Sunday, May 17, 2009

Facts Concerning Galileo

One of my favorite lines in George's Salmon's book The Infallibility of the Church is a citation from Galileo from a tract of his on the motion of comets, which he wrote after his first trial.

"Since the motion attributed to the earth which I, as a pious and Catholic person, consider most false and not to exist, accommodates itself so well as to explain so many and such different phenomena, I shall not feel sure but that, false as it is, it may not just as deludingly correspond with the phenomena of comets."

Christians sometimes like to pretend that the Galileo affair doesn't demonstrate how science and faith conflict. We're told it really wasn't that the Church had a problem with science. Maybe it was Galileo's arrogance, shoving new claims down everyone's throats. There's usually some talk about how Galileo was wrong about the tides. Or there's lots of talk about how some of the Church's critics have exaggerated the conditions that Galileo was subjected to. I'm reminded of this due to a recent blog entry at str here. You might also find similar things here, or maybe here.

Did the Church really not have a problem with heliocentrism? If not, why would such men as Robert Sungenis continue to defend geocentrism (see for instance some of his offerings here)? This guy is not just some nobody. He's written books endorsed by prominent Catholic writers such as Scott Hahn, Ron Tacelli, Karl Keating, Patrick Madrid, Thomas Howard, and Steven Ray. Note though that these endorsements were made before his views on the motion of the planets became public.

I'd like to offer some quotations from some documents relevant to this question from the time period for reference. Again, thes quotes are via George Salmon's The Infallibility of the Church.

Galileo's initial run-in with the church occurred because he wrote a private letter explaining that he thought the bible could be interpreted metaphorically in places in a manner consistent with his observations. At the time the church permitted mathematicians to consider Copernicanism, but only as a supposition, not as true. In other words, it was fine if they just wanted to amuse themselves with some calculations, but they were not permitted to actually believe such things.

Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition due to his private letter, which went too far. It went so far as to have a layman offer interpretation of Scripture. He was acquitted on a technicality. The letter was only a copy, not the original. So they said "Not Guilty" but basically don't do it again. They immediately then issued a decree, which reads as follows:

"Since it has come to the knowledge of this Holy Congregation that the false Pythagorean doctrine altogether opposed to the Divine Scripture of the mobility of the earth and the immobility of the sun which Nicolas Copernicus in his work De revolulionibus orbium caelestium and Didacus a Stunica in his Commentary on Job teach is being promulgated and accepted by many as may be seen from a printed letter of a certain Carmelite Father Foscarini entitled &c wherein the said Father has attempted to show that the said doctrine is consonant to truth and not opposed to Holy Scripture therefore lest this opinion insinuate itself further to the damage of Catholic truth this Congregation has decreed that the said books Copernicus De revolulionibus and Stunica on Job be suspended till they are corrected but that the book of Foscarini the Carmelite be altogether prohibited and condemned and all other books that teach the same thing."

This decree remained in effect for quite some time. For instance, here is a foreward to the Jesuit's edition of Newton's Principia

"Newton in this third book supposes the motion of the earth. We could not explain the author's propositions otherwise than by making the same supposition. We are therefore forced to sustain a character which is not our own; but we profess to pay the obsequious reverence which is due to the decrees pronounced by the sovereign Pontiffs against the motion of the earth."

So Galileo returned home, but did continue to work on such matters. He wrote the tract on comets that I quoted at the top for instance.

He used similar verbal conformity in a subsequent tract where he'd present the case in the form of a dialogue without committing himself to either view. This is what caused him some big trouble. Ultimately the Pope recognized some of his own arguments in the words of a character Galileo didn't paint too flatteringly (the character was named "Simplicio"). The book was banned and Galileo was orderd to return to Rome. He protested due to his poor health at the age of 70, but was threatened to be brought out in irons if he didn't come.

At trial he protested that he had only considered the question hypothetically without committing himself to either position. Wrong answer. Nothing can even be probable which is contrary to Scripture. He was forced to recant heliocentrism as a false, cursed, and detestable. He was then subjected to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

Maybe Galileo was sometimes arrogant. Maybe he was sometimes wrong. Maybe some church members didn't oppose heliocentrism. Maybe Galileo believed in the Bible. Maybe Copernicus did as well. None of this changes the fact that in this instance the church opposed demonstrable science because of their understanding of the Bible. This is an excellent example of some of the problems with religious thinking.


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Anonymous said...

As the current Pope, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, has written, Christianity is best viewed as a balancing of faith and reason -- not just blind, unthinking faith. From time to time in history and in certain regimes, the balance skews. Politics and competing ideas clash in all aspects of man's existence. Religion, like most things of fundamental value, must process change deliberately as it protects the value of its constancy. Science itself has its moments of stifling new ideas and protecting "sacred" doctrine -- plate tectonics is a good example and climate science may well be another. So I have two conclusions and an opinion i) all ideologies, whether sacred or secular, engage in fallacious thinking and re-inforce the staus quo ante by oppression, ii) politicized science can err from reason with equal aplomb as religion and iii) it is my opinion that religion and science, faith and reason, do not negate each other as they clash, but refine each other to enrich the human experience.