Science03 Apr 2008 09:50 pm
For the romantic heart that beats in the breast of every devoted intellectual, nothing quite matches a conflict between intemperate ignorance and heroic reason, where the persecuted man of science or philosophy makes a stand against the forces of intolerance and superstition. The formula for such a story is, of course, nearly as old as the Western intellectual tradition itself: Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates St. Martyr is often construed as the entry point to the “Life of the Mind.” The majority of more modern struggles in this vein feature the post-Reformation Catholic Church in the role of roadblock to progress, originally played by the Athenian mob, and the Italian physicist and astronomer, Galileo Galilei, is, perhaps, the embattled champion of science lionized above all others.
At the crux of the controversy that arose between Galileo and the Church, which had been a long-time supporter of his research, was the astronomer’s unreserved espousal of the Copernican view of the solar system. The church—not to mention the majority of contemporaneous scientists—held to the centuries-old Ptolemaic system, which placed the earth at the center of the universe; this latter position was not a silly or unschooled as it sounds to 21st C ears—at the time, the heliocentric thesis was more remarkable for mathematical elegance than the empirical evidence in its support. (Ironically, Galileo disagreed with Kepler’s theory of elliptical planetary orbits, by which heliocentric theory achieved accordance with observed data.)
Galileo’s work in astronomy came under clerical fire almost immediately following his earliest published scholarship on the moons of Jupiter in 1610, in which he first made arguments in favor of the Copernican system. However, nearly all of the ecclesiastical attacks against were of a theological nature—the notion that the earth traveled around the sun contravened Biblical scripture—and this has reinforced the conventional narrative that the opposition to heliocentrism was solely religious in nature. Galileo, who very much considered himself a Catholic, adhered to the Augustinian tradition of allegorical exegesis. He enjoyed support from many quarters in the Church, most notably from one Cardinal Barberini who was later anointed Pope Urban VIII, though he shied away from further astronomical study in the wake of an ecclesiastic order that stipulated heliocentrism was only fit for discussion as hypothesis neither “held nor defended.”
Following the election of the sympathetic Urban, Galileo once again took up the telescope. Although the pope subscribed to a geocentric view, he personally encouraged the astronomer to write a dialogue that presented both sides of the argument without bias (do I hear teach the controversy? anyone?), and provided Galileo with formal Inquisitorial permission for his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. Rather foolishly—rather like an absent-minded professor —Galileo named his fallacy-prone mouthpiece for the geocentric view Simplicius, and had him speak in the actual words of his papal admirer. Urban was profoundly insulted and signed off on Inquisitorial proceeding against the scientist.
At his heresy trial, Galileo stood no chance of winning; however unintentional, he had alienated most of his supporters. Convicted, he found it circumspect to decline an opportunity to follow the Socratic road, and abjured his previous positions. Thereby, he was able to spend the remainder of his considerably longer life under house arrest. A legend has appeared to the effect that, upon walking away from the tribunal, he muttered so that everyone could hear, “E pur si muove [and yet, it moves],” but the historical veracity of such a statement is highly suspect—the first written account of it did not appear until 1761.
This fiction of Galileo’s (rather restrained) heroism has become a foundational myth for those who which to purvey a historical narrative in which religion is utterly hostile towards science. (And, as such, the immortal rejoinder made its way onto the high school yearbook page of at least one youthfully exuberant blogger here at the Devoted Intellectual.) However, a closer examination of the story illustrates what philosopher Thomas Kuhn would call the basic incommensurability of the two worldviews, geo- and heliocentric. Galileo employed a radically new scientific vocabulary, itself imperfectly realized, and, while the actions of his adversaries are not to be commended, he ultimately failed to convince his more cautious, historically-grounded contemporaries that he had successfully debunked their well-worn paradigm.
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