Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church
by Wade Rowland
REVIEWS OF GALILEO'S MISTAKE
Book Review by the Toronto Star of Galileo's Mistake
Review by Philip Marchand, Book Critic
Toronto Star newspaper
Author tackles myth of persecuted scientist
Everyone knows the story of Galileo. He's the genius scientist who was found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition because he claimed the earth moved around the sun, instead of vice-versa.
It's a great story, one of the "defining narratives of modern western culture," as Wade Rowland puts it in his new book, Galileo's Mistake: The Archaeology Of A Myth. Too bad, for the sake of the story, that Galileo wasn't burned at the stake - that would have made it perfect. We would have had a truly dramatic martyr for scientific truth and freedom of the intellect, crushed by the forces of darkness, as embodied in the Catholic Church.
There are a few problems with this story, however. One problem, as Rowland points out, is the reality of "the Church's historically tolerant attitude towards science." What was it about Galileo that over-rode that attitude? Is it possible that, in this famous controversy, the Catholic Church actually had good reasons for viewing the writings of Galileo with suspicion?
Yes, Rowland answers. The truth behind the trial of Galileo, as narrated in Galileo's Mistake, is a good deal more complicated and interesting than the myth.
To challenge that myth is an ambitious undertaking, and at first sight it is curious that Rowland, would undertake it. His career began with a job at the Winnipeg Free Press, and includes a 15-year stint, on and off, with CTV news. "I'm a journalist and I have been all my life, but I've also had two careers, in a sense," he comments. "I've always believed in working with your hat on. That means being prepared to quit, if need be, on a matter of principle. This is why I've always had a back-up career."
In Rowland's case, that back-up career has been writing books. His first was The Pollution Guide in 1971, based on a series of articles he wrote for the now defunct Telegram. "There was a period when I was doing a book a year," he recalls. Not that his books - the more recent ones, in particular - have been quickies. His previous book, for example, was Ockham's Razor: A Search For Wonder In An Age Of Doubt, in which he grappled with some of the issues in Galileo's Mistake, such as the limitations of scientific knowledge. To arm himself for this study, he obtained an M.A. in philosophy from Trent University, and he is currently completing his Ph.D.
"I'll be damned if I'm going to drop dead without being a little smarter than I have been most of my life," he comments. "I would like to figure out a few things first."
That's the job of philosophy all right, figuring out things. "I've always been interested in it, ever since I was at university for the first time, many years ago," Rowland says. "But I didn't know a lot about post-modernism and hermeneutics and deconstruction and all that stuff. I don't find it very useful, but it's good to know the lingo and to be able to argue with people. I'm an old-fashioned analytic philosopher."
His study of philosophy has had a few side benefits, apart from helping him writing books such as Galileo's Mistake. Rowland, who lives in Port Hope with his wife - his two grown children live in Toronto - comments, "I told my children the reason you go to university is not to get a job but to learn things that can protect you from your job, so you can stay sane. That was my way of staying sane all these years in journalism, being interested in this sort of thing."
So what was Galileo's mistake? Obviously, it was not asserting that the earth revolves around the sun, although Galileo did, perhaps, assert this a bit too loudly at a time when all the evidence was not yet in. The Church was right to remind Galileo, at the time, that the theory of the earth moving around the sun was a hypothesis that had not yet been proven.
But Galileo made an even more serious mistake, according to Rowland. He believed that science could tell the ultimate truth about nature. Today, however, we are coming to realize that scientific "truths" are like models of reality. The hypotheses of scientists may be successful in explaining how certain things work, and predicting certain outcomes, but they can never fully grasp the essence of reality, even physical reality.
"Scientific hypotheses may be successful, but our reason will never be able to tell us whether they are true," Rowland writes in Galileo's Mistake. "Truth is a metaphysical issue - beyond physics - and it involves such questions as meaning and purpose, which are unquantifiable and therefore not amenable to scientific analysis."
In other words, science will never reveal the mind of God. "The real crux of the disagreement between the church and Galileo was Galileo's assertion that, given time and research, it's possible for science to know everything there is to know - it would even be possible for science to know what God knows," Rowland comments. "The Church said, `Oh no you don't. You've built some interesting models here, but there's something to know beyond the model.'"
So the church rapped Galileo on the knuckles. Contrary to myth, it did not threaten him with torture. It punished him afterwards by putting him under house arrest for a few months - in an apartment in a luxurious palace. Afterwards, Galileo went about his business. Rowland also maintains that Galileo was perfectly sincere when he recanted his beliefs before the Inquisition because, quite simply, he saw the Church's point.
Rowland even doubts an apology to Galileo, as offered a few years ago by the Pope, is all that necessary. "I feel personally that they have gone too far in apologizing to Galileo," he says. "I think the Pope went too far in saying the clerics didn't understand what they were doing. But who's going to believe him if he tried to argue the Church was right? So from a political point of view, he's doing the best he can."
Rowland himself is not worried that he will be seen as an apologist for the Catholic Church. He's not a Catholic, for one thing. "I'm not even particularly religious," he says. "I'm just a journalist. I approach this as a journalist who has a puzzling case to decide, and in my view, in this case the Church comes out on top."
Book review by the Toronto Star newspaper
Other Book Reviews of Galileo's Mistake:
- The Myth of Galileo
by Donald DeMarco, St. Jerome's University
"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."
Read the complete review.
- Kirkus Reviews - book review of Galileo's Mistake
- "Rowland provocatively challenges the prevailing view"
- "Rowland is correct in gauging the role of the Church in Galileo's trial, but this work is likely to be controversial"
- "With easy erudition...Competently laying out the science and the overarching philosophical issues"
- "Rowland recreates Galileo's trial...makes a case for the Church's role in the pursuit of truth today."
- "Rowland's is an audacious position"
Title: Galileo's Mistake
Subtitle: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church
Author: Wade Rowland
Publication Date: July 2003
Hardcover: 320 pages
List Price: $25.95 US
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
For details on the Canadian edition of Galileo's Mistake, published by Thomas Allen Publishers, click here.