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A good primary source

In An interesting question Thony C at The Renaissance Mathematicus responded to a comment at my post, Early history of science, with his own blog article. While it  mainly discusses the nature of censorship I would like to respond to some comments he made about the Galileo affair.

I will leave aside his/her tactic of blaming the victim — which seems quite fashionable among religious apologists writing on this issue today. For example Thony C claims:

’Nobody had been really bothered by the potential conflict until Galileo and Foscarini had made it into a real conflict by suggesting a theological solution thus creating a real problem for the Church;’ ’In his unconsidered and over hasty actions Galileo had forced the Church to ban the heliocentric theory.’

There is something unpleasant about excusing all the actions of a huge institution like the Catholic Church and its Inquisition and putting all the blame on an individual. Moreover an individual who is threatened with torture and sentenced to imprisonment! Soviet apologists no doubt blamed Andrei Sakharov for his confinement to the city of Gorky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his expulsion from the country. That’s the trouble with apologists — their loyalties.

However, I would like to deal here with the so-called ’theological solution’ which Thony C presents as the real problem. Unfortunately this ’crime’ is usually not discussed in detail, yet apologists often wish to use it to divert attention away from the scientific issues. Was the theological problem simply non-acceptance of a geocentric model which was supposedly made factual by its presentation in the Christian bible? Was it just a matter of semantics, the hubris of including scientific questions within the domain of theology?

Thony C gives a clearer idea in his comment:

’The crime the these two men committed in the Church’s eyes was not that they propagated heliocentrism, which they did, but that they told the Church how to interpret the Bible and that was definitely a no, no.’

So was it a matter of interpretation, or more correctly who should do the interpreting and how?

Galileo’s sentence

Firstly, let’s be clear how the Inquisition saw Galileo’s ’crimes’ by looking at this extract from his sentence (my emphasis – in this post I am quoting from The Essential Galileo — a very useful source of primary documents):

’We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the abovementioned Galileo, because of the things deduced in the trial and confessed by you as above, have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and 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. Consequently you have incurred all the censures and penalties imposed and promulgated by the sacred canons and all particular and general laws against such delinquents. We are willing to absolve you from them provided that first, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, in front of us you abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, in the manner and form we will prescribe to you. Furthermore, so that this serious and pernicious error and transgression of yours does not remain completely unpunished, and so that you will be more cautious in the future and an example for others to abstain from similar crimes, we order that the book Dialogue by Galileo Galilei be prohibited by public edict. We condemn you to formal imprisonment in this Holy Office at our pleasure. As a salutary penance we impose on you to recite the seven penitential Psalms once a week for the next three years. And we reserve the authority to moderate, change, or condone wholly or in part the above-mentioned penalties and penances. This we say, pronounce, sentence, declare, order, and reserve by this or any other better manner or form that we reasonably can or shall think of.’

So clearly the specific point of issue was that of heliocentricism. But included in this is that the church had proclaimed geocentricism a ’fact’ because it (in their opinion) is revealed by ’Holy Scripture.’ So the issue becomes one of epistemology rather than a scientific theory. Do you derive your understanding of nature from ’Holy Scripture’ or from the evidence of nature? No doubt seen by the Inquisition as a ’theological’ issue but really an important philosophical one.

Epistemology the real issue?

It’s important to see the key role of different epistemologies here because apologists will often make an issue of the difference between hypothesis and truth, or should I say ’Truth.’ That Galileo and Kepler, for example, had not been able to get supporting evidence from parallax measurements (they didn’t have the technology/accuracy). But again that is a diversion — apologists concentrate on the degree of empirical confirmation for heliocentricism (and ignore the lack of empirical confirmation for geocentrism), while purposely ignoring what the Inquisition and Church understood as the ’Truth.’

And Truth, of course, was that laid down by ’Holy Scripture’ — really interpretation of that Scripture by the Church authorities. Or a select few of those ’authorities,’ in this case, as the interpretation was so dubious and varied. The ’Holy Scriptures’ did not even name the planets, let alone give a model for their arrangement.

And the Inquisition’s claim that the geocentric model was a fact had not required the sort of real evidence they were demanding for the Copernican model.

So, on the one hand the church or theological ’authorities’ claimed the sole right to interpret ’Holy Scripture’, and thus determine ’Truth.’ They determined by this shonky revelation that the geocentric model was ’true’- the fact. Anyone else who attempted their own ’interpretation’, or suggested a different epistemology like relying on evidence, was committing a crime.

Perhaps the theologians could be pragmatic. Some documents imply their ’interpretation’ would change once the empirical evidence was overwhelming. (A strange admission that revelation is a lousy epistemological method). A Catch-22 bureaucratic situation given that Galileo, and other natural philosophers, had been urged in 1616 to:

’abandon completely the above-mentioned opinion that the sun is the center of the world and the earth moves, nor henceforth hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, orally or in writing; otherwise the Holy Office would start proceedings against him.’

As for these ’proceedings’ — well, 16 years before Bruno had been burned at the stake for heresy!

Thony C suggests that Galileo and others told the Church how to interpret the Bible.’ Its worth actually understanding what Galileo said about interpretation.

He did actually offer, as an aside, a different interpretation to the then accepted one of the Joshua story where the sun stood still to enable a battle to be won.  He suggested that the story could not be ’explained’ by the Ptolemaic geocentric model, but could be by the Copernican heliocentric one. Or more correctly that the Copernican model enabled a more literal interpretation of the scripture.

However, his general comments on scriptural interpretation are of more value.

Scriptural interpretation

Galileo was a devout Catholic so did in fact accept scripture as ’Holy’ and ’correct.’ But:

’Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters and expositors can sometimes err in various ways. One of these would be very serious and very frequent, namely, to want to limit oneself always to the literal meaning of the words’

Moreover interpretation was required because by necessity the ’holy ghost’ had to adapt its dictated language to the culture and prejudices of the time:

’in order to adapt it­self to the understanding of all people, it was appropriate for Scripture to say many things which are different from absolute truth in appearance and in regard to the meaning of the words.’

In contrast, no ’interpretation” is required for natural situations:

’nature is inexorable and immutable, and she does not care at all whether or not her recondite reasons and modes of operations are revealed to human understanding, and so she never transgresses the terms of the laws imposed on her’

As a devout Catholic he saw it this way:

’Holy Scripture and nature both equally derive from the divine Word, the former as the dictation of the Holy Spirit, the latter as the most obedient executrix of God’s commands.’

But while ’interpretation’ of ’Holy scripture’ was required, even demanded, our perception of, and ideas about, the real world must be derived from evidence.

’therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.”

A necessary requirement for the scientific revolution

I doubt that Galileo was the only Catholic who saw this. And imagine it was part of the theological debates of the time. However, I think it also should really be seen as part of the general philosophical debates. What Galileo was suggesting was a very necessary step in scienctific evolution.

For science to progress, for it even to return to its earlier power, the struggle between two different epistemologies had to be resolved. In effect the breaking away of science from the old theology and philosophy of revelation was a necessary requirement for the scientific revolution.

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