The Galileo Legend
| 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.