Friday, September 9, 2011

Galileo, Republicans, and NPR

I normally shy away from posting anything either too partisan or too narrowly topical on this blog. It is, in essence, a place for me to preach the Gospel that all might know the glorious favor we have received in Jesus Christ. However, I was listening yesterday to National Public Radio's "fact checking" of the Republican contenders for the Presidency of the U.S.A., and one of my buttons was pressed. Which button? The abiding failure of most people, even well educated people, to know anything about Galileo Galilei.

During the Republican debates, in defense of his skepticism about the anthropogenic character of global climate change (i.e. "global warming"), Governor Perry of Texas appealed to the example of Galileo, viz. that Galileo in the 17th century was "outvoted" by the scientific consensus of his day. Now, what the governor would have us believe is that those who reject the contemporary consensus about global warming are latter-day Galileos, holding to the truth, or at least openness to the truth, even against widespread, entrenched opinion.

Now, I think Perry here is simply wrong, not only factually about the nature of global warming and the reasonableness of his skepticism, but also in his appeal to the case of Galileo. However, this is not what I found so upsetting. What set me off was what I heard from Richard Harris on National Public Radio:

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, Galileo did go against the prevailing science of the day when he presented evidence that earth actually orbits the sun, not the other way around. And I must say that astronomers of the day generally did agree with him, although there were some skeptics who didn't and his real conflict was, of course, with the Catholic church, which considered it a heresy that the earth might not be the center of the universe.  (emphasis mine)
Why is this upsetting? Quite simply, this presentation of the state of affairs represents a culpable, even if widespread, failure to attend to scholarship about the Galileo Affair.

By and large, most people think that they already know what they need to know about Galileo and so never even think they need to find anything more out. Their views tend to follow one of a number of narratives, with two main features:
  • Galileo was a victim of a power-mad or closed minded Catholicism
  • Galileo stood for evident reason and science against the dogmatism of faith
The problem here is that, despite Harris' claim, the best "scientific" (in his days, they would likely have used the phrase "natural philosophy" rather than "science") opinion held to a geocentric (Earth at the center) and geostatic (unmoving Earth) conception of celestial mechanics. This was not due principally to religious convictions. Heliocentrism (that the sun stands at the center of the universe) had been presented centuries before Copernicus and Galileo, but it presented insuperable difficulties which neither classical Greek philosophy nor even the best of early seventeenth-century natural philosophy could solve. Among these were (1) explaining the continuous, unfailing circular motions of celestial objects compared to the linear and discontinuous motion of sublunar objects, (2) accounting for the failure of the human senses to detect the motion, which was admitted would have to be quite rapid indeed, of the Earth around its axis and through space, (3) the absence of "extrusion from whirling" (i.e. why, if the Earth were spinning, we are not thrown from its surface as from a top), (4) the lack of any evidence of a stellar parallax (the appearance of the change of place of the stars in the sky which, if the stars were fixed and the earth moved about the sun, should be visible), (5) the lack of evidence of phases for Mars and Venus, etc. What is more, the kinds of evidence found by Galileo Galilei in his telescope could as easily be accounted for by the geocentric and geostatic model of Tycho Brahe as by the (what we know to be ultimately flawed even if in many ways accurate) hypothetical heliocentric model proposed by Copernicus. In short, many people of good will and great learning would be excused for rejecting Galileo's theories on scientific grounds, and until the development of more modern mechanics and physics (such as ironically Galileo devleloped during his house arrest at the end of his life and more fully by Isaac Newton much later) and observational improvements (e.g. the eventual discovery of the parallax in the nineteenth century, as well as the phases of the other planets), Galileo's proposal remained at best an interesting opinion which accounted for many observations but only in time would be able to coexist with the best understandings of physics.

To be fair, there were also religious objections to heliocentrism. However, these were not particular to Roman Catholicism, but were to be found as readily among Protestants. The concern here was that a theory which did not accord with the best science knew at the time should not be embraced particularly when it contradicted at least the clear and plain meaning of the Scriptures. All the same, we should remember that Copernicus was a Roman Catholic cleric whose work on heliocentrism evoked the positive and supportive interest of the pope and his cardinals. The Church itself was a sponsor of astronomy, and clerics as much as laymen were interested in this new science, evidenced by the work of the scientist and theologian Paolo Antonio Foscarini, whose defense of heliocentrism was crucial to Galileo's own understanding of the (lack of) theological implications for his teaching.

To be sure, the decision by the Holy Office of the Inquisition (i.e. the Roman Inquisition, not the Spanish one) against heliocentrism is regrettable, and the fact that the general prohibition against publication in its favor or defending the theory in light of Scripture was more or less annulled by the mid-18th century does not undo the fault. Heliocentrism may not have been proven by Galileo, but the decision against him was tempered by the anxieties of a Europe caught up in religious war, a decision much different from the warmer reception of heliocentrism during the century before him.

There is much more to be said (e.g. that being the "center" of the Ptolomaic system was not a place of honor and privilege, but the "lowest" spot of the universe where the "grossest" matter gathered), but this should be sufficient. The basic fact is that the presentation of Galileo as a martyr of science and free thought against dogmatic Catholicism is untenable and long rejected by scholars who attend to the matter. Since this scholarship is not arcane nor hard to access, one wonders why "fact checkers" on NPR would be so sloppy.

1 comment:

Tanzania 2008 said...

I had to look up at least six seven-dollar words to understand this post. Golly I miss you! Hi from Seattle. Erik