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Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Churchby Wade Rowland
Chapter One - Excerpt
"Humanity has in course of time had to endure from the hand of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our Earth was not the centre of the universe, but only a speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable the second was when biological research robbed man of his particular privilege of having been specially created and relegated him to a descent from the animal world."
"We are entitled to require a consistency between what people write in their studies and the way in which they live their lives. I submit that no-one lives as if science were enough. Our account of the world must be rich enough - have a thick enough texture and a sufficiently generous rationality - to contain the total spectrum of human meeting with reality."
OvertureThe story of the astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei and his trial for heresy by the Inquisition is one of the defining narratives of modern Western culture. The moral lessons it teaches are a cornerstone of modern belief in the supreme power and validity of reason, and in science's exclusive access to reliable knowledge of the world we live in. It is a tale that vividly illustrates the dangers and arbitrariness of religious authority, and the futility of resistance to the inexorable advance of scientific knowledge.
There is a modest historical marker in Rome, outside the magnificent Villa Medici where Galileo stayed during his visits to that city, and it sums up what might be called the authorized version of the story. I discovered it one brilliant morning in May in the first year of the new millennium, where the enclosing villa wall was softened by masses of mauve delphiniums just coming into bloom.
The monument was placed here in 1887. It is about three meters tall overall, half its height a cylinder of greenish marble, capped with a white mushroom dome on a white, fluted marble plinth. A heavy bronze sleeve is wrapped around the middle of the marble cylinder, and on this is an inscription. It says: "It was here that Galileo was kept prisoner by the Holy Office, when he was on trial for having seen that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still."
The marker is ignored in the voluminous travel literature on Rome - no guidebook that I have seen so much as mentions it, although most identify the villa itself as the place where Galileo was confined while being tried by the Inquisition. One might easily conclude that the lack of attention paid the monument is due to the fact that it merely identifies a geographical feature and is of no more intrinsic interest than a street sign.
But it is a cultural artifact of real significance. The reason is that it expresses one of the central misconceptions of the authorized version of the Galileo story - what might more properly be called the myth of Galileo. And that is that he was condemned by the Catholic Church for having discovered the truth.
It was the Galileo scholar Maurice Finocchiaro who led me to the marker, in an article in which he asserts that since "to condemn a person for such a reason [that is, for having discovered the truth] can only be the result of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, this is also the myth which is used to justify the incompatibility between science and religion." For Finocchiaro and most other current historians and philosophers of science, the myth is erroneous, simplistic and misleading.
Nevertheless, it is so widespread that a version of it, not much more sophisticated than that displayed on the monument, is presented in Albert Einstein's introduction to the standard English translation of Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, the work for which Galileo was condemned. And the myth is dramatized to sensational effect in Bertolt Brecht's seductively brilliant play from 1938-9, Life of Galileo, which was made into a film in 1975 by the American director Joseph Losey. Children in grade school are asked to write essays on Galileo as a martyr to intellectual freedom. And the Church itself has in recent years seemed to lend credence to the myth with its own repentant attitude.
My own suspicion that there might be more to the story of Galileo than is contained in the orthodox version was stirred long ago by questions that haunted the blood-drenched twentieth century.
How could a civilization that generated the technical marvels that ease our lives in so many ways, also have spawned fascism, genocides, environmental havoc, weapons of mass destruction?
Why was the once brilliant promise of 'the good life' an ever-receding chimera?
A phenomena of our time was the rise of Dickensian mean-spiritedness as the foundation for a respectable social credo. Our worst-paid and least prestigious jobs were those that involved benevolence, as in caring for the disabled, the disturbed, the old and the chronically sick. For most people, in most countries, increasing workloads meant the virtual abandonment of family life, not to mention civic responsibilities. Quality of life seemed to change in inverse ratio to leading economic indicators.
Why were we, in spite of our announced humanist intentions, increasingly treating our fellow human beings as means to economic ends, rather than as ends in themselves?
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