Monday, July 16, 2007

Galileo, Bruno, and the Inquisition

In The Guardian today, someone wrote a letter suggesting that neither Galileo nor Bruno were dragged before the Inquisition for their scientific views (the author was responding to this). I wrote a letter responding. See below.

Wikipedia is interesting on Bruno (though I don't know how reliable it is generally). Scroll down to "conflicts over his execution", for example. This document, from the Vatican itself, is unequivocal about Bruno being interrogated about his scientific views. See especially the big penultimate paragraph.

There are many Catholic writings seeking to downplay the Galileo affair. Some insist that the Church wanted to censor not Galileo's scientific views, but merely his theological ones. See this example from www.catholiceducation.org. Notice, among other things, the very subtle way in which the scientific dispute is recast as a theological one (and also the way in which key details, such as the Church's earlier command to Galileo not to claim the heliocentric theory is literally true, are airbrushed out):

"What, then, caused the row with the Church? The first thing to remember is that Galileo's heliocentric theory... wasn't the real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties. Rather, the cause of his persecution stemmed from a presumption to teach the sense in which certain Bible passages should be interpreted (using science as the ultimate criterion)."

Also note the comment: "Was the Church wrong to ban Galileo's writings? A good case can be made that it was not."

Anyway, here's my letter,

LETTER

Gerald McAreavey’s claim that Galileo’s arrest and house imprisonment was “not for his scientific views, but for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of scripture” is simply wrong.

Anyone who has read Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, which McAreavey cites in his support, will know that Galileo was brought before the Inquisition because he was alleged to have claimed that the Copernican system was not merely a useful hypothesis, but literally true - an opinion the Holy Office had already commanded him to relinquish back in 1616.

Galileo was shown the instruments of torture and condemned to life imprisonment (later commuted to house arrest) for daring to voice a scientific opinion. Galileo’s colleague Bruno was murdered by the Inquisition for, among other things, committing the same crime.

This was a shameful episode in the Catholic Church’s history and it does revisionists like McAreavey no credit to pretend otherwise. Especially when they get their facts wrong.

However, having submitted that, I had a rethink. The Bruno claim is, I suppose, at least contentious in the minds of many (see the wikipedia link), and thus a hostage to fortune. Also, it's probably an exaggeration to say McAreavey pretends the Galileo episode is not shameful to the Church. Rather, like www.catholiceducation.org, I guess he thinks it less shameful than is commonly supposed (certainly, he's denying its shameful in relation to the religion vs. science issue - so far as he's concerned, it simply doesn't bear on that). So I sent a revised version like so:

LETTER

Gerald McAreavey’s claim that Galileo’s arrest and house imprisonment was “not for his scientific views, but for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of scripture” is simply wrong.


Anyone who has read Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, which McAreavey cites in his support, will know that Galileo was brought before the Inquisition because he was alleged to have claimed that the Copernican system was not merely a useful hypothesis, but literally true - an opinion the Holy Office had already commanded him to relinquish back in 1616.

Galileo was shown the instruments of torture and condemned to life imprisonment (later commuted to house arrest) for daring to voice a scientific opinion.

This was a shameful episode in the Catholic Church’s history and it does revisionists like McAreavey no credit to downplay it. Especially when they get their facts wrong.

Revised version probably too late, however...

3 comments:

Rev Sam said...

Have you read Feyerabend's account of the Galileo conflict? (In 'Farewell to Reason') I find this quotation of especial interest, taken from a letter to Galileo from Cardinal Bellarmino: "If there were any real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe and that the earth is in the third heaven, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth around the Sun, then we would have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true". What's often forgotten is that the heliocentric paradigm had not yet been 'proven' - as it assumed perfectly circular orbits, rather than elliptical ones. The Ptolemaic paradigm was more accurate, and therefore more "scientific" at the time.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Rev Sam

You raise an interesting point, but what is its relevance to the issue here? Are you drawing a conclusion?

The issue I am discussing, remember, is: was Galileo was indeed hauled before the inquisition for his scientific views (though no doubt his comments on the interpretation of scripture etc. would have provoked ire too)?

And was he shown the instruments of torture and imprisoned for life for , among other things, daring to claim the heliocentric model was literally true?

The answer is "yes" twice, isn't it?

True, G was wrong about some things, and some of his arguments were faulty. And yes he could be less than tactful, and indeed rather insulting. Possibly he had bad breath too. Conservative Catholics love to point these things out. But this is all smoke-screen.

It seems to me that, whether or not G's scientific position was fully justified, and indeed whether or not he was a cantankerous old git, the Catholic Church did ban him from expressing it, and then did threaten him with torture and imprison him for life for continuing to express it. It was wrong to do so.

Those are the facts that some Catholics (like McAvearey) simply deny, while others attempt to excuse or obscure by bang on about G's lack of proof, his disagreeable personality traits, etc.

Anonymous said...

The Vatican seems to have deleted/censored the online document to which you referred regarding Bruno. Do you have another URL that links to a copy of it? Thanks.