About Galileo

This is a partial response to Davidov’s recent comment, relating to the question of Galileo (for a relevant post about miracles go here). Galileo is often brought out as an example of the wickedness of church institutions, and certainly, to execute someone for their beliefs is an abominable act. However, the wickedness of that act – and the use of this example in the various debates between ‘science and religion’ (in truth, internal arguments within the Modernist mindset) has distorted one particular truth – that the debate was not the church suppressing ‘truth’, but the church suppressing an arrogant scientist who was claiming more than he could prove at the time. Thing is, a proper discussion requires us to be in full possession of the facts. Not least because the increasing salience of religious questions in our world in the coming years will force us to examine our deepest assumptions, both religious, atheist, agnostic and absconding – all of us.

I would want to point out two things.

1. Although Galileo’s perspective was correct (ie the earth does travel round the sun) it could not be shown to be correct at the time of the debate, principally because Galileo was assuming perfectly circular orbits, rather than elliptical orbits. The Ptolemaic model was a more accurate model for predicting the movements of the heavenly bodies. Galileo’s perspective had greater beauty, and promised great things, but it could not be shown to be correct at the time of his trial. (See Kuhn on this, amongst others).

2. The church authorities did not rule out the possibility of change. I quote from Cardinal Bellarmino (Galileo’s antagonist): “If there were any real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe and that the earth is in the third heaven, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth around the Sun, then we would have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true”.

In other words, if Galileo could have proved his point, then the Church would have backed down. I think this is very important to bear in mind. It doesn’t exonerate the church for what they did, but it does clarify what it was they were objecting to. And that makes all the difference.
(Source: Feyerabend)