In 1633 Galileo was put on trial by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. The ailing mathematician suffered through the indignity and ordeal of the trial to be declared guilty of advocating heliocentrism — the theory that the sun, not the earth lay at the center of the universe. Galileo’s book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”, was the principal piece of evidence presented against him. But as Dan Hofstadter repeatedly belabors in his book The Earth Moves, there was no material debate on the merits of Galileo’s arguments. The only relevant question was whether Galileo had usurped the authority Catholic Church over interpretation of scripture.
So the Counter-Reformation was fighting a losing battle against a freer, and often less literal reading of the Scriptures. Yet if there was one thing that had concerned the Council of Trent, it was the possibility that laymen would decide for themselves what passages in the Bible could be interpreted other than literally. In fact, the issue of the earth traveling about the sun had little if any bearing on the Catholic faith. But the notion that persons without theological training could decide for themselves to read this or that biblical passage in a non-literal sense constituted a mortal danger for Catholicism in the early seventeenth century.
Hofstadter’s book focuses on the trial, while also giving background on Galileo’s observations of the night sky through his recently invented telescope. We are not treated to a full biography of Galileo, nor the kind of exposition — which I would have certainly benefited from — on the nature of the reformation, counter-reformation, or the Roman Catholic Church of the time . Hofstadter’s own interests clearly lay in discursive discussions about Galileo’s engagement with the art and culture of the period.
There is much that is interesting, but also a great deal that is frustrating. After outlining the events of the trial, Hofstadter hedges against saying anything too definitive about the affair, conceding that both the event of the trial, along with its final verdict, may likely have been the consequence of unknown Papal intrigues and the obscure politics of the time. The book doesn’t seem to know what to do with certain pieces of context. Take the following insight into what we know of an individual’s religious conviction:
We do not know what Galileo or anybody really believed at this period, since religious belief was prescribed by an autocracy and heresy was an actionable offense. If one had misgivings, one kept them to oneself, so it would be naive to take religious ruminations penned in the papal realm or its client territories at face value. The Inquisition’s own records confirm that many people harbored reservations and heretical beliefs: before the Counter-Reformation, they had been much more candid about them.
Galileo had built a telescope that provided a tiny, limited window that gave him a better view upon the solar system. This insight shaped a scientific conviction that led him to stray on territory that the Church had claimed authority over. But it didn’t have to be science. If anything, science was at the fringes of what the Church controlled. Moral, social, and religious matters were the principal victims. Science just happened to have been the issue that the Church managed to look definitively foolish over. Frankly their other strictures look similarly bad today, at least to my eyes. The extract I just gave above seems to hit on something at least as important as the actual science that Galileo practiced. It almost seems to serve the Church to frame the affair as “science vs religion”, rather than as “religion vs freedom of thought”.
Hofstadter clearly loves Galileo as the Renaissance man, immersed in the art and culture of his day. I sensed a real nostalgia for the pre-Two Cultures world. There is a valor and a virtue that is popularly recognized in those early scientists — the “genius” we ascribe to those who were the first to figure certain things out. I am perhaps sensitive to a certain kind of sleight made against the “institutionalized” scientists for today who are fantastically empowered by the inherited work of earlier scientists. So great is the inheritance that it inevitably dwarfs any possible contribution they can make. It is a sentiment often derived from the valorization of those heroes of the scientific revolution. Sure, you can hear them sneer, you’re clever, but you aren’t a genius. I don’t sense any of that from Hofstadter. I could imagine him saying something more like: Sure, Galileo’s reasoning reads as scientifically illiterate to us today, but unlike academics today, he could actually write.
In case you don’t believe me about how Galileo’s reasoning reads today:
Aristotle had had no conception of impetus, and thus no conception of motion corresponding to what we may see and measure. He thought that the medium through which objects travel sustains their motion. By contrast, Galileo wrote “I seem to have observed that physical bodies have physical inclination to some motion,” which he then described — lacking the mathematics for an exact characterization — by a series of “psychological” metaphors, themselves of partly Aristotelian origin: inclination, repugnance, indifference, and violence. […] Galileo’s conception of the Sun’s motion is necessarily hesitant and ambiguous, and he was wary of flatly stating general principals. But one can perceive here the rough outline of what would become Newton’s first law of motion.
What Aristotle, and thus Galileo lacked was the basic material taught to high schoolers and undergraduates in science and mathematics.
It is certainly true that these were exciting and dangerous. Scientific progress has a particular quality of often looking more exciting the further back you stand from it. But the actual doing of science is in the close up; in the detail. And when you do look closer at the danger, at least in the case of Galileo, it looks far more grim than it does exciting.