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Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Churchby Wade Rowland
REVIEWS OF GALILEO'S MISTAKE
The myth of Galileo
The archbishop of Canterbury asked Albert Einstein, back in 1921, what implications he thought the Theory of Relativity held for theology. The great physicist replied, "None. Relativity is a purely scientific matter and has nothing to do with religion." Had Galileo made such a simple and forthright reply to Pope Urban VIII some three centuries earlier, the popular myth involving Galileo, the alleged supremacy of science, and presumed anti-science attitude of the Church of Rome might never have emerged.
Galileo, however, was headstrong and insisted, unreasonably, that science is the sole avenue to truth. This is Galileo's "mistake," dogmatically arguing that only science provides the truth about nature. Yet popular intelligence has gotten things backwards, canonizing Galileo as a martyr to science while vilifying the Church as an unprogressive institution fearful of what science can bring to light. This "myth of Galileo as the paladin of truth and freedom opposing a venal and closed-minded Church," the author asserts, "is untrue." And the substance of the book is the establishment of this fact.
Wade Rowland's extraordinary work sets the record straight and in so doing provides an important historical corrective that should gladden the hearts and enlighten the minds of interested Catholics. Although not an apologist for the Church, Rowland explains, logically and convincingly, that science is neither a unique mode of knowing, nor one that infallibly reveals the truth of things.
Science operates, as did Galileo, from theoretical models. "If it rains, the ground will be wet." But if we begin with the empirical datum that the ground is wet, we cannot be certain that its cause is rain or some other cause (the sprinkler system, for example). If we refine our model and state that "If it rains, the ground will be uniformly wet," our observations may appear to increase the probability that our theory is true, but cannot validate it absolutely. "The process of verification is a circular one, unsound in logic," as Rowland explains. "The insights of reason are like words in a dictionary, each of which depends on some other entry inside the covers of that dictionary." Human beings live mostly inside the covers of that dictionary.
There is a gap between theory and reality that reason alone cannot bridge. Here is another way of describing Galileo's "mistake." His world is a mechanistic one. As such, it is reductive and a serious threat to those other avenues to reality‹intuition, feeling, faith, love ‹that the Church rightly defended. Galileo was actually "narrow-minded" in this regard whereas the Church was "broad-minded." The clash between Galileo and the Church was not about Copernicus or astronomy or science, but whether science provides the only pathway to truth.
Rowland was drawn to the Galileo controversy because of his concern that the absolutization of science undermines the wisdom we need in order to live properly and to be humane to each other. Scientism creates an atmosphere in which people start looking like commodities or consumers. It foments a spiritual and existential dis-ease.
Rowland is a literary journalist who has the curiosity of a scholar. His book combines scholarship with an engaging narrative that takes the reader to the locations where Galileo lived and labored: Venice, Pisa, Siena, Florence, and Rome. His two traveling companions - a former student and hard-headed man of reason, together with an erudite Catholic nun - imbue the book with a lively and personal quality that makes the reader's journey into the mind and times of Galileo easier and more enjoyable. Rowland has a gift for both narrative as well as for dialogue. And there are plenty of pictures.
The Galileo case is extremely complex; its tentacles reach back into the ancient world and forward into modernity. Galileo's discoveries had not "fatally undermined the physics of Aristotle," as Rowland contends. He did not understand Aristotle's physics and presented a caricature that was easy to ridicule. It was not "ironic that Copernicus was not regarded as a heretic." His work was presented as a "theory" and not as an uncompromisable truth. The book is not perfect, but what work that embarks on such a vast terrain could be?
Rowland has given us a personal and entertaining trip to Italy and into the world of a most controversial seventeenth-century thinker who, in his confrontation with the Church, forces us to think more deeply and more carefully about the boundaries between faith and reason. In deconstructing a myth, he has re-established a moral, namely, that science without an accompanying ethical vision, is dehumanizing.Donald DeMarco
St. Jerome's University
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
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|For details on the Canadian edition of Galileo's Mistake, published by Thomas Allen Publishers, click here.|