Science, Religion, Copernicus, and Galileo
Seeing the Truth Behind the Myths

Of course, everyone knows that Galileo was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for daring to contend that the earth was not at the center of the universe, right? Well, as is so often the case, what everyone knows is probably not historically accurate. I have recently come across two excellent essays on the topic of Galileo. The first is from the Evangelical Outpost and is entitled "The Myth of Galileo: A Story With A (Mostly) Valuable Lesson". The blog points out that Galileo, far from being the pristine man of pure science, was a rather conceited show-off. His initial findings supporting the Copernican view of the universe were not denounced by the church when initially shown. Rather it was only after Galileo made a pain of himself trying to turn the battle into a battle of Biblical interpretation, that the RCC, after much restraint, acted.

In 1610, Galileo used his telescope to make some surprising discoveries that disputed Aristotelian cosmology. Though his findings didn’t exactly overthrow the reigning view of the day, they were warmly received by the Vatican and by Pope Paul V. Rather than continuing his scientific studies and building on his theories, though, Galileo began a campaign to discredit the Aristotelian view of astronomy. (His efforts would be akin to a modern biologist trying to dethrone Darwin.) Galileo knew he was right and wanted to ensure that everyone else knew that the Aristotelians were wrong.

In his efforts to cram Copernicanism down the throats of his fellow scientists, Galileo managed only to squander the goodwill he had established within the Church. He was attempting to force them to accept a theory that, at the time, was still unproven. The Church graciously offered to consider Copernicanism a reasonable hypothesis, albeit a superior one to the Ptolemaic system, until further proof could be gathered. Galileo, however, never came up with more evidence to support the theory. Instead, he continued to pick fights with his fellow scientists even though many of his conclusions were being proven wrong (i.e., that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles).

Galileo’s fatal mistake was to move the fight out of the realm of science and into the field of biblical interpretation. In a fit of hubris, he wrote the Letter to Castelli in order to explain how his theory was not incompatible with proper biblical exegesis. With the Protestant Reformation still fresh on their minds, the Church authorities were in no mood to put up with another troublemaker trying to interpret Scripture on his own.

But, to their credit, they didn't overreact. The Letter to Castelli was twice presented to the Inquistion [sic] as an example of the astronomer’s heresy and twice the charges were dismissed. Galileo, however, wasn't satisfied and continued his efforts to force the Church to concede that the Copernican system was an issue of irrefutable truth.

The essay continues to talk about how Galileo actually brought about his own downfall by directly insulting Pope Urban VIII in a very interesting read that I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in the tale of Galileo.

A second essay, on Prothesis Blogspot posted July 13, 2004, and titled (like this article) "Science, Religion, Copernicus, and Galileo" supplements the earlier article by giving more background on the Copernican theory and adds more information to the tale of Galileo. Importantly, it notes:

Things changed when Barberini became Pope Urban VIII. Urban was considered a friend of Galileo and he was considered somewhat of a moderate on the issue of heliocentrism. Although he was a theologian, he was very knowledgable [sic] of the scientific issues. After meeting with Urban a few times, Galileo got permission to write a book that looked at the pros and cons of both heliocentrism and geocentrism. The only condition was that he could not promote either of the views, he could only present each sides arguments and counter-arguments. This book became Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Contrary to what Galileo promised, the book was largely an argument for heliocentrism. In addition, Galileo took a what Urban had said in a conversation they had and put his words into the mouth of a simple-minded, Aristotelian geocentrist.

This, of course, did not make Urban happy at all. Not only did Galileo write what he had agreed not to write, he also mocked Urban in the process. Galileo was brought to trial again, but not for his scientific theory, nor for his biblical interpretation. While these were mentioned, the trial largely dealt with Galileo's disobedience to the pope. The scientific and biblical interpretation issues were already dealt with, there was no need to rule on them again. Finally, Galileo was found guilty of disobedience and was sentenced to house arrest.

The biggest thing to note about all of this is that it is hard to classify this as just a conflict between science and religion. For one thing, all the people involved agreed to the authority of Scripture. Most of the major people involved were also well aware of the scientific issues at hand. If anything, this was a conflict of various ideas. On the one hand, there was the conflict between the scientific theories of geocentrism and heliocentrism. As I think I've shown, both systems had advantages and disadvantages at the time. From the data alone, neither system could be preferred. Also, there was a conflict between a literal interpretation of certain parts of Scripture and a non-literal interpretation of those texts. This was complicated by the Catholic church's worries about the Reformation. So there were conflicts, but they were not the universal to all of science and all of religion. They were particular to these circumstances and they dealt with competing views of science and competing views of scriptural interpretation.

Again, like the earlier blog, this essay is well worth the time to read it through. The Prothesis blog highlights more the differences in worldviews between Galileo and the RCC, but both can be read consistently with the understanding that it was Galileo who caused his own problems. Not because he took a stand for a scientific view he thought correct, but due to his arrogant approach in attacking the issue.

I would add that The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio de Santillana, is one of the standard academic works which demolishes most of the myths and explains that it was politics and academic spite rather than religion that led to the scientist's downfall.


Anonymous said…
The misconceptions in this entry are dealt with at length here in an extended essay. While Galileo was not without blame for the circumstances he found himself in, it makes little sense to replace one myth with another.

As i discussed with Bede previously, de Santillana's work is no longer standard in Galileo Studies and is regarded as largely invective. More recent scholarship, such as that of Coyne or Fantoli, provides a more balanced approach and a review of where de Santillana went wrong. Both are referenced in the above essay.

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