Some religious apologists just can’t leave Galileo alone. They are unhappy about the fact that most people accept that the Church behaved badly in sentencing Galileo for heresy. (He got house arrest for the rest of his life and bans on his books, one of which was suppressed for 200 years). So in a manner which reminds me of modern day Stalinists trying to make excuses for the Stalin Terror, or to claim it wasn’t as bad as people believe, the apologists have been busy rewriting the history of the Galileo affair.

For example, they promote a document describing Galileo’s “imprisonment for his heretical ideas of a heliocentric solar sytem” as a myth! (see On the crushing of historical fables about religion, science and culture and Mythbusting: Historical fables about Christianity and Science).

In my previous post Blaming the victim I included this quote from the the Inquisition’s sentencing of Galileo which clearlyshows it is the apologists who promote myths:

’You have rendered yourself vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.’


einstein_clerk_webSo, I have heard a few of these apologetics arguments against Galileo – but recently came across a new (to me) one that left me gobsmacked. This claims that according the Einstein’s Special Relativity Theory Galileo was wrong!

An example is this in a footnote from a 1991 article by the apologist philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga (see “Evolution, Neutrality, and Antecedent Probability: a Reply to Van Till and McMullen”):

Consider even such an assured result as that the earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis. According to the usual interpretations of current relativity theory, there is no privileged frame of reference, no frame at absolute rest. But if that is true, then it isn’t even clear what it means to say that in fact, contrary to Copernicus, the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. That’s true in some frames of reference, but not in others; and in principle (apart from matters of convenience, and the like) there is no more to be said for the former than for the latter.”

A local blog, Say Hello to my Little Friend, makes the same argument in the post Einstein v the Church v Galileo? which declares “Galileo was wrong.”

“This new (well, new at the time, anyway) view of physics reduces Galileo’s claim about which view is literally correct, his or the church’s, to rubble. If Einstein is correct, then Galileo was wrong to say that it is objectively true that the earth moves around the sun, and that it is objectively false that the sun moves around the earth. Which — if either — of those to claims is correct depends wholly on the observational perspective. An observer on the earth will correctly report that the sun travels around the earth (or stated differently, relative to the earth, the sun travels around it), and a sun dweller (!!!) will correctly report that the earth travels around the sun. Neither is incorrect, but if one accuses the other of being objectively mistaken while he himself is objectively correct, he is simply wrong (as was Galileo). This is not a defence of the Church’s claim, as obviously the principle applies to both views equally.”

All this changes, of course, if there is a priveleged point from which the sun-earth relationshiop is supposed to be viewed from. Should there exist such a designated ’viewing platform,’ the question could be settled once and for all. If, for example, it turned out that the earth is the priveleged spot from which the relationship is meant to be observed, then the church was right all along, and a hack job has been done on the Galileo trial.”

The post concludes:

“So go ahead — keep using the Galileo case to show what silly scientific conclusions theologians come to — that is, if you’re happy to push your view of physics back half a century.”

Of course, this writer’s date for the publication of Special Relativity isn’t the only thing he got wrong.

Both these writers have taken an aspect of Special Relativity that says for bodies undergoing uniform motion it is impossible for an observer the ascribe motion. Like the passenger in a train (which has constant velocity) who can observe relative motion between her train and other trains without being able to tell for certain which is moving.

There is more to Special Relativity than this, of course. But, ironically, this aspect of relativity, which was formalised by Einstein, goes back to Galileo himself. Of course, just because there is not a “priveliged spot” and we can adopt any reference frame we wish (eg. the earth or the sun) does not negate the possibility of detecting relative motion. And detecting acceleration of orbiting bodies.

In his book The Fabric of the Cosmos Brian Greene describes how incorporation of time, as spacetime, into Special Relativity “provided an absolute criterion – one that all observers, regardless of their constant relative velocities, would agree on – for deciding whether or not something is accelerating.”

Orbiting bodies like planets and moons are accelerating.

Einstein’s comments on Galileo

Anyway, enough of this negativity. I have reproduced below the Foreword, written by Einstein, to a 2001 edition of Galileo’s famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. This is the book suppressed by the Church for 200 years. You can see that far from declaring Galileo wrong about heliocentricity, Einstein speaks very highly of Galileo’s contributions to science.

This is an authorised translation, from German, by Sonja Bargmann.

“Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is a mine of information for anyone interested in the cultural history of the Western world and its influence upon economic and political development.

… To begin with, the Dialogue gives an extremely lively and persuasive exposition of the then prevailing views on the structure of the cosmos in the large. The naïve picture of the earth as a flat disc, combined with obscure ideas about star-filled space and the motions of the celestial bodies, prevalent in the early Middle Ages, represented a deterioration of the much earlier conceptions of the Greeks, and in particular of Aristotle’s ideas and Ptolemy’s consistent spatial concept of the celestial bodies and their motions.

… In advocating and fighting for the Copernican theory Galileo was not only motivated by a striving to simplify the representation of the celestial motions. His aim was to substitute for a petrified and barren system of ideas the unbiased and strenuous quest for a deeper and more consistent comprehension of the physical and astronomical facts.

The form of dialogue used in his work may be partly due to Plato’s shining example; it enabled Galileo to apply his extraordinary literary talent to the sharp and vivid confrontation of opinion. To be sure, he wanted to avoid an open commitment in these controversial questions that would have delivered him to destruction by the Inquisition. Galileo had, in fact, been expressly forbidden to advocate the Copernican theory. Apart from its revolutionary factual content the Dialogue represents a down-right roguish attempt to comply with this order in appearance and yet in fact to disregard it. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Holy Inquisition was unable to appreciate adequately such subtle humor.

… It is difficult to us today to appreciate the imaginative power made manifest in the precise formulation of the concept of acceleration and in the recognition of its physical significance.

Once the conception of the center of the universe had, with good reason, been rejected, the idea of the immovable earth, and, generally, of an exceptional role of the earth, was deprived of its justification…

… Galileo takes great pains to demonstrate that the hypothesis of the rotation and revolution of the earth is not refuted by the fact that we do not observe any mechanical effects of these motions. Strictly speaking, such a demonstration was impossible because a complete theory of mechanics was lacking. I think it is just in the struggle with this problem that Galileo’s originality is demonstrated with particular force. Galileo is, of course, also concerned to show that the fixed stars are too remote for parallaxes produced by the yearly motion of the earth to be detectable with the measuring instruments of his time. This investigation also is ingenious, notwithstanding its primitiveness.

It was Galileo’s longing for a mechanical proof of the motion of the earth which misled him into formulating a wrong theory of the tides. The fascinating arguments in the last conversation would hardly have been accepted as proofs by Galileo, had his temperament not got the better of him. It is hard for me to resist the temptation to deal with this subject more fully.

The leitmotif which I recognize in Galileo’s work is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority. Only experience and careful reflection are accepted by him as criteria of truth. Nowadays it is hard for us to grasp how sinister and revolutionary such an attitude appeared at Galileo’s time, when merely to doubt the truth of opinions which had no basis but authority was considered a capital crime and punished accordingly. Actually we are by no means so far removed from such a situation even today as many of us would like to flatter ourselves; but in theory, at least, the principle of unbiased thought has won out, and most people are willing to pay lip service to this principle.

It has often been maintained that Galileo became the father of modern science by replacing the speculative, deductive method with the empirical, experimental method. I believe, however, that this interpretation would not stand close scrutiny. There is no empirical method without speculative concepts and systems; and there is no speculative thinking whose concepts do not reveal, on closer investigation, the empirical material from which they stem. To put into sharp contrast the empirical and the deductive attitude is misleading, and was entirely foreign to Galileo. Actually it was not until the nineteenth century that logical (mathematical) systems whose structures were completely independent of any empirical content had been cleanly extracted. Moreover, the experimental methods at Galileo’s disposal were so imperfect that only the boldest speculation could possibly bridge the gaps between the empirical data. (For example, there existed no means to measure times shorter than a second). The antithesis Empiricism vs. Rationalism does not appear as a controversial point in Galileo’s work. Galileo opposes the deductive methods of Aristotle and his adherents only when he considers their premises arbitrary or untenable, and he does not rebuke his opponents for the mere fact of using deductive methods. In the first dialogue, he emphasizes in several passages that according to Aristotle, too, even the most plausible deduction must be put aside if it is incompatible with empirical findings. And on the other hand, Galileo himself makes considerable use of logical deduction. His endeavors are not so much directed at “factual knowledge” as at “comprehension.” But to comprehend is essentially to draw conclusions from an already accepted logical system.”

Similar articles