Monday, October 26, 2009

Copernicus, Galileo, Science, and a Reality Check

It's a little hard, sometimes, to remember that there was a time when robot spaceships weren't exploring the solar system.

And that there was a time when the orbits of planets around the sun weren't known with the precision that astrogation requires.

Over four centuries ago, Copernicus did groundbreaking work, suggesting that heliocentrism - the idea that the sun was the center of the universe - was a better match with observed phenomena than the Aristotelian Earth-centered universe.

That's fairly common knowledge, at least among people who are more than slightly interested in science.

Copernicus was a What?!

Here's something you may not have learned in high school.
Church officials of the mid-16th century had no problem with the idea of heliocentrism in the 16th century: as long as it was presented as a hypothesis: not as an established fact.

Copernicus delayed formal publication of his masterwork until after his death. Smart move, considering the sort of flack he'd most likely have gotten if he was still alive when it hit the press. (Gutenberg had invented movable type about a hundred years earlier.)

Part of Copernicus' concern was probably Martin Luther's followers and their literal reading of passages like Psalms 93:1 and 104:5. ("...The world will surely stand in place, never to be moved." and "You fixed the earth on its foundation, never to be moved." respectively)

More importantly, perhaps, Copernicus had a pretty good idea as to how scientists of the 16th century would take his ideas.

Those scientists knew that Earth was the center of the universe. It was obvious, from their point of view: Aristotle had said so, and Claudius Ptolemy had agreed. And that, as far as the scientific minds of the 16th century were concerned, was that.

Galileo, Theories, Facts, and Personality

Galileo got quite an eyeful when he looked through a telescope: mountains and valleys on the moon; and moons moving around Jupiter. Those were remarkable observations, and gave considerable weight to the idea that the Earth-centered universe of Aristotle didn't match what can be observed.

And the moons of Jupiter clearly went around Jupiter - not around Earth. Or the sun.

So what got Galileo in trouble? He:
  • Presented his heliocentric hypothesis as a fact
  • Belittled people who didn't agree with him in tracts and pamphlets
    • In rather strong terms
I get the impression that Galileo rubbed people the wrong way: sort of like sandpaper on a sunburn. And, again, insisted that his heliocentric model be taken as fact.

Sure, he was right: but it took about a century to collect and analyze the data required to prove that his model was right. Or pretty close, anyway.

Besides his #30 grit personality, Galileo took his heliocentric hypothesis out of the realm of science, and added a theological twist.

Here's what Pope John Paul II had to say, in 1992:
"...Secondly, the geocentric representation of the world was commonly admitted in the culture of the time as fully agreeing with the teaching of the Bible of which certain expressions, taken literally seemed to affirm geocentrism. The problem posed by theologians of that age was, therefore, that of the compatibility between heliocentrism and Scripture.

"Thus the new science, with its methods and the freedom of research which they implied, obliged theologians to examine their own criteria of scriptural interpretation. Most of them did not know how to do so.

"Paradoxically, Galileo, a sincere believer, showed himself to be more perceptive in this regard than the theologians who opposed him. 'If Scripture cannot err', he wrote to Benedetto Castelli, 'certain of its interpreters and commentators can and do so in many ways'. We also know of his letter to Christine de Lorraine (1615) which is like a short treatise on biblical hermeneutics...."
(Pope John Paul II)
Like the 16th century scientists and Martin Luther, the Catholic theologians who looked at Galileo's heliocentric model - and his arguments for it - didn't realize that people would be walking on the moon in a few centuries. And they didn't have the data that later generations would collect, demonstrating that Galileo's heliocentric model was a pretty good fit with reality.

All they saw was an irritating fellow with ideas that ran counter to their notions of what the Bible said - and who insisted that his ideas be accepted as fact, not as an idea which could be tested.

Back to that 20th century Pope:
"...From the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment down to our own day, the Galileo case has been a sort of 'myth', in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality. In this perspective, the Galileo case was the symbol of the Church's supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of 'dogmatic' obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth. This myth has played a considerable cultural role. It has helped to anchor a number of scientists of good faith in the idea that there was an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its rules of research on the one hand and the Christian faith on the other. A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith. The clarifications furnished by recent historical studies enable us to state that this sad misunderstanding now belongs to the past.

"From the Galileo affair we can learn a lesson which remains valid in relation to similar situations which occur today and which may occur in the future...."
(Pope John Paul II) [emphasis mine]
The story of heroic Galileo, stalwart defender of Truth, opposed by a superstitious rabble of fancy-dress religious bigots, is quite firmly planted in Western culture. The standard-issue post-Enlightenment version of the big, bad Church against noble, truth-defending Galileo is the one I learned - and believed for a while. And had to reject, as I dug into the facts of the case.

Heliocentrism, Evolution, and Here We Go Again

I doubt that many people today really believe that everything revolves around a central, stationary, Earth.

The idea that planets, including Earth, go around the sun seems to have been accepted by most people: including quite a number of evangelical/fundamentalist Christians.

These days, it's evolution that's got some people defending what they're convinced are "Bible truths" against big, bad science: and others defending science against 'those superstitious Christians.'

Sometimes it's tempting to agree with George Bernard Shaw: "Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history."

Let's see what one scientist was saying, earlier this year, about heliocentrism and evolution, theory and fact:
"...I am a little disturbed when I hear people talking about the theory of evolution. This would be like talking about the theory of heliocentrism. Heliocentrism was a theory four hundred years ago, in the times of Galileo and Copernicus. Today it is a fact. Evolution was a theory two hundred years ago, when the hypothesis was proposed simultaneously by Lamarck in France and by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of the famous Charles, in England. I think, today, biological evolution is a fact, it is based on overwhelming evidence and so when we talk about theories, evolution is no longer a theory. Mechanisms of evolution are theories. You can discuss the importance of natural selection or genetic drift or other mechanisms. But the fact of biological evolution is, in my opinion, and I think in the opinion of all scientists, undisputable...."
("Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life," Plenary Session 31 October - 4 November 2008 Acta 20 Vatican City, 2009 pp. LXVIII-622 ISBN 978-88-7761-097-3 (available from
That's not a typo at the bottom: Those words were published by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, earlier this year. The whole document is available in *.pdf format on the Vatican's website.

I wouldn't advise holding one's breath, waiting for the Pope to say that God's not real and that we're merely random collections of elements that just happen to be here.

But let's get real.
  • Change happens
  • The world has changed in the last few billion years
These are ideas that an educated Catholic can accept.

Me? I have no problem with the idea that God is smarter than I am, and quite able to manage a cosmos that's vaster than I can imagine.

As I ended yesterday's post:
"...St. Albert the Great was convinced that all creation spoke of God and that the tiniest piece of scientific knowledge told us something about Him. Besides the Bible, God has given us the book of creation revealing something of His wisdom and power. In creation, Albert saw the hand of God...."
("The One Year Book of Saints") [emphasis mine]
Related posts:
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Brigid said...

I love you, Dad! Thank you, thank you, thank you! This particular subject seems to crop up a lot around me.

(Might want to check the article again for a couple extra words that probably got left over from editing.)

Brian H. Gill said...


Aww. Shucks.

I found a couple of rough spots on re-reading: as usual, thanks. Maybe you can re-check this post over the weekend.

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.