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The Galileo Affair

Galileo’s complex relationship with his contemporaries, and especially the Papal authorities, has had intensive study in recent years. For an accessible account see Ch.6 of Michael Poole’s Beliefs and Values in Science Education.Poole, MW, Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995. For other corrections to the standard caricature of the merely-blinkered Church against the noble scientist, see Brooke and Cantor,Brooke, JH and Cantor, G, Reconstructing Nature (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) Ch.4,Willem B DreesReligion, Science and Naturalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) pp55-63 or Owen Gingerich.‘The Galileo affair’ Scientific American 247 (2), pp118-127 (1982). For a more specialised investigation see Finocchiaro.Finocchiaro, MP, (ed.) The Galileo Affair (Berkeley and San Francisco: University of California Press, 1989).

It is important to realise:

  1. that Galileo’s own position was multifaceted, and not merely driven by an ambition to advance science, but also by a real desire to see it reconciled with Scripture. His approach was very much rooted in the hermeneutics of St Augustine (see the type of case Galileo made).

  2. Pope Urban VIII, who ordered Galileo’s final interrogation, had earlier defended Copernicus’ book, despite disagreeing with it.

  3. Cardinal Bellarmine, chiefly responsible for dealing with Galileo for the Vatican until his death in 1621, was not a bigoted cleric either, but an open and thoughtful one, keenly concerned with astronomy. Bellarmine’s approach emerges in passages like this one from a letter to Foscarini:

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great caution in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false.Quoted in Finocchiaro, 1989, 68

This complex affair, then, was influenced by a number of factors:

  • the scientific, yes, but it is worth pointing out that because Galileo ignored Kepler’s work his model still fitted the data no better than its best geocentric competitor. It also suffered from the great problem that it predicted stellar parallax, which had not then been observed.If the earth moves round the sun, there should be parallax, i.e. a difference between the relative positions of neighbouring stars as observed at different times of year. None is observable with the naked...

  • the epistemological - what, in the terms of the passage quoted above from Bellarmine, constitutes a ‘demonstration’? How should Bible-reading astronomers understand their data, and their Bibles, in the interim phase when a scientific model has been proposed but is not yet established?Gingerich has shown moreover that Galileo’s own logic was not always of the soundest in his efforts to demonstrate his case (Gingerich, 1982, 123).

  • the hermeneutical - how should Scripture be read, how should that reading affect or be affected by science? Above all, who should have the authority to determine the range of permitted readings?The Council of Trent, in tightening the structures of the Roman Church, had ruled in 1546 that ‘no one should dare to interpret Scripture "contrary to the unanimous consensus of the Fathers"’...

  • the political - it was a stage in the Counter-Reformation at which the Vatican felt the need to assert its central authority.

  • the personal - Galileo pursued his cause with an arrogant lack of tact and diplomacy which in the end forfeited the patience even of those inclined to sympathise with his view.

Small wonder that when the trial is ‘rerun’ in classes on science and religion Galileo is often the loser!

The utter triumph of heliocentrism that followed ended forever any prospect that a religious group could exercise the sort of hegemony over an area of scientific inquiry that the Vatican tried to assert in suppressing Galileo. It showed moreover that a scientific theory could gradually gain in comprehensiveness and coherence until it displaced another, without requiring a strict logical demonstration.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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