Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church

Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church

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by Wade Rowland

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The modern understanding of the notorious 1633 trial of Galileo 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 this an accurate picture? 

In his provocative reexamination of

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The modern understanding of the notorious 1633 trial of Galileo 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 this an accurate picture? 

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? Rowland demonstrates that 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, 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 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 thoughtful exploration promises to disarm the most stubborn of skeptics and make for scintillating debate.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rowland seeks to dispel what he calls "the myth of Galileo": that he was attacked by an ignorant, closed-minded Church for having discovered the truth, which contradicted Church belief. Rowland (Ockham's Razor) argues that this traditional perspective on Galileo's 1633 trial is both simplistic and wide of the mark. Instead, he builds a compelling case that Galileo and the Church differed over something far more important than whether the earth revolved around the sun-they differed on the very nature of truth and how mortals can come to know it. Modeling the structure used by Galileo in his own book about Copernican theory, Rowland makes use of fictionalized dialogues to explore issues of epistemology and concludes that Galileo, by promoting the idea that scientific experiments alone can lead to a meaningful understanding of the natural world, was a very real threat to the coherence of the Church. Rowland does an impressive job of bringing the 17th century to life. It's important to note that, as he makes clear throughout, he believes that religion can allow for a comprehension of reality in ways that science cannot, and that many of the world's present ills are due to "the transition from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason," which Galileo helped accomplish and the wisdom of which Rowland seriously questions. Still, his book will appeal to most readers interested in the current debate about the relation between science and religion, and particularly to those who, like him, posit limits to the reach of science. 8 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Galileo's 1633 trial by the Inquisition has almost mythical status as exemplifying the conflict between enlightened science and the Church's ignorance. Historians of science have known that that is not the whole story and have explored various aspects of the conflict, from the cultural (James Reston's Galileo: A Life) to the political (Mario Biagioli's Galileo Courtier). Rowland's work takes these new views a step further. He agrees that the two sides were both attempting to realign their worldviews while maintaining control of the discussion, but he argues that the terms of the discussion are still being negotiated; Galileo's mistake was to insist that only science has true answers and deny a role for religion. Rowland uses the Church's dispute with Galileo, along with current philosophical trends, to argue that science provides not definitive answers but only changing models of reality and that there may be more than one way to the truth. Most historians of science would say that Rowland is correct in gauging the role of the Church in Galileo's trial, but this work is likely to be controversial in arguing that the Church still has a role today. Recommended for general and academic audiences.-Eric D. Albright, Tufts Univ. Health Science Lib., Boston Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A revisionist argument that the Catholic Church was right to try the father of astronomy on charges of heresy in 1633. Galileo's key error, Canadian historian Rowland finds, was not his advocacy of the Copernican scheme of the solar system, in which the planets rotate about the sun, but his contention that the scientific method is the sole means to determine truth. In support of this thesis, Rowland undertakes a detailed examination of the history behind Galileo's trial. While much of the material is undoubtedly familiar to students of scientific history, he presents with considerably more sympathy than usual nowadays the Church's position on scientific matters, hammered out over more than 1,500 years, with considerable effort devoted to accommodating the philosophies of first Plato, then Aristotle, within the orthodox worldview. Galileo's support of the Copernican system was a threat, Rowland contends, because of its unstated assumption that the nature of the universe can be learned from observation and reason rather than faith. Granted this premise, it is hard to argue with his conclusion that Galileo's prosecution was justified both by law and custom. Where many readers will part company with the author, however, is when he sets up Galileo as an embodiment of the failure of modern civilization to provide spiritual and human values. Much of this argument is presented in dialogues among Rowland, a secular friend, and an Italian nun in the context of the author's travels in Italy for research. These bring in considerable local Italian color as background and give the somewhat abstract points a more human face; on the other hand, they sometimes distort basic science in order to scoredebating points. Well-presented scientific history with an interesting philosophical twist: take with a grain of salt.

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Arcade Publishing
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!

leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
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