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Thinking outside the box with Italian astronomer Galileo

Colette Cooper talks to a US author of his new book about the Italian genius and his enduring legacy.

The trial and house arrest of Renaissance genius Galileo Galilei by the Inquisition in 1633 because of his published views that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa, is one of the most notorious episodes in the intellectual history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Galileo would remain under house arrest having been found guilty in Rome of ‘vehement heresy’ for his support of the Copernican view of the universe (that the sun is the centre of the solar system), rather than the classical view (that the earth is), until his death in 1642 at the age of 77.

American philosopher and author Maurice A Finocchiaro, in his new book On Trial for Reason, explores the real story behind the Galileo affair and examines the complex relationship between the Church and science during the 17th century, and the ongoing disputes surrounding Galileo’s fall from grace.


Science and religion

Finocchiaro believes that the case holds lessons for today, for both ‘the relationship between science and religion’ and ‘the nature of scientific method and rationality.’

He says: “I argue that science and religion are neither always incompatible nor always in harmony; that both… derive from God and are in that sense compatible, as Galileo himself argued, and as the Catholic Church agreed with Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus in 1893.”

He adds that there was, however, ‘an irreducible conflictual element in the trial of Galileo, insofar as the Church claimed, but Galileo denied, that Copernicanism was contrary to Scripture; and that the interaction between science and religion at Galileo’s time can be understood as resulting from the conflict between cultural conservation and innovation, which criss-crossed both science and religion.’

He further argues: “Galileo may be regarded as a model of critical thinking in that he practised and elaborated several principles relevant to any significant controversy today.”



One of the principles is ‘open-mindedness, according to which it is important to know, understand, and learn from the arguments, evidence, and reasons against one’s own views.’ Another is ‘fair-mindedness, according to which one should be able and willing to appreciate the strength of arguments and reasons against one’s own view, even when attempting to criticise or refute them.’

He continues: “My book’s main thesis is that Galileo was put on trial because of his reasoning. That is, in 1633, the Inquisition tried and condemned him essentially because he had published a book full of critical reasoning.”

Finocchiaro says Galileo presented ‘all the arguments on both sides of the controversy over the Earth’s motion,’ which weighed up the Church’s view that this was a matter decided by Scripture, by Faith rather than reason.


Validity and strength

This, he says, was the ‘essential part’ of the dispute, in which Galileo took ‘the liberty of evaluating’ the ‘validity and strength’ of the Church, ‘with the result that the evidence in favour of the Earth’s motion was stronger than the evidence in favour of the Earth standing still.’

A prolific writer and published author, the Italian-American philosopher says he has been researching his subject for about 50 years, and the resulting book is a synthesis and summary of his findings. The most surprising result of his research, he says has been ‘the recognition and appreciation of Galileo’s skill in critical thinking.’

He contends that the relationship between science and the Church has always been ‘problematic.’ He explains: “A major source of the problem is what I would label as the Church’s authoritarianism. However, the Church seems to have become less and less authoritarian in the course of history. I believe that the tragedy of Galileo’s trial has contributed to this historical trend of lessening authoritarianism.”



Despite the continuing controversy that surrounds the affair, Finocchiaro believes it is ‘possible for science and religion to work together.’

He says: “This is so partly because neither science nor religion are monolithic entities. Obviously, there are many religious denominations, some of which are less authoritarian than others, and hence more open toward science.”

He adds that ‘many individual scientists experience within themselves science and religion working together.’

He adds: “There is no question in my mind that today scientists and members of the Church are more open to critical discussion than at the time of Galileo. One big difference relates to the principle that Holy Scripture is an authority only on questions of Faith and morals, and not on questions of truth about the natural world.

“Galileo advocated this principle, but the Catholic Church rejected it, holding instead that Scripture is a scientific authority as well as a moral authority. Eventually the Church accepted this Galilean principle, when in 1893 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Providentissimus Deus.”



He also argues that the Galileo affair is relevant to other debates.

He highlights examples such as ‘some aspects or phases of the 19th-century controversy over Darwin’s theory of evolution; some aspects or phases of the 20th-century controversy between Fundamentalism and evolutionism; and some aspects or phases of the Lysenko affair in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, over the science of genetics.’

He adds that the similarities and differences ‘show that such Galileo-affair problems are not limited to the Catholic Church, but affect all authoritarian or totalitarian organisations.’

There are also further tensions which relate to the scientific process itself and how theory is proven. He explains: “If theories needed to be proved right away in order to be considered, scientific knowledge, and indeed, all scholarly knowledge, would be impossible.

“The reason [for this] is that in all scientific and scholarly inquiry investigators normally do not discover conclusive proofs immediately, but rather they first find evidence or think of arguments which have some degree of merit and which later get strengthened or weakened through critical discussions with other investigators.”



He accepts that there is still division between scientific and Faith-based understandings of the universe, however, he argues that science can prove physical fact, though mathematical knowledge shows that ‘some truths about the universe are not physical.’ This allows for subjective perception of the ‘spiritual or non-material aspects’ of the universe.

It is also his view that Galileo would have been more successful in finding support for his Copernican view in a different era or even, at the time, in other countries.

He explains: “For example, in the German-speaking world, Johannes Kepler found more support for his pro-Copernican research, although he did encounter some opposition.”

He continues: “Galileo’s primary concern, by far, was to discover the truth about the universe. He was aware of the many religious, theological, and Scriptural arguments against the Copernican theory of the earth’s motion, but for a long time he resisted getting involved in that aspect of the controversy.”

When Galileo did get involved in the arguments, adds Finocchiaro ‘he felt he was doing the Church an important service by pointing out that those arguments were incorrect’ and ‘was encouraged to get involved by the fact that many churchmen agreed with him about the incorrectness of those arguments.’

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