The Galileo Legend

18 January 2007 at 1:23 pm 6 comments

| Peter Klein |

We noted previously how little most practicing scientists know about the history and philosophy of science. In many cases this is harmless; does the average chemist really need to know Lavoisier from Priestly? However, when scientists speak and write about the meaning of science, the role of science in society, public policy toward science, and such broader issues, such ignorance can be devastating.

An example is the legend that Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the Catholic Church for his heretical belief that the earth revolves around the sun. In popular myth Galileo represents the lone crusader, the revolutionary with the courage to speak out against the Establishment and the popular fallacies of his day. Don Boudreaux titles an (otherwise excellent) item on free trade “What Galileo Must Have Felt,” writing that “[w]hen I read or hear protectionists such as Sen. Byron Dorgan, I think that I can imagine what Galileo felt as he listened to the Leaders of his day insist that the sun revolves around the earth.”

The problem is that the leaders of Galileo’s day didn’t think the sun revolves around the earth. My former colleague Thomas Lessl is an expert on Galileo, and from him I learned that virtually every aspect of the Galileo legend is false.

Consider these facts:

1. Neither Galileo, nor any other scientist, was put to death by the medieval Church. Giordano Bruno, a 17th-century Dominican, was indeed condemned by the Inquisition, not for his scientific views, but for preaching a quirky, New Age-ish view called hermeticism, which was only incidentally connected to heliocentrism.

2. The Catholic authorities of Galileo’s day had little trouble with heliocentrism per se. Many of the leading Catholic scientists were actually Copernicans. Copernicus’s treatise on heliocentrism had been in print for seventy years prior to Galileo’s conflict with the Church.

3. Galileo remained a devout and loyal Catholic until the end of his life. He held no animosity toward the Church over his conflict with Church authorities.

4. Most important, the conflict between Galileo and the Church took place in the context of the Protestant Reformation, a context that is almost always omitted from popular accounts of Galileo’s trial. The key issue in this conflict was not heliocentrism per se, but the authority of the individual Believer to interpret Scripture. Galileo’s argument that scientists should interpret the Bible to conform to their scientific views was close to Luther’s view that the Believer should be his own interpreter of Scripture. It was Lutheranism, not heliocentrism, that alarmed the Church leaders.

Galileo, in other words, was caught up in a larger, theological and ecclesiastical controversy. He was not simply a truth-seeking scientists going up against a bigoted Establishment.

Why does all this matter? As Lessl shows in a 2000 essay in the New Oxford Review (reprinted online here), the Galileo myth is useful as a rhetorical device to suggest that organized religion is the enemy of science (and, by implication, peace, freedom, progress, justice, etc.). Lessl takes Stephen Hawking to task for the off-hand remark, in A Brief History of Time, that “Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science. His renowned conflict with the Catholic Church was central to his philosophy, for Galileo was one of the first to argue that man could hope to understand how the world works, and, moreover, that we could do this by observing the real world.” Every part of Hawking’s statement is an exaggeration or falsehood. Writes Lessl:

By suggesting that science sprang from the mind of Galileo, like Athena from the brow of Zeus, Hawking sets his readers up for his second sweeping claim that science, (now mythically personified in Galileo), was opposed by the Church because of its novel claim that “man could hope to understand how the world works” by “observing the real world.” Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the relationship between Catholicism and science in the centuries leading up to Galileo’s generation, would know that this statement is fundamentally wrong. Science based on observation had been the norm in Catholic universities since the Aristotelian revival of the thirteenth century, and religious objections to science, which were much more exceptional than popularly imagined, occurred only where science’s boundaries overlapped with those of theology. This was true in Galileo’s case as well. The Church was generally favorable to his work. Indeed, in 1611, after Galileo published The Starry Messenger, the book which reports the discoveries he made with his telescope, the Vatican college in Rome honored him with a full day of festivities. Throughout his career, Galileo was befriended by numerous religious intellectuals. The fact that one of these was Maffeo Barberini, under whose papacy Galileo would latter be prosecuted, merely indicates that the Church’s action against Copernicanism was more complex than Hawking imagines.

Moral of the story: Be wary when scientists — not only physical scientists, but social scientists as well — make sweeping claims about the nature or historical significance of their discipline. Such claims are often based on myth, not fact.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Cultural Conservatism, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. spostrel  |  18 January 2007 at 1:56 pm

    I’ve read a few articles that take this revisionist view. They generally read like special pleading to me. The one you linked leaves the same impression. Its attempt to denigrate Galileo’s seminal contribution to the methods of modern science–the use of mathematical laws to describe motion, the breakout from Aristotelian styles of reasoning–is unsupported and unconvincing, though I do agree that cartoon versions of the medieval period as a scientific desert are nonsense.

    The apologetic for the church is implausible in the first place. Think about it. Galileo was a well-connected, devout, and skilled courtier. If anyone should have been able to finesse the conflict between what he was compelled to say as a scientist and church doctrine, it would be him. Yet he ended up in confinement (where he ended up doing his greatest work–I hope deans don’t apply this lesson to our productivity). His love of the church is all the more reason for believing that it was his scientific views, not his theological opinions, that got him in trouble.

    Lesai does not deny that Galileo was locked up by the church for saying that the earth actually moves, instead of claiming that terrestrial motion was only a useful mathematical assumption (the church’s line). Even the church-sympathetic Dava Sobel has it down that way. And if you don’t believe the earth moves, you’re not really a Copernican or a heliocentrist. This is one case where instrumentalist philosophy of science doesn’t cut it–realism is called for.

    I agree that the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation raised the stakes and made the Catholic church more prickly, but it isn’t like Luther made Galilean physics a central point of his theology. The role of academic feuds in generating the persecution is worth remembering, especially in today’s climate, but it is irrelevant to the truth that the church opposed science when it conflicted with official theology. We also know that Copernicus himself and later thinkers such as Descartes were extremely circumspect in propounding their views, precisely because of fears of heresy accusations.

  • 2. Thomas Lessl  |  18 January 2007 at 8:37 pm

    The position I take on the Galileo case in the article Peter Klein quotes from is not really a “revisionist” argument. That interpretation of the Church’s prosecution of Galileo is not my own. It is a compliation of the interpretations given by all of the major Galileo historians of the last fifty years. I don’t mention Sobel, simply because my research predated her popular book. Those who read the full article will see that I do not deny any of the facts mentioned above–though Galileo was technically not “locked up.” He lived out his remaining years under house arrest. The issue is how this event and the larger religious controversy that arose out of the Copernican revoluion are interpreted by popular writers like Hawking. I did not object to the seminal importance of Galileo’s contributions to science in my comments on Hawking’s tribute. What is objectionable is Hawking’s silly claim that no one before Galileo thought that natural observation could have a scientific pay off, and his further assertion that this anti-scientific stance was rooted in religious prejudice. Although Aristotelian assumptions were clearly an obstacle to the development of science that Galileo helped to clear away, the empiricist doctrine that Hawking lauds was deeply rooted in Aristotle’s philosophy of science–something that Galileo himself (contra Hawking) acknowledges in the very book that was at the center of this controversy. So if the Church sided with the Aristotelians against Galileo, it certainly was not taking an anti-empiricist or anti-scientific stance.

  • 3. pj  |  23 March 2007 at 11:27 am

    My understanding of the conflict, derived from reading original documents and correspondence, is that Galileo was punished by the Pope for his lack of charity toward his opponents. Galileo in fact had the better arguments theologically as well as scientifically, knew it, and didn’t hesitate to ram that superiority down his opponents’ throats. He mocked his opponents mercilessly, and called them stupid. The Pope directed him to treat them with courtesy and charity. Galileo followed up by publishing the Dialogue, in which he placed his opponents’ arguments in the mouth of Simplicio (i.e., “Simpleton”) and made them look as silly as possible. This led directly to the Pope’s rebuke. It was a rebuke that was, presumably, based on the Pope’s concern for Galileo’s soul and his desire for comity in the Church, and probably had nothing to do with the Pope’s opinion on heliocentrism, which there is reason to believe he supported.

    The similarity between Galileo’s theological arguments, which were in fact taken almost word for word from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and Luther’s was a bad argument made by Galileo’s fundamentalist opponents. I don’t believe the Pope ever endorsed either the theology or science of Galileo’s opponents, rather he was pushing for a more civil theological debate and for obedience to his pastoral directives.

    It is impossible to understand the Galileo issue except as an intra-Church squabble among the faithful. To represent Galileo as a “secularist” is quite unfaithful to history, and would certainly have shocked him, since he was one of the most devout and theologically sophisticated lay Catholics of his day, and a close friend to many senior churchmen.

    Why was Galileo, who as Postrel says was capable of being a “courtier,” so stubborn and strong in his behavior? It was because he thought the theological stakes were very high — and no doubt this appraisal was influenced by the Reformation. He was sufficiently devoted to the Church that he wanted to eradicate error in it, even at the cost of personal sacrifice.

    From the modern perspective, the Pope placed too high a premium on charity and too little a premium on truth. But we shouldn’t denigrate the intentions of people from another time until we have understood their perspective.

  • […] Here’s an essay from Peter Klein at the economics blog Organizations and Markets, on details of the story of Galileo, setting the record straight, but raising a lot more issues about what actually happened in this story from the history of science. The problem is that the leaders of Galileo’s day didn’t think the sun revolves around the earth. My former colleague Thomas Lessl is an expert on Galileo, and from him I learned that virtually every aspect of the Galileo legend is false. […]

  • 5. Tony Lloyd  |  3 February 2009 at 3:31 pm

    “By suggesting that science sprang from the mind of Galileo, like Athena from the brow of Zeus, Hawking sets his readers up…..”

    Hawking suggested no such thing. He suggested that “Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person,”. Not “he was the only person” nor “even if not the only person he was definitely the best”. Hawking suggested that:

    1. Galileo was one of the fathers of modern science.
    2. Galileo had some pretty big contributions to make to modern science.
    3. Those contributions were, in Hawkins opinion, probably the most crucial in the move from scholastic to modern science.

    Your pal may be an expert on Galileo, but his reading comprehension leaves a lot to be desired. This leaves me very doubtful of the other conclusions of the piece. As does the claim that he wasn’t persecuted for religious beliefs. Strictly speaking the case could be made: but at what cost? Galileo was not persecuted for advancing a scientific theory, but for a particular philosophy of science? It was empiricism that the Church disliked?

    Oh, and Bruno wasn’t killed for his heliocentrism. They drove a nail through his tongue, bound his jaws with iron and burned him to death because he held some “quirky, New Age-ish” views. Well, that’s alright then, isn’t it?

  • 6. Thomas M. Lessl  |  3 February 2009 at 5:09 pm

    If Mr. Lloyd read my statement more closely, he would notice that I only said that Hawking has “suggested” that Galileo singlehandedly invented science. In both of my published articles on this subject I quote the statement by Hawking in full, so I have clearly tempered the hyperbole of my own statement. There is no denying that Galileo made important contributions to the development of modern science, but historians and philosophers of science agree that these were modifications of a long tradition of science, largely inspired by Aristotle. Hawking shows no awareness of science’s much deeper history. But the more important part of my objection stems from the fact that he sets modern science and Catholic faith at odds in principle. That is a monumental error. The scholastic philosophy of science that was then taught in Catholic universities all over Europe was rooted in premises about nature and inquiry that survived the transition from medieval to modern science–the notions that nature can be known, that science works by devoting itself to empirical evidence, etc. The argument, clearly advanced by Hawking, that Galileo was persecuted because the Catholic Church rejected the kind of science he practiced is patently falsified by the facts of history.

    In his last statement Mr. Lloyd seems to say that by denying that Bruo was put to death for his heliocentrism I am therefore condoning his cruel punishment. If Mr. Lloyd were to read my articles about the Galileo legend, he would discover that I by no means condone the persecution of Galileo or Bruno. He would also discover that historians do not really know what charges were leveled against Bruno simply because no records from his trial have survived. Moreover, there is no evidence of Catholic opposition to heliocentrism before around 1613–more than a decade after Bruno’s execution. So whose argument is more “scientific”? Mr. Lloyd seems to want to argue by stirring up the prejudice of passion against an argument I have derived from a careful reading of historical facts accumulated by the full array of scholars who have studied these events.

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