Science in Christian Perspective


Galileo and the Church: Tensions with a Message for Today Part IV
Atkinson College York University 
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

From: JASA 25 (December 1973): 154-157.

The Strategies and Impact of the Copernicans

It is worth asking whether the Dialogue contained anything really novel in favour of the Copernican scheme. It did, even if we ignore the first printing of his strange tidal theory mentioned earlier. For one thing it mentions the annual variation in the paths of the

The year of 1973 has been designated Copernican Year in honor of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus in 1473. In keeping with this commemoration, the journal ASA offers a four-part publication of a paper presented by T. H. Leith at the 1972 Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation at York University. Port I appeared in Journal ASA 25, 21-24. March 1973; Part II in Journal ASA 25, 64-66, June, 1973; and Part III in Journal ASA 25, 111-113,  September 1973.

sunspots, first reported by Francisco Sizzi, a rather puerile critic of Galileo's early telescopic work, in 1613 and indicating that the equator of solar rotation was inclined to the ecliptic plane. The inclination, of course, causes a change in the angle between the sunspot paths and the ecliptic from season to season, in a yearly cycle, and Galileo noted that the obvious reason was our annual motion about the Sun. It is true that the apparent paths of the spots could be explained in the Tychonic model also, though the Earth is totally stationary within it, but it would require very complex movements of the Sun which Galileo considered quite unlikely.

The other novelty is the Dialogue's profound dissimilarity to the great astronomical treatises which pre ceded it. Nowhere does Galileo care to explore the details of the revolutions of the planets or of the Moon and seldom is it mathematical. Apparently he cared as little for kinematic descriptions like Kepler's, even if it were claimed that they were true, as he did for fictional devices. The latter tended, he thought, to perpetuate the dichotomies of the ancient two-level cosmology while the former continued to hind the physics of motion in its terrestrial fetters. Instead, Galileo's ambition was to emphasize the geodynamic aspects of a Copernican world view and to call for the extension into the heavens of the physics which he was actively building on Earth.

Galileo, of course, recognized the coherence provided by Copernicus in placing the planets about the Sun in a specific order, but even this seemed to be merely an esthetic judgment carrying weight only for a mathematician. In its place Galileo wished to offer evidence of the legitimacy of Copernicus' basic insight; evidence of the inability of traditional argument to falsify the motion of the Earth and instead two new physical proofs of its movement: evidence of the similarity of the planets and the Moon to the Earth, and the evidence of similarity of the planetary and lunar motions to those exhibited in terrestrial physics. The alternative which he aimed to falsify was the Aristotelian philosophy of nature. Ptolemaic astronomy was attacked only indirectly because of its Aristotelian facets; its mathematical devices, or modern improvements upon them, were unimportant to Galileo's concerns. In this exercise he prospered, seriously undermining Aristotelian physics here, and in his Two New Sciences17 published later. He was perhaps less successful against Tycho's doctrine. But his arguments unfortunately did little for the kinematic credibility of Copernicanism for they left the Moon and the planets circling the Earth and the Sun at constant angular velocities, just as a ball would circle the center of the Earth endlessly if rolling on a frictionless surface. This was much too simplistic after Kepler's labors. If he criticized others for 'saving the appearances', he could not even do that much himself.

It would seem, when Galileo wrote in The Assayer that the universe stands like an open book "but we can understand it only if we begin by learning to comprehend its language and interpret its characters (for) it is written in the language of mathematics and its characters are circles, triangles, and other geometrical shapes" that his agreement with Kepler, who might have said the same thing, was more apparent than real. It might have been repeated too by Galileo's younger contemporary René Descartes with even more disparity of meaning. Certainly it was in the spirit of the many Renaissance figures who read in nature innumerable mathematical analogies, often in defense of traditional cosmology and with whom Galileo could scarcely agree"18. Even the follower of Ptolemy, arguing that his mathematical devices were capable of being made adequate to prediction and thus should not be matters of contention among astronomers, could have enunciated the same creed. But how varied the implications, how diverse the pre-dispositions, how conflicting the connotations!

Clearly, the meaning of the mathematization of nature in the Renaissance is, if not obscure, complex. It is dangerous simply to label it Platonic or Pythagorean, as is often done, for the adjectives can indicate an attitude as well as a position or indeed an assortment of modifications of each. Copernicus' position was not that of a Platonist or Pythagorean or he would have agreed that the mathematical patterns of nature must remain hidden from us. Rather, like Tycho, Kepler and Galileo, be believed that nature could be treated in mathematical terms, that we seek out mathematical relations by observation and experiment, and that our knowledge of nature's structure is gained by intensive study of limited areas of experience. Even the rationalist Descartes would say "God could well have arranged things in countless ways, the way which He actually chose ... may be determined only by observation." But their methods were different: Copernicus and Kepler were willing to find patterns and to suggest novel (and unsatisfactory) physical foundations for them, Tyeho was prone to assume much of Aristotle's physics and traditional Biblical exegesis and to work from there, while Galileo and Descartes could overlook details about planetary motions in trying first to move theft terrestrial physics into the heavens.

Methodological diversity is an indication of disagreement as to tactics and strategy in resolving a scientific problem. It is often an expression too of dispositional disaccord as when we compare Kepler's, Galileo's, and Descartes' philosophies of nature on a broader level than-their consonance regarding a mathematical world. Kepler was mystical, sympathetic with aspects of astrology, and convinced that the cosmos was finite; Galileo was hard-headed, opposed to the occult to the point that he denied the Moon's influence on the tides, and of mechanistic and materialistic bent; and Descartes could offer sincerely many certitudes about the world assumedly based upon reason, reduce matter to space, and found his physics upon the direct activity of God. Their followers, in addition, could disagree vigorously about the implications of these, and like, matters.

So could those seeking a reconciliation of theft views with theology. Kepler's astrology would be suspect and, in time, his finite world would be interpreted as discrediting the power and glory of God. Galileo's comment in The Assayer that "I don't believe that anything more is necessary to give rise to our tastes, smells, and sounds than that external objects have sizes, shapes, numbers and less or greater speeds" was destined to stir endless controversies about materialism and mechanistic philosophy. Recall, for example, what affinities one can find between these in Newton's apologetics and then remember Leibniz's opprobrium19. And Descartes was condemned widely because his physics was difficult to reconcile with transsubstantiation while Jansenists and Calvinists, on the other hand, favored its determinism.

It is critical, then, that we realize that the implications of the Copernican revolution for the church lay not only in its simple challenge to traditional exegesis of a few passages or even to the central place, geometrically if we will, of man and the drama of the fall and redemption. Those may have been clearest at first, as they were to Melanehthon or to Osiander who wrote the notoriously misleading preface to Copernicus' Revolutions, but it required the social upheavals and tensions of most of a century to get Rome to follow Melanehthon's advice and to repress what he had called the impudence of its Copernican intellectuals. Even then it required peninsular and Vatican polities of which we have given no account here, and an apparent frontal attack upon vested authority, to bring it into action. The Church moved when goaded and when it recognized just who Galileo was making the final arbiter on hermeneutical rules whenever science was involved, and when they saw that this implied giving to a novel astronomy and physics the power to break down the harmonious world of tradition20.

How little though the Church, or Galileo for that matter, could see the many other consequences of the revolution, for it continues to our day. By complex and intertwining paths it led to Newton's and Laplace's physics and on to Einstein, to deism and then agnosticism, to new cosmologies, to Descartes and Locke and on through Hume and Kant and Spinoza to contemporary philosophy, and to a thorough revision of man's view of himself exhibited by a modern theological conservative as well as by a Marxist or a Bertrand Russell21. We are, of course, not arguing that a Copernican system was the sole or even a conscious source of these developments; we are saying that the scheme, its developing physical base, and the philosophies in which these were initially applied carried diverse and startling implications. No suppressions of the next centuries after Galileo could contain them; an increasingly pluralistic society or complex of societies never can.

This is the ease with all novel scientific ideas. They cannot be restrained if the human mind is to be permitted a measure of curiosity and if its suggestions about the world are to be put to test. The contemporary church as a society, is surely obliged to accept this just as it must if its conception of a natural revelation of God is to be taken seriously. But the thinkers who enunciate ideas in their initial or developing forms, or who use them, do so within varied philosophical attitudes and use the ideas as well in constructing at least partially novel world views. Dialogue on philosophical issues and a person's private beliefs are even more difficult to constrain, as the prohibitions of the Holy Office on Copernicanism, the Nazis, the Stalin years, and denominational history have reminded us sharply. With that fact too the organized Church must come to terms in our time.

Perhaps the warning by Galileo should be recalled here: permit tradition and authority in ecclesiastical matters to overrule empirical data and scientific expertise, and one may ruin and subvert an institution. Ideas, observation and experimentation exist in free places and with free persons, and they eventually erode and invade, discrediting the authority which attempted to proscribe them. The other side of the coin however, recognized by Melanehthon and the Holy Office22 was that scientific discoveries involve questioning and upheaval equally capable of destroying traditions and authority which is now taken to be illegitimate. The Church's obligation to foster new insights and to recognize the breadth of revelation should help to preserve it from Galileo's prophecy; how it handles the implications of these, and the philosophies attendant upon them, will govern how satisfactorily it survives the impact foreseen by the Lutheran scholar and Roman officialdom.

What the Church Must Offer Science

Let us look, in conclusion, at the opportunities afforded the Church in the light of these considerations, for we should see matters positively. It is no longer sufficient to rest quietly, like the Holy Office in 1633, in the belief that novel scientific ideas seem at first glance to he philosophically absurd and/or formally heretical. Too often we have heard that some theory is imperfectly evidenced and that the Church need not treat it seriously. It may he so, but when a theory is corroborated extensively by severe testing and it gains wide recognition, this attitude is no longer acceptable. Too frequently we react to the unfamiliar as if it were preposterous, though there is often no easy resolution to such a psychology except time. Likewise, too commonly our mind-set on matters exegetical or theological works to confuse heresy with the unusual.

Let us look first at exegesis. Copernicus, Kepler, Thomas Campanella in his Apologia pro Galileo of 1622-23, and Galileo all recognized that hermeneutics is, more than was admitted, a human art influenced by the worldview of the scholar. This we too must understand, however high is the exegete's Scriptural view. If we do, we must expect the Biblical scholar to give more serious attention to the likelihood that many passages are pre-scientific or non-scientific than he often has, interpreting them instead in the light of an antiquated conception of nature. Here the scientist is obliged to inform him of his anachronisms so that he may be more perceptive. We should fully expect that the process will be attended by theological revisions as well. Perhaps this sounds gratuitous or even supercilious but it is the lesson of Church history that the process works, in part, that way. If it is learned, the Church may then offer to thinking men considerable a priori flexibility within which new discoveries may be accommodated. No longer need it appear to be in continual and reluctant reaction. Had the church exhibited theological and exegetical room for the scientist and philosopher to move in the past, the ranks of both camps might contain rather more members with respect for Biblical authority than is the ease.

Of course, it may be remarked that many Biblical interpreters and many Church bodies permit room for most, if not all, philosophies and interpretations of scientific ideas. Clearly this overly-broad accommodation can he only because of a lower view of the authority of Scripture than is warranted by the evidence. It is the consequence of critical studies based upon certain philosophies about science and certain construals of scientific theories which deny a supernatural view of the world and result in a debased view of inspiration. It is not the product of scientific theories, at least well-founded ones, but of fundamentally humanistic and naturalistic predispositions. Nor is it the necessary consequence of the process espoused above. There we speak of recognizing the intent of Scripture in its own terms and of a Biblical theology prepared to deal with matters which scientific evidences may well soon place before us.

It brings us though to a second point Scientific theories, while still highly tentative, are often accepted or rejected by many upon matters such as prejudices for or against past ideas, one's world-view, esthetic tastes, or trepidation about or wishful ambitions for their moral or philosophical consequences. Indeed, these matters play a part in developing the theories in the first place. These factors are as unavoidable as they are subjective. Certainly the Church has no obligation toward such theories except to foster the freedoms necessary to test them out carefully, and if it firm ly believes that natural and special revelation cannot fail to be in harmony, to expect no irremediable difficulties in synthesis. It does, though, have obligations to determine its stance toward the practical applications of theories operative at any time or likely to be put into effect in the foreseeable future. Biology and biochemistry afford current instances of this necessity. The questions are ones of individual and social morality and on these the Church must speak. If it does, coherently and intelligently, it has the opportunity to recover an influence lost by its past failings in this respect.

This brings us to the last opportunity to be mentioned here: the chance to support the development of Christian philosophies of man, the world, and action. The Scriptures and scientific knowledge leave extensive room for speculation about the nature of creation and providence or the meanings of history; for interpreting the arts, literature, or science; and for constructing political, psychological, or social models. We mention but examples. In a world filled with philosophies based upon humanistic premises, the Church has offered too little in the way of systems built upon theistic and Biblical premises or, when it has, they have paid inadequate attention to current knowledge and situations. True, the church has seen its philosophers in open disagreement in the past and it has observed disturbing implications being drawn from positions which it thought were sound. Perhaps this is one reason why it has failed to offer the sort of support it should to new ventures and why it has too often satisfied itself with traditional and simplistic treatments of the many matters attracting concern and interest in the society around it and in its own communion. They are insufficient reasons; men are fallible and their schemes imperfect, tensions must exist when theological emphases and the matters which interest thinkers differ, but problems and opportunities must still be faced. Only one illustration is offered.

We live in an age in which science and its offspring technology have revised, in a way few foresaw a quarter century ago, the conditions of our lives. It is apparent that our ability to master the forces of nature around us is immense and increasing. It is clear that we have in our hands the awesome power to create, with rapidity and in profusion, new and little-understood social possibilities. But science and technology have also altered the manner in which we look at ourselves and they have destroyed some of our values while creating others. Here lies their potential for both good and evil, for the process continues.

Yet, in the face of this, the choices to be made among the many alternatives offered is becoming increasingly complex. Surely the Church must give guidance here, examining with knowledgeable persons the purposes and effects and values of the options chosen, criticizing continually, and presenting constructive advice for the future. In the past the institution appeared relevant to man in a context where he knew much less than he does now and held a much diminished mastery over the forbidding forces of nature. Its relevance to the future must he to men who know their powers and appreciate the possibilities within their grasp. Were Galileo with us he could state no greater challenge; he uttered it three and a half centuries ago and some listened and some did not. Conditions then made their deafness serious. Failure to hear today is unthinkable.


17Diaologues Concerning Two New Sciences, New York, n.d,.
18"The Numerological Approach to Cosmic Order in the English Renaissance", Isis, December 1958, pp. 391-397 by C.A. Patrides is of interest here. The importance of the number seven seemed more suited to a geocentric cosmos with seven bodies circling it than to a Sun orbited by 6 satellites. Including the central body, on the other hand, could have made the heliocentric view more suitable than its alternative. Numerology is clearly highly selective in its evidence and subject to endless adjustment to fit any predilection.
19See Leibniz-Glorke Correspondence, H.G. Alexander (ad.) Manchester, 1965 and A History of Philosophy (Volumes on Hobbes to Palcy, Berkeley to Home, Descartes to Leihniz, and Hume). F. Coplcston, Garden City, N.Y., 1963 and 1964.
20Convenicntly ignoring the degree to which its own cosmology had accepted much of Aristotle and observational evidences which eliminated things like the flat earth, the tabernacle-shaped world, and the sub-lunar firmanent of earlier traditions.
21The Scientific Revolution, V. L. Bullnugh (ed.) New York, 1970; The Scientific Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, R. Briggs, New York, 1969; The Elizabethan World Picture, EM. Tillyard, London, 1958. Then see Science and Imagination, M. Nicholson, Ithaca, 1966; The Breaking of the Circle, M. Nicholson, New York, 1960; Atomism in England from Hariot to Newton, R.H. Kargnn, Oxford, 1966; All Coherence Gone, V.1. Harris, Chicago, 1949; Seventeenth Century Science and the Arts, H.H. Rhys (ad,), Princeton, 1961; and Science end Religion in Seventeenth Century England, R.S. Westfall, New Haven, 1958. All deal only with the beginnings of the process.
22Oddly enough the Spanish Inquisition was less concerned. See The Spanish Inquisition, H. Kamen, New York, 1965, pp. 101-2, 293-296. Compare also "Scepticism, Theology, and the Scientific Revolution in the Seventeenth Century" R. Popkin in Problems in the Philosophy of Science, I. Lakatos and A. Mnsgrave (ads.) Amsterdam, 1968, pp. 1-39.
23A flawed translation by G. McColley is available in the Smith College Studies in History for 1936-1937. It is criticized in part by Rosen (sea Note 14).