Feyerabend on Galileo

This post is a summary of Paul Feyerabend’s article ‘The Tyranny of Truth’, as published in the collection ‘Farewell to Reason’, Verso, 1999; as part of a discussion taking place over at Stephen Law’s blog. Click ‘full post’ for text.

Feyerabend begins by talking about the best way to discuss the conflict between Galileo and the Church. He says that it would be preferable to explore all the various details and debates, individuals and institutions involved in the conflict. He says that this requires digestion of material far too rich and diverse to be treated in a short paper and that he shall therefore “rise to a higher level of abstraction” by talking about traditions.

His first interest is with the role of the expert in society, and he describes two different traditions outlining the extent of the expert’ s role. “One regards an expert as the final authority on the use and interpretation of expert views and expert procedures, the other subjects the pronouncements of experts to a higher court which may consist either of super experts — this was Plato’s view — or of all citizens — this seems to have been recommended by Protagoras. I suggest that the opposition between Galileo and the church was analogous to the opposition between what I have called the first and the second view (or tradition). Galileo was an expert in a special domain comprising mathematics and astronomy. In the classification of the time he was a mathematician and a philosopher. Galileo asserted that astronomical matters should be left to astronomers entirely. Only ‘those few who deserved to be separated from the herd’ could be expected to find the correct sense of Bible passages dealing with astronomical matters, as he wrote in his letter to Castelli of December the 14th, 1613…. in addition Galileo demanded that the views of astronomers be made part of public knowledge in exactly the form in which they had arisen in astronomy. Galileo did not simply ask for the freedom to publish his results, he wanted to impose them on others. In this respect he was as pushy and totalitarian as many modern prophets of science — and as uninformed. He simply took it for granted that the special and very restricted methods of astronomers (and all those physicists who followed their lead) were the correct way of getting access to Truth and Reality. He was a perfect representative of what I have called the first view or tradition.”

Feyerabend contrasts Galileo’s attitude with that of the church. According to Feyerabend the church sought to ground the understanding of astronomy — something pursued diligently by a number of its members — in a wider understanding of truth and reality. He writes “the models which the astronomers produced to account, say, for the paths of the planets could not be related to reality without further ado. They arose from special and limited purposes and all one could say was that they served these purposes, viz, prediction.” He goes on to summarise the church’s attitude in the following way: “To use modern terms: astronomers are entirely safe when saying that a model has predictive advantages over another model, but they get into trouble when asserting that it is therefore a faithful image of reality. Or, more generally: the fact that a model works does not by itself show that reality is structured like the model. This sensible idea is an elementary ingredient of scientific practice…”

Feyerabend goes on to discuss the ways in which this approach is used with great profit in scientific circles, discussing quantum theory, Newton’s theory of gravitation and Schrödinger’s wave mechanics. In each case the theory is validated by an appeal to a wider domain of understanding. Feyerabend writes “in his search for a way out of the difficulties of early 20th-century science, Einstein relied on thermodynamics. In all these cases models are compared with basic science and their realistic implications are judged accordingly. What was the wider domain that determined reality for the church? According to Bellarmino, the wider domain contained two ingredients, one scientific — philosophy and theology; one religious and to that extent normative –‘ our holy Faith’.” Feyerabend goes on to point out that for Bellarmino philosophy and theology were both sciences in the modern sense of the word: “theology dealt with the same subject matter (as science) but viewing it as a creation, not as a self-sufficient system. It was and still is a science, and a very rigorous science at that: textbooks in theology contain long methodological chapters, textbooks in physics do not.”

Feyerabend goes on to discuss the ‘second ingredient’ and remarks that “the second ingredient means that scientific results, wrongly interpreted, may injure human beings…. [it] further implies that questions of fact and reality depend on questions of value. For positivists this is an unfamiliar and even repulsive idea, but only because he is not aware of his own normative prejudices… Thus the church was not only on the right track when measuring reality by human concerns but it was considerably more rational than some modern scientists and philosophers who draw a sharp distinction between fact and values and then take it to for granted that the only way of arriving at facts and, therefore, reality, is to accept the values of science.”

It is this second ingredient that Feyerabend seems to admire the most. He draws out a strong parallel between the way in which the church acted to shape and control intellectual research, and the way in which such research is shaped and controlled today, most notably through questions of funding and peer review. He writes “Galileo tried to combine philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and a variety of subjects which are best characterised as engineering into a single new point of view which also entailed a new attitude towards Holy Scripture. He was told to stick to mathematics. A modern physicist or chemist trying to reform nutrition or medicine faces similar restrictions. A modern scientist who publishes his results in the newspaper or who gives public interviews before he has submitted to the scrutiny of the editorial board of a professional journal or of groups with comparable authority has committed a mortal sin which makes him an outcast for quite some time. Admittedly control is not as tight as it was at the time of Galileo and not as universal, but this is the result of a more easygoing attitude towards certain crimes (thieves, for example, are no longer hanged, or mutilated) and not a change of heart as to the nature of the crimes themselves. The administrative restrictions on a modern scientist are certainly comparable to those in force at Galileo’s time. But while those of the older restrictions which issued from the church were available in the form of explicit rules, such as the rules of the Tridentine Council, modern restrictions are often implied, not spelled out in detail. There is much insinuating and hinting, but there is no explicit code one could consult and, perhaps, criticise and improve. Again the procedure of the church was more straightforward, more honest and certainly more rational.”

Most crucially, Feyerabend argues, this second ingredient of the church’s attitude was open to negotiation. However, as it constituted one of the fundamental building blocks of the community’s perspective as a whole, it was not going to be altered willy-nilly. Feyerabend writes that this idea “is today accepted by all high school principals and even by some university presidents — don’t introduce a new basis for education until you are sure it is as least as good as the old basis. It is also a reasonable idea. It advises us to make basic education independent of fashions and temporary aberrations… it would be very unwise to rebuild it from top to bottom whenever an adventurous new point of view appears on the horizon.”

Feyerabend goes on to discuss how strong the evidence was for Galileo’s point of view, and therefore how reasonable it was for the church to oppose him. He discusses the way in which science itself develops through argument in the face of contrary evidence and writes “almost all philosophers of science writing today would have agreed with Bellarmino that Copernicus’s case was very weak indeed.” He adds “besides, Galileo’s views on the relativity of motions were incoherent. Occasionally he asserted the relativity of all motion, on other occasions he accepted impetus which assumes a fixed reference system. Galileo’s basic physics was even worse.” Feyerabend’s conclusion is that Bellarmino’s judgement was an entirely acceptable point of view.

Feyerabend goes on to conclude his paper by returning to the question of expertise and traditions, revisiting his earlier contrast between one tradition arguing that “society must adapt to knowledge in the shape presented by the scientists” and a second tradition arguing that “scientific knowledge is too specialised and connected with too narrow a vision of the world to be taken over by society without further ado. It must be examined, it must be judged from a wider point of view that includes human concerns and values flowing therefrom, and its claims to reality must be modified so that they agree with these values.” Feyerabend interprets the Galileo affair principally as a conflict between those two traditions and writes of the church that its perspective “had and still has a tremendous advantage over the principles of an abstract rationalism. It is also true that the noble sentiments inherent in a knowledge of this kind did not always prevail and that some church directives were simply an exercise in power. But the better representatives of the church thought differently and were worthy predecessors of modern attempts to temper the totalitarian and dehumanising tendencies of modern scientific objectivism by elements directly taken from human life…”

In his final remarks Feyerabend comments upon the notion that science is inherently self-correcting, which he ridicules. Feyerabend insists upon the value of all wider human life and the need for scientific knowledge to be incorporated within that life. He writes: “the enthusiasm for criticism shown by the philosophers and scientists whose views I am discussing now, though shared by many intellectuals, is not the only basis for a rich and reward in life and it is very doubtful if it can even be a basis. Human beings need surroundings that are fairly stable and give meaning to their existence. The restless criticism that allegedly characterises the lives of scientists can be part of a fulfilling life, it cannot be its basis. (It certainly cannot be a basis of love, or a friendship). Hence, scientists may contribute to culture, but they cannot provide its foundation — and, being constrained and blinded by their expert prejudices, they certainly cannot be allowed to decide, without control from other citizens, what foundation the citizens should accept. The churches have many reasons to support such a point of view and to use it for a criticism of particular scientific results as well as of the role of science in our culture. They should overcome their caution (or is it fear?) and revive the balanced and graceful wisdom of Roberto Bellarmino, just as the scientists constantly gained strength from the opinions of Democritus, Plato, Aristotle and their own pushy patron saint, Galileo.”