The Galileo Affair

I found a nice little essay that provides a calm, rational explanation of the The Galileo Affair.  It’s written by Tim O’Neill, who describes himself as “Atheist, Medievalist, Sceptic and amateur Historian”

Here’s an excerpt:

 In November 2009 the comedian and actor Stephen Fry joined the late Christopher Hitchens in a televised debate with two Catholics on the question of whether the Catholic Church was “a force for good in the world.”  Fry and Hitchens won the debate hands down, but at one point Fry referred passionately to “the fact that [Galileo] was tortured” by the Inquisition.  In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris seems to be trying to refer to Galileo when he talks of the Church “torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars”.  Voltaire famously wrote of how Galileo “groaned away his days in the dungeons of the Inquisition” and the idea that Galileo only backed down because of his (understandable) fear of being burnt at the stake is a mainstay of the fables about the Galileo Affair.  All these ideas are nonsense.

 

You can read the rest here

 

 

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8 Responses to The Galileo Affair

  1. Unfortunately, the usual revisionist literature on Galileo, of which this is an example, isn’t that much better than the original myths. He missed the reference to Bruno being burned at the stake in 1600, the fact that thousands of Protestants were regularly getting burned at the stake for heresy across Europe, to the fact that the church authorities changed the rules on Galileo between the earlier inquiry and the later trial, and the fact that the Inquisition banned Copernican works, including from Galileo right up into the freakin’ 1800s, and the Catholic Church has *still* never quite completely owned up to the wrongs that it did to Galileo.

    Hugo Holbling’s essay is much, much better. And he’s definitely no science-religion-warfare guy — he’s a very determined anti-demarcationist, for instance. His conclusions?

    http://www.galilean-library.org/site/index.php?/page/index.html/_/essays/history/the-galileo-affair-part-5-the-aftermath-r69

    ==========
    So it was that the trial and its inevitable result established what had already been determined in 1616 by Bellarmine’s blinkered approach, wherein he claimed that no Scriptural passage could be challenged by physical arguments because they all came from the Holy Spirit. This opinion, followed to the letter, would kill science before it had even developed.

    As Fantoli put it, “to hold that the provisions of 1616 were only intended to break the untimely zeal of Galileo for Copernicanism without blocking further careful scientific research on the matter appears to me to be completely untenable” (op cit: 481). Although there were other factors, the effect on Copernican astronomy within Italy was catastrophic. Galileo blamed the Jesuits (XIV, 116-117, for example) and there is little doubt that a varied group of opponents was arrayed against him, from jealous academics to furious theologians. Nevertheless, the decisive influence was Urban VIII, convinced that Galileo had betrayed him—without which certainly even the most strident efforts of Galileo’s detractors could not have borne fruit.

    The complex tale that is the Galileo affair cautions us not to make simplistic judgements. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the question of whether or not Galileo had any proof for Copernicanism was never at issue—in 1616 or in 1633. The very possibility of any demonstration was excluded in principle by Bellarmine’s doctrinal position and its adoption by an authoritarian Church. The trial and abjuration of Galileo thus represented an “institutionalised abuse of power which can never be sufficiently deprecated” (ibid), in which the societal position of the Church was used to dictate the correct understanding of an issue that was never considered on its own terms. Allowing the enmity of some philosophers to provoke a theological confrontation when there was only a physical argument at issue, the machinery of the Holy Office was turned against Galileo and fell into the very error he and Augustine before him had warned against.

    In spite of Galileo not being blameless himself, it is fair to say that history has judged the Church justifiably harshly—most notably, perhaps, Pope John Paul II with his comment on the Galileo affair that “the sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance … [to] the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of the truth” (1994: 45).
    ==========

    The church took a looooong time to unban Copernicanism:

    ============
    Only in 1734 did the Church finally give permission for a mausoleum to be built for Galileo’s remains (XIX, 399), which were moved to the completed structure in 1736. The inscription read Galileo Galilei, Florentine Patrician, very great Innovator of Astronomy, of Geometry and of Philosophy. Incomparable to anyone of his time. May he rest here well. The work that Galileo had begun with the Two new sciences had since been completed by Newton in his Principia Mathematica and the Church finally had to come to terms with what Bellarmine supposed there could not be—a justification of Copernicanism.

    The adaptation was still slow, with the 1741 authorised edition of Galileo’s works still requiring “corrections”. In 1757 the decree of 1616 was quietly dropped from the Index of forbidden books, but the Copernican works proscribed therein remained until 1822 “out of at having finally to take a clear position with respect to the behaviour of the Church” (Fantoli, op cit: 497). In perhaps the ultimate irony, Pius VII released a decree in 1822 stating that no work treating of the motion of the Earth was to be prohibited, on pain of punishment for the person proposing to do so—a complete reversal of the situation in 1616 and 1633.
    ============

    Problems continued in the 20th century:

    ========
    In 1941 a decision was made by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to commission a biography of Galileo in time for the 300th anniversary of his death in 1942. The work was entrusted to Monsignor Pio Paschini, professor of Church history in Rome at the Pontifical Lateran University, which he duly completed (slightly late) within three years. The book was rejected, however—some said for the harshness of opinion Paschini demonstrated towards the Jesuits for their part in the affair—and only released some twenty years later, having been corrected for the “inappropriate” way it portrayed the Church (cf. Maccarrone, 1980 for more detail). Thus did the concern to “save face” extend all the way to the Second Vatican Council and beyond.
    ========

    And even in Pope John Paul’s apology, which still contained various illegitimate bits of face-saving:

    ========
    The Pontiff went on to explain that the affair had resulted from a “tragic mutual incomprehension”, which consisted in four separate conclusions of the Commission:

    Galileo failed to appreciate that he had no proof of Copernicanism;

    Theologians of that time did not correctly understand Scripture;

    Bellarmine truly understood what was “at stake” in the affair; and

    The Church accepted Copernicanism as soon as proof was available.

    We have seen that the first of these is untenable. The second fails because the methodological principle of Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess, while commonplace today, was neither understood nor employed by theologians at that time; and so it is useless to complain that it was not wielded correctly. We have also noted that Bellarmine’s position rendered any such accommodation impossible. Following on from this, the third we already know to be in error: Bellarmine’s position was not instrumental at all but based on reading all Scriptural passages as literally coming from the Holy Spirit. Finally, the idea that the Church embraced Copernicanism as soon as it was demonstrated is given the lie by the unwillingness to open the Secret Vatican Archives and the fact that the 1744 edition of Galileo’s works was not allowed to contain the Letter (although it did include the Dialogue, but only with the sentence of 1633 alongside it) (Coyne, 2002), as we have treated of briefly above.

    Thus we see that the Church had retreated from the boldness of John Paul II’s intentions in 1979 to a restatement of the old myths we have considered and rejected throughout.
    ========

    PS: On the church authorities changing the rules – at the 1634 trial, Galileo produced the written instructions that Bellarmine had written and signed and given to Galileo in 1616, but which somehow the Inquisition committee did not know about.

    =====================
    On this version of events, Galileo had indeed been ordered not to “hold, teach, or defend [Copernicanism] in any whatever, either orally or in writing”, but in an extrajudicial manner. His instructions from Bellarmine, on the other hand, did allow him to treat of Copernicanism in a suppositional way. In any case, the coexistence of these two statements caused a great deal of consternation for Maculano and the Commission. It was easy to see that the signed certificate from Bellarmine outweighed the unsigned notary’s paper but it was simply not possible to leave Galileo unpunished because the “Holy Office had itself brought the charges, and in theory at least, a false charge of heresy carried the same penalty as heresy itself” (ibid: 149).
    =====================

  2. Michael says:

    O’Neill responds to these objections in the comments section:

    “The “tortured scholar” would be Giordano Bruno.”

    Then Harris needs to brush up his historical skills. Bruno believed in a grab-bag of mystical ideas, several of which were definitely “heretical” at the time. But in 1599 it was not “heretical” to propose that the earth went around the sun, either for scientific reasons or for kooky mystical ones like Bruno’s. Given that Bruno also denied the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth and Transubstantiation, the Inquisition was hardly scratching around for excuses to condemn him as a heretic.

    Did you read Galileo’s abjuration?

    I’ve read it many times over the last 25 years of studying this and related subjects. I didn’t see anything in it about Bruno being tortured for something to do with the stars.

    • Science kneels before dogma

    Their conception was actually that “science” (an anachronistic term and idea – “natural philosophy” would be more accurate) and the religious interpretation of revelation should be able to be synthesised. This is because they believed both were reflections of truth. There were certainly some ideas which they believed contradicted revelation. So they rejected any hypothesis about the world that assumed it had no beginning, because the Bible said it did have a beginning. But it also worked the other way. As I noted, very early Christian interpretations of the Bible that read it as saying the earth was flat were corrected by the scientific knowledge that the earth was round.

    The problem here was that the science of the time, as interpreted by the majority of experts, and the science traditionally held for the last 1000 years supported the interpretation of revelation that the earth was the centre of the cosmos. The original 1616 finding against Galileo didn’t simply point to scripture. It stated that heliocentrism was

    foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally
    heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of
    Holy Scripture

    The phrase “foolish and absurd in philosophy” refers to the scientific consensus at the time and the fact that Galileo could not adequately answer several key objections to Copernicanism.

    So “science kneels before dogma” is not accurate at all – the problem was that the science of the time supported the “dogma”. And it wasn’t “dogma” anyway: as Bellarmine noted in 1616, if the objections to heliocentrism could be answered, then the scripture would have to be reinterpreted as allegorical or symbolic. Which, after Newton came along and removed the last major objection via his new physics, is precisely what happened.

    • Scientific hypothesis is heresy

    No. The universe was seen as a rational produce of the rational mind of God and so it could be apprehended rationally. They believed that what we call science and religion always had be able to be synthesised, but as I show above, that cut both ways – an interpretation of scripture that was shown to be wrong by science had to be reinterpreted.

    They didn’t even have a problem with hypotheses which explored new ideas that seemed contrary to scripture – so long as they weren’t presented as fact before they could be demonstrated to be so. They didn’t condemn Galileo for playing with a hypothesis – the Pope even encouraged him to do so after 1616 by invivting him to write the Dialogue. The problem was the fact that he presented his hypothesis as fact when he still could not answer several key objections to it. Note that Galileo’s defence was not that it was fact, but that he didn’t present it as such.

    You seem to be desperately trying to cram a complex series of events into a very simplistic box and are doing so because you simply don’t understand the period or the context.

  3. Michael says:

    More from O’Neill:

    Thanks for the post. This is actually used as a key example in Paul Feyerabend’s writing, and it certainly shows that history of science can be really convoluted. So why was Galileo actually punished? (Assuming I have to take the Greenblatt dude’s word with a grain of salt on this issue, too.) In addition, do you know any details about any of these alternate heliocentric models?

    In 1616 Galileo agreed not to present the Copernican model as objective fact, since he could not prove it to be such. He agreed only to explore it and teach it as a calculating device for astronomical purposes. In 1632 the Pope asked Galileo to write a book presenting both the Copernican and Ptolemaic models, with arguments as to the strengths and weaknesses of both. Galileo produced The Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, but did so in a way that made it clear he considered the Copernican model superior. He also put some of the arguments used by the Pope into the mouth of a character in his dialogue called “Simplicimo” – which in Italain meant “the fool”.

    Angered by this, the Pope effectively withdrew his support for Galileo and allowed him to be tried by the Inquisition for breaking his agreement of 1616 in the way he argued in the Dialogue. The Inquisition found that he had and he was punished for this.

  4. nmatzke says:

    So, saying what you think is worthy of trial by the Inquisition and a sentence of house arrest? The church deserves the flack it gets over Galileo, even going with only your sanitized account. It gets worse when you add in the established fact that Biblical literalism played a key role in the Church’s decision to put its foot down on this issue, the established fact that Galileo was the most amazing and spectacular scientist of his day, and known to be so by everybody, and the fact that Galileo had a signed 1616 document from the Church which told him the 1616 arrangement was milder than the standard under which the Church dragged him before the Inquisition in 1634. Oh, and the bans on heliocentrism in the Index were only fully lifted in the 1800s. You can’t leave this kind of stuff out and pretend that’s a fair account.

  5. Michael says:

    Nick,

    So, saying what you think is worthy of trial by the Inquisition and a sentence of house arrest?

    That’s a stupid question. Can you please quote where I implied that?

    The church deserves the flack it gets over Galileo, even going with only your sanitized account.

    My sanitized account? My name is not Tim O’Neill.

    It gets worse when you add in the established fact that Biblical literalism played a key role in the Church’s decision to put its foot down on this issue, the established fact that Galileo was the most amazing and spectacular scientist of his day, and known to be so by everybody, and the fact that Galileo had a signed 1616 document from the Church which told him the 1616 arrangement was milder than the standard under which the Church dragged him before the Inquisition in 1634. Oh, and the bans on heliocentrism in the Index were only fully lifted in the 1800s. You can’t leave this kind of stuff out and pretend that’s a fair account.

    Sorry Nick, but I am not an expert on this issue, and given that you are a Carrier Fan, I don’t trust you on this. If what you say is true, take it over to Quora and take it up with Tim O’Neill. I see his posting got 204 votes.

  6. You’ve clearly endorsed O’Neill’s account, so it’s legit to criticize that.

    But in my most recent comment I was just reacting to your most recent comment (“Michael (23:16:23)”). It looks like you quote a paragraph from O’Neill, putting that in italics, and the last two paragraphs are yours. If that’s an incorrect assumption it should be clarified.

  7. Bilbo says:

    Hi Nick,

    The paragraph in italics was from a commenter. The two paragraphs underneath it are from O’Neill.

  8. Michael says:

    You’ve clearly endorsed O’Neill’s account, so it’s legit to criticize that.

    No, that’s not clear. Endorsed is too strong a word. Given I have no expertise on this subject, I am in no position to endorse it. What I did was recommend it as “a nice little essay that provides a calm, rational explanation of the The Galileo Affair.” And it is.

    You seem to want to overlook the fact that it is commonly believed Galileo was tortured for daring to suggest the Earth was not the center of the universe. I know that many years ago, I was surprised to learn this was not true. So if you have a problem with the version being too sanitized, as I said, take it up with O’Neill. But given it’s the warfare angle, and not the “sanitized” version, that permeates and thus misleads pop culture, your concerns are secondary.

    But in my most recent comment I was just reacting to your most recent comment (“Michael (23:16:23)”). It looks like you quote a paragraph from O’Neill, putting that in italics, and the last two paragraphs are yours. If that’s an incorrect assumption it should be clarified.

    I would not need to clarify if you bothered to read instead of skim. Hours previous to that comment, I noted “O’Neill responds to these objections in the comments section” If you had bothered to go to that page and read the comments, you would not have made that mistake. And think, Nick, think. Does it really make sense to think it was O’Neill who wrote and asked:

    Thanks for the post. This is actually used as a key example in Paul Feyerabend’s writing, and it certainly shows that history of science can be really convoluted. So why was Galileo actually punished? (Assuming I have to take the Greenblatt dude’s word with a grain of salt on this issue, too.) In addition, do you know any details about any of these alternate heliocentric models?

    BTW, here is Sam Harris’s version:

    In his role as Christian apologist, Collins also makes the repellent claim that “the traditional lore about Galileo’s persecutions by the Church is overblown.” Lest we forget: Galileo, the greatest scientist of his time, was forced to his knees under threat of torture and death, obliged to recant his understanding of the Earth’s motion, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life by steely-eyed religious maniacs. He worked at a time when every European intellectual lived in the grip of a Church that thought nothing of burning scholars alive for merely speculating about the nature of the stars. It is simply astonishing that a scientist has produced such a pious glossing of the centuries of religious barbarism that were visited upon generations of other scientists.

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