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Galilean Myths



By Paul Newall (2005)

As explained in the extended essay, the Galileo Affair is well known for giving rise to mythical interpretations. Although the reading that portrays Galileo as a martyr to science or rationality persists in many circles, there are two others.

The first perhaps had its origin in the work of Koyre and others and holds that the Church acted correctly in censuring Galileo, since in advocating Copernicanism without proof it was his that was the unscientific position. This relies on the view of Galileo as a Copernican zealot, keen to promote heliocentrism at all costs even though he knew he did not have anything approaching a convincing demonstration. Apart from being wholly anachronistic (there were no demarcation criteria to decide what was or was not science at that time, since there was no science at all), Wallace has shown that Galileo knew exactly what would or would not constitute a proof or demonstration according to the sophisticated (Aristotelian) understanding of his day. Moreover, once we appreciate that Galileo was hoping to prevent the Church from falling into the error that Augustine had warned against previously - that is, of making an empirical claim an article of faith and thereby allowing a heathen who could show it to be false to call the faith into doubt - this myth runs out of steam very quickly.

A variant of this approach claims with Feyerabend (see his address to the Pontifical Academy given in Krakow) that Bellarmine's remarks in 1616 exemplified a "scientific" attitude and hence Galileo was wrong to insist that the Church give up a worldview which worked for one which was unproven. Leaving alone the unfortunate circumstance that Galileo was doing no such thing, Bellarmine's letter to Foscarini is usually cited in support of this contention, wherein Bellarmine wrote that he knew of no proof of Copernicanism and would

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...not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. Nor is it the same to demonstrate that by supposing the sun to be at the centre and the earth in heaven one can save the appearances, and to demonstrate that in truth the sun is at the centre and the earth in heaven; for I believe the first demonstration may be available, but I have very great doubts about the second, and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scriptures as interpreted by the Holy Fathers. (Opere, XII, 171-172)
The principle employed here is that we should not dispense with a position of known success in interpreting our world unless we have good reason to, a sentiment that we are supposed to agree with as transparently obvious. The section of Bellarmine's letter conveniently not quoted, however, gives a rather different picture of Bellarmine's supposedly enlightened attitude:

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Consider now, with your sense of prudence, whether the church can tolerate giving Scripture a meaning contrary to the Holy Fathers and to all the Greek and Latin commentators. Nor can one answer that this is not a matter of faith, since it is not a matter of faith ex parte objecti [as regards the topic or object of discussion], it is a matter of faith ex parte dicentis [as regards the speaker]; and so it would be heretical to say that Abraham did not have two children and Jacob twelve, as well as to say that Christ was not born of a virgin, because both are said by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of the prophets and the apostles.
Here we see (as among Galileo scholars only Fantoli appears to have noted clearly and with regard to its consequences) that Scriptural statements concerning the movement of the Sun around the Earth cannot be questioned because they issue from the Holy Spirit via the Biblical authors. The result of this position, as is immediately obvious to all who read this far in the letter, is that there can never be any non-heretical proof of Copernicanism. Regardless of the arguments Galileo could muster, then, he would unavoidably fall into heresy. Whatever we call this unfalsifiable position with regard to astronomical questions, "scientific" and "rational" are not meaningful descriptions.

A more recent look at the Galileo Affair points to the so-called "Galileo Commission" set up by Pope John Paul II in 1979 as indicative of a desire on the part of the Church to gain a more acccurate understanding of what occurred and where the Church of that time made mistakes. The harshest criticisms of their conclusions, however, have come from George Coyne, a Jesuit, and Annibale Fantoli. At the close of my essay, I explained why the Church had succeeded in little more than erecting new myths in place of the old, in spite of earlier optimism that something valuable would be achieved.

Why does the Galileo Affair give rise to such a variety of myths? Probably because it represents the confluence of so many different factors that it is quite easy to focus on one or a few to the exclusion of others and hence to read into it opinions actually held a priori. A wide reading can perhaps help avoid this to some extent, but a more important lesson may be to simply realise that everyone has a position to sell. Sadly many of the accounts of Galileo's life and times make this far too obvious to be interesting on any other level.

(NB. All references in this article may be found in the extended essay on The Galileo Affair linked to above.)

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