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William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas. Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius. Oxford University Press, 2003.
Book can be purchased online @
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Review by John Day. All copyrights are held by the author.
This morning, my newspaper is full of lively debate about the merits of "young-earth" creationism as opposed to macroevolution of species. A letter-writer had questioned the date of some fossilized dinosaur bones, arguing, on Biblical grounds that they are not more than 4,000 years old (most people persuaded of this view allow 6,000, but never mind). This prompted an (atheist) scientist and a (Catholic) philosopher to respond. The philosopher made some comments about interpretation of the Bible which another Catholic gentleman took exception to. One of today's letters was from this gentleman, giving his understanding of Biblical exegesis and the duties of a Christian scientist.
This gentleman's argument revisited one of the many issues confronting religion and science in the well-known, if not well-understood relationship between Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and the Roman Catholic Church. The end result, as many recall, was that Galileo, undoubtedly one of the great scientific minds of all time, found himself formally condemned by the Roman Inquisition for teaching that the sun goes around the earth. Not much is understood beyond that, but most of us recall that much. The gentleman writing in today's local newspaper took a position actually discussed at length in this book. At the end of reading the book, one might understand why today's epistle espoused a view which would have seemed a bit rigid to Pope Pius V, and a bit antique to Pope Gregory XVI (look them up some time). Still, this local little difficulty does remind us of a dynamic which still presents some lively interest even now.
The authors, both Catholics, tried to represent both sides of the discussion. William R. Shea is a scientist who specializes in the history of science. At the time of publication, he was teaching at the University of Padua (in Italy), and working for the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg (France). Mariano Artigas is a Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. He is also an ordained priest. The idea was they that had expertises in both the scientific and philosophical issues involved with Galileo and the Church, while sharing common ground.
There are both great merits and demerits to the result. First, the merits.
There is a lot of information which has been discovered or rediscovered in recent times regarding Galileo, and those around him. Inevitably, this involved whomever was the Grand Duke of Tuscany (where Galileo lived and made his living) and the Roman Church, which had a great deal to do with launching his career as a scientist and promoting it. The authors have gone over the records very carefully, and are able to give a good understanding of what they tell us, with full regard to the historical circumstances and meanings. The result is a good, even-handed narrative of what happened and why. As such, it is a good and useful source. It is clearly
written, and doesn't lose the reader.
However, the structure of the book does not make room for a sufficiently strong introduction, and lacks a conclusion altogether. It is essentially just a narrative, with ongoing commentary, which begins with Galileo's first journey to Rome in 1587 , and ends with his dying in 1642. Without careful reading, it is hard to grasp the central point or conclusions the writers reach. In my opinion, this is not a minor fault. It means that, as an explanation of the thinking on both sides, one is going to learn much more, much better from Arthur Koestler's account in "The Sleepwalkers", which is nearly half a century old. The authors of the present book largely support Koestler's version of events, and Koestler is quite as good a
writer. It is better to regard this as a useful supplement to Koestler's much earlier work.
In the end, the source of trouble came from a certain difficulty in either side's trying to understand what the other was saying, combined with some serious breakdowns in personal communications. Galileo
unquestionably felt that he had smoothed the path so that he could pretty much say and write what he liked, if he applied a small fig leaf. Any number of Church authorities tried giving warning signals that if Galileo proceeded in one way, he might land himself in very real trouble, although another form of argument would probably be quite acceptable. Personal relations mattered, certainly when some, such as Pope Urban VIII, felt they had been personally betrayed by Galileo. Galileo, for his part, thought the cause was merely the jealousy of lesser lights.
Galileo's views on the matter, expressed privately, were that the Church had nothing to say on the matter of science, good and loyal son of the Church that he might be. That particular view of the question is the
general consensus of today, and we are largely inclined to cheer him on. He subscribed to the view that the Bible could not be regarded as a book of science, and that in case there was a collision between what it said and what he found, then the Bible must be read in some other way than a literal one. This wasn't entirely a new or unusual opinion, it must be said. As the authors of the book suggest, he would have been able to get away without much questioning had he lived a century or two earlier, or about a century later. But Galileo had some other habits which would have caused him some considerable grief regardless.
Galileo, in fact, made enemies among the scientists and academics of his day much sooner than he did with Church authorities. He simply did not follow the norms of scientific investigation as they were understood. Galileo would conduct an experiment, and pronounce his conclusions as certain. In some
instances, this held up. Anybody who tried his experiment of different weighted objects usually got results which coincided. And reproducity of results remains a basic point of experimentation. Unhappily, Galileo's
experiments cold not always be successfully replicated. If you happened to use Galileo's telescope, one observed what he observed, all right. The accuracy of the observations was certainly confirmed by any
number of high clergymen in Rome who did just that, although they were not inclined to start drawing conclusions about the general structure of the universe from them. People using other telescopes had mixed results: some observations matched, and others didn't at all. Galileo's response was that
clearly the other telescopes were faulty.
He happened to be correct in this instance. However, at the time, this did not wash as an explanation. It would have been in order, by the standards of the day, to explain, through a discussion of theoretical optics, why telescopes should produce consistent and accurate observations. From that, one might
then be able to determine whether a telescope was indeed working properly, or whether its results could be relied upon. This was a matter which Galileo thought a perfect waste of time. Galileo was not the most tactful of men either, and his responses were unquestionably taken as personal insults by many professional colleagues. Long before he got into any trouble with the Church, he had already created a strong and powerful body of enemies who thought him a charlatan as a scientist, and who personally
disliked him to boot. Eventually, at least one of them was bound to point out that some of Galileo's conclusions were apparently contradicting Scripture, and demand that the Church take note. While Galileo would have supporters in such a contest, they were more likely to be found within the formal Church hierarchy than outside it.
Finally, Galileo did make one quite serious scientific error. He thought he had proof beyond reasonable doubt that the Earth did indeed move around the Sun. He did not. Indeed, one central point on which he utterly relied was certainly wrong, and the problem was noticed at the time. Galileo thought there was one high tide an one low tide per day. Living on the Mediterranean shore, he might be forgiven for a basic mistake. Nobody living along an ocean coast would make it: there are two high tides per day and two low tides, and it's hard to ignore the fact. A number of Galileo's foreign correspondents tried to point this out, and Galileo's response was characteristic, if unfortunate: he had made his observations, they were right
and that was an end of it. He was not one to consider the consequences of inconvenient data getting in his way.
In this case, if he was wrong, he was not entirely wrong. The action of the tides could be met to fit with his opinions. But Galileo did not accept alternative findings, relied on his own view of the facts of the tides, and relied on his understanding of the tides to carry all before him.
As a scientific footnote: the point when proof beyond reasonable doubt about the positions of Sun and Earth came in the 1660s, with the discovery of the solar parallax. All was quietly accepted then, and, for that matter, ever since.
The attitude of Church authorities at the time is much further removed from views generally held now, and it is accordingly harder to appreciate them.
The best value this book has is in demonstrating that whatever hard feelings there may have been, neither Galileo nor the highest Church authorities had a poor view of each other. Both had enemies, plenty of them in fact, but personal animosity was notably absent in the long and convoluted relationship they had.
The Catholic Church at this time was in the process,depending on your point of view, either in the full throes of implementing its own Reformation, or implementing a Counter-Reformation. Much of the intellectual underpinning of the medieval Church was under very heavy attack from what we call the
Protestant Reformation, and this had some very direct effects on scholarship as understood by the Catholic Church. First, there was the consideration that the Old Church had lost its spiritual way, both through allowing popular superstition, and through allowing unreasonable philosophical speculation
unrelated to anything involving the soul. But there was a much more serious issue: the Old Church had completely departed from the ways prescribed by Scripture.
The representatives of the Old Church were quite defensive on matters which seemed unduly speculative as philosophy, and they were particularly so on the subject of interpreting the Bible. The issue of literal, as opposed to other interpretations necessary was central to it,. On the one hand, it did admit that the force of reason and the force of Christian tradition left some Biblical passages which could only be interpreted in a symbolic way. However, the norm had to be that until the contrary was chosen, the literal sense had to be the starting point. It might be possible to take another view of a given passage of Scripture, but the burden of proof had to be on the one who denied a literal meaning. That had been stated with the full force of the Council of Trent (with some modifications by Vatican II, it still stands good). Simply put, in the larger view of religion and religious practice, Galileo's (private) view on Scripture was not going to go very far. At the time, it would have been even less popular in most of Protestant Europe.
Of course, in assembling a case where a physical reality might be at difference with what Scripture seemed to say, it was entirely acceptable to pose, as a theoretical matter, that such a thing might be the case. By the time Galileo began his career, nearly everybody who thought about it agreed that Copernicus' observations of planetary motions gave better results. There were any number of possible reasons why this might be so, including positing the idea that the earth did indeed go around the Sun. However, if you were going to go further than advancing it as a model which gave better predictions, such a theory had to be proven beyond any reasonable doubt before one could make that assertion. Clearly, Galileo thought he had, and he could go much further than he imagined. Unfortunately, he didn't.
These differing understandings slowly led to what is best described as a grave misunderstanding on both sides over many decades. Some of them remain unresolved. For example, did Cardinal Robert Bellarmine formally admonish Galileo not to teach the Copernican system in any way in 1616? There is a written admonishment on the record, to be sure, but it is unsigned, and would not have any more legal status than a draft. Did Cardinal Bellarmine say it orally? He didn't say, and, he being dead, there's no way to know. The problem was that Galileo behaved and acted as if Cardinal Bellarmine had done just that. When he did finally get the summons, he tried the singularly unconvincing defense that he meant to refute the Copernican system, not promote it. That was a rather plain insult to anybody's intelligence. The conclusion was that Bellarmine had given a formal admonishment to Galileo, and that Galileo was trying to wriggle around the fact. This led the Church court to assign the unsigned document a force it would not have otherwise had.
As historians learn quickly, what people believe to be true is at least as important as what is true. What Cardinal Bellarmine said or did is not really known, but Galileo behaved and acted as if he had acted in a certain way. On this one, his inquisitors felt obliged to believe what Galileo apparently believed. What actually happened in 1616 is secondary.
That last point illustrates the strength of this book: it would be hard to get a better summary of what was said and written, and a better analysis of those things. But without some prior understanding of the central issues, one is tempted to get lost in the detail, and I, for one, found it a difficult book to review and summarize as a result.