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Monday, August 15, 2005

Galileo Redux

It’s eerie, really. Five centuries ago, lay university professors invoked Scripture and religion in order to attack and destroy an opponent whose views threatened to topple academia. Today, they are doing it again. The only difference is the targets – in the early 1600’s, the university professors were trying to destroy Galileo. Today, they’re trying to destroy the theory behind intelligent design, using very nearly the same techniques they used against Galileo.

The University versus Heliocentrism

Contrary to popular belief, neither Copernicus nor Galileo were initially attacked by the Catholic Church. Indeed, both received most of their initial support from Catholic priests, bishops and popes. No, when it came to these two mathematicians, it was the lay academic community, the university professors, who hated their guts.

Galileo, you see, had the unfortunate distinction of being a mathematician at a time when mathematicians were universally considered second-class citizens by the academic community. Mathematicians were good only for creating siege engines, building fortifications and casting horoscopes. Galileo was so well loved by his colleagues that he was run out of the University of Pisa, and as the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua, he earned less than one-tenth what the best-paid Aristotelian philosopher earned.

Aristotelian philosophers were at the top of the lay academic pecking order primarily because Aristotle’s physical theories were based not on mathematics but on philosophy. He assumed that every inanimate object had an innate purpose that determined its motion. Rocks fell down because they intended to reach the center of the earth. Hot air rose because it intended to reach the celestial sphere. Since intention determined the direction of motion, and since philosophy was the key to understanding purpose and intention, philosophy was considered the best way to understand the workings of the universe.

A mere mathematician could never hope to plumb the universe’s depths of mystery. Mathematicians played with mindless numbers. They cast horoscopes for superstitious people, and casting horoscopes was a mortal sin. Their number-play was only good for creating accurate calendars and calculating where a cannonball might land.

Heliocentrism was not a violation of Scripture so much as it was a violation of Aristotle. Any theory that seemed to contradict Aristotle also contradicted the authority of the university professors. In short, it directly attacked the prestige of most of the lay academic community.

Consequently, the most vociferous opponents to heliocentrism would be the members of the academic community. Copernicus knew this. As a Catholic priest whose mathematical expertise had been requested by the Fifth Lateran Council when it considered calendar reform, he was not concerned about the reaction of the Catholic Church to his new heliocentric theory, rather, he was concerned about the reaction of the lay academics. He dragged his feet on publishing his heliocentric theories because he was afraid the university professors would rip him to shreds.

Avoiding Peer Review

Thus, even though Pope Clement VII approved of his heliocentric work, Archbishop Schonburg of Capua offered him the money necessary to print it and Bishop Giese urged him to write the work, he demurred. In fact, when Copernicus tried to stall by claiming he needed an assistant, Bishop Giese even went so far as to secure for Copernicus the services of George Rheticus, a Protestant mathematician whose father had been beheaded by the Protestants for sorcery. Even as the Council of Trent was meeting to deal with the problem of Protestant heresy, Giese recognized that the Protestant son of a man executed for witchcraft was the best man for the job.

But Copernicus continued to stall. He knew the university professors would crucify him if he promoted a theory that undercut their authority. He was right. When Rheticus’ colleagues, the professors at the University of Wittenburg, heard that Rheticus was helping Copernicus develop heliocentric theory, they forced him out of his chair of mathematics. As Rheticus left town, he handed his job as Copernicus’ assistant over to a Lutheran minister, Osiander, who continued the editing work. Osiander would take advantage of Copernicus’ age and ill health by removing Copernicus’ dedicatory preface to Pope Paul III and replacing it with his own spurious preface which stated that heliocentric theory had no basis in fact.

Copernicus would never discover his new assistant’s duplicity. He was, instead, fortunate enough to die the same day his book was released from the printer. As a result, he did not face the abject hatred poured out on his head by the university community. Galileo saw the vitriol poured out by the professors upon Copernicus and hated them for it.

He ridiculed his fellow academics from the very first moment he began lecturing at Pisa, writing poetry that made the academic gowns the laughing-stock of the town. His short tenure in the mathematics chair at Padua was not much more successful. Few people remember that Galileo did not work for a university, but for the Count of Florence. He hated the university professors as much as they hated him.

Thus, when Galileo’s telescope brought supporting evidence for the Copernican theory, it was not the Church that attacked him – it was the academic community. Even as the Jesuits and Dominicans threw luxuriant parties for Galileo in Rome to celebrate his new discoveries, the lay academics schemed to destroy this disrespectful upstart, this mathematician. Indeed, while priests and bishops delighted in the new vistas the telescope opened up, most of the academic community refused to even look through the lens. They claimed the visions thus received were optical illusions. Maginini, the famous Ptolemaic astronomer, promised to wipe Galileo’s new planets from the sky.

The Two-Edged Sword

As Protestants vied with the consecrated Catholic men over the proper interpretation of Scripture, the academics saw their opening. It was the lay academics who first brought Scripture into the heliocentrism debate, accusing Galileo of heresy, of violating the God’s own divine word.

It was the lay academics who duped a foolish Dominican priest into attacking Galileo from the pulpit, much to the dismay of the Dominican astronomers who had just feted the astronomer from Florence. The Church was eventually drawn into the controversy not by Jesuit astronomers, but by lay academic advisors to the Church, men who insisted that Rome had a duty to stop Galileo, for he were left unchecked, he would destroy the entire university system.

They were half-right. He destroyed the Aristotelian philosophy professors. For the first time in history, Galileo had begun to use mathematics to systematically describe the way the objects in the world interacted with one another. He stripped away the false Aristotelian idea that we must first understand an object’s purpose before we can understand how inanimate objects interact. He showed that mathematical formulas alone were sufficient to describe movement. In short, he proved that inanimate objects were truly inanimate – they were not quasi-persons with intentions or purposes. Galileo drove the last nail into the coffin of Aristotelian paganism.

Galileo destroyed the chairs of philosophy. They have never regained their places of honor in the pantheon of human knowledge. But, since Galileo’s time, the scientific community has made an egregious error. As it gained ascendancy and public adulation, it has continued to attack and abjure the necessity of philosophy and theology.

Unfortunately for promoters of science, philosophy is unavoidable. The mathematical method of studying the world itself embodies a philosophy, and a remarkably incomplete philosophy at that. Numbers can only tell us what, they can never tell us why. Numbers describe but they do not ultimately explain. Science is about nothing but numbers – measurement is the foundation of everything it does. Because it focuses so doggedly on numbers, it has begun to insist that there is nothing beyond numbers – there is no purpose, no intentionality, nothing beyond measurement and description. This is the theory of evolution in a nutshell.

Any theory which attempts to provide a volitional explanation is derided as mere philosophy, or worse, religion. Thus, today, the same battle lines are being drawn: the academic community versus the philosophers and theologians. This time, however, the roles are reversed. Now the scientists possess the heights of adulation, while the philosophers are paid a pittance in both salary and respect.

In Galileo’s time, the philosophers hung grimly onto their posts by denying the use of mathematics and insisting that only purpose mattered. Today’s scientists hang grimly onto their posts by denying the importance of philosophy/theology and insisting that only measurement matters.

The Crux of the Matter

Today, both sides fail to realize the essential complementarity of science and theology. Science describes the relationship between objects. Theology describes the relationship between persons. Because persons possess bodies, that is, because persons can be treated as objects, science makes the fatal mistake of assuming persons are objects. Because they are so successful at describing the interaction between inanimate objects, scientists they think they can successfully describe the interaction between persons.

But the relationships between persons are not subject to what scientists do best: measure. How much do you love your wife? 4.2? 3.14159? Numbers cannot be assigned to relationships. Quantity is most certainly a quality, but quantity does not exhaust every quality a person may reveal. The qualities of inanimate objects can be revealed through external study, but the qualities of a person are revealed only through self-revelation. We can see what a person does, but we cannot know with certainty why the person does it unless that person reveals the why. What we cannot ask of objects – the why – we cannot refrain from asking of subjects, of each other.

Since objects are not known through self-revelation. But persons are known only through self-revelation, the inquiry into the origins of persons cannot be solved through external study alone, because the very definition of person assumes a presence that is beyond the reach of even the most delicate scientific measuring instruments. These points are too often lost on everyone in the debate.

Thus, just as the university professors of Galileo’s time used Scripture as a weapon to attack the scientist, so today’s scientists use Scripture to attack the philosopher/theologian, but in an oddly perverse way. The original attack was built on the immutable authority of Scripture. Today’s attack is built on the supposition that Scripture has no real authority, and anyone who adheres to it is, in fact, a fool and an ignoramus of the first order.

In modern times, Scripture lacks authority in part because Scripture does not measure. It is not scientific. Insofar as anyone adheres to a non-scientific worldview, that person is a backward savage whose opinion is not to be respected.

Now, it is manifestly true that one can adhere to the scientific worldview when it comes to the study of objects and adhere to the theological worldview when it comes to the encounter with persons. However, because so few people properly distinguish the proper spheres of science and theology, men and women on both sides of the debate constantly denigrate the intelligence and the intelligibility of own positions. Either Scripture or nature is not given its proper due.

While scientists too easily forget that Scripture is divine revelation, theologians too easily forget that nature is also part of divine revelation. The scientist and his measuring tools are exploring a sacred expression of God’s own self-revelation, even if it happens not to be Scripture. To the extent that theologians and philosophers do not acknowledge this, scientists will ignore their pleas for recognition.

Thus, scientists correctly note that intelligent design is not science, strictly speaking, because intelligent design deals in “why,” that is, while it recognizes the complexity of the reality being measured, it does not investigate the “how” but the “why” of that complexity. Unfortunately, these same scientists fail to note that evolution, at least insofar as it attempts to explain the reasons “why” human persons exist, is also not science. It measures the complexity of the fossil record but insists there is no “why” at all.

Now, real science does not pretend to answer “why” questions, it only answers “how” questions. By insisting there is no “why” – a proposition which real science is manifestly not equipped to discuss - evolution is shown to be nothing more than nihilistic philosophy dressed up as science.

Many scientists complain that the debate over evolution remains a debate only in America. They point out that the Communist Chinese and the Europeans do not engage in such absurd discussion. They are correct. The denial of evolution is precisely the denial of the nihilism the rest of the world already embraces. In other words, the complaint tells us only what we already know.

Galileowas the first scientist, the first to apply mathematics to everything he did. He lived and died a sound Catholic who never wavered in the Faith, regardless of what individual men were coerced into doing to him. Because he was a good scientist, he was able to distinguish between the men who attacked him and both the falsehoods and the truths they espoused. But while Galileo was a good Catholic, he was never a good university professor. He hadn't the stomach to live a lie.


Dorian Speed said...

Steve, this is a very interesting post. I'd like to use some of these points in my high school classroom when the time arises to discuss Galileo. Could you give some sort of bibliography for the arguments you raise in this essay? I'd like to base my classroom discussion on more than "this great blog post I read on the internet."

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Much of the Copernicus and Galileo commentary is drawn from Giorgio de Santillana's "Crime of Galileo" (MIT 1955) available at Amazon for a pittance. It is, for my money, still the single best analysis of what happened available.

The information on George Rheticus was originally published in "Concise Dictionary of Scientific Biography," (New York: Scribner's), 1981, p. 583, but can now be found pretty much anywhere on the Internet.

The information on Galileo's poetic attacks on university professors is in a few of his biographies, but not all of them. I'm afraid I don't have the right ones at hand at the moment, but the poems are well-known to historians of the period, although they've never been entirely translated into English.

The connection between numbers and science is prominent in the work of Dr. Stanley Jaki, Templeton Prize winner. He has just released a book entitled, "Numbers Decide" - a quote from a speech by Niehls Bohr.

The complementarity between science and theology is my own work. I'm hoping to have a book out on this in the next few months.

mcmlxix said...

To be fair, the complementarity between science and theology has been dealt with extensively by John Paul II in Fides et Ratio.

David said...

Hi Steve, great article on Galileo. Perhaps you would be able to answer a nagging question I've had since this past spring: During a Lit and the Bible class at my local university, we were pontificated to by the professor "that Galileo had offered to let a priest look through his telescope to see the newly-discovered planet Neptune. Said priest declined, giving the reason that because seven was God's perfect number there could be no eighth planet."

I knew that the Dominican priest had ranted about him from the pulpit, but was the incident I described authentic? Or, as I suspect, was my professor doing what English Department professors do best?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

It's possible that one or two priests demurred, but even if that could be demonstrated - and I'm not sure it could be - it was clearly an unusual case. Apart from the Dominican priest Caccini, you would be hard-pressed to find any priest at the time who held that position. Certainly none of the Jesuit astronomers said it.

I suspect he confused the words of one of the secular philosophy professors with that of a priest.

John the Mad said...

A good and succinct description of a tawdry affair. Well done.

Jordan Potter said...

It couldn't have been the planet Neptune, which wasn't discovered until 1846. Neptune was, however, observed several times, including Galileo, but was not recognised as a planet until 1846 -- earlier astronomers who spotted Neptune recorded it as a star.

As for the tale of the priest refusing to look into Galileo's telescope, it's purely apocryphal. Your professor either misremembered an apocryphal tale he'd heard once, or else he made it up himself.