Eppur Si Muove image

Eppur Si Muove

Galileo Galilei, as we all know, had his books banned for telling the truth. He represented a shining light of knowledge which the Church tried to hide for centuries, thanks to their love of the darkness; although Science had proven conclusively that the earth went round the sun, the Church was still in thrall to the (self-evidently ludicrous) Ptolemaic epicycles we talked about last week, and landed on him like a ton of bricks for having the temerity to challenge the ignorant faith-heads of his time with scientific evidence. It’s a classic example of what happens when Science and Religion mix, isn’t it? Science wants evidence, Religion wants unprovable superstitions; Religion loves the Dark Ages, because its deeds are evil, but Science wants the Enlightenment, where only learning and culture flourish. Witness the way all these lunatic oddballs predict the end of the world, argue that the earth is flat and 10,000 years old, and believe in miracles.

To be honest, the present is simply a recapitulation of that titanic struggle, played out over and over again, wherever Science and Religion share overlapping spheres. Pope Urban VIII is now George Bush, or Ken Ham, or even Francis Collins; Galileo is now Richard Dawkins or [insert heroic interlocutor’s name here], shining the light of reason onto the darkened canvass of stultifying theocracy blended with ecclesiastical cover-ups. This has even served as the plotline for an episode of The West Wing. The characters may have changed, but the battle lines remain the same. Science versus Religion. Reason versus faith.
A lovely, charming and impressively (even suspiciously) simple tale. The truth in this case, however, David Bentley Hart explains, is rather more surprising, more amusing, and more curious than the fictional account we know and love:

Of Galileo’s friends, none was of greater consequence than Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644), who became Pope Urban VIII. Barberini was a man of enormous culture, whose admiration of Galileo was so great that it even prompted him to compose verse in Galileo’s honour, and who, as pope, lavished upon Galileo the sort of attentions – private papal audiences, public accolades, costly gifts, a pension for Galileo’s son – that most men could scarcely have hoped for. In fact, he gave Galileo every support within reason, and did not so much as rebuke him for his Copernican sympathies when they first became obvious. This is not really surprising, as Copernicus’s book was many decades old by that time; and, while it had both its detractors and admirers among the church hierarchy, it had never caused any great scandal. Indeed, the book’s dedicatee – Pope Paul III – quite liked it. Even in Galileo’s day, Kepler was championed and protected by the Jesuits.

Well, one might wonder, if the Pope and Galileo were good friends, and lots of church leaders thought Copernicus was right, what went wrong? Hart continues:

Galileo, it must be said, squandered good will with remarkable abandon. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, selfish, irascible, supercilious, and mildly vindictive … He provoked public controversy where none was necessary, once on the rumour that his theories had been deprecated in the course of someone else’s private dinner conversation. And his uncompromising demand for an absolute vindication of his theories precipitated the ecclesial consultation of 1616 that – when it turned out that Galileo was unable to provide a single convincing proof of Copernicanism – resulted in an injunction (of great gentleness, actually) admonishing Galileo against teaching the Copernican system.

Aha! So the church did ban Reason in the interests of Faith! Well, not really:

Urban VIII himself had encouraged Galileo to write his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the Ptolemaic and Copernican” (1632), enjoining only that it include a statement to the effect that Copernican theory was just a hypothesis and that no scientist could pretend to know perfectly how God had disposed the worlds. Galileo did include such a statement in the dialogue, at its conclusion in fact, but decided to place it on the lips of a ponderously obtuse character whom he tellingly named Simplicio, a doctrinaire Aristotelian placed in the dialogue so as to provide a foil for the wise Copernican Salviati and a comical contrast to Sagredo, the clever scientific novice; and, to heap one insult upon another, Simplicio attributes the formula to an “eminent and erudite personage, before whom one must needs fall silent.” This was, to all appearances, an unwarranted and tasteless affront to a cultured and generous friend, and Urban – an Italian gentleman of his age, a prince of the church, and a man of enormous personal pride – took umbrage.

Seriously? The defining struggle of science and religion in the last millennium came down to a personality clash? Apparently so, says Hart – but more importantly:

Urban was entirely right on one very crucial issue: the Copernican model was in fact only a hypothesis, and a defective one at that, and Galileo did not have either sufficient evidence to support it or a mathematical model that worked particularly well … He did not avail himself (though he was perfectly and resentfully aware) of Kepler’s elliptical planetary orbits, which were encumbered by none of the inconsistencies and internal corrections and physical impossibilities of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems. Instead, he insisted along with Copernicus upon the circular movements of the planets, with all the mathematical convolutions this entailed. He had no better explanation than Copernicus for the absence of any observable stellar parallax, even when the stars were viewed through a telescope. And his most cherished proof of terrestrial rotation – the motion of the tides – was manifestly ludicrous and entirely inconsistent with the observable tidal sequences (he dismissed Kepler’s entirely correct lunar explanation of the tides as a silly conjecture concerning occult forces). Galileo elected, that is, to propound a theory whose truth he had not demonstrated, while needless mocking a powerful man who had treated him with honour and indulgence. And the irony is, strange to say, that it was the church that was demanding proof, and Galileo who was demanding blind assent – to a model that was wrong.

None of this, of course, means the Catholic church is let off the hook for needless interfering. But it certainly casts doubt on the mythical account we summarised earlier, of the Persecuted Scientist being oppressed by the Wicked Church for demanding evidence, not to mention the extrapolation of this example to tar all Christians everywhere with the same (historically inaccurate) brush:

Measured against centuries of ecclesial patronage of the sciences, and considering that in Galileo’s day (and long after) many of the world’s greatest and most original scientists (often in fields that had not even previously existed) were to be found among the Jesuits, one episode of asinine conflict among proud and intemperate men does not exactly constitute a pattern of Christian intellectual malfeasance.

No indeed.

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