The struggle of Galileo

Gentle Readers,

I believe that the first misconception can be largely attributed to the way the history of science is presented in many high school and even college textbooks. By presenting the advancement of scientific knowledge as a more or less linear progression from successful theory to successful theory, they inadvertently imply that science is never fundamentally wrong, that it always proceeds from the truth to a better understanding of the truth. The fact is that the progress of scientific research is more like a tree being pruned; myriad theories develop at every point, only to be disproved and set aside as new experimental evidence is gathered. Consequently, the fact that a theory is eventually proven right does not establish that it was clearly correct at the time it was first promulgated.

With the evidence available in Galileo's time, there really was no reason to support the Copernican theory over the Ptolemaic, other than the fact that it was a good deal more simple. The modified Ptolemaic system proposed by Tycho Brahe -- which had Earth fixed in the center of the universe, the Sun revolving around the Earth, and the other planets revolving about the Sun -- fit the astronomical data of the day just as well as the Copernican model championed by Galileo, and had the important advantage of not contradicting every tenet of natural philosophy held at the time. Furthermore, there appeared to be a good deal of strong evidence against the Copernican view. For example, the apparent positions of the stars should have shifted as the Earth moved through its orbit, but no such parallaxes were observed (Koestler 1964) . As it turns out, this was because the telescopes of the day weren't powerful enough -- but at the time, it seemed an insurmountable contradiction. In siding with the geocentric thesis, the Church was accepting the view held by the vast majority of scientists and philosophers -- not stubbornly and dogmatically rejecting an overwhelming case for heliocentrism as is commonly believed. Koestler succinctly summed up the situation in The Greatest Scandal in Christendom , saying "...not only tradition, prejudice and naive `commonsense', but also the scientific evidence available at the time, spoke against the Copernican theory."

Fr. Mateo of www.cin.org writes:

Galileo actually taught that the sun was at the center of the universe, not just the solar system; later evidence showed that the sun also orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy; it thus would have been bad if the Church had given an unqualified endorsement to Galileo's theory, for his specific form of the theory turned out to be false.

The second misconception, that Galileo was abused and mistreated by the Inquisition, can most likely be traced to the antagonistic relation between science and religion. As historian George Sim Johnson comments, "The case makes for such a neat morality play of enlightened science versus dogmatic obscurantism that historians are seldom tempted to correct the anti-Catholic 'spin' that is usually put on it." Galileo was "imprisoned" (he was not guarded, but simply forbidden to leave without special permission) in a luxurious five-room suite in the Florentine embassy rather than in the jail at the Palace of the Inquisition, and he was never tortured -- he was shown the instruments of torture, a mere formality since his age and infirmity officially exempted him from torture in the first place. Unlike the infamous Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition operated under strict regulations as to the use of torture:

Interrogation with torture usually was prescribed in two general situations. First, where the evidence clearly indicated guilt which the suspect had denied or was incapable of disproving, and second, when it was deemed that a confession had not been full and sincere, or when it was felt that all of the accomplices had not been named. Those who were spared from torture were pregnant women, or women who had given birth within a forty day period, the elderly, children under fourteen and the physically impaired. Torture was rigidly controlled and restrictions were enforced in Roman practice. The judge could not proceed to interrogation under torture unless the evidence was compelling and the defense had presented its case. Nor did the inquisitor alone decide whether torture was justified. He had to seek the opinion of an advisory council consisting of theologians and lawyers. If torture was to be used, the court had to follow the instructions for torture, issued by the Supreme Tribunal of Rome. Deviations from accepted procedure were not tolerated by Rome (Van Helden 1995).

Contrary to popular belief, the Inquisition did not in fact charge Galileo with heresy -- it charged him with violating the 1616 injunction against supporting the heretical Copernican theory. While the difference may seem purely semantical to a modern-day observer, it was a matter of life and death in Galileo's day -- heresy was a capital crime punishable by burning at the stake, while merely supporting heretical beliefs was a much less serious offense. The case against Galileo was based on the minutes of the Holy Office for February of 1616:

The entry for February 25, 1616:

His Holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmino to summon before him the said Galileo and admonish him to abandon the said opinion; and in case of his refusal to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain altogether from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion and even from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiescence, he is to be imprisoned (as cited in Sobel 1999, pg. 249) .

The entry for February 26, 1616:

In the Palace and residence of Cardinal Bellarmino, Galileo being called and being in the presence of the Cardinal and of the Reverend Father Michelangelo Seghizzi of Lodi, of the Order of Preachers, Commissary General of the Holy Office, the Cardinal admonished the said Galileo of the error of the above-mentioned opinion and warned him to abandon it; and immediately and without delay, the said Cardinal being still present, the said Commissary gave Galileo a precept and ordered him in the name of His Holiness the Pope and the whole body of the Holy Office to the effect that the said opinion that the Sun is the center of the universal and the Earth moves must be entirely abandoned, nor might he from then on in any way hold, teach or defend it by word or in writing,; otherwise the Holy Office would proceed against him (as cited in both Linder 2002 and Sobel 1999, pg. 250) .

That February 26 entry is now believed to be a forgery inserted into the minutes by Galileo's enemies. Its placement on the back of the previous day's entry rather than on a new page is inconsistent with every other entry in the files, and it also contradicts the February 25th entry by stating that the injunction was issued immediately after Bellarmine's admonition, instead of if Galileo did not accept Bellarmine's admonition (which he did, according to Linder, Cardinal Oregius was also present at the meeting and reported that Galileo "remained silent with all his science and thus showed that no less praiseworthy than his mind was his pious disposition."

Had he concentrated his defense on the forged injunction, Galileo might have gone free. Instead, he argued that Dialogues was actually a refutation of the Copernican view, stating in his defense that "...I did not consider that in writing it I was acting contrary to, far les disobeying, the command not to hold, defend, or teach that opinion, but rather that I was refuting the opinion. ...I have neither maintained nor defended in that book the opinion that the Earth moves and that the Sun is stationary but have rather demonstrated the opposite of the Copernican opinion and shown that the arguments of Copernicus are weak and inconclusive." (as cited in Sobel 1999, pg. 251). Predictably enough, the Holy Office was unconvinced by that line of defense, voting seven to none (with three abstentions) to declare Galileo guilty of "vehement suspicion of heresy" and sentence him to formal imprisonment for an indefinite period and reciting the seven penitential psalms once a week for three years. Thanks to the influence of Cardinal Barberini, Galileo's imprisonment was softened to house arrest at the Tuscan Embassy; six days later, he was remanded to the custody of his friend Archbishop Piccolomini of Sienna.

Many people would question the Church's reasons for getting involved in the matter in the first place; after all, what does astronomy have to do with religion? The answer is that the Church felt that the heliocentric Copernican theory threatened the principle of the inerrancy of the Bible; Catholic theologians felt that passages like Joshua 10:13, which states: "And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? 'So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.' " (God) clearly implied that the sun moved through the heavens and not the earth. Consequently, the Church considered the Copernican theory to be heretical, although Cardinal Bellarmine also stated in a letter to Paolo Foscarini:

...if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the center of the universe and the earth in the third sphere, and that the sun did not travel around the earth but the earth circled the sun, then it would be necessary to proceed with great caution in explaining the passages of Scripture which seemed contrary, and we would rather have to say that we did not understand them than to say that something was false which has been demonstrated. But I do not believe that there is any such demonstration; none has been shown to me. It is not the same thing to show that the appearances are saved by assuming that the sun really is in the center and the earth in the heavens. I believe that the first demonstration might exist, but I have grave doubts about the second, and in a case of doubt, one may not depart from the Scriptures as explained by the holy Fathers (Bellarmine 1615).

In effect, what Bellarmine said was that the heliocentric theory might indeed be correct, but until it was conclusively proven it should not be treated as fact since it differed from the current interpretation of the Bible. Treating it as a mathematical model, on the other hand, was perfectly acceptable. This sentiment was echoed in the Pope's instructions to Galileo, and in the fact that the Inquisition did not ban De Revolutionibus even after declaring the Copernican doctrine to be heretical -- they only suspended its publication until nine sentences which postulated the doctrine as fact rather than theory were modified. Foscarini's book, on the other hand, was banned because it attempted to re-interpret the Bible to accommodate the new theory; Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, likewise, only got Galileo into trouble because the Church felt he was intruding on theological matters, and because he gratuitously insulted the Pope by putting the advice the pontiff gave him in the mouth of the dunce Simplicio.

Looking back on the events of 1616 and 1633, we might note that the story of Galileo contains all the key elements of a good thrilller -- it is a riveting tale of exciting scientific discoveries and devious political intrigues, of personal feuds and philosophical rivalries, of records forged and lies told. It is important, however, to separate myth from truth: while the conviction of Galileo was certainly an unfortunate miscarriage of justice, it did not represent a showdown between Church and Science. At the very worst, the Church's actions were nothing more than an overly heavy-handed crackdown on an unproven, highly controversial new theory which had some disturbing philosophical and theological implications. A mistake, yes. A war, no.

Certainly we would include Galileo as a "tomorrow person" Not a prophet but ahead of his time in what he understood.

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  • Clearly too many misconceptions and wrong decisions through the centuries exist within and without the church.  It is notable when written history that is taught in all levels of the education system are tainted.  But, then, it is said that history is written by the victors those in power.  It is curios that many facts have been either distorted or completely falsified and have never been detected or corrected. Surely this is a syndrome common to more than just recorded history, but a ailment that overshadows reality with convoluted ideas and concepts embraced and taught by "the world".  Fortunately there are some, like Doc Denis, who seek the truth and test the cognitive spirits to determine the falsehoods and treacherous paths of apathy and blind belief.

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  • Thank you Ley, for your kind words.

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