Conflict Myths: Galileo Galilei

This essay is the first in a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as conflicts between science and Christianity.


This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.


“The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics” – Galileo Galilei (Il Saggiatore, 1623)

Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) was a brilliant mathematician, astronomer and physicist. He was appointed to the chair of Mathematics at the University of Pisa in 1589, and spent the next 20 years conducting excellent astronomical observations and making significant discoveries in pure and applied science. He did groundbreaking work in the mechanics of falling bodies under gravity (although, contrary to that other myth, he never dropped anything off the Tower of Pisa), and made significant improvements to the design of telescopes. In 1610 he published his observations of the moons of Jupiter, and it is at this point that our interest in him really starts.

Astronomical understanding in the early 17th century was still rooted in the Aristotelian model, the core of which was that the heavens were composed of concentric circles, with the Earth at the centre. The celestial bodies themselves were perfect circles made of “incorruptible aether” and were eternal – subject neither to generation nor decay.

This was the reigning scientific model which the secular universities were adamant to maintain, but Galileo’s observations of sunspots and lunar craters cast doubt on the “perfect circles”, and his observation in 1604 of a supernova contradicted the immutability of Aristotle’s heavens. Moreover, his observations of Jupiter’s moons challenged the notion that all celestial bodies orbit the Earth. Galileo endorsed the heliocentric system developed by Nicolaus Copernicus, a Catholic priest who published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543.

In 1611 Galileo travelled to Rome to present his findings, and was greeted with great acclaim. He demonstrated his observations of Jupiter to Christopher Clavius, a Jesuit at the Collegio Romano and the most respected astronomer in Europe at the time, who confirmed Galileo’s observations and parts of his theses of planetary motion.

The secular university professors were not as accommodating to this activity as the Jesuits had been, however. After several years spent as a public advocate for the Copernican theory, Galileo wrote in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615 that his theories had “stirred up against me no small number of professors”, and that these academics had agitated strongly for ecclesiastical support in their cause.

This letter is also an excellent illustration of some personal aspects of Galileo. He was monumentally arrogant, belligerent and abrasive towards any who opposed him. He wrote concerning the professors:

“I should pay no more attention to them than to those who previously contradicted me – at whom I always laugh, being assured of the eventual outcome.”

It was in this letter, also, that Galileo himself defined the astronomical debate as being irrevocably rooted in interpretation of the Bible. Under pressure from both sides of the dispute, the Church was drawn into the fray. Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII and a friend of Galileo, cautioned him to drop the matter. Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, the “Consultor of the Holy Office and Master of Controversial Questions” (don’t you just love that title?), wrote a letter to Galileo in April 1615 outlining the Church’s official position. He pointed out that Copernican theory was perfectly acceptable as a working hypothesis, and if there were proof that the earth circles around the sun, “then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary.”

In effect, he challenged Galileo to offer some proof for his theory or stop pestering the Church publicly with it, but that if proof were offered he was open to hearing it.

(Interestingly, the heliocentric model had been considered by Aristotle and rejected – he wrote that under such a system we should see stellar parallaxes. In other words, the change of position of the earth from one side of its orbit to the other should change the relative positions of the stars in different seasons. The scientific strength of this objection is illustrated by the fact that stellar parallax was only observed in 1838 by Friedrich Bessel.)

Galileo had no astronomical proof to offer, partly because his own observations did not align properly with his theory. He insisted that planets move in perfect circles (based on Aristotle’s hypothesis) and rejected the theories of Johannes Kepler, who proposed in his Astronomia nova (1609) that planetary orbits are elliptical. Instead, Galileo proposed as proof a flawed and unconvincing theory that the tides were evidence of the Earth’s rotation (and, incidentally, specifically denying that lunar attraction was involved). In 1616 the Church ordered him to cease and desist his public advocacy of the unproven theory.

For the next seven years, Galileo acquiesced to the Church’s injunction, but in 1623 his friend and supporter Maffeo Barberini ascended to the papacy, and Galileo confidently re-entered the public fray.  In the same year he published Il Saggiatore (“The Assayer”), in which he launched a vicious assault on a treatise on comets by Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit mathematician at the Collegio Romano. Grassi used observations of parallax to argue that comets are further away than the moon; Galileo ridiculed this idea and claimed rather that comets are an optical illusion. His factual error notwithstanding, the harshness of Galileo’s tone permanently soured his relations with the Jesuit order. Pope Urban VIII thoroughly enjoyed the rhetorical flourishes of Galileo’s prose, however, and composed a poem in his honour.

Like Galileo, Urban was a vain and irascible man. After listening to Galileo’s arguments for years, he declared that the possible ways of arranging the universe were so numerous that it was impertinent for mortals to claim that they had discovered the unique truth. He insisted that Galileo include the Aristotelian alternative in his presentations of the universe.

In 1632, Galileo published his response to these arguments:  Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In it, he presented his astronomical theories as a conversation between Salviati, who is referred to as “the Academician” and represents Galileo’s own views; and Simplicio (or “The Fool”), who bumbles about and contradicts himself as he ineptly offers a straw-man version of the Aristotelian / Ptolemaic perspective – and more importantly, represents the Pope’s views.

Not too surprisingly, this didn’t go down very well with the Pope. His hubris and vanity would not tolerate public ridicule, and Galileo was called before the ecclesiastical court. He was condemned by the Catholic Church as “suspected of heresy” – about the strongest charge that could be brought, since Copernicanism had never been declared heretical – and was then whipped tortured killed burned housed with a personal valet in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens. He spent the remainder of his life in comfort (albeit technically under house arrest), working on his final masterpiece, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. Published in 1638, this book was the grand summation of much of his work in physics over the preceding thirty years.


Conflicting opinions

So what shall we make of this tale? Although our 21st century perspective makes us indignant that the “truth” was being muzzled and declared heretical, I think there are some important misconceptions in that attitude:

  • First, the obvious: Despite the fact that prominent atheists love to invoke Galileo as an example of the supposed “conflict” between science and religion, Galileo was a Christian. He responded to the secular professors who attacked his theory from a distinctly Christian perspective: in Letter to the Grand Duchess he invokes arguments by St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas regarding Biblical interpretation.
  • Although we view Galileo’s theories as an obvious improvement over the Aristotelian model of a geocentric solar system, it is important to reiterate that this was not provable by Galileo’s own evidence. His observations of the moons of Jupiter and the craters of the moon suggested problems with the pure geocentric model, but he certainly could not prove his case. In fact, an objection could have been made on purely scientific grounds that the heliocentric model offered insufficient improvement in explanatory power to justifiably replace the reigning paradigm.
  • I make no excuses for the Pope’s abuse of his position to silence a critic, but the church’s treatment of Galileo was remarkably restrained by the standards of 17th century Europe. Giorgio de Santillana, Professor of Humanities at MIT, wrote that “We must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Roman authorities”. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

“In a generation which saw the Thirty Years’ War and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.”

Consider, in closing, this analogy:

John is a brilliant employee in a major corporation. He is also in charge of producing the company newsletter. The CEO of the company holds a view that John disagrees with. John publishes an article featuring a caricature of the CEO named “Retard Boy”. He gets fired.

The point in that scenario is not whether John’s views will eventually be proved right by later scientific discovery – he still exercised supremely poor judgement.

21 thoughts on “Conflict Myths: Galileo Galilei

  1. Pingback: Conflict Myths: Series Overview « Spiritual Meanderings

  2. Excellent post! I cannot wait to read more in this series. It’s important to realize the historical issues going on behind all of these events so that we don’t jump to conclusions.

  3. Supremely poor judgment? An objection could have been made on purely scientific grounds that the heliocentric model offered insufficient improvement in explanatory power to justifiably replace the reigning paradigm?

    Have you ever studied the Ptolemy geocentric model and its reliance on retrograde movement? If so, it is difficult to fathom how this “purely scientific grounds” could be considered of equal validity than the Copernican model. But, like so much else about Galileo’s contribution, his work was fundamentally misunderstood then but that’s hardly an excuse to continue to do so today.

    It’s not the tone of GG’s published work that matters a tinker’s damn; his astounding influence was (and remains) in regards to his philosophical contribution to how to inquire: he directly challenged the Aristotelian notion that objects had a nature. Galileo showed that this assumption upon which the Church based its science was wrong time and again, that objects were subject to consistent forces acting equally upon all, that there was a way to find out from the world how things worked and moved and functioned. He introduced the power of experimentation and testing hypotheses in the real world and making sense of the results through a proposed explanation. That one of his explanations utilized tides was close (he was well aware of the influence of the moon – spooky action at a distance – and was attempting to explain it in terms of heliocentrism because no one knew anything yet about this thing we call gravity) but not correct. So what? It’s the scientific process that eventually yields refined and highly practical knowledge that works consistently well in the real world, and we get to that understanding of real knowledge not by belief in spooky action at a distance but by actual and active inquiry and testing.

    Galileo taught us that what we assumed was an object’s nature – heaviness was a property of rock, light a property of the eye, and so forth – was really expressions of larger and natural forces we could understand. In this sense, Galileo was a giant in new field of scientific exploration. It was upon Galileo’s shoulders more than any other that Newton stood and he rightfully deserves our undisguised admiration for his genius.

    As for his imprisonment, today we are painfully aware of just how little religious thought adds to scientific knowledge about anything in the real world, so for the church to have wielded any power of judgment over Galileo is deeply offensive to anyone who values honest scientific inquiry. That should be all of us, but old notions die hard as do old allegiances. The fact that it took more than 400 years for the church to rescind its inaccurate judgment is evidence of just how recalcitrant this archaic and corrupt institution has always been: it’s purpose is not to support what’s true but to maintain what it believes to be true.

    Also, your analogy fails to account for Galileo’s relationship with the church regarding his family. That his daughter who lived in a convent and was under direct catholic church authority (and who died in 1634 shortly after Galileo’s house imprisonment) is a key element in his actual trial, his consideration of his ‘crime’ and his recantation forced upon him by the power of the church in his life. That the church demanded GG to recant his scientific hypothesis on theological grounds is a deeply disturbing notion that should revolt and disgust anyone today who honours honest intellectual inquiry, who honours what is true over what we wish to believe is true.

  4. tildeb :
    Galileo showed that this assumption upon which the Church based its science was wrong time and again…

    What is often overlooked is that “science” at the time was not considered to be the matter of life and death that it is today. The primary purpose was to explain observations in a formalistic sense: it was merely a means of coordinating data, and was viewed as having no bearing on the ultimate reality of things.

    In short, it was regarded as a diversion for academics, and many in the church were genuinely puzzled that they had become embroiled in an affair concerning two mathematical models.

    Of course, Galileo understood it differently, and as such is regarded by many as the father of modern science. But the point to be made is that his scientific dispute was not with the church, it was with secular academics. The Church did not “do science” in any meaningful sense, though it may have held opinions on scientific theories. (Both Cardinal Bellarmino and later Pope Urban VIII stated specifically that the Copernican model was acceptable as an hypothesis, for instance).

    Galileo chose to escalate this secular dispute and invoke Biblical authority to support his case. The church responded that he needed to provide evidence of his theories, which he failed to do.

    But even all of this misses the main point of these essays, which is that the suggestion of “conflict” between Christianity and science is unfounded, and Galileo’s case is a classic example:

    A devout Christian had an academic squabble in a secular arena and the political power of the church got dragged in when both sides attempted to use Biblical interpretation to support a scientific case. Political power was exercised in a moderate way with due regard for current law. The Christian academic continued to work and publish. As all of his work was preserved, we can now look back over nearly 400 years and sift between his correct, partially correct, and wholly incorrect theories.

    I grant that the story may indicate some examples of poor exercise of political authority. But it was not a conflict between science and Christianity.

    Indeed, the fact that Galileo couldn’t even get himself excommunicated (which plenty of princes, kings, and Holy Roman Emperors managed to do) indicates that the Church was not terribly serious about the “heresy” quotient of his ideas.

  5. Wow. You grossly misunderstand the essential and central importance of Galileo’s role in history with this interpretation of what you call “this secular dispute.” Quite simply, you couldn’t be more wrong if you tried: Galileo tore asunder biblical assertions about the nature of the universe and turned into rubble the heretofore religious authority in scientific inquiry. Hence, the role of the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633 (the institution of the Roman Catholic Church for combating or suppressing heresy – NOT secular disputes!). But don’t take my word for it. Read about Galileo’s importance between science and religious authority by Finocchiaro (1997), Drake (1978, 1990), Geymonat (1965) and for a more general version of this essential conflict in ways to know, Reston (1994), Ronan (1974), and Seeger (1966).

    Galileo was a key protagonist in the Scientific Revolution. To pretend that the church had little say or care in science is flat out wrong: it WAS the authority in all things scientific… especially astronomy (because it was the Church that set the calendar and so paid attention to the cosmos)! It is sadly funny to read apologists for catholicism who assert BECAUSE so many founding astronomers were catholic, this is evidence that the church and its faith SUPPORTED the science of astronomy. Even Copernicus – a priest – only had the courage of his (astronomical) convictions on his deathbed. Galileo was the first one (and independently wealthy and influential) to take on the church directly.

    So what did GG do? Well, in physics he pioneered the investigation of motion; he formulated, clarified, and systemized many of the basic concepts needed for theoretical analysis of motion; he discovered the law of falling bodies. In astronomy, he introduced the telescope (after buying lenses from a Dutch toy maker) as an instrument for systematic observations ; he made several crucial observational discoveries; and he understood the cosmological significance of these observational facts and gave (essentially) correct interpretation of many of them. He was an inventor devising and improving the telescope, microscope, thermometer, and pendulum clock. Regarding the ‘scientific method’ (which, for all intents and purposes, he invented and codified) he was also a pioneer: he introduced the practice of utilizing artificial instruments to learn new facts about the world, and the active intervention into and exploratory manipulation of physical phenomena to gain access to aspects of nature which are not detectable without such experimentation; he altered the methods of collecting data and began the quantitative approach in the study of motion.

    His Dialogue is one of the most important texts of the Scientific Revolution because it contains his mature synthesis of astronomy, physics, and scientific methodology. A more accurate understanding of the divide during his time were between those of conservatism and innovation, or a conservative attitude and a progressive one, meaning that some of his supporters were churchmen and some of his detractors were ‘scientists’ but remember that these other ‘scientists’ were not like those of today who follow the very methodological practices outlined by Galileo; they were those involved in areas like astronomy for a wide variety of reasons, and it is from these influential and wealthy people who first urged the church to rule, which it did after also looking through GG’s telescope and seeing what he had seen. It was mostly in response to this ruling he thought misguided that GG wrote Dialogue on the World Systems. Those who also took detailed measurements (like Brahe and Kepler, for example) were very much embroiled in the effect that Galileo’s physics (which, at that time, meant natural philosophy) had on their cosmological understanding… and they became staunch allies who later helped smuggle this book to an eagerly waiting audiences further West. Remember, there was no distinction at all during those times between astronomy and astrology. Galileo altered this philosophical approach to physics.

    In addition, Dialogue On the World Systems was written for a wider audience and is presented in a critical fashion, discussing various arguments and siding with the geokenetic Copernican model, both of which were hotly debated. This explain why throughout the book, Galileo discusses the not only the issues and principles involved but the principles about truth, method, and knowledge on which all the arguments can be fairly assessed. He did so because these specific scientific questions (does the earth move or is it still, does the earth orbit the sun or the other way around and how can we know which is the case) are so basic that they – not GG – raise important – centrally important – questions about how to proceed. How can we determine an answer? These topics included the nature and property of authority, observation versus intellectual theorizing, the limitations of human understanding, independent-mindedness and open-mindedness, simplicity, probability, experiments, mathematics, artificial instruments, the bible, divine purpose and human interest, and, most importantly, causal explanations.

    Clearly, then, this is not just some kind of secular squabble; it is a direct confrontation between informed and uniformed methods of knowing about the nature of things. And that’s why this entire event is historically known as the Galileo Affair. In direct opposition to your empty assertion that (Galileo) needed to provide evidence of his theories, which he failed to do, Galileo did so and so spectacularly well that this book was banned and the 70 years old man imprisoned for heresy (later commuted to house arrest) and ordered to write no more. He managed to write one more treatise, which was smuggled to Holland, before he died.

    The Galileo Affair really is one of the first and most important of the conflicts between what we now call science and the religious authority that attempted to silence it.

  6. tildeb :

    Wow. You grossly misunderstand the essential and central importance of Galileo’s role in history…

    Au contraire, I am perfectly aware of Galileo’s role in the history of science and thought. But I fear you have grossly misunderstood the point of this essay. You have just expended over 900 words, largely dedicated to his scientific work, with a few passing and unfounded statements about the terrible and anti-scientific establishment that you seem to believe are rooted in fact.

    tildeb :
    “Galileo [provided evidence] so spectacularly well that this book was banned”

    …is a wonderfully dramatic suggestion, but given that the book which I believe you are referring to was only written in 1632, I’m not sure how you think that it’s relevant to his failure in 1616 to provide evidence?

    But what the hell, let’s run with your argument anyway, since it was publishing that book which led directly to the 1633 trial. There were three mathematical models to describe the movements of the heavens in 1632:
    1. The Aristotelian/Ptolemaic system, with everything orbiting around a stationary Earth, which had largely fallen out of favour following Galileo’s observations.
    2. The Tychonic system (developed by Tycho Brahe), in which the Earth was viewed as stationary, the Sun went around the Earth and everything else went around the Sun. After Galileo’s presentations in 1611, this became the favoured model of the Roman Catholic Church. Most Jesuit astronomers (such as Clavius) had adopted this system by 1620.
    3. The Copernican system, with a stationary Sun around which everything else revolved.

    Galileo’s response to a request to “represent all sides of the argument” was to ridicule the Aristotelian system (and ridicule the Pope at the same time), strongly argue for the Copernican system an omit the Tychonic system entirely.

    I hope you understand now why his treatment of the Aristotelian system is regarded as a classic case of straw-man argument. The important point about his omission is this:

    The Copernican system (which he represented) and the Tychonic system (which the Church favoured) are mathematically identical for all observations available at the time.

    The Tychonic system only fell out of favour theoretically after Newton’s theory of gravity (published in 1687) made it inconceivable for the solar system to orbit the small mass of the Earth, and was only challenged observationally by James Bradley’s observations of stellar aberration in 1725. Proper observations of stellar parallax were first made in 1838 by Friedrich Bessel (for the star 61 Cygni).

    Want more opinions on the weakness of Galileo’s arguments in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems? Here’s Einstein weighing in with his view:

    “It was Galileo’s longing for a mechanical proof of the motion of the earth which misled him … The fascinating arguments in the last conversation would hardly have been accepted as proof by Galileo, had his temperament not got the better of him.”

    • Dialogue is very relevant to the conflict between the church and science because it is the culmination of Galileo’s proposition of why the geokenetic explanation is superior to the geocentric.

      Your criticism of Galileo not directly addressing the Tychonic system in Dialogue is quite valid. But when one understands that the point of Dialogue is to address whether or not the earth moves, and if so then how can we determine this, then one can safely assume that Galileo implicitly addresses both the Ptolemaic and Tychonic shared assertion that the earth does not move in comparison with the Copernican that asserts it does. Surely this is not a small point and by no means casts the entire Dialogue as a straw man argument unless one discards normal critical reasoning (and the ability to accurately comprehend the meaning of the written word).

      The criticism Galileo offers on the geocentric assumption is one of reasoning and not direct observation because, as you quite rightly point out, the math applied to what is observable is identical to both the Tychonic (geocentric) and Copernican (geokenetic) models. Because Galileo wanted to compare movement versus non movement of the earth (the very point that brought about the heresy charges in 1615), his argument in Dialogue in Section 6 is titled Diurnal Rotation, Simplicity, and Probability. This is his main premise.

      In a nutshell, he argues that the geokenetic hypothesis is more likely to be true than the geocentric hypothesis because 1) both can be observed phenomena, 2) the geokenetic explanation is simpler, and 3) nature operates in the simplest possible ways. The principle of the relativity of motion (painstakingly developed during the years after the first heresy trial) serves as the main reason in the subargument supporting this crucial premise of simplicity.

      So, in effect, Galileo does indeed address the central plank of the Tychonic hypothesis and, by doing so, re-opens the charge of heresy for his scientific views: that the earth moves. And therein lies the fundamental concept of conflict between science and religious belief that the Galileo Affair represents. Whether or not Galileo’s evidence was incontrovertible is not the issue and no amount of criticism – legitimate or otherwise – in this regard alters this historical significance of what happened to Galileo: he was found guilty not of bad science or drawing poor conclusions or being an intellectual bully or befriending religious leaders. He was found guilty of heresy for drawing scientific conclusions contrary to accepted religious authority. Your assertion that this conflict is myth is fatally flawed, not by me or because people would prefer to believe it were so, but by historical fact.

      • tildeb :
        …when one understands that the point of Dialogue is to address whether or not the earth moves, and if so then how can we determine this, then one can safely assume that Galileo implicitly addresses both the Ptolemaic and Tychonic shared assertion that the earth does not move in comparison with the Copernican that asserts it does.

        The reason it is regarded as a straw-man argument is precisely because Galileo was addressing whether the Earth moves. By deliberately ignoring the Tychonic system he avoided having to deal with the fact that there was no observational evidence by which he could definitively say that the Earth moves.

        This is where Day 4 of his dialogue (which I see you left out of your three points) is so important. In Day 4, Galileo again attempts to use the tides as “proof” that the Earth moves, which is not only incorrect, but also in direct contradiction with his earlier argument about relative motion. His logic is internally inconsistent and offers a new theory which has no more power to explain the observations than the current (Tychonic) paradigm, and while offering it he presents its advantages over a system that serious astronomers didn’t even use anymore.

      • There is now no question that Galileo’s tidal explanation was wrong. He thought it was a very powerful argument, but remember that Galileo used seven subarguments (of which the tidal hypothesis is but one) to support his reasons for the geokinetic model.

        I think it is easy for us to look at this argument and chide GG for what appears to be logical inconsistency in this specific argument but his point was to address and dispel a very popular notion, namely, magic. The tides fall under this notion, in what he called an occult property of lunar attraction. Once one realizes that GG was very consistent in his dismissal of occult properties as any kind of meaningful explanation about anything, what he called a “magical view of nature,” one can read his very consistent and dismissive attitude towards ALL expressions of magic including alchemy and astrology.

        From his perspective, lunar attraction was another equally unjustified ‘spooky action at a distance’ explanation that didn’t explain anything. His tidal theory was an attempt to show that a natural mechanism could account for the tides. He was both right in the assertion (as it turns out) but wrong in his explanation; the tides are not magically caused but a natural result of lunar gravity. I have no doubt that had GG been exposed to Newton’s theory of gravity, he would have embraced it wholeheartedly. But GG did criticize Kepler for this ‘childish’ belief in lunar attraction because he incorrectly associated spooky action at a distance with magic rather than spooky action with a natural mechanism. We can all learn from this incorrect attribution of either/or (looking at notion as a dichotomy without looking hard enough if we have presented the notion correctly. Galileo failed to look at the lunar attraction and tides as directly associated because he had no way to associate a natural mechanism with an object so far away. Just because he didn’t have a way should nto have meant that there was no way. No one has accused Galileo of having too small an ego!

        The same battle is being fought today with more spooky action at a distance revealed in quantum mechanics; we don’t know the natural mechanism yet but we do our inquiry a disservice if we attribute that lack to some supernatural causation.

        As for the lack of observational evidence directly contrary to the Tychonic model, again, I agree. But GG’s primary argument is about simplicity: is it reasonable when faced with such a choice due to a lack of observation evidence one way or another to support the more complicated hypothesis; that all these heavenly bodies travel at such incredible speeds and cover such vast distances to keep the earth still? He uses the idea of a person who looks around and sees a city move and offers the explanation that it is simpler to think the person turns his head to explain the relative movement he sees than it is to accept the explanation that the entire city moves around the stationary head by means of some supernatural power being exercised. I think he has a good point, and we hear Galileo’s argument used all the time when people call on Occam’s Razor be used to trim the various beards of unreasonably complicated explanations that endorses some supernatural aspect.

  7. My criticism of your post is that you are grossly misrepresenting the Galileo Affair as some kind of secular squabble about competing scientific theories when you write that …all of this (my comments) misses the main point of these essays, which is that the suggestion of “conflict” between Christianity and science is unfounded, and Galileo’s case is a classic example: A devout Christian had an academic squabble in a secular arena and the political power of the church got dragged in when both sides attempted to use Biblical interpretation to support a scientific case. That is a gross misrepresentation. In addition (and secondary) What you are doing is underhanded:
    you are purposely including different books by GG and different responses to different aspects to paint a false picture that the conflict between GG and the church has little to do with theology conflicting with science. That is bunk and a smart person like you knows that perfectly well.

    The letter to the Grand Duchess was a response about her concerns that the geokentic theory must be wrong because of the many biblical references that state or imply that the geostatic theory is right. In no way, shape, or fashion is this some kind of secular dispute as you suggest. He made three points here to which the church took theological issue after the letter was used as part of the evidence against him for heresy by Caccini and submitted to the Inquisition by Lorini in 1615, which in no way, shape, or fashion, is merely a secular squabble among academics as you suggest. The actual ‘book’ presented to the Inquisition was The Sunspot Letters.

    You present this letter to the Duchess as if Galileo was using biblical passages to support his case of a geokenetic model. This absolutely not true. It is patently false. It’s a terrible mistake in basic comprehension to argue as much. The arguments Galileo made was 1) to show why biblical authority and interpretation must be based on what we know to be true in nature. 2) Because the bible is an authority in matters of faith and morality (so argued GG), its statements about natural phenomena does not make it an authority from which we can draw corresponding scientific conclusions, and finally (to offer an example of how this can be so) 3) that the Joshua passage accords better with the geokenentic view than the geostatic.

    Based on the submitted book The Sunspot Letters, Galileo was found innocent of charges of heresy because this book failed to reveal any explicit assertion of the earth’s motion, but the Inquisition felt it was necessary to consult its own experts for an opinion of Copernicanism, which a committee of eleven reported unanimously that Copernicanism was philosophically and scientifically untenable and theologically heretical. That, too, is not a secular dispute into which the church was politically dragged as you suggest.

    We can assume that the Inquisition had some misgivings about this conclusion because it issued no formal condemnations of Galileo; instead it issued two milder consequences for GG. The first was issued a private warning for him to stop believing, supporting, and defending the truth of the earth’s motion by Bellarmine (this is the bit that plays such a central theological role in the latter heresy charges in 1634). The second was to use the Congregation of the Index (the branch of the church responsible for book censorship) to ban Foscarini’s book that argued that earth’s movement was compatible with the bible, suspend Copernicus’ book pending correction and revision, and censure for any analogous books. GG was not specifically mentioned at all.

    My point here is to show that the issue before the church in 1614 was not secular whatsoever; it was theological. You are wrong to suggest otherwise. My second point is to show that GGs scientificargument was about the movement of the earth in this theological issue and that it was this movement that was central to creation of the conflict between science and religion now known as the Galileo Affair. The Sidereal Messenger (known now as The Starry Messenger) of 1610 was all about the telescopic evidence supporting the heliocentric rather than the geocentric model, which was very much an academic issue. But that’s not what the Inquisition’s involvement with Galileo was all about and you know it. Its involvement was about heresy. That’s the basis (and not your imaginings to the contrary) on which the conflict between christianity and science begins its involvement with Galileo.

    • I do have to take objection to the charge that I am being deliberately deceitful.

      As I would have hoped would be clear, I am exploring these incidents to try to find if there is a basis for the oft-touted thesis that “Christianity is anti-science”. As a null hypothesis, I must take the view that there is no conflict, and then examine the evidence to see if it supports the “conflict” thesis. My reading of these events is that there is no evidence that the Church was being anti-scientific.

      That is not to say that their actions were ethically correct. It’s not even to say that they were just. But I do not believe that the history supports a view that they were trying to “squash scientific progress and blindly adhere to their dogma instead”.

      You appear to be coming from a starting assumption that there is a great war between science and Christianity which has been raging for centuries, and you appear to disagree with my conclusions. That’s fine – I’m not trying to force you to think anything. But I am trying to honestly present my interpretation of the evidence and how it relates to the “conflict thesis”.

      • Fair enough. But it’s very easy to fall into the trap of selecting the most favourable interpretation, the facts that support one’s opinion, hear with clarity the people who agree, and so on. That’s what I mean by my accusation of willful deceit because you cannot write as you do and not come across those other interpretations, those other facts, hear those other voices who disagree.

        I understand all too well that what is much more difficult is to remember the flip side of these: that our biases are real and active and that accounting for them is a test of our intellectual honesty; that it is from the facts we don’t agree with that often open the door to real learning, that it is from voices with which we take issue that we find the opportunity to really hear a different and often much better informed viewpoint that shows our own to have been too facile. It’s very easy to write these words and much more difficult to put them into practice. But I think the effort is worth it.

        My opinion is that there is a very real and ongoing conflict being acted out between people dealing directly with what we believe to be true compared with what we know to be true. These are two very different states of knowing. If it were innocuous I wouldn’t care. But it’s real and having a very profound effect in our world. You have an influential voice in this world and I think it’s important (enough to spend time doing this writing) to have you use it well by challenging you when you have skipped over (intentionally or otherwise) this flip side. In this sense, it’s not personal; my comments go after certain ideas you present that I think need more skepticism. If nothing else, simply by thinking more about something controversial everybody who bothers gains more insight.

        Now let me address this specific notion of a conflict thesis from my side of the aisle.

        From homeopathy to anti-vaccine, from exorcising demons to trusting in angels, from creationism to Intelligent Design, from politically correct Human Rights tribunals to moral absolutism, we are inundated with people who think that what they believe to be true is equivalent to what is true. This assumption drives me nuts because its so dangerous to us all.

        From believing that weapons of mass destruction existed under Sadaam, we have the Iraq war. From believing that the US and its allies is the Great Satan we have the bombings in New York (and the Pentagon), London, and Madrid. From rewriting history by the Texas State school board to the factually wrong biology textbooks of millions of home-schooled children in the US we have belief running rampant and roughshod over what is known to be true. And when you add the deadly mix of certainty with thinking that what is believed to be true MUST be true, then you have a recipe for disaster and atrocity. We see exactly this in the ongoing disaster in human rights abuses and cultural brutality the world over, in needless disease and suffering based on scientific illiteracy, in power imbalances over reproductive rights, and so on. We have preventable disease outbreaks in the First World countries and nuclear proliferation in countries with strong fanaticism of certainties. Behind it all lies the exercise of unjustified beliefs and much but not all of unjustified belief comes cloaked in religious garb. It is a real and ongoing foe with real and ongoing suffering attached to it. Before we can unite against this common enemy, we have to find a way to see unjustified beliefs as a problem. And that is an issue with which each of us must come to our own terms.

        I don’t think the solution to accepting unjustified beliefs as the legitimate equal of justified beliefs is to have more unjustified beliefs active in the world. I don’t think it helps when someone as articulate and well spoken as you finds ways to excuse a bit of it here and a bit of it there, or present it in a way that seems relatively innocuous, or that those who point out the very real danger unjustified beliefs inserts into our world are somehow strident, militant, arrogant, and misguided. I don’t it is and I don’t think we are and I don’t you do either… with enough disciplined reflection.

        But if you constrict the notion of conflict to be between christianity and science only, then you find lots of evidence to back you up… as well as lots of evidence to undermine it, as well know. The reason why the New Atheists go after christianity in particular is because that’s the one that deeply affects Dawkins and Coyne as evolutionary biologists, Harris as neuroscientist, Dennet as a philosopher of science, Stenger as a physicist. Hitchens? Well, the Hitch loves a good argument and it pays him well. Because people who respect a belief in christianity more than what these people have dedicated their lives to coming to know is true (in their respective fields of expertise) have had such a powerful and negative influence in the professional lives of these people in particular, it is little wonder that each centers the bulls-eye of their criticism and legitimate skepticism where it justifiably belongs for them and the students they teach: belief in christianity as means to know about the world. But none of them hold it ONLY there. They, too, also and upon occasion go after unjustified beliefs wherever it resides because it creates conflict with coming to know what is true… in an epistemological battle.

        Each one in their own way suggests that the solution is skepticism, plain and simple. To those who have a low tolerance for legitimate skepticism, I say to them that we will have necessary arguments, and often those are the very people who defend some kind of influence by religion (now read that to mean influence by unjustified belief) in the public domain. If the decision whether or not to go to war in Iraq, for example, had been held to the same epistemological standards as each of the New Atheist’s have had to do in each of their professional lives, then the world would be that much different and, I would argue, a better place today.

        So yes, in a way I am coming from the position that I see conflict stemming from different views of how we can know anything when the justification is based on belief versus methodological naturalism (MN). Once upon a time, many religions welcomed MN right up until the evidence was in conflict with the core beliefs. Then the epistemological rules changed, not because of what was found to be true was done badly but because of what was believed to be true was shown to be… less than accurate.

        As Galileo himself argued, religious authority has no place in science – in making factual truth claims about the world and everything in it. Science does that job remarkably well with tremendous practical benefits for all and we can trust it to self-correct as our knowledge about the world and everything in it grows. If religious belief is in conflict with that, then it is the responsibility of religious belief to adapt, for us to change what we believe to be true when better informed by what is true. As long as religious belief attempts to thwart or subvert this pursuit of knowledge by epistemological trickery, then we shall have necessary conflict.

      • Without getting too sidetracked into the larger epistemological issues, I do agree that dialogue between world systems (if you’ll excuse the dreadful pun) is both healthy and vital. I deplore the demonisation of opponents (from both sides of the debate), which I find terribly counter-productive. When writing I do try to stick to the ideas presented by people that I disagree with, though (human that I am) I may not always be as successful with this as I’d like.

        I also truly value opposing comments (whether from Christian or non-Christian readers). That’s part of the reason that I use a blog-with-comments as a forum for my writing: I often write while still in the process of thinking about a topic, and both the act of writing and the subsequent discussions help to organise and clarify my thoughts. My hope is that it also helps to clarify the thoughts of people who read either the posts or the subsequent comments.

        I do also think that distinguishing what we believe to be true from what actually is true is extraordinarily difficult. All the evidence of my senses declares that Newton’s gravitational model is sufficient. Yet I believe that Einstein’s extensions to it improve the mathematical integrity of our physical model of matter. Are they closer to actual, objective (possibly unattainable) truth? I don’t know. But I believe that they are.

      • I understand what you’re saying here and agree about the difficulty of determining the difference between the two… what we believe to be true versus what is true.

        It is difficult to enforce a regimen of self-skepticism, to actually realize the extent of our own biases, to utilize ways of knowing that reduce our biases and preferences and expose our assumptions and assertions that may or may not be valid. That’s what learning how to think is all about (what very little we are trained to do through education).

        As a case in point, why do I have to reveal the problem in your use of the word believe when considering Einstein’s versus Newton’s explanations about gravity, when this meaning of the word is not the same as it is when used to describe a religious truth claim based on faith? The word looks the same, but there is a significant epistemological difference between the two that has been run off the road of the discussion.

        You can learn about Einstein’s theoretical extension, you can do the math and understand why it leads to a particular extension, and you can examine for yourself the observable evidence he used to back up his theoretical claims. But, like most people, you can usually trust those who are experts in any scientific field to have done their due diligence in this regard as part of actively participating and undergoing the process of peer review.

        Our ‘belief’ in accepting this community consensus (reached by physicists) of the validity of Einstein’s extensions is based on these perfectly justifiable reasons (which may be overturned with new theories and new evidence at some other point, let us never forget) and not on our initial preferences or biases for a particular kind of physics… one that utilizes some different kind of epistemology altogether. And religious belief does have a different epistemological basis to protect these religious tenets we call beliefs from the same kind of skepticism and requirement for evidence that is used elsewhere, like in physics. What I am saying is that we are justified to ‘believe’ in the former that undergoes rigorous and self-correcting skepticism than we are the latter, which undergoes none in any similar capacity. The quest to know what’s true, then, is one of probability in the world of physics (as it is in all methodological naturalism); appropriate skepticism will lead one to understand why some truth claim is probably true, probably accurate, probably correct when the epistemological approach is standardized for both theory and practice.

        If someone chooses to believe a truth claim utilizing some other kind of epistemological basis (and this can happen in science, as well), then that needs to be recognized up front… I believe, for example, in a three part god not because it more accurately reflects what is probably true, accurate, and correct compared to a two or four part god, but because it is what I prefer to be true. Such a god makes better sense to me than one that lives atop Mount Olympus or under an African volcano. That’s fine, as long as we mutually recognize the belief to be based on personal preference within the theological boundaries that share equal footing, meaning the same epistemological basis. But as soon as we step off that shared epistemological bus and apply our preferences to truth claims in the world, then we are relying on our bias and preference to be our guide. (Rarely does this approach to lead anywhere beneficial.) And we see that in practice as believers pick and choose only those facts they prefer that best support their religious beliefs and simply ignore or fail to account for those that do not. That is not the same epistemology as the as the one that informs ‘belief’ in the physics of Newton and Einstein. And that’s why belief in a religious sense is very much different than belief in a scientific sense. We need to recognize this difference because it is very important justifying what informs our truth claims: preference or probability?

  8. Over at one of the comments was quite insightful regarding playground squabbles between science and religion:

    “Carrel 02/24/2010 09:27 AM
    The “spiritual but not religious” trend has many factors including the belief that scientific ideas trump the truth value of all others. The idea that doubt is more prestigious and intellectually accommodating than faith probably comes from the Scientific Method. I believe we have adopted Karl Popper’s idea that falsification is the demarcating boundary of Science, however we have not let go of the idea that verification by inductive reasoning can prove ideas to be true. We continue to look to Science to for proof of what does and does not exist without stopping to think whether or not Science actually has that power.”

  9. Consideration of this question about the value of falsification is very important and central to understanding how we can verify truth claims. Falsification is a brilliant notion that helps us to come up with a scenario that leads us to look for ways to show what we think is true may not be true. The point here is that if we can think of no way to disprove a truth claim, then we have no way to know if the claim is actually true or if we have simply closed our minds to any contrary yet vital evidence against our conclusion. Falsifiability give us an excellent compass heading for looking for ways to disprove conclusions. If we fail to find any evidence to disprove a conclusion, then that has got to add some measure of strength to the probability that the conclusion is true. And yes, induction can be one form of evidence if used appropriately… but is it enough to exempt it from the rigors of the scientific method?

    If we think of this notion of falsifiability let’s say within the framework of a conspiracy theorist who has looked at whatever evidence there may be and has concluded in a conspiracy, then perhaps we might gain a clearer understanding of why falsifiability is so important. If the theorist cannot him- or herself come up with some scenario of how to disprove the conspiracy conclusion, then we quickly grasp that no amount of contrary evidence can ever be used successfully to alter the conclusion. That thwarts any ongoing inquiry or additional evidence to ascertain the truth of the conclusion. The conclusion is set. Case (and mind) closed. The probability of the conspiracy being true in the theorist’s mind is now set at 1 (certainty) and nothing – no amount of contrary and important evidence – can ever alter that.

    The danger of certainty rather than increasing levels of probability in scientific thinking is well recognized. That’s why falsifiability is now such an important feature in scientific conclusions. That’s a good thing because it means the conclusions will continue to be based on best evidence and probability and subject to change if warranted rather than supporting the egocentric notion that we have all the relevant evidence we need to ensure that all our conclusions are correct. That egocentric approach is a sure-fire way to build a garrison mentality where any new evidence or argument – be it inductive or deductive – is met by hostility and dismissal.

    So I think it is important to recognize the power of the scientific method to yield highly accurate and practical results of knowledge about the natural world, a means to establish cause with effect by understanding some natural – even if invisible – mechanism. That is the power of using the scientific method: it works in the natural world and works very well.

    When we attempt to build a probability for an idea to be true, we have to have some way to find out how we can establish that. As soon as I read a paragraph that talks about ideas on one hand and existence on the other, I know we have to be more careful about what we actually mean so that we can first establish the basis on which we can determine whether or not an idea in and of itself is true within an epistemology of ideas before we see if expressions of that idea exist in the natural world. The scientific method can be appropriately used only in the latter; the former must rely on sound philosophical epistemology.

    So the notion of science trumping philosophy is true only when in reference to truth claims about what actually exists in the natural world. Truth claims about ideas and notions and concepts must be kept in the realm of ideas and notions and concepts if we wish to keep these truth claims separate from science. But as soon as we cross the border into the natural world, then science has legitimate dominion.

  10. Tim, you’ve identified a vital point there – the assumption that what the reigning scientific theory says is objectively “true” is highly misleading. Like any other quest for knowledge, experimental and theoretical sciences have limitations and are grounded in assumptions which restrict the questions that they can usefully explore.

    See more on that topic here: Believing and understanding.

  11. “Supremely poor judgement”?

    I suggest “supreme courage and intellectual integrity”.

    Anyhow, I feel the main issue is not the personalities involved, or how badly Galileo was treated. The point is that this was a moment when science began to seriously push back key tenets of religion.

  12. Mike :
    “Supremely poor judgement”?
    I suggest “supreme courage and intellectual integrity”
    Anyhow, I feel the main issue is not the personalities involved, or how badly Galileo was treated. The point is that this was a moment when science began to seriously push back key tenets of religion.

    And what were those “key tenets of religion” that the Galileo affair began to push back?

  13. Apologies for a very late comment, but I found this blog only today. There is one small mistake in the (scientific) narrative. In 1633 it was clear that the Tychonic model was wrong. It is not “mathematically equivalent” to the Copernican, and this had been proved by Johannes Kepler in the Harmonia Mundi of 1619. In the Copernican system, all the planets obey Kepler’s Third Law; in the Tychonic system the trio of Earth – Moon – Sun does not.

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