Saturday, February 20, 2010

Galileo's Trial: a battle between science and religion?

Post #4

Galileo’s Trial

Seven years later Galileo’s old friend and admirer Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VIII. Urban VIII and his leading academic officials thought very highly of Galileo’s books, and promptly invited Galileo to come visit. During the visit Galileo brought up the idea of his being able to continue writing about cosmology and the question of Copernicanism. Urban VIII, having studied astronomy himself, appreciated the mathematical prowess of Copernicus. Urban did not think Copernicus’ theory to be true, but considered it a useful contribution to astronomy nonetheless. He told Galileo he could resume his writing, provided that he treated Copernicus’ theory as an unproven hypothesis (which, we must remember, it was).

Galileo immediately set to work revising parts of old manuscripts to create a new book on the arrangement of the universe. He wrote the book as a dialogue between three men in which they discuss the merits of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems. Framing the content in this way, Galileo hoped the discussion could stay at the needed theoretical level, avoiding any direct claims of the truth of Copernicus’ theory. Galileo worked on this book for many years, during which Pope Urban VIII decided to grant Galileo a yearly pension from the Church, merely for being such a valued intellect.

When the book was finally finished in 1630, Galileo sought permission to publish the book and submitted it to the relevant church authorities. It passed inspection with only a few minor changes needed, but due to the plague and other complications the book did not end up being published for another two years. When it was finally published, it became an instant success, selling out wherever it was printed. Cardinals, bishops, and Jesuit academics from all over wrote to Galileo of their praise and awe for his masterpiece, The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

Unfortunately for Galileo, the publication of the Dialogue would also result in a trial in front of the Inquisition and being sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Historians suggest that things would have been very different had Galileo or Copernicus lived one hundred years earlier or later. As it happened, several factors came together in precisely the wrong way for Galileo.

First, it was clear to readers of Galileo’s Dialogue who the victor was in the conversations and arguments concerning geo- and heliocentrism. The person arguing for geocentrism was named Simplicio and was clearly on the losing end of the argument. Galileo’s enemies within the church suggested to the Pope that Galileo was mocking the Church and him personally. While it is doubtful that this was the case (plenty of Church academics greatly enjoyed the book), these insinuations came to Pope Urban VIII at exactly the wrong time.

Urban VIII was a different person than he had been at the beginning of his office. He had made many political enemies around Europe, was involved in several wars, and feared attacks from Spanish assassins, among other concerns. Urban VIII also faced harsh criticism from Rome itself, accusing him of not taking a strong enough stance in defending the Catholic faith in the international arena. His paranoia and concern for his image resulted in determined anger and outrage, “especially if one is opposing, threatening, or defying him,” wrote a friend of Galileo’s who was close to the Pope. When Urban VIII heard remarks “insisting Galileo had played him for a fool by allowing Simplicio to espouse Urban’s philosophy,” he ordered an investigation into Galileo’s most recent work. The three person team told Urban VIII that, in their opinion, Galileo’s work was in fact an argument for the truth of Copernicanism. Urban was furious and summoned Galileo to stand trial before the Inquisition.

Galileo, almost 70 years old at this point, dutifully travelled to Rome to stand trial in 1633. Despite the portrayal of Galileo’s trial one sees in paintings, he stood before only two officials and a secretary. A full record of the transcript still exists (one can find them reproduced in Dava Sobel’s excellent Galileo’s Daughter), and the text is largely concerned not with “science” versus “religion” but with whether Galileo violated the earlier command from 1616 to not teach or write about Copernicanism except as a hypothesis.

But there was a problem: the official records of the Church concerning the incident in 1616 used stronger language then what Galileo had understood from Bellarmino. Galileo was under the impression that he was not to teach or write about Copernicanism as if it were literally true; according to the official records, he had been told not to teach or write about it at all. This came as a surprise to Galileo (and to Urban himself), and is still something of a mystery for historians today. It is possible that Galileo misremembered the original event, or that there was a miscommunication between the Inquisition and Bellarmino about the verbal injunction that had been served to Galileo (some have suggested that the Inquisition forged the document, but contemporary historians consider this unlikely). In any event, the Inquisition considered their own official records to take precedence over Galileo’s memory and letter from Bellarmino and found Galileo “vehemently suspected of heresy” and condemned to “formal imprisonment.” His Dialogue was also added to the Index of Prohibited Books, where it remained until 1835.

Later accounts would say that Galileo was jailed and even tortured, but in fact, after being forced to renounce his belief in Copernicanism, he was “imprisoned” in a sympathetic Cardinal’s palace for 5 months, and then allowed to return home to his villa near Florence. He lived out the rest of his life there, under what we would now call house arrest, with limited visitors and even more limited mobility for Galileo himself. He was crushed by the verdict and sentence, but, in a testament to his resilience, still produced and published (outside of Rome) what is probably his most important book, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. This book is considered foundational to modern physics and set the stage for the great scientists of the Enlightenment. Galileo died in 1642 at home, one of the most important intellectuals in history and a figure that still dominates discussion of science and religion today.


While this episode is unquestionably and unequivocally an embarrassment for the Catholic Church, it is also just as clearly not a simple case of science and religion coming into conflict. As we have seen, geocentrism was entrenched in the academy as well as within the Church and there was no clear evidence at the time to support heliocentrism over geocentrism. The main issues seemed to be Church politics (e.g. the Counter-Reformation) and scriptural interpretation rather than scientific progress. The Church was essentially acting as a political body, concerned with its own authority and power. We also must remember that Church is hardly alone historically in initially resisting new ideas. In addition, Galileo did have plenty of supporters within the church, including high ranking Cardinals, priests, and Church academics who clearly saw no conflict between religious faith and scientific discovery. Galileo himself was a devout Catholic who, along with almost every other major scientist in history, including Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, and Linnaeus, to name a few, saw the universe as being the handiwork of God and saw no conflict between their faith and scientific discovery (indeed, scientists like Kepler saw their scientific work as part of their worship and praise for God and his creation).

It is simply not the case that “religion” has any in-principal conflict with “science.” Have religious claims and scientific claims at times clashed? Absolutely. Have political/religious institutions hampered the publication of scientific work? Yes, they have. Is this the whole story? Not even close. The interactions of science and religion are many and complex, but one thing is for sure: the simplistic “warfare thesis” we have inherited from Huxley, Draper, and White must be discarded. Using their writings and revisionist history, one could argue that science and history are in conflict…

Previous Posts in the Series: Post #1, Post #2, Post #3

For further reading:

Science & Religion, edited by Gary B. Ferngren, John Hopkins University Press, 2002

Galileo’s Daughter, by Dava Sobel, Penguin Books, 2000

Making Modern Science: a historical survey, Bowler & Morus, University of Chicago Press, 2005

No comments: