Science in Christian Perspective
The Establishment of a
Heliocentric View of the Universe
Department of Educational Foundation and Inquiry
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio 43403
From: JASA 33 (December 1981): 225-230.
Using both primary and secondary sources, the history of both the secular and sacred resistance to the heliocentric view of the universe was researched. It is concluded that much of the resistance was because acceptance of the heliocentric position required a radical re-evaluation of man's view of the universe and the fact that the evidence was slow in accumulating. The resistance to the heliocentric position is often seen as emanating primarily from the Catholic Church for religious reasons. It is more accurate to say that the resistance was primarily from the academic community who used the church as a tool to oppress a belief they felt was incorrect and which required a thorough re-evaluation of the secular view of the universe but only a minor change in the sacred view of the universe.
Historically, most civilizations have understood the earth to be the center of what they viewed as the universe. The sun and other stars, they believed, rotated around the Earth. The Earth was the home of man, and the ancients tended to see the total universe as functioning for their benefit. Therefore, as the most important person sits at the head of the group, they saw the Earth as, in essence, the "head" of the stellar and planetary system, and the universe revolving around their home.
It is difficult for many people today to understand the importance of a controversy in the 16th century between the new heliocentric and the old geocentric theory of the universe. We must remember, though, that the entire Aristotelian system was based upon the geocentric theory of the universe, and much of man's view of the world and himself was likewise based on this system (Nash, 1929). Falsifying the geocentric theory radically affected the thinking of both the scientists and the masses.
Europeans were accustomed to view the world in a certain way, and when one grows up with a certain world view, especially one that has been almost universally prevalent for thousands of years, it is very difficult to change this world view (Hagen, 1908:353). It would be difficult for the reader to imagine the problems if, for example, it were discovered that the earth was flat, that the planets did in fact revolve around the Earth, and that they were only a few miles away from the Earth. This idea would, at first, seem ludicrous. Actually, the heliocentric theory was more ludicrous to the Europeans in the 16th century than the geocentric theory would be to us today.
Both the populace and the scientists strongly believed that the Copernican theory was ludicrous (Nash, 1929). They buttressed this opinion with such reasoning that if it were true, the wind would constantly blow from the east at a uniform speed and would not vary in power. In addition, they felt that buildings and the ground itself would fly off with such a rapid motion that only firm holds could keep it on the earth. Humans would have to be provided with large claws like cats to enable them to hold fast to the Earth's surface. Most people and scientists reasoned that the Earth would fall into the sun, and if it really was round, that the people on the other side of the Earth would fall off into space. Further, some felt that if the Earth is only one of several planets, then the other planets must be inhabited, as God does not make anything in vain but all of his creation.
The opposition to the heliocentric theory of the universe was primarily because the new theory was radically different from the view of the universe which had been accepted for hundreds of years.
The Earth must stand at the center of the universe for otherwise how could the sun revolve about the Earth as the Scriptures say it does? How could the sun rise in the east and set in the west if the Earth circles the sun? It was "obvious" to everyone who had two eyes that the sun rises and sets, and that the Earth does not move. If the Earth moved why do we not feel its movement? It was axiomatic, they felt, that the Sun moves around the Earth, and anyone who denied it was grossly ignorant.
Such were the arguments against the heliocentric theory, the arguments wielded not only by the masses, but by the scientists and university professors who were able to develop complex reasoning to justify the geocentric theory. This is why it took so long (several generations) to "prove" it false. Further, for the academicians to admit that they were wrong would be greater than the pride of many of them could tolerate. Their whole science was based upon the geocentric theory, and the assumption that they were wrong caused havoc in their complex belief structure. Most importantly, heliocentricity went against the Aristotelian system, which was firmly held by the professors in most universities. It must be remembered that heliocentricity and the Aristotelian belief structure were part of the textbooks and lectures in Europe and the rest of the world for generations. As Ronan (1974:125) stated:
We can now took back and see the Aristotelians as obscurantists, as men whose minds were closed to any new interpretation, and in a sense we should be right. Yet it is important to remember that they were not used to assessing experimental evidence from any but their own viewpoint: to them observations, tests even, could never be more than demonstrations to underline the validity of Aristotelian doctrine, not a means of probing that validity. It was in Aristotle's writings, in the books of his learned commentators that the basic truth was to be found; these were the touchstone, an attitude typified by Magini, by then professor of astronomy at Bologna, who openly declared that he would see Galileo's Jovian satellites "extirpated from the sky." Bookish argument was more to be trusted than the evidence of the senses. Galileo, of course, severely criticized this refusal to let observations speak for themselves, and when some of the Pisan academics declined even to put an eye to the telescope, he wrote to Kepler: "What would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? Shall we laugh or shall we cry?"
The person credited with the modern development of the heliocentric planetary theory, or the belief that the center of the solar system is the Sun with the Earth revolving around it, was Nicolas Copernicus. Copernicus was born at Thorn on February 19, 1473 and died at Frauenburg, on May 24, 1543. Both of these cities have been part of several countries, depending upon the historical period.
While Copernicus was a student of canon law, he became a disciple of Novara. Later, he became a professor of astronomy. Copernicus also studied Greek, medicine and jurisprudence. In Ferrara, he took the degree "Doctor of Canon Law." He practiced medicine for some time, and later entered the priesthood.
In 1522 he wrote a paper on monetary reforms which was so highly thought of that the King of Poland adopted substantial portions of it in 1528. Copernicus was also deputy counselor of financial regulations for Prussia from 1522 to 1529. Aside from these many involvements, one of Copernicus' main interests was the sun, moon and planets. His research in this area eventually resulted in his great work entitled On the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies, published just before he died.
In time, his observations of the heavens caused him to accept a heliocentric view of our solar system. He hesitated, though, for years from publishing his work primarily because of the fear of exposing himself to the contempt of the common people. His friends became very interested in the theory and urged him to at least write an abstract for them, which he did.
The theory of the heliocentric system began to spread, and in 1533 Albert Widmanstadt lectured before Pope Clement VII on the Copernican solar system (Hagen, 1908: 354). In 1536 Copernicus was encouraged by Cardinal Sch6nberg, then Archbishop of Capua to publish his research (Hoyle, 1973). Incidentally, Sch6nberg urged both Copernicus and Galileo to disseminate their research. Evidently, he agreed with their conclusions. Copernicus, though, hesitated until a younger man, George Joachim Rheticus, entered the picture. Rheticus was the head of the Department of Mathematics at Whittenburg University. Rheticus became a disciple of Copernicus, and at Rheticus' urging, Copernicus submitted his manuscript for publication.
Thus far there was no opposition from the Catholic Church to the new theories. Actually the Catholic Church generally openly supported Copernicus' research (Hoyle, 1973). Likewise, the other Protestant churches supported, or at least did not oppose, the theory. As we will discuss, the opposition came primarily from the academic community. Rheticus found that the faculty at the University of Whittenburg opposed the theory, and for this reason they refused to publish Copernicus' research. Later Rheticus tried to resume the chair of his department in Whittenburg, but on account of his acceptance of the Copernican theory he was forced to resign from the University in 1542.
Finally, Cardinal Sch6nberg and Osiander, a Protestant
clergyman, personally engaged the printing house of Petreius to publish the work. The work was dedicated with
permission to Pope Paul III. With the publication of the
book, opposition from a number of quarters began to surface, although it was not of any importance until several
Why The Opposition?
It is often incorrectly assumed that the academic community of the time accepted the Copernican theory, but that it was opposed by the church and religious leaders in general. The opposition to the heliocentric theory of the universe was primarily because the new theory was radically different from the view of the universe which had been accepted for hundreds of years. In addition, it opposed the i4common sense" view of the world. Although most of the organized opposition came from the academicians, the common people likewise found it very difficult to accept the theory (Barbour, 1971). In addition, many churchmen opposed the theory and used their position as a platform to push their own opinions (White, 1955). Evidently, though, neither Calvin or Luther were openly in opposition to the theory, but some of their followers were (Barbour, 1971:29; Harris, 1973:4).
On the other hand support was especially strong from a number of leading churchmen of the day. Catholic opposition did not commence until 73 years after Copernicus first published his famous work. This opposition was partly a result of the personality conflicts Galileo had with a number of academic and church authorities. On March 5, 1616, the work of Copernicus was forbidden "until corrected." In 1620 these corrections were indicated, and they involved only nine sentences, all of which taught that the heliocentric system was a proven fact. The committee required that these sentences either be omitted, or changed to teach that the heliocentric theory was a theory or a hypothesis, which at that time it was; there was stiff a large body of evidence in support of the geocentric system.
Actually, it is surprising that the Copernican system was accepted as rapidly as it was with as little resistance as did occur. The lack of opposition was partly because most people thought that the new theory was ridiculous and not even worthy of consideration. Those who openly opposed it were more likely to be the educated persons who knew the problems of the Ptolemaic system, and could recognize to some degree the validity of the arguments in favor of the heliocentric system; thus they felt compelled to respond. If they felt it was totally lacking in validity, they were more likely not to bother to respond until a better case for the theory developed.Chapter Two: Galileo
Aside from Copernicus, the other leading advocate of the heliocentric theory of the solar system was Galileo. Galileo was born February 18, 1564 at Pisa, Italy and died January 8, 1642. Although Galileo is famous for supporting the heliocentric theory of the universe, he did not discover it, nor did he do much to scientifically support it. More importantly, Galileo helped to develop the telescope and to establish the "scientific method" as a way of finding out knowledge. The sciences of Galileo's day tended to rely heavily on authority, especially that of Aristotle "who was supposed to have spoken the last word upon all such matters, and upon whom many erroneous conclusions have been fathered in the course of time" (Gerard, 1908:342). Other important discoveries of Galileo were in the area of mechanics, especially dynamics, a science which may be said to owe its existence to him and his research. Galileo is also famous for noting the oscillations of a swinging lamp in the cathedral of Pisa, which evidently led him to the discovery of isochronism. of the pendulum (Ronan, 1974). In 1588 he wrote a treatise on the center of gravity in solids, and later he laid the experimental foundations for the theory of falling bodies, demolishing the prevailing belief that the rate of descent is proportional to the weight of an object. In other words, Galileo demonstrated that all objects fall at the rate of 32 feet per second per second, which means that heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter objects. In 1592 he was nominated for the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua, which he occupied for 18 years with ever increasing renown (Brewster, 1841). In addition, he demonstrated the law of equilibrium and the principle of virtual velocities. In the field of hydrostatics he set forth principles of flotation. In addition, he invented the thermometer.
Jerry Bergman is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education (Department of Educational Foundations and Inquiry) at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, where he has been since 1973. Before that, he taught Psychology and Sociology at Oakland Community College in Michigan. He has also worked in research for the court system in Oakland County Michigan. His Ph.D. is in Evaluation and Research from Wayne State University. Dr. Bergman has published over 160 articles in both general and professional journals in the areas of sociology, psychology, education and biology. He has written fourteen books and professional monographs. One of his recent monographs was published by Phi Delta Kappa, and is on the creationlevolution controversy in the schools.
... Galileo's fatal mistake lay in his rash indiscretion, his insistence on throwing open to the common people, by writing in the vernacular, a question which was far from being settled and could only, in that form, give scandal to the pious, whereas the proper approach would have been to write elaborate tomes in Latin and then patiently wait for the appraisal of the scholars and theologians.
Galileo supported the heliocentric theory partially because he was convinced of Copernicus' arguments, and partially because his work with the telescope and subsequent observations taught him much about the universe that contradicted what had been previously accepted. For example, he discovered that the moon was not a perfect sphere as taught by the old astronomy, but possessed hills, valleys, and other features resembling the earth. He discovered that the planet Jupiter had satellites, thus displaying a solar system in miniature. These discoveries supported the heliocentric theory, and not the geocentric theory. He found that the planets Venus and Mercury exhibited phases like those of the moon, and discovered that the sun had "spots" which rotated, supporting the supposition that either the sun rotated or the Earth moved around the sun, or both.
Even prior to these discoveries, Galileo had already abandoned the geocentric hypothesis. He was hesitant, at first, to advocate the new system because of fear of public ridicule. His discoveries through the telescope, though, supported heliocentric theory to the extent that he felt he could no longer withhold his opinions from the public, It should be noted that Galileo's discoveries were not profound, and could have been made by anyone who had access to a telescope and spent the time observing the solar system.
In spite of the evidence many, if not most, of the leading scientists of the day remained unconvinced. Galileo, "profoundly assured of the truth of his cause, set himself with his habitual vehemence to convince others, and so contributed in no small degree to create the troubles which greatly embittered the latter part of his life" (Gerard, 1908:344). As mentioned above, there had been no major opposition to the theory by the Church or religion in general for 73 years; the originator of the system was a churchman; and the publication finally came about only at the urging of Cardinal Sch6nberg and Tiedemann Giese, Bishop of Culm. The book was dedicated by permssion to Pope Paul III in order that it might be protected from the attacks by which it was sure to encounter on the part of the academic establishment and the public at large because of its contradictions with the evidence of man's senses and the age-old pattern of thinking. Neither Pope Paul, nor any of the nine Popes that followed him, nor the Roman congregations raised much alarm or concern. Galileo's main concern was ridicule, and this primarily from the and the academic community, not from the religious community (Santillana, 1955:16-18). When Galileo first presented his ideas to the world, he was received with trumpet in Rome, It was not until four years later that trouble arose partially because the church authorities were alarmed at persistence with which Galileo proclaimed the truth of the heliocentric theory. Ronan (1974:127; 131) summarized Galileo's first visit to Rome as follows:
Galileo arrived safely in Rome and lost no time in getting in touch with Father Clavius and the other Jesuit astronomers at the Roman College. He took one of his telescopes along and demonstrated it, and then left it at the College so that they could observe at their leisure, for his discoveries could not all be checked in a single night and some, such as Jupiter's satellites, would require at least days of careful observing. Yet it was not long before the Jesuit astronomers saw the phenomena for themselves, were convinced, and turned to honouring and feasting Galileo: after all, was he not Jesuit trained, a true son of the Church, whose fame brought distinction to the Order?
On this visit to Rome Galileo also had an audience with the Pope, Paul V, during which he seems to have made such a favourable impression that afterwards church dignitaries vied with one another to do him honour. In brief, the trip was an unqualified success, a triumph for Galileo and his telescope, Indeed the Florentine Cardinal del Monte wrote to the Grand Duke to say that, during his stay in Rome, Galileo, "had given the greatest satisfaction." As far as Galileo was concerned, he was overjoyed with the reception he had received; his telescopic observations had been confirmed by the highest astronomical authority in the land; he had the support and friendship of Prince Cesi and, it seemed, the sympathy at least of a prelate as senior as Cardinal Barberini. Church and society were on his side; what more could he ask?
Although many people agreed with many of Galileo's
ideas, the academic community itself was convinced, along
with Roger Bacon and others, that the new teaching was
false, nonscientific and against the whole scheme of
Aristotle-a most important objection (Barbour,
1971:32-33). These reasons were the primary basis for t
Church's later objection, although pressure from t
academic community forced a crystallization of th
views. The Holy Scriptures were used to condemn
theory primarily because they were universally believed
be the supreme authority in matters of science, as well aass
other areas (Gerard, 1908:344) and thus it was felt more e
fective to condemn heliocentricity on scriptural groun
than scientific grounds, although much of the actual obj
tion was on "scientific grounds."
Publishing in the vernacular of the people caused serious problems. The new doctrine was startling for the learn but the masses were largely incapable of forming any so judgment concerning the theory. The Church felt Galileo' boldness was premature. In addition, most individuals the time who were well educated were, in some way, connected with the Catholic church or another church. Some of these individuals took it upon themselves to conddemnn theory and used their influence in the church to add weight to their condemnation (Ronan, 1974:145).
A further problem was that some of the radical elements of the time, such as The Skeptical Party, which aimed at overthrow of all religions, lent Galileo its support. Galileo's association with these groups did not help, and probably did much harm to his cause.
Ronan (1974:131-132) summarizes the development of the opposition as follows:
The Church has been painted as the enemy of science, when actually the professors, the "scholars,." and the establishment were the real enemies of science.
Galileo returned to Florence in June 1611, flushed with success, quite unaware that storm clouds were already gathering, generated by a body of dissident professors at Pisa who, for further support, had allied themselves with a set of courtiers at Florence. They were all jealous of the special treatment Galileo was given, of his large salary and of the continual favours bestowed on him personally by the Grand Duke. In addition, the academies were furious that this braggart of an anti-Aristotelian should be in a position to promote his iconoclastic views. He must be attacked, but since his astronomy was receiving such adulation, it seemed better tactics to leave this alone and do battle on problems of physics. Led by Ludovico delle Colombe, an arrogant academic, they decided to begin in the restricted intellectual atmosphere of Florence where Galileo had the fewest allies, rather than in Pisa where he would receive more support, and they met to argue in Filippo Salviati's villa.
Upon hearing that some persons denounced his doctrine as anti-scriptural, Galileo presented himself in Rome in December of 1615. He was received courteously and endeavored to present the position that the Scriptures intend to teach men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. For reasons which are not entirely clear, but largely due to the pressure from the academic community as channeled through the church, Galileo declared that his system was scientifically false and unscriptural. He then promised to stop teaching it. Part of the situation which led up to this was as follows (Ronan, 1974:144-145):
If the full implications of the sunspot controversy were to take time to manifest themselves, there was another more immediate danger that Galileo had to face in 1613. Ludovico delle Colombe's anti-Galileo faction, disappointed with the way the argument on floating bodies had gone, decided that it was time to carry the attack on Galileo into court circles, and to shift the emphasis from problems in physics to the far more dangerous ground of religious fidelity. Formal court banquets, provided suitable occasions, and one day, when Galileo was not present, the opening salvo was fired by the pious Dowager Grand Duchess Cristina who raised the question of the religious orthodoxy of the Copernican view. Unwittingly primed by Boscaglia, the university's strongly pro-Aristotelian professor of philosophy, the Grand Duchess questioned the Benedictine monk Benedetto Castelli, who was a well-known pupil of Galileo's, asking him whether a moving Earth was not contrary to the Scriptures.
The Inquisition's actions have been greatly stressed by those endeavoring to present the view that historically religion has opposed "scientific truth" where the scientists themselves supported their colleagues. It is true that the heliocentric theory was liter almost universally accepted to be factual and the geocentric theory false; nonetheless, at the time there was not sufficient proof for the heliocentric theory and most authorities were convinced of the truth of the geocentric position (Ronan, 1974). In addition, the Church has opposed a number of so-called "scientific" theories which were later found to be inaccurate or false, and did not oppose many ideas and theories which they probably should have, such as Nazi theories of racism. Likewise, the Church has not opposed many theories which, at first, seemed to be totally wrong, but eventually were demonstrated to be valid.
In the case of the heliocentric theory, the Catholic Church did not object to its being taught as a hypothesis which explained certain phenomena in a simpler way than did the Ptolemaic system of eccentrics, epicycles, etc. Nor did the Inquisition State that the theory contradicts Scripture, but only that it "appears to contradict Scripture" (Gerard, 1908). In addition, the authors of the judgment did not consider their opinions to be irreversible. Cardinal Bellarmine, the most influential member of the sacred college, writing to Foscarini, a theologian who was one of Galileo's strongest supporters, stated that
if a real proof be found that the sun is fixed and does not revolve around the earth, but the earth round the sun, then it will be necessary, very carefully, to proceed to the explanation of the passages of Scripture which appear to be contrary, and we should rather say that we have misunderstood these than pronounce that to be false which is demonstrated" (Gerard, 1908:305; see also Drake, 1957:163-164).
Bellarmine added that, because of the scientific evidence against the new theory, it is unlikely that it will ever be accepted (Drake, 1957:164).
We are not attempting to apologize for or excuse the actions of the Inquisition, but are trying only to understand them under the circumstances of the time. Indeed, a review of the actions of the Inquisition should help us understand the abuses of religion. Unfortunately, individuals often cloak their own beliefs with a religious cover and endeavor to defend them on these grounds (Drake, 1957). It would seem advisable that all individuals connected with a religious system should be thoroughly familiar with these events. Yet, the fact is that the Church was far less dogmatic and hostile to the new theory than were the secular academicians.
When Galileo left Rome, he evidently did not intend to uphold his promise to support the geocentric system but "lost no opportunity of manifesting his contempt for the astronomical system which he had promised to embrace" (Gerard, 1908:345). In 1624 he went to Rome, evidently to try to have the former judgment annulled. He was met with it a noble and generous reception" (Gerard, 1908:345) partly because the reigning Pope, Urban VIII, had been his friend and had openly opposed his condemnation in 1616. Urban VIII even conferred upon Galileo a pension which was actually an endowment of science itself and, in particular, of Galileo's contributions (Brewster, 1841). Yet, the Inquisition had little choice but to condemn Galileo for going against his word, and Urban VIII refused to go against the judgment, probably because the weight of science at the time was against Galileo (Santillana, 1955).
Galileo returned to Florence and in 1632 published a scathing attack against the geocentric system. This was interpreted by the Roman authorities as a direct challenge and he was therefore again cited before the Inquisition, Ironically, he endeavored to maintain that since his trial in 1616 he had never held the Copernican theory, but had faithfully kept his pledge. It should be noted that he was called before the Inquisition only twice, in 1616 and in 1632. He did visit Rome in 1624, but this was at his own volition.
The Inquisition was obviously not very impressed with Galileo's denial that he had never promoted the Copernican theory, especially in view of his book published in 1632. As punishment, he was not mistreated or even imprisoned, but was required only to recite seven Penitential Psalms once a week for three years. Galileo spent altogether 22 days in the buildings of the Holy Office (the Inquisition) and even then he lived in the spacious, well furnished apartment of an official of the Inquisition (Nash, 1929). For the rest of the time he lived with friends, "always comfortable and always luxurious." He was treated courteously, with a great deal of respect.
He was not brought before the Inquisition again, and lived his life researching and writing about his theories. The interference of the Church in his work was actually minor. When Galileo was dying, Pope Urban VIII sent a special blessing to him. He was interred in consecrated grounds within the church of Santa Croce, at Florence, an honor given only to men viewed as faithful Catholics by the Church.
The heliocentric system was never condemned by any Pope, but only by the Congregation of the Index (commonly called the Inquisition), an organization which, while it was supported by the Church, occasionally acted against the wishes of the Pope and other Church officials.Some Conclusions
Although the case of Galileo is often used to support the contention that the Church, and religion in general opposed scientific progress, actually the opposition came primarily from the academicians and the secular as well as sacred universities. It must be remembered that the professors at the religious universities were primarily teachers, even though many were nominal, and a few, devout Christians. The opposition was primarily on philosophical grounds, not religious (Barbour, 1971:32-33). Religion was used only to support their arguments because it was felt opposition on these grounds would be more effective.
As Walsh (1911:385-386) stated ". . it was not Ecclesiastics [who refused to look through his telescope] but professors of science at the University of Pisa, who were quite as unsympathetic towards certain of his astronomical discoveries as were any of the Ecclesiastic of his time."
Santillana (1955), the eminent scholar and Professor of
the History and Philosophy of Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concludes that the Galileo incident
occurred primarily because Urban VIII based his decision
upon a paper prepared by several scientists which was
objectively present all the evidence on the controversy.
Actually, the scientists gathered all the evidence they
find in support of the geocentric system, and all the
dence against the heliocentric system.
Santillana (1955-.xii), from his extensive research on topic also concluded that:
Santillana (1955:xii) added that
the long-drawn-out polemic is not strictly ... one between the confessional and the anticonfessional faction. It has been made to look like that; in reality it is a confused free-for-all in which prejudice, inveterate rancor, and all sorts of special and corporate interests have been the prime movers. Those who dragged and keep dragging the Church into it are no candid souls. As L'Epinois says rightly, the church has all to gain and nothing to lose from the truth.
it has been known for a long time that a major part of the Church intellectuals were on the side of Galileo, while the clearest opposition to him came from secular ideas. It can be proved further ... that the tragedy was the result of a plot of which the hierarchies themselves turned out to be the victims no less than Galileo--an intrigue engineered by a group of obscure and disparate characters in strange collusion who planted false document in the file, who later misinformed the Pope and then presented to him a misleading account of the trial for decision.
The church relied upon the scholars to decide the truth and the scholars both deliberately and innocently misled Church into supporting their incorrect position.
Church ended up in the middle of the controversy, and used by the established academic powers in order to maintain their position. The Church has been painted as the enemy of science, when actually the professors, the "scholars," and the establishment were, in this situation, the real enemies of science. The same is often no less true today.REFERENCES