Sunday, December 30, 2007

Notes on Galileo

I came across this information in a book my father lent to me, From Five Fingers to Infinity by Frank J. Swetz, and I thought I'd pass it on. I hope it's as interesting to you as it was to me.

The Roman Catholic Church’s historic condemnation of Galileo and his theory of a heliocentric, Copernican cosmology are often used as a symbol – and as a rallying cry for the “free-thinking” literati and scientist – of Christian anti-intellectualism and of Christianity’s reluctance to accept, and its antagonism towards, scientific inquiry. Christians, they say, are mired in a state of blind and refusing faith, a faith that is unwilling to see reason and that is unable to accept fact. Christians are small-minded, irrational, superstitious and seditious of free mental activity; they want to suppress any idea that may contradict of confuse their dogma; anyone who disagrees with this evaluation needs only to look at the case of Galileo to see that it is true.

As a Christian apologist, and as someone very much invested in the idea of free intellectual pursuit, the case of Galileo has always been a point of embarrassment for me as, I’d imagine, it has been for many other thinking Christians. Of course, it’s quite possible to avoid the whole issue, or at least to try to avoid it, by shifting the blame from Christianity at large to Catholicism in particular or to any organized and centralized religion in general; but rather than solving the problem this merely moves it, creates other problems, and ultimately creates greater points of schism in the universal church itself. Shifting blame amounts only to finger pointing and that gets us nowhere. Besides, it’s insincere. Evangelical America is hardly more open-minded than the Roman Catholic Church and if we were to condemn one brand of Christianity as anti-intellectual we would need to condemn them all.

However, as it is with all matters deeply entrenched in either dogma or ideology, the controversy surrounding Galileo’s confrontation with the Church has been related in history by the authority of biased pens, by authors guided by love for their own agendas, many of which are all too pleased to subvert religious belief of any kind by any means. Recently I read a portion of a very interesting book called From Five Fingers to Infinity, in which can be read a very interesting discussion of Galileo and the Church. The Church, it seems, did not take issue with Galileo’s science or even with the fact that his science seemed to contradict certain aspects of interpreted Scripture; rather they took issue with the fact that, despite the vehemence of his conviction, Galileo failed provide sufficient enough proof of his conclusions. Now, in our day, Galileo has the benefit of having since been proven right (about some things; certainly not about all that he proposed); then, however, when new cosmologies battled old ones for cultural ascendancy, he himself failed to convince. He simply did not have the scientific proof to convince anyone but those already convinced.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? Perhaps rather than having a point this is more a note to myself; perhaps I’m simply using my blog as a commonplace book and I’m jotting down a piece of information that interests me. As an apologist, and as someone committed to free thought, however, I’m very much concerned about the manipulation of information, with the ways in which what actually happened differs from how we relate what happened; I’m especially concerned when that manipulation is designed to dirty and smear my faith. I am not an unthinking man and yet I am a man of faith. To many this is a contradiction; but it seems to me that the deliberate misrepresentation of an historical fact to further an agenda is also a contradiction, one entirely less justifiable. If Galileo indeed could not prove his theories to a great enough degree of satisfaction, than it is far less troublesome that the Church attempted to suppress him; the fact that Galileo happened to be right, right in spite of his proof and not because of it, cannot be taken as evidence of the Church’s “fear” of science. The controversy surrounding Galileo is not that the Church, faced with the indisputable evidence of a scientific fact, attempted to silence the voice of reason; this did not happen; the controversy is that the whole episode has been taken as evidence against something that does not exist. The Church did not and does not fear science; ironically, in demanding that the evidence by incontrovertible, the Church was holding Galileo to a higher degree of empirical rationalism than he could deliver.

For a more detailed discussion on Galileo’s confrontation with the Church, read From Five Fingers to Infinity, by Frank J. Swetz (pages 444-47).

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