The Trial of Galileo, 1633 AD

It's not that simple to say that the condemning of Galileo was strictly a conflict of science and religion, although it was considered a real assault by many people on their Christian faith.

By Galileo’s day in the early 17th century the Catholic Church felt compelled to take a definite stand against the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis (the Protestants had done this much earlier). Why? “If the earth truly moved then no longer could it be the fixed center of God’s Creation and his plan of salvation. Nor could man be the central focus of the cosmos. The absolute uniqueness and significance of Christ’s intervention into human history seemed to require a corresponding uniqueness and significance for the Earth. The meaning of redemption itself, the central event not just of human history, but also of universal history, seemed at stake. To be a Copernican seemed tantamount to atheism.” (Richard Tarnas The Passion of the Western Mind, pp. 253-254).


Previously Dante harmonized religion and science by “poetically uniting the specific elements of the Christian theology with the equal specific elements of classical astronomy. The Aristotelian geocentric universe thus became a massive symbolic structure for the moral drama of Christianity. All of the Ptolemaic planetary spheres took on Christian references, with specific ranks of angels and archangels responsible for each sphere’s motion. Every aspect of the Greek scientific scheme now was imbued with religious significance. If, for example, a moving earth were to be introduced into that system, the effect of a purely scientific innovation would threaten the integrity of the entire Christian cosmology.” (From Richard Tarnas, pages 195-6).

According to Diogenes Allen, the Aristotelian/Ptolemy view “included values as part of the very fabric of the universe...obligations and rights...are confirmed and supported by the physical order of the cosmos itself.” Therefore “it seemed to threaten the very foundations of the social, political, and moral order.” [Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, (John Knox Press, 1989, p. 41, 42)].

The invention by Galileo of the telescope changed the debate. It destroyed several Ptolemaic conceptions: A) They believed that the spheres of the universe were perfect, yet Galileo noticed the moon has craters; B) They believed everything rotates around the earth, yet Galileo discovered Jupiter had four moons; C) They believed the heavenly bodies were eternal, yet Galileo discovered sun spots indicating that the sun was decaying. He defended the Copernican system with observations, and thus began the rise of experimental science! He showed (contrary to Aristotle) how heavier rocks do not fall faster than lighter ones by experimentation. He even conceptualized tying a string from a heavier rock to a lighter one, thus making them one object! But would the combined rock now fall faster than either one, or would the lighter one drag? Such problems plagued the older Aristotelian view.

But look at how Galileo’s views were answered by Florentine astronomer Francesco Sizzi: “There are seven windows in the head: two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth. So also in the heavens there are two favorable stars, two unfavorable, two luminaries, and Mercury alone undecided and indifferent. From all this, and from other such natural phenomena, such as seven metals, etc., all too pointless to enumerate, we can conclude that the number of planets is necessarily seven.” “Furthermore, the alleged satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can have no influence on earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist.” “Besides all this, the Jews and other ancient peoples as well as modern Europeans have always divided the week into seven days and have named them after the seven planets. Now if we, like Galileo, increase the number of planets, this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.”

What must be understood about the trial: 1) There was real debate about the geo-centric system--but it was to be regarded as a “hypothesis not fact.” 2) Copernicus and Galileo’s systems contained ideas that were “hopelessly inaccurate,” and there was no evidence yet for things that should be noticed. For instance a) the proper planetary orbits were not known yet--they were arguing for more complete circles revolving around the sun, also, b) There was “no observable stellar parallax”—individual stars should appear at different points in the sky when the earth is at its two farthest distances in its cycle around the sun. Either the stars were immensely more distant, which we know now is the case, or the earth didn’t move. Thus, the Copernican system was not yet established on scientific grounds! 3) The Pope, Urban VIII, felt personally betrayed by Galileo, a former friend, because he thought one of the incompetent speakers in the Dialogue of Two Chief World Systems was intended to represent him.

4 comments:

Daddy Cool said...

Galileo was a Christian. Using him against Christians or for atheism isn't wise.

Daniel said...

daddy cool,

I wanted to follow up on your comment, completely aside from how Galileo was used in this article, either way.

On your part, perhaps some thinking is in order: all people during medieval Christendom were Christians...

Let that sink in and consider it. What I simply mean by that is, if you openly declared yourself a heretic or atheist, what happened to you? And so is it any surprise that all of these learned men were Christians? I would've been one "on the record" too. I happen to enjoy my skin, and would prefer it not flayed, or burned.

Dave Armstrong said...

This was simply a temporary period of lousy science among some in the Church. One must understand what came before, with Copernicus. And even before that, with regard to the Scholastics. You did provide some of that information, which is commendable.

Protestants, not Catholics, were the ones who led the assault against Copernicus:

"Protestant leaders like Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon led in citing Scripture against Copernicus and in urging the repression of Copernicans . . . Protestants . . . provided the first effective institutionalized opposition . . . For sixty years after Copernicus' death there was little Catholic counterpart for the Protestant opposition to Copernicanism . . . The Church itself was silent . . . Copernicus himself had been a cleric and a reputable one . . . His book was dedicated to the Pope [Paul III (1534-49), who urged him to publish his new findings, and accepted the dedication], and among the friends who urged him to publish it were a Catholic bishop and a Cardinal. During the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries the Church had not imposed cosmological conformity on its members . . .

"Before the De Revolutionibus the Church had spawned even more revolutionary cosmological concepts without theological convulsions. In the fifteenth century the eminent cardinal and papal legate Nicholas of Cusa had propounded a radical Neoplatonic cosmology . . . Though he portrayed the earth as a moving star, like the sun and the other stars, and though his works were widely read and had great influence, he was not condemned or even criticized by his Church."

(Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, New York: Vintage Books, 1959, 196-197)

The Encyclopedia Britannnica reiterates the above:

"Lectures on the principles [of the Heliocentric theory] . . . were given [by Copernicus] in Rome in 1533 before Pope Clement VII, who approved, and a formal request to publish was made to Copernicus in 1536 . . . His pupil and disciple Georg Joachim Rhaticus . . . was permitted [in 1540] to take the completed manuscript to Nurnberg, Germany, for printing. Because of opposition from Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and other reformers, Rhaticus left Nurnberg and went to Leipzig . . ."

(1985 ed., vol. 16, 815)

Andrew D. White, in his famous, massively-researched two-volume work on the relationship of science and Christianity, states regarding the outlook of Catholics and Protestants in this respect:

"Eminent authorities . . . like Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and Vincent of Beauvais, felt obliged to accept the doctrine of the earth's sphericity, and as we approach the modern period we find its truth acknowledged by the vast majority of thinking men."

(A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology, New York: George Brazilier, 1955 [orig. 1895], vol. I: 97, 126-128)

Bill said...

By Galileo's trial the orbits of the planets were accurately known. Kepler had determined them to be elliptical and had published the Rudolphine Tables that accurately described the orbits before the trial. Also Galileo viewed the phases of the planet Venus that cannot be explained by Ptolemy's system.