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Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Churchby Wade Rowland
Chapter One (cont'd - part 3)
The popular conception of the confrontation and the trial that was its culmination has, indeed, changed little in the more than 350 years since it took place. The Church's victory at the trial with Galileo's conviction was a Pyrrhic one, and the scientist's controversial ideas won an overwhelming triumph in the wider war. It is the victors who write the history of wars, and so it was the heroic picture of Galileo as a lonely champion of enlightenment and the Church as a blind, despotic power, hostile to scientific inquiry, that has come down to us.
If the familiar myth of Galileo as the paladin of truth and freedom opposing a venal and closed-minded Church is untrue as I have asserted, what really happened between Galileo and the Church back in the seventeenth century?
A central issue in the events surrounding the trial was the Copernican hypothesis, the idea that the Earth moved with both diurnal rotations and annual revolutions around the Sun. Galileo's supposed 'heresy' lay - at least nominally - in advocating Copernicanism in the face of apparently contradictory Biblical passages.
The hypothesis, as everybody knows, is correct. What is not so widely known, however, is that there was no convincing proof of its correctness in Galileo's time. Even less well-known is the fact that, despite this lack of solid evidence, many in the Church - perhaps a majority in its leadership - shared Galileo's view that it was very likely true.
The interesting question that arises out of this historical fact is why did the Church formally and vehemently reject Copernicanism, even though it harboured strong suspicions of its validity?
To ask that question is to begin to realize that Galileo's dispute with the Church was not about Copernicanism per se. In other words, it was not about whether the Earth moves. What, then was it about? The answer to that question is the subject matter of this book, but it can be stated here in a nutshell.
The dispute was over two conflicting views of the nature of truth and reality and about the roles religion and science ought to play in defining the world we live in. Of far more fundamental concern to the Church than the details of the Copernican hypothesis was Galileo's belief in the reality of number, his conviction that the universe was essentially a mathematical entity, in some literal way composed of numbers.
The Church, bolstered by Plato, Aristotle and nearly two thousand years of theological thought, denied this, on grounds that it excluded the possibility that there was an ultimate goal and purpose to existence. For the Church, a mathematical, mechanistic interpretation of nature could never be more than a model, an intellectual artifact. Between theory and reality there would always be a gap that could not be bridged by human reason.
Galileo and his opponents in the Church understood the true nature of their dispute very clearly and explicitly; it is the modern myth of Galileo that loses sight of its real significance. The argument about the nature of reality and what we can truly know nevertheless remains the principal bedevilment of modern civilization, for as Rousseau said, what we think we know, but do not, harms us far more than what we do not know.
It is here, in this implacable difference of opinion, that we can identify in its most basic form what I have called Galileo's mistake.
-- from Chapter 1, Galileo's Mistake
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