Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation Between Galileo and the Churchby Wade Rowland
The modern understanding of the notorious 1633 trial of Galileo by the Inquisition is that of Science and Reason persecuted by Ignorance and Superstition -- of Galileo as a lonely, courageous freethinker oppressed by a reactionary and anti-intellectual institution fearful of losing its power and influence. But is that an accurate picture of what actually happened? The disagreement between Galileo and the Church seemed to center on Galileo's belief in the Copernican theory, which holds that the Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun -- something we know to be true today. But was the debate really about the Copernican theory per se? If so, why was Copernicus never condemned? And why did the Church not bring to trial the other leading astronomers of the day who shared Galileo's Copernican views, some of whom were Jesuits in the Vatican? If the debate was not about this revolutionary theory of planetary motion, then what was it about?
In his provocative reexamination of one of the turning points in the history of science and thought, Wade Rowland contends that the dispute concerned an infinitely more profound question: What is truth and how can we know it? Ingeniously using the Socratic method -- a method Galileo himself employed -- the author demonstrates that in the epic confrontation between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, Galileo's mistake was to insist that science -- and only science -- provides the truth about reality. The Church rejected this idea, declaring that while science is valid, it provides mere models for reality, models that enable people to better understand and manipulate the world around us. Truth is a metaphysical issue -- beyond physics -- and it involves such matters as meaning and purpose, which are unquantifiable and therefore not amenable to scientific analysis. In asserting the primacy of science on the territory of truth, Galileo strayed from purely scientific inquiry into the theological realm, an act that put him squarely on a warpath with the Church. The outcome would change the world. Wade Rowland's intelligent, erudite, and thoughtful exploration of an event that would forever define the modern era promises to disarm the most stubborn of skeptics and make for scintillating debate.
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I first ran across the author, Wade Rowland, while I was taking an undergrad course in communications at Rutgers. His book, Spirit of the Web, was on the reading list and is a real gem, full of sharp insights and thoughtful social comment, all in all a great introduction to the history of communication technologies. The big bonus was that it was so readable. Galileo's Mistake picks up on some of the themes in Spirit of the Web (and I understand, his other book, Ockham's Razor which I haven't yet read) and goes into them in depth. The book is really about the problem of hegemonic science--the kind of science that insists that only scientific knowledge is valid knowledge and that all else is a waste of time or worse. Rowland identifies this philosophically with 'naive realism' or positivism, which was Galileo's Mistake. Positivism was discredited philosophically by the eighteenth century, and by scientists themselves in the twentieth century, with relativity and quantum physics. Rowland's point is that we live by our mythologies and the Galileo myth is foundational in Western culture. He wants to show how it's wrong and even dangerous and needs correction. Given the heavy-duty nature of the content, Galileo's Mistake is remarkably easy to read, because it's set up as a kind of travel narrative involving three chatty characters who like to talk about metaphysics. If only all philosophy books were like this!
In 1838 in Germany Friedrich Bessel accurately measured stellar parallax for the first time with an instrument he developed, his heliometer. Ten years later in France Jean Foucault developed, and 3 years later demonstrated his eponymous pendulum, perhaps the simplest, but no less profound instrument developed in physics. The observations based on these instruments, were the first real proof that the Earth rotated around the Sun while spinning on its axis and were made a little more than 200 years after Galileo Galilei stood before the Holy Inquisition in Rome accused of heresy. Nominally, Galileo's heresy was professing that the Earth moved in space and the Sun stood still. In fact Galileo was "wrong" in the sense that he had no real proof that the Copernican system of planetary motion was any more valid than the Ptolemaic one. Alternative models of planetary motion, including Ptolemy and especially that of Galileo's contemporary Kepler, were just as valid as that of Copernicus. Galileo was 200 years ahead of his time. Yet the myth that has persisted for some 4 centuries is that the tottering 70-year-old Galileo, innocent and totally "right" appeared before the Inquisition's ignorant cadre of prelates and, faced with threats of torture and death, was forced to ultimately recant his support for the Copernican world system. Galileo's trial has become the symbol of objective reason and science defiant in the face of superstition and ignorance - "Yet, it still moves!" Wade Rowland's contribution, Galileo's Mistake, to the voluminous literature on Galileo is, to this reader's knowledge, the first to tell a part of the scientist's story using his own literary style - a narrative dialog between real and fictitious characters who hold contrasting positions on the topic at hand - used by Galileo in his Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems - the book that landed him before the Inquisition. Rowland argues that the real reason for the charge of heresy against Galileo was not his adherence to the Copernican model per se, but Galileo's parallel belief that everything in the universe could ultimately be completely explained in mathematical terms; that defining a physical phenomena in mathematical terms was equivalent to seeing and understanding how God works. Rowland proposes that only Galileo's close friendship with then Pope Urban III as well as other influential prelates saved him from being burned at the stake for that heresy of mathematical determinism - the actual reason for his trial before the Inquisition, yet glossed over by his judges in a successful attempt to defray harsh punishment. Rowland's hypothesis may very well be true - he assembles several arguments along the way to counter numerous apparent inconsistencies in Galileo's words and writings. The author goes further in suggesting that his version of the Galileo story can serve as a model for modern science that has reached a logical, and amoral, "dead-end" - namely, that science needs to practice a measure of humility before nature, leave open the possibility of alternative explanations for reality, and, as a consequence, adopt an overarching philosophy that allows for the possibility of purpose and meaning as well as mechanism. A few pages of Notes with embedded references and a sprinkling of illustrations, one Appendix, but no Index, complete this work. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University