Trial of the Centuries
Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. Maurice A. Finocchiaro. xii +
485 pp. University of California Press, 2005. $50.
Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992, by Maurice A. Finocchiaro, is
testimony to the extraordinary persistence of the controversy over
Galileo's famous conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, not only
in the world of academic scholarship but also in the wider fields of
intellectual and cultural life. The book covers both the original
affair, culminating in the trial and condemnation of Galileo by the
Church in 1633, and the subsequent affairs of the affair—the
ongoing attempts to understand the original events. Finocchiaro
explores the interaction between the historical facts and the
cultural myths that constitute the retrials of Galileo—the
repeated examinations of "whether, how, and why his
condemnation was right or wrong."
The book is an invaluable resource and a landmark—a uniquely
comprehensive survey of the twists and turns of the Galileo story.
Finocchiaro's rich historical narrative illuminates such perennial
questions as the conflict between science and religion and the
conflict between individual freedom and institutional authority. The
philosophe Jean d'Alembert, for example, saw Galileo's
trial as epitomizing an inherent conflict between science and
religion. However, Voltaire, who was perhaps the first to compare
Galileo's condemnation to that of Socrates, saw the affair as
illustrating the struggle between authority and free thought or
dissidence—a view presented in the 20th century in Bertolt
Brecht's play Galileo.
A key issue is whether the condemnation of Galileo was right or
wrong in several distinct senses—the theological, scientific,
philosophical, legal, moral, pastoral, practical and political.
Another intriguing, and still not fully answered, question is
whether the trial and subsequent centuries of controversy might have
been avoided. Thus Finocchiaro asks, "When and how did the
Galileo affair start, and who started it?" He suggests that the
original controversy was precipitated by the conservative Dominican
clerics Niccolò Lorini and Tommaso Caccini, who denounced
Galileo for his sympathy with the Copernican idea that Earth circled
the Sun, provoking the Inquisition to move against him. Also
relevant is Galileo's notable effort to give advice on matters of
scriptural interpretation—a practice contrary to Church
principles that were of primary concern to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.
The followers of Ludovico delle Colombe—disgruntled
Aristotelian philosophers derisively known as the "Pigeon
League"—deserve some blame as well. Galileo's
Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, published in
1632, shows how little regard he had for these men, whom he publicly
ridiculed. It is true, as legend has it, that some contemporaries
refused to look into Galileo's telescope, but these were not Church
scholars, as is commonly supposed; on the contrary, the Jesuit
mathematicians and astronomers, such as Christopher Clavius, had
their own telescopes and confirmed Galileo's startling observations
for themselves. Rather, the skeptics were the adherents to
Aristotle's doctrines, according to which imperfections in the
heavens were impossible. No doubt contributing to his fate, Galileo
provoked these philosophers, scoffing at their uncritical reliance
on Aristotle's text. When one of them died, Galileo quipped that
although the man had ignored the moons of Jupiter during his time on
Earth, he might discover them on his way to heaven.
Galileo's Dialogue precipitated a crisis by appearing to go
against both an injunction issued in 1616, which prohibited Galileo
from discussing the motion of the Earth, and an explicit warning by
Bellarmine that Galileo should speak only hypothetically about the
Copernican system. Although in his Dialogue Galileo did,
for cosmetic purposes, present the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian
Earth-centered view of the universe as well as the Copernican, he
gave preferential treatment to the latter and used the character
Simplicio, or Simpleton, an Aristotelian, to represent the former.
To make matters worse, Galileo appeared to caricature the Pope's own
favorite argument against Copernicus by putting it into the mouth of
Simplicio. Whether Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) was, in fact,
angered by this feature of the Dialogue and whether
Simplicio's position is, in fact, ridiculed are among the ongoing
disputes in the retrials of Galileo.
Finocchiaro notes that the Galileo affair and its reverberations
cannot be properly understood unless the philosophical,
instrumentalist notion of a hypothesis is distinguished from the
ordinary probabilist conception. In the former view, a hypothesis is
taken only to "preserve appearances" and to be merely an
instrument for convenient mathematical calculation, not a
description of physical reality that might be either true or false.
In the latter sense, a hypothesis is a tentative claim whose truth
is known only with some probability. Galileo's Copernicanism may
have been hypothetical in the second sense, but Bellarmine and the
1616 injunction required that it be so in the first, instrumentalist
sense. Although Galileo was forced to abjure, there is little doubt
that he believed the Copernican system to be literally true; he did
not regard it as just a convenient mathematical fiction, as
Bellarmine insisted. Nonetheless, as Finocchiaro points out,
Bellarmine's instrumentalist position has been regarded by
subsequent scholars as justifiable, and indeed, it remains a
respectable philosophical stance intensely debated today.
Nevertheless, the injunction that Galileo should speak of
Copernicanism only figuratively, ex suppositione, seems
gratuitous today. But the position of the Church at the time was not
as unreasonable as it may seem in retrospect, because the evidence
for Copernicanism was still equivocal. A central, and still
disputed, question is the exact sense in which Copernicanism would
have needed to be "demonstrated" in order to force a
reinterpretation of the Bible, as Bellarmine himself conceded might
be necessary. Galileo proposed the tides as clinching evidence for
the geokinetic theory, and although he was mistaken, the logical
structure of his argument conforms with modern conceptions of
"inference to the best explanation." Of course, this kind
of explanation was a novelty at the time, but one that an ordinary
person not blinkered by Aristotelian orthodoxy could appreciate. It
was for this reason that Galileo appealed over the heads of the
scholars to the literate public by writing his Dialogue in
the vernacular Italian, "the idiom of fishwives," as
Brecht puts it, instead of Latin.
The retrials of Galileo began immediately after he was convicted in
1633 of "vehement suspicion of heresy," which was not the
most serious charge that could have been brought. Finocchiaro
recounts fascinating events, including the removal of a special
Vatican file of the trial proceedings from Rome to Paris by
Napoleon, the file's disappearance in 1814, and its retrieval and
return to Rome in 1843. Among the intriguing episodes is a
description of the decision of the Inquisition to finally allow
publication in 1820 of an astronomy textbook treating the Earth's
motion as a fact. Finocchiaro recounts that although the general
prohibition against Copernicanism had been removed in 1758, not
until 1822 were Catholics in general permitted to accept the motion
of the Earth, and not until 1835 were the specific books of
Copernicus and Galileo removed from the notorious Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
Contributing to the wider cultural mythology of the Galileo affair
has been Arthur Koestler's bestselling 1959 history of early
astronomy, The Sleepwalkers. Finocchiaro lambasts
Koestler's book as sophisticated sophistry, calling it "the
most serious indictment of Galileo since the original trial,"
going so far as to debunk science itself.
Finocchiaro regards Koestler's charges against Galileo as comparable
to those of Brecht, who wrote the first version of Galileo
in 1938, later revising the play to suggest that Galileo was to
blame for the atomic bomb as well as the Industrial Revolution.
Finocchiaro notes that more people have been led to reflect on
Galileo's trial by Brecht's dramatization than by any other single
cause. In addition to containing minor historical solecisms, the
play contributes to a widespread myth that Galileo's ideas met
opposition because they undermined an anthropocentrism that was felt
to be essential for human dignity and the meaningfulness of life.
Brecht does not mention the question of the scientific authority of
the Bible, which was, in fact, the central issue.
Of perhaps even greater relevance today was Brecht's widely shared
conception of his play as depicting not the struggle between science
and religion, but rather the conflict between authority and
independent reason. Finocchiaro quotes Brecht, who had this to say
It would be highly dangerous, particularly nowadays, to
treat a matter like Galileo's fight for freedom of research as a
religious one; for thereby attention would be most unhappily
deflected from present-day reactionary authorities of a totally
Brecht's warning is echoed by Galileo scholar Stillman Drake, who
said in 1966 that "if Galileo's case symbolizes anything, it
symbolizes the inherent conflict between authority and freedom
rather than any ineradicable hostility of religion toward
science." That is, Galileo's crime was dissent.
Nowadays, as leading intellectual Noam Chomsky has pointed out,
"It is understood that science survives by constant challenge
to established thinking." Therefore "successful education
in the sciences seeks to encourage students to initiate such
challenges and to pursue them." That is, instead of
indoctrinating and imposing obedience, education should be
subversive. I share Chomsky's view that these "liberatory
ideals" should permeate our educational system and extend
beyond it, to the benefit of individuals and society.