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Galileo Revisited[1].


Otto J. Scott

In Betrayers of the Truth by Brood & Wade, (Simon and Schuster, 1982), doubt is cast upon the veracity of Galileo, the famous exponent of the Copernican theory. Citing historian 1. Bernard Cohen, the authors say that Galileo's experiments with falling bodies, which he reported as having been conducted over a hundred times, were repeated by a contemporary with results so varied that he doubted Galileo's claims altogether (page 26).

This brings to the fore the seldom-discussed subject of Galileo's character. Cast by popular history as a heroic martyr for scientific truth against a reactionary church, reassessment seems overdue for, as usual, the truth is both more complex and more interesting than the legend.

Born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare, he taught mathematics first in Pisa and then in Padua. He lost his first post through indulging a penchant for sarcastic sallies against the authorities: a trait of his throughout life. In Padua he was more cautious, and held his post for eighteen years. Mathematics was not then highly regarded, being considered a tool for artisans, engineers and trades, and not intellectual. Galileo augmented his modest salary, therefore, by operating a small workshop with a skilled artisan in his employ. They produced various instruments, tools and compasses. One was a 'military compass' designed to help officers solve mathematical problems. It sold well, and Galileo wrote a handbook explaining how it could be used.

When a colleague, Capra, plaglarized the handbook, Galileo complained. Capra was hauled into court, found guilty and humiliated. That wasn't enough for Galileo: he issued a broadside teeming with unrestrained abuse. He was not a gracious winner: as his sarcasms hinted, he was vindictive.

In 1597 Galileo became convinced that Aristotle was wrong in many areas, but he remained a faithful teacher of Ptolemaic mathematics because, according to what he wrote friends, he feared ridicule. (This Wild Abyss, Christianson, MacMillan, 1978, page 272).

Discovering anomalies in Aristotle was not rare. Through the centuries many men discovered the Greek has been wrong many times. As Kuhn describes in his justly-famed Structure of Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago, 1968, passim), all scientific paradigms at first appear to reconcile all observations. As time passes, an interesting number of anomalies appear, until a new paradigm is necessary (for those who believe in paradigms).

The true innovator, who introduced divergence's from Ptolemy, was Copernicus, whose work had appeared eighty years before Galileo. Copernicus, moreover, did not meet with any problem with the church authorities, although his theory of a moving earth and a fixed sun, and an earth that was not the center of the universe, contradicted the Bible. Luther, hearing of Copernicus' ideas, merely snorted, "That fool!" What saved Copernicus was not only that his book was beyond the grasp of all but experts, but that the Introduction, which presented Copernicus' ideas as purely theoretical, was actually written by Osiander, a Lutheran pastor, who was aware that without such a disclaimer, the presentation could be taken as defiance of the Bible, and a denial of its truth.

Galileo, an Italian and a Catholic, was well aware that such disclaimers were customary in speculative works. His later indifference to such a tactic cannot be taken, therefore, as an indication that no better avenue presented itself to him, or was not known to him.

In 1609 Galileo was told that a Dutch artisan had invented a telescope. A description was enough Galileo's forte was inventing instruments. In 1610 he published his Message from the Stars, in which his observations through the telescope challenged long-standing assumptions. That book—and his telescope—made him famous. Money came at last and, with it, honors. It was at that point that he decided to return to Florence, where his family originated.

He could have stayed in the Republic of Venice, where he could have safely presented any scientific theory he created without fear of the church, for Venice was no friend of the Vatican. The Republic even made Galileo a handsome offer, which he refused. The Grand Duke's court awaited in Florence, and a high status in one's home is sweeter than recognition anywhere else. He left his longtime mistress but took along their two daughters. Once in Florence, he found the task of raising the girls onerous. He couldn't ship them back to their mother, for she had married a Venetian and made a new life. So he clapped them into an impoverished convent. In effect, they were—at that time and place—immured forever. One of the girls never forgave him for that, and even a sympathetic biographer described this as an instance of Galileo's "irrepressible egotism" (Abyss, page 271, 272).

Galileo then made himself famous for his debates defending the Copernican theory against the Ptolemaic. He had great social gifts, was very fluent, and an excellent writer. His major flow in conversation was a tendency to ridicule his opposition, and to be cruelly sarcastic toward those of lesser technical knowledge. These are traits that are still common among technicians; their disdain for the non technical mentality is often marked by a lack of courtesy. In Galileo's case, it helped create bitter enemies among the Dominicans, the educators of the time.

Several of these conspired against him, and gave false depositions to the Holy Office: the Inquisition. Galileo, in their eyes, was a threat to the authority of the church, and was teaching anti-Biblical doctrines. He had, in effect, created a collision that replaced what had been a process of peaceful change. His motive was to attract attention, to shine before the world, to have his brilliance known and acknowledged.

Brought before the Inquisition, he back-pedalled. Cardinal Bellarmine, author of a catechism used by the church for 300 years, who had debated with James I, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and dissident Catholics, did not find Galileo unanswerable. At the end of the investigation, in 1616, Bellarmine warned Galileo that he was free to present any mathematical theory he chose, so long as he presented it as a theory and not as a law. Galileo bowed low, and was thankful to be spared.

Back in Florence, he resumed his public arguments, though his escape had been narrow. Paul V was "more interested in new jobs for working men than in new ideas from scholars." (The Crime of Galileo, Santillana, University of Chicago, 1955, page 1 18.) Meanwhile the Inquisition files held secret some dreadful charges and a memorandum of his warning that seems, in certain salient details, to have been forged by unknown persons of malignant motivation.

In 1623 a new Pope, Urban VIII, was elected. As a cardinal, he had once written a poem in praise of Galileo. And in 1624, after several long, friendly conversations, Urban encouraged Galileo to publish his theories. He made only one stipulation, saying that Galileo could not "really maintain that God could not have wished or known how to move the heavens and the stars some other way... To speak otherwise than hypothetically would be tantamount to constraining the infinite power and wisdom of God within the limits of your personal ideas" (Crime, page 175).

In other words, theorize as much as you like, but don't draw theological conclusions. Galileo promised to remember. He then went back to Florence and wrote a meandering work titled Dialogue on Three Systems,—in Italian, to attract the greatest possible popular audience. In this book, Galileo's theories are presented in conversational form, a la Plato, through two characters named after noblemen he had known before their deaths. This pair combined to present Galileo's anti-Ptolemaic ideas in sparkling fashion against a third character named Simplicio, whose position resembled that of Galileo's conversational opponents. At the end of the work, Simplicio apologized for not being able to follow the learned arguments he had heard, and presented the Pope's viewpoint.

The manuscript was sent to Rome with assurances the Pope would like it. On the strength of these assurances, the Pope's secretary and the reviewers, with only modest changes, approved the work. It was printed in Florence, appeared with the blessing of Rome, and created an instant sensation. The Pope was infuriated to discover that he had been first deceived, then ridiculed, then redeceived.

The Inquisition's summons came swiftly, and Galileo took to his bed in terror—but not until after he sent a copy to Germany, for translation into Latin and distribution throughout Europe. Once before the tribunal, with his legal defense apparently ironclad, he made the mistake of Iying There were efforts, even then, to let him go free, but Urban's rancor was deep. "He can not necessitate Almighty God," and went into a rage when the subject was broached.

At the moment, therefore, Galileo lost. He made an abject apology, and was sentenced to prison. The sentence was shifted to be served at his home, and he returned to Florence in social disgrace, which hurt him deeply. He won overall, however, for the Dialogue made him known to all the world. And he won over the church, because he was hailed as a martyr. He won, therefore, the fame and attention for which his soul craved, and for which he had risked so much -- and dared so much. He had chosen the stakes, created the crisis, and won to such an extent that his name is still used as a whip by the enemies of the Vatican.

There remains only one point to interest those who may have been educated by myths, slogans and legends at the expense of difficult but honest truths. Astronomers in later years discovered as many anomalies in the theories of Copernicus as in his predecessors. Mathematicians also discovered, as time passed, that there is no difference between the mathematics of a space in which the earth is the center of the universe and stationary, which the sun and heavens revolve around, and an earth that is moving around a fixed son. For that reason the mathematics of Ptolemy are still used by mariners, and the same mathematics of Ptolemy were used by the calculators of the Moon shot.

In other words, Galileo's proofs did not prove his argument. His cosmological theories were on a par with his falsified experiments on falling bodies on earth, in being more verbal than observational, more propagandistic than scientific. The Pope, in other words, was right theologically, and the church was right scientifically. That is understandable: they believed the Bible.


[1]- Reprinted from Chalcedon Report No, 217, Aug. 1983, P.O. Box 158, Vallecito, CA 95251, U S A.

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