to analyse and to debate. Academics are not particularly called to disseminate dogma (even unpopular dogma) and  ‘speak’ truth, but to seek it.

But in addition, the capacity of the academy to do this is compromised in other ways. It may not need to fear assaults by the church any more (or at least not in these parts), but its vulnerability in material terms exposes it even more. Nor is this particularly about the power and influence of commercial interests: often the biggest threat comes from the state as it cuts resources and aligns institutions with passing political priorities. What universities can safely do and support is often determined by an assessment of the risks they run in alienating those who provide the funds.

On the other hand universities are not set apart from the societies they inhabit, and so the pursuit of intellectual integrity needs to be placed by the academy in the context of the issues and problems faced by the community and the opportunities for improvement that academic inquiry may provide. It can be a difficult balance to get right. But right now there is no real consensus in society as to the importance of intellectual integrity, nor is there always an acceptance that the higher education community is a good steward of it. Restoring that sense of confidence in the value of what the academy does is perhaps the key mission of higher education today. Without this, universities will find it hard to host today’s Dialogue that could mark a turning point for tomorrow’s world.