On the petty, unscientific character of Galileo

A Guest Post By Jon Fisher

David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies is a strong polemic against much of the misinformation surrounding Christian theology and history. Beginning with a short dismissal of the New Atheist (TNA) movement associated mainly with Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, he turns toward a broader thesis that both our modern understanding of charity and of knowledge could not have been possible in the West without the revolutionary philosophical and social ideals brought about by Christianity. Hart is not a historian by profession, a fact he makes obsequiously clear in his introduction. However, his work does serve to dispel a number of prominent myths about Christianity commonly spread in our culture.

In particular, while most moderns laud Galileo as a hero, valiantly defying a dogmatic church for the sake of advancing scientific truth, Hart describes Galileo as petulant, irascible, and–most importantly–unscientific: unscientific towards his peers such as Kepler and Brahe and unscientific in his promotion of the Copernican model. Hart points out that the Copernican model itself had been appreciated for decades among major figures of the Catholic hierarchy without causing “great scandal” in the church. The incident of Galileo’s censure rather came about as a result of a clash of egoism between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII. As Hart writes:

Galileo, it must be said, squandered good will with remarkable abandon. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, selfish, irascible, supercilious, and mildly vindictive. He could not abide rivals, resented the discoveries of others, refused to share credit with astronomers who had made observations of the same celestial phenomena as he had, and belittled those whose theories differed from his own (his attitude toward Kepler, for instance, was frightful). Incensed that the Jesuit astronomer Horatio Grassi had presumed, in 1618, to describe the movement of comets beyond the lunar sphere without mentioning Galileo—who had, as it happens, done absolutely nothing to merit such mention—Galileo chose to deny that such comets were anything but optical illusions, and for good measure even attacked Tychos observations of comets. He provoked public controversy where none was necessary, once on the rumor that his theories had been deprecated in the course of someone else’s private dinner conversation. And his uncompromising demand for an absolute vindication of his theories precipitated the ecclesial consultation of 1616 that—when it turned out that Galileo was unable to provide a single convincing proof of Copernicanism—resulted in an injunction (of great gentleness, actually) admonishing Galileo against teaching the Copernican system. As for Galileo’s decisive trial in 1633, it was, as Arthur Koestler has noted,“not in the nature of a fatal collision between opposite philosophies of existence . . . but rather a clash of individual temperaments aggravated by unlucky coincidences.” Urban VIII himself had encouraged Galileo to write his Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632), enjoining only that it include a statement to the effect that Copernican theory was just a hypothesis and that no scientist could pretend to know perfectly how God had disposed the worlds. Galileo did include such a statement in the dialogue, at its conclusion in fact, but decided to place it on the lips of a ponderously obtuse character whom he tellingly named Simplicio, a doctrinaire Aristotelian placed in the dialogue so as to provide a foil for the wise Copernican Salviati and a comical contrast to Sagredo, the clever scientific novice; and, to heap one insult upon another, Simplicio attributes the formula to an “eminent and erudite personage, before whom one must needs fall silent.” This was, to all appearances, an unwarranted and tasteless affront to a cultured and generous friend, and Urban—an Italian gentleman of his age, a prince of the church, and a man of enormous personal pride—took umbrage.

More importantly, though, and too often forgotten, Urban was entirely right on one very crucial issue: the Copernican model was in fact only a hypothesis, and a defective one at that, and Galileo did not have either sufficient evidence to support it or a mathematical model that worked particularly well. Though Galileo was far and away the greatest physicist of his age (and indeed of human history to that point), he was not an astronomer in the fullest sense—he was more a brilliant stargazer—and seems to have been little interested in the laborious observations and recondite calculations of those who were. Hence, he seems not to have cared how impossibly complicated and unconvincing Copernicus’s model of the heavens was. It is not even certain that by 1632 he clearly recalled how the Copernican system worked. He did not avail himself (though he was perfectly and resentfully aware) of Kepler’s elliptical planetary orbits, which were encumbered by none of the inconsistencies and internal corrections and physical impossibilities of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems. Instead, he insisted along with Copernicus upon the circular movement of the planets, with all the mathematical convolutions this entailed. He had no better explanation than Copernicus for the absence of any observable stellar parallax, even when the stars were viewed through a telescope. And his most cherished proof of terrestrial rotation—the motion of the tides—was manifestly ludicrous and entirely inconsistent with the observable tidal sequences (he dismissed Kepler’s entirely correct lunar explanation of the tides as a silly conjecture concerning occult forces). Galileo elected, that is, to propound a theory whose truth he had not demonstrated, while needlessly mocking a powerful man who had treated him with honor and indulgence. And the irony is, strange to say, that it was the church that was demanding proof, and Galileo who was demanding blind assent—to a model that was wrong. None of which exculpates the Catholic hierarchy of its foolish decision or its authoritarian meddling. But it is rather ridiculous to treat Urban VIII as a man driven by religious fanaticism—there is good reason to doubt that he even believed in God with any particular conviction—or Galileo as the blameless defender of scientific empiricism. And Christians certainly are under no obligation to grant, on account of this ridiculous squabble, that the church or their faith was somehow a constant impediment to early modern science, when the historical evidence indicates exactly the opposite. Measured against centuries of ecclesial patronage of the sciences, and considering that in Galileo’s day (and long after) many of the world’s greatest and most original scientists (often in fields that had not even previously existed) were to be found among the Jesuits, one episode of asinine conflict among proud and intemperate men does not exactly constitute a pattern of Christian intellectual malfeasance. [Emphasis Mine]
Hart, D. B. (2009). Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (p. 65-66). Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sheridan Books.

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