Thursday, April 14, 2011

Galileo's Trial: An Epic Struggle of Science Against Religion?

"The notion that Galileo's trial was a conflict between science and religion should be dead. Anyone who works seriously on Galileo doesn't accept that interpretation anymore." ~ Thomas F. Mayer

It has long been held in popular media and high school textbooks that the trial of Galileo in 1633 was the righteous stand of science against the oppressive, outdated traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. It is said that this started the unstoppable rise of science that would soon overtake and make irrelevant church tradition. This conception provides an exciting story; the only problem is that it did not actually happen that way. The popularized view is simply incorrect, as stated above in the quote by Dr. Mayer taken from this popular article. It has been overblown by those who want to exaggerate an alleged chasm between science and religion. Any good history of science book, like Science and Religion edited by Gary B. Ferngren (relevant article by Richard Blackwell), will give a more accurate picture of the Galileo affair.

So what really happened? The Aristotelian, Ptolemaic geocentric view of the solar system had dominated the scientific and theological discussions of the solar system for centuries. Then, in 1543, the heliocentric view developed by Nicolas Copernicus was published over 70 years before Galileo came on the scene.

In 1610, Galileo built his first telescope and began using it to observe the sky. He used it to gather all sorts of data on stellar objects like caters on the Moon, the Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter (named for him, of course) the phases of Venus (like we see with the Moon), and spots on the Sun. His observations, particularly the moons orbiting Jupiter and the phases of Venus, brought him to question the dominant geocentric model and start to look more seriously at the heliocentric model. Though the growing body of data supported the the Copernican model, Galileo could not conclusively prove that it was correct. (This is a fact that is often missed. All theological discussions aside, the scientific community of the time was not fully convinced of the heliocentric model. It did not gain full acceptance until many years after Galileo's death.)

Being a devout Catholic, Galileo knew that the model he was developing should agree with Scripture, so in 1616 he went to the Scriptures in order to reinterpret several key passages so that he might harmonize his model with God's Word. This is where things started to get hot and when we consider this we cannot forget what time Galileo was doing this. This was the early 17th century, only about 100 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg. The Reformation had taken the sole authority to interpret Scripture away from the clergy and the Catholic Church was intent on taking it back. The Protestant Reformation and the following Catholic Counter Reformation over the past century had heightened sensitivity in the Roman Catholic Church. The Council of Trent had just reaffirmed that only bishops and church councils count interpret the Bible. In this first trial, Galileo was not as much in trouble for his heliocentric view (though that certainly was a factor) but because he tried to prove it by interpreting Scripture at a time when the Catholic Church was really sensitive about that. The impact of this drama between the Reformation and the Counter Reformation on the whole Galileo situation cannot be overstated. Blackwell states in Science and Religion:
If Copernicus’s book had been published either one hundred years earlier or one hundred years later, the Galileo affair would probably not have happened. But, in fact, it was published in 1543, when the Reformation was in full bloom and the Counter Reformation was just beginning. Hence it was that by 1616 all of the actors and cultural forces were in place for the drama of the Galileo affair to begin.
To be blunt about it, both Galileo and the Catholic Church were at the mercy of really bad timing.

In 1616, when Galileo’s case was brought to trial before the Roman Inquisition, they issued a precept that ordered him to cease to promote and defend the heliocentric model, which Galileo promised to obey. Fifteen years later, there was a newly appointed Pope and Galileo decided to ask the new Pope if he could publish a review of the heliocentric and geocentric views. The new Pope, unaware of the previous trial, granted him permission. Galileo, however, failed to mention the precept during his request and it was this omission led to Galileo’s second trial, his conviction, and his house arrest. During this second trial, the trial that ultimately led to Galileo's recanting, the issue was not the two solar system models but Galileo's disregard for the precept. As Dr. Mayer has shown in his paper on the subject and talks about in this popular article, the issue of the precept was raised in very narrow legal terms and was compounded by sloppy records of the earlier trial and Galileo's own testimony. Mayer argues that the Inquisition was actually trying to give Galileo a way to negotiate a settlement, a common practice with precepts at the time, but Galileo dug himself a big hole by first claiming not to have received the precept, then saying he did not violate the precept (the one he just claimed he did not receive), and then quoting from the precept (again, the one he just claimed he did not receive). In the popular press Dr. Mayer said, "When push came to shove in the second part of trial, [Galileo] made every imaginable mistake."

So, this event in history, which has long been hailed as the clash of the science and religion, is really more about who has the authority to interpret Scripture (because of the drama of the Reformation) in the first trial and a legal matter in the second (compounded by sloppy record keeping and Galileo's inconsistent testimony). Rather than being a monumental clash between science and religion, where the Catholic Church is painted as a "monolithic, omnipotent organization conspiring to bring down the astronomer", Galileo’s final conviction was a legal matter confused by sloppy record keeping and handled poorly by Galileo himself.

By His Grace,

No comments: