The Trial of Galileo – My Response to Pious Fabrications

I always enjoy the stuff Dave Withun puts up on his blog Pious Fabrications and particularly the almost daily videos he puts on Youtube. They are well put together and thought provoking, and it’s good to hear a point of view a long way from my own. I’m generally happy just to read or listen and sometimes make the odd comment, but I really can’t let his video on the Trial of Galileo past without question.

It isn’t that I think he is wrong as such. It is certainly factually correct in as far as it goes. He says that the trial of Galileo by the Pope in 1632 is often depicted in an overblown and rather caricaturish way. Well that is true enough. It is also often depicted as an encounter between an all mighty Catholic church oppressing a poor defenceless scientist who just wanted to get on with his work. Again, this is a great over-simplification. By the time it was arresting Galileo, the Catholic Church was already well into the decline in its prestige and influence which has continued to this day. The Protestant reformation was well underway and the scientific revolution was taking off.

The Pope was only in a position to take any action at all against Galileo because he happened to be the actual head of state of a big chunk of Italy.

Galileo was far from powerless. He was a great celebrity throughout Europe and was well aware of it. He had by the time of his trial, at the age of 68, managed to pull off a long and successful career.  He had had no trouble getting his work past Church censors published and talked about. He had good reason to be full of himself. An ego the size of a planet can be excused in somebody who has done so much to explain the workings of the planets. David describes him as a jerk. I don’t think that is really appropriate language, but I’ll concede that it might, just might, be justifiable.

But the thing about science is that it isn’t really about whether someone’s personality is appealing or not. The sole judgement is whether or not what you do contributes to our understanding of the universe. If it does, you have made a contribution. It really doesn’t matter whether or not you are a jerk about it.
In this, if in nothing else, science is much the same as the Catholic Church. What matters is not the behaviour of the members of the Church, but whether their doctrine is in fact true or not. Even if the Pope himself behaves badly, it doesn’t really discredit the doctrine.

This is just as well given the track record. Over the years particular popes have been accused of simony, nepotism, kidnap, mutilation, sodomy – we don’t regard this as a crime any more but I think it is fair to say that the Catholic Church was not in the forefront of this particular bit of social progress – rape, murder and piracy.

Now it is true that Urban the Second was one of the more liberal popes.  He was previously very friendly to Galileo, prior to the putting him on trial and threatening him with torture thing.  Most friendships would find that hard to ignore.   And by the standards of Catholic misbehaviour, simply demanding editorial input into a scientific publication is pretty minor.

But that doesn’t mean that the trial was a trivial matter. It clearly was an attempt by the Church to control science. It doesn’t hugely matter that the model of the Universe the Church was defending was derived not from scripture but from the pre-Christian Greeks. The Bible is pretty vague on cosmology, so you can easily reconcile Christianity with scientific advances.

The trial wasn’t an exercise in fundamentalism, it was an exercise in corporatism. The Church wanted to control what was happening, because that is how big organisations operate. And like all big organisations it wasn’t always tremendously consistent. You can find some people acting one way, like the censor who allowed Galileo’s work to be published. And you can find people acting in the opposite way, like the cardinal who sacked the censor when he found out that he had.  Galileo knew what he was up against. He had been able to work around restrictions in the past, much like a maverick manager in a big company nowadays. By the time of his trial Galileo was old, and maybe wasn’t up to date with the latest politics. He probably didn’t realise that he was putting himself in danger by entering the Pope’s direct jurisdiction.

But whatever, the huge PR disaster the Church brought on itself was well deserved, even if it is sometimes over-egged. It may not have been the tyrannical event it is sometimes portrayed as. And it may not have been a battle to defend a specifically Christian world view. But what right did the Church have to try Galileo in the first place? That it ever did so is shameful.

Galileo was found guilty and forced to recant. Although he was not actually tortured, he was shown the instruments that could have been used. He was not executed, but he was imprisoned. No apology has ever been made for his treatment, but I would infer that the men involved realised the huge self inflicted blow they had just given to their cause’s credibility. The fact that the Catholic Church later accepted evolution so quickly and without any fuss shows how it should be done, and speaks in trumpets that whatever they might say the lesson has been well learned.

A religion is nothing if it is not a living tradition, and the trial of Galileo is part of the Catholic tradition. It can’t be written out. How modern Catholics handle that legacy is up to them. Like any other misjudgement, it can become a valuable source of wisdom. I don’t think David, who like me is not a Catholic, is helping them much by offering an excuse.


Filed under History in Culture

9 Responses to The Trial of Galileo – My Response to Pious Fabrications

  1. It clearly was an attempt by the Church to control science.

    The trial was very complex and was many things but this is one thing that it was not.

  2. I am happy to be corrected. But the nub of the case did seem to revolve around telling Galileo how to present his ideas?

  3. I normally read your posts not long after you post them, but I only just caught up with your May 8th one about how to write about Renaissance Maths. ( ) – have I fallen foul of describing Galileo as a scientist when he wasn't?

  4. The trial in 1633 is a complete mess of confusing motives. To find the real reason for the dis puts you have to go back to 1616. Galileo's “crime” was trying to tell the Church how to interpret scripture. The roman Catholic Church claimed (and still claims) an absolute monopoly on the interpretation of holy scripture. This is in fact the central point of the Reformation. Heliocentricity appears to conflict with the Bible. Galileo thought he could solve the conflict by re-interpreting the Bible. That was a very big no-no!

    I have and still do argue that if Galileo had preceded somewhat more diplomatically. as he was advised to do by his friends in the Church, the whole mess would never have happened and that the Catholic Church, and this is the most important point, would have accepted heliocentricity much earlier than they did

    Yes! From a strict historical etymological point of view it's wrong to call Galileo a scientist. For the twenty years that he was a professor of mathematics he was a mathematicus. After 1610 he was court mathematicus and philosophicus to the Medici. Due to his extracurricular activities it would be correct to also refer to him as a Renaissance artist-engineer.

  5. I bow to your scholarship of course. But isn't it possible that there were motivations that were not part of the actual trial itself? I dare say if you spent a long time studying the trial of Al Capone you might come to the conclusion that it was all about tax evasion?

  6. Calvus

    If we had a reliable way to distinguish between reasons and excuses, the job of historians would be very different from what it is now.

    On a self-indulgent note, with your link to Renaissance Mathematicus, which is also on the blogroll at Inverse Square, the set of blogs I read is now reduced to a single large network with one tiny outlier. (Please do not link to 2D-Goggles, or my self-image as a man of diverse tastes will suffer irreversible damage.)

    Fascinating stuff, by the way, Thony.

  7. I haven't heard of 2D-Goggles, but I'll check it out. I think future historians will identify us as the Calvus group.

  8. Ken

    Bloody hell – that video of Pious Fabrications is shocking. Of course it must be countered. It's full of inaccuracies and slurs – even hateful ones.

    He says himself that people are complex and that history is complex – so what does he do – present an incredibly simple, naive, good church/bad Galileo (described as a jerk) fairy story!

    He wishes to condemn anyone who recognises the complexity of the situation by countering with his own simple myth.

    The truth is that today no-one seriously promulgates the sort of good guy Galileo/bad church simple myth he claims. Our understanding of the Galileo Affair today is much more nuanced.

    Perhaps Pious Fabrications should spend some time reading Maurice Finocchiaro's books on this topic – and the included primary documents.

    For example – Pious Fabrications attributes the affair to Galileo's complexity (his being a jerk and all that) and ignores the complexity of the Church, and Pope Urban's position. The internal threats to Urban and the desire to clamp down on signs of liberalism.

    And as for the story of Galileo portraying the pope as a character in his book – Finocchiaro points out that there is no documentary evidence that this motivated Urban's attitude in the trial. That such an issue is only raised a year or so after the conviction.

    But it makes a good (but untrue) story to bash Galileo with, doesn't it.

    As I said the understanding by supporters of science today of the Galileo Affair is much more nuanced than Pious Fabrications describes. We recognise the naivety and incorrectness of the Galileo Myth he describes. But in fact there is now a myth about that myth. A myth that scientists are promoting that simple myth.

    In fact the naive, incorrect myth that is being promoted is that of the type Pious Fabrications promotes.

    What is his motive for this anti-science mythology?

    Perhaps to cover up the real contribution Galileo made to science and its evolution – this is what we recognise him for, not his fight with the Church (or the churches attack on him). That was merely a consequence of his contribution.

  9. You are absolutely right Ken. Galileo's reputation is safe enough. I remember having a discussion about his work with an astronomer at a conference who told me he regarded him as the greatest astronomer of all time. He knew a lot about his work but didn't know that he had been put on trial. (I suspect he must have heard it at some point, but obviously didn't think it either interesting or important.)

    I suspect that some of the Catholic apologists like the one that has made a pile of comments on the Youtube video simply don't realise how significant a figure Galileo is.

    With regards to David Withun, he does a lot of this kind of thing and he knows how to frame an argument to provoke people without saying anything that is literally wrong. He gets a reaction which gets him attention. I have a feeling that the Almighty would see through this and probably take a bit of a dim view of it. As I have come to quite like David I am praying that God doesn't exist for his sake.

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