Tag Archives: Geocentric model

What did Galileo ever do to you?

Statue of Galileo outside the Uffizi, Florence

I ask this because some of those who write about Galileo on the internet seem to have a  real grudge against the guy. A personal grudge – judging from the emotion in their writing.

Now I am not saying Galileo was perfect – he was as human as anyone else, perhaps more so. I read a few biographies of famous scientists these days and I am really pleased modern biographies are not hagiographic. They generally present the subject “warts and all.” The scientists are human – often very human. Personally ambitious, spiteful and jealous. (Just like scientists today – I have often said we could make an excellent soap opera based on the day-to-day life in a New Zealand scientific research institute).

These human presentations really do underline the fallacy of considering scientists and science as somehow inhuman, lacking in emotion. Like robots. They help make the science, and their discoveries, real, human and interesting. Science is actually a very messy process and the more readers get presented with this reality in these biographies the better they will understand the process.

But why should the reader of today personally feel a grudge against Einstein because of the way he treated his first wife and child, or against Newton because of his ambition, superstitions, jealousy and other personal failings?

Even worse – why should the historian of science bear such a personal grudge – especially as this distorts presentation of their subject? Yet when it comes to Galileo this seems to be the case. Some self-proclaimed historians of science are taking sides. They wish to blame the victim for his persecution by the Inquisition. They will present Galileo’s human faults at great length, while ignoring completely the very human interactions within the school of cardinals, within the Vatican and inquisition. They ignore the political realities of the Catholic church of the time which influenced Pope Urban’s reaction to Galileo and his judgement by the inquisition.

Taking sides on past arguments

And the same thing with the science. Almost inevitably these people concentrate on Galileo’s scientific mistakes (eg his tides argument). Instead of objectively presenting the facts of the controversies over the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the solar system at the time they insist on taking sides. They rehearse the arguments of Galileo’s opponents (eg “we don’t feel the earth moving,” there was no orbital parallax observed for the fixed stars – interpreting this as “non-existent” parallax, and not “not yet observed”) while completely ignoring Galileo’s often extremely informative replies to specific criticisms. They present a picture implying that supporters of geocentricism had undeniable evidence. Accepted by everyone except Galileo. And implying that Galileo had no worthwhile arguments supporting a heliocentric model at all.

In these discussions I have been told that geocentrism was the scientific consensus at the time and was well supported by the existing scientific knowledge. Even told that a committee of “scientists” had ruled so – see Historical fiction. (The “committee of scientists” turned out to be a panel of consultant theologians asked by the Inquisition to make a judgement – see Historical fiction for the text of the brief consultant’s report and members of the panel).

Another claim is that geocentrism was a “well established and strongly empirically supported theory” – implying Galileo had no business arguing against it. When I pointed out that was actually not so, that the geocentric model required a number of ad hoc adjustments, not empirically supported, to achieve its ability to predict planetary motions I get told that it was not meant to be an “explanatory” model. Well, yes. We know about its instrumental success for navigators and astrologers. But why attribute “strong empirical support” to the model when this was not the case? Well, obviously so that any minor problems of the alternative heliocentric model could be used to discredit it.

I have even been told that the heliocentric model had been “falsified” because orbital parallax (detecting displacement of a star against its background at the 6 monthly orbital extremes of the earth) had not been observed. As Galileo said at the time on this issues:

the adversaries of this opinion rise up, and take what Copernicus has called ”imperceptible” as having been assumed by him to be really and absolutely non-existent.”

And then these modern critics also ignore Galileo’s demonstration of the over-estimation of stellar sizes due to an optical delusion in naked eye observations and how reduction of these effects produced much more distant stars and hence minimisation of parallax.

Emotional hostility to Galileo

Did I mention the emotional commitment to this anti-Galileo grudge? In recent debates where I have attempted to explain Galileo’s position, or ask for specific references to claims against Galileo, I have been called a “tool,” and a “fanboy” with “cherished notions of Galileo’s intellectual immaculacy.” Accused of “hand waving” and using “a minimal amount of dubious or inaccurate facts” and being a “tone-deaf fundamentalist.” Even “despicable, self-righteous and deluded.”

All because I argued Galileo’s case!

These reactions seem to result from the protagonists having a mission – the “demythologizing of history!” They appear consider the current understanding of Galileo and his contribution to science has raised him to the status of a saint, rather than a scientific hero – and a human scientific hero at that. One of my opponents claimed:

” . . . the convoluted details and scientific problems associated with the transition from geostatic to heliostatic math models has been simplified to the archetypal culture hero Galileo performing the iconic deeds that validate our Modern way of life.”

You sort of wonder where that has come from? And what exactly about “Modern way of life” is Galileo being blamed for?  From my perspective it seems to come from within their own mind and ideology because I certainly don’t pick up those messages from current biography’s of Galileo or descriptions of his scientific contributions. It seems to me rather than “demythologising history” they are in fact attempting to create a myth – Galileo as the dishonest fraudster. Perhaps even highly immoral. Suppressing and distorting data, ignoring the arguments against the Copernican model. And even seeming to argue that the geocentric model should really not have been displaced.

Historical debates

Last year in Bias in the history of science I discussed Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s book Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. This provides the history of the Galileo Affair as it has been debated over the last almost 400 years. And these presentations have certainly been controversial. Partly because of limited access to documents in the early days. But also because of ideological positions (for and against the church).

Some of the ideological controversy continues – just do an internet search for Galileo and his persecution. See how much of the electronic space is taken up by religious apologists. Their blaming the victim approach is alive and active today and probably is responsible for diffusion of some of their arguments into the academic discussion of the history of science.

Finocchiaro also saw some others motives – such as Koestler’s emotional commitment to mystery which lead him to be very negative about Galileo – the cold, logical scientist, who ‘did not exemplify “the unitary source of the mystical and scientific modes of experience.”’ In contrast Koestler was much more flattering of the “mystical origin and sleepwalking character of Kepler’s discoveries.” Finocchiaro called Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe a “popular libel against Galileo.”

One certainly has to be aware of ideological and emotional commitments when judging the statements of those writing on the history of science.

Whatever – the long history of the Galileo affair controversy, and the different sides taken, certainly provide plenty of ammunition for anyone wishing to find apparent authoritative support for their own prejudices today.

But why should they have the prejudices they do?

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Galileo’s modern critics

The Gallileo Affair - a useful primary source of documents

What is it with some philosophical and historical commenters who take sides against Galileo in his 17th century dispute with the Church?

Perhaps because we now have many documents from that period (17th century) – including Galileo’s original writings, official documents from the Inquisition and the church,  and the text of complaints made to the inquisition about Galileo’s beliefs and teachings. This itself can fuel different perspectives.

However, I think another source of this lively debate lies in the preconceived notions and beliefs of the modern protagonists. That, to me, is the only explanation for a trend (a trend – I don’t blame all) among commenters on the history of science that seeks to blame the victim (in this case Galileo) for the affair. To claim that Galileo was scientifically wrong. That the Church was correct to suppress research into a heliocentric model for the solar system. And to threaten imprisonment for anyone holding these opinions. And, inevitably, when there a preconceived beliefs, sources are selected to confirm those beliefs.

We can see one example in Andrew Brown’s blog article Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd  (see my earlier post Debates in the philosophy of science). Here, I want to take issue with his claim that the Church was partly correct in suppressing Galileo’s ideas on heliocentricism:

” Because if there is one thing that has been established in the history of science in the last 50 years, it is that in strictly scientific terms, and going by the evidence available to him and to his contemporaries, Galileo was wrong and Cardinal Bellarmine was right. Heliocentrism was a beautiful theory, and Galileo would have been free to teach it as such – but the observation of stellar parallax, or rather the discovery that none could be observed, should have knocked it on the head “

There are a few points in this which need challenging.

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Galileo’s revolutionary contribution

A good primary source

In An interesting question Thony C at The Renaissance Mathematicus responded to a comment at my post, Early history of science, with his own blog article. While it  mainly discusses the nature of censorship I would like to respond to some comments he made about the Galileo affair.

I will leave aside his/her tactic of blaming the victim – which seems quite fashionable among religious apologists writing on this issue today. For example Thony C claims:

“Nobody had been really bothered by the potential conflict until Galileo and Foscarini had made it into a real conflict by suggesting a theological solution thus creating a real problem for the Church;” “In his unconsidered and over hasty actions Galileo had forced the Church to ban the heliocentric theory.”

There is something unpleasant about excusing all the actions of a huge institution like the Catholic Church and its Inquisition and putting all the blame on an individual. Moreover an individual who is threatened with torture and sentenced to imprisonment! Soviet apologists no doubt blamed Andrei Sakharov for his confinement to the city of Gorky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his expulsion from the country. That’s the trouble with apologists – their loyalties.

However, I would like to deal here with the so-called “theological solution” which Thony C presents as the real problem. Unfortunately this “crime” is usually not discussed in detail, yet apologists often wish to use it to divert attention away from the scientific issues. Was the theological problem simply non-acceptance of a geocentric model which was supposedly made factual by its presentation in the Christian bible? Was it just a matter of semantics, the hubris of including scientific questions within the domain of theology?

Thony C gives a clearer idea in his comment:

“The crime the these two men committed in the Church’s eyes was not that they propagated heliocentrism, which they did, but that they told the Church how to interpret the Bible and that was definitely a no, no.”

So was it a matter of interpretation, or more correctly who should do the interpreting and how?

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