This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series: Modern Myths (Sampson)
As everyone knows, it was Copernicus who made the epoch-making discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, and not vice-versa. The epoch that was ushered in by this discovery was the age of modern science. The earth was demoted from the centre of the universe to a speck of dust in a vast cosmos, and reason was enthroned as the all-conquering victor. The Christian church, so the story goes, tried it hardest to cling on to superstition and to frustrate the progress of science.
This putative conflict between science and Christianity is exemplified in the story of Galileo and the church. Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant, and to promise never again to teach that the earth revolves around the sun. For George Bernard Shaw, the matter is clear: ‘Galileo was a martyr, and his persecutors incorrigable ignoramuses.’ Ultimately, so the story goes, reason prevailed, and the Enlightenment took off. Science one, religion nil.
Sometimes, the conflict is represented as between the church as entrenched authoritarian power and science as liberating force. Christianity then becomes the agent and guardian not only of the ‘literal truth’ of the Bible but of an oppressive social order. Science, for Carl Sagan and others, unsettles prejudice and exposes myth, pointing the way to true humanism and social progress.
The Galileo story, writes Sampson,
is driven by the myth that there is an enduring opposition between religion and science. It tells of a modern world based on science and technological progress. By contrast, religion is based on faith rather than reason, and leads to superstition rather than science, to authoritatian oppression rather than to democracy.
In the received version of the story, Galileo is presented as the champion of reason. Armed only with a telescope, he stood against the might of the church, and its Bible. He was condemnd as a heretic, and wasted away in a prison cell. Italian science did not recover for centuries.
It is curious that it is Galileo, not Copernicus, who is the hero of this story. But the story would not work nearly so well with Copernicus as the main protagonist, because he was a Canon of the Church and enjoyed the Church’s support (in the persons of the Cardinal of Capua and Pope Paul III.
According to the story, the Bible teaches that everything moves round the earth, whereas Galileo showed that the earth moves round the sun.
Aristotle and Ptolemy
In the late Middle Ages, the dominant view of cosmology was that of Aristotle. In this model, the earth was at the centre of a series of rotating spheres. The nearest sphere carries the moon, and above this sphere all is perfect and unchangeable. All movement here is circular, all bodies perfectly spherical. The earth is not perfect or immutable. Movement takes place here linearly, and all matter falls downwards, towards the earth’s centre, which is the centre of the universe. This model was adopted, with some reservations and refinements, by Ptolemy.
By the beginning of the 17th century, various problems with this model had been recognised. Copernicus went back to the Pythagorean hypothesis that the sun, rather than the earth, is the centre of the universe. This was not without problems of its own, but it did allow for the order of the planets to be fixed. In other respects, Copernicus continued to follow the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic model.
It is widely thought that, prior to Copernicus, man had an exaggerated sense of his own importance in an earth-centred universe. God created the cosmos for us and placed us at the centre of it. The Copernican Revolution removed man from his place at the centre of the universe, instilling an appropriate humility and subverting Christian theology.
In Aristotelian thinking, however, man’s place on the earth did not instill grandiose and self-important ideas. The earth was at the centre, not because of its importance, because everything else was higher and purer. The centre was not the highest place in the universe, but the lowest. The 14th-century poet Dante places hell itself at the very centre of the earth.
If anything, Copernican thinking elevated man, because it placed him on one of the planets, one of the heavenly spheres. Galileo himself said:-
We seek to ennoble and perfect [the earth] when we strive to make it like the celestial bodies, and, as it were, place it in heaven, from which your philosophers have banished it.
The idea of the Copernican revolution putting man in his place within a vast cosmos was joined, in the 19th century, by the idea of Darwinian revolution putting man in his place on the earth. But the notion that the Enlightenment has instilled in us a modest humanism is misleading, since it makes man the centre and measure of all things in a much more potent sense than that wrongly attributed to pre-Copernican metaphysics. Darwin’s theory placed man at the very apex of nature. Defiant anthropocentrism is found in the writings of sceptics such as Bertrand Russell, not in those of the theologians.
Galileo was neither the inventor of the telescope, nor the first to turn it towards the sky. Contrary to the myth, he probably did not drop different-sized cannon balls from the tower of Pisa in order the investigate their rate of descent. Nor did he discover the dynamics of the pendulum or invent the pendulum clock, as is often stated.
Galileo’s actual achievements include the observation of sunspots, the irregularity of the moon’s surface, the phases of Venus, and the discovery of the four brightest moons of Jupiter. None of this proved to Galileo and his contemporaries that the earth revolves around the sun. What it did do was demonstrate the imperfections of the heavens, and that at least some bodies do not revolve around the earth. All of this challenged Aristotelian thinking, rather than biblical theology.
The fact is that in Galileo’s day there was insufficient evidence to show conclusively that the earth revolves around the sun. It was not a question of the church setting up a roadblock in the way of scientific progress: science had simply not progressed far enough at that time.
Why then was Galileo condemned in 1633?
Both Copernicus and Galileo delayed publishing their results for many years. They feared the ridicule of their fellow-astronomers. Copernicus’ book circulated for 70 years without any condemnation from the church. When Galileo finally published his view that the earth orbits the sun, he was feted by the Church hierarchy. Most of the opposition came from the secular side.
When Bellarmine was appointed by the Church to examine Galileo’s teaching, the main conclusion was that more evidence was needed before the heliocentric theory could be accepted as proven fact. That, as we have already noted, was entirely appropriate in the state of knowledge as it prevailed at the time. Bellarmine thought that the Copernican theory made ‘excellent good sense’.
Galileo, however was not content with this tentative approval. He attempted to buttress his beliefs about the earth’s rotation with an ingenious by erroneous theory of the tides, and argued that comets were a form of optical illusion. Further than this, he took it upon himself to re-interpret certain texts of Scripture in the light of Copernican thinking (this was in defiance of the Church’s have forbidden the interpretation of Scripture against the authority of tradition). Plus, he alienated his one-time friend, Pope Urban VIII.
It was Galileo’s book Dialogue Concerning the Chief World Systems (1632) that led to his trial. In that book, he effectively called the Pope a simpleton for not agreeing with Galileo. Galileo himself was convinced that the chief cause of his troubles was that he had made ‘fun of his Holiness’, rather than his theory about the rotation of the earth.
Far from being imprisoned for months in a dank cell and tortured, Galileo suffered an honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.
Scholars have long since abandoned the traditional myth about Galileo, but it continues to be replicated, partly because it is a ‘good story’, and partly because is suits certain people to assume that it is true.
We must be clear that it was Aristotle, and not the Bible, who taught that everything revolves around the earth. If the Church accepted an Aristotelian reading of, say, Psalm 19:4f, then it was no more, and no less, enlightened in its scientific thinking than the scientists of the day themselves. The view of Bellarmine, as has been noted, was that the Aristotelian interpretation should stand until more scientific evidence was available.
A real point of conflict between Galileo and the Church was on the question of authority. Was the Church the arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture, or is the meaning of the Bible accessible to all? In this, Galileo was nearer to Calvin and the other Reformers than he was to the Catholic Church.
The influence of Reformed thinking
Bertrand Russell thought that Calvin and the Reformers opposed Copernican thinking before the Catholic Church did. But Calvin does not seem to have even heard of Copernicus, although he does (in his commentary on Genesis, for example) make some very positive comments about scientific discovery. Certainly, Calvin refused to make the interpretation of Scripture subservient to Aristotelian tradition. In Genesis 1, for example, the reference to ‘the waters above the heavens’ is ‘such as rude and unlearned may perceive’. In taking this view, he stood in a long and noble line: Augustine had said that the Holy Spirit had ‘willed to make [the disciples] Christians, not mathematicians’. Aquinas said that God spoke to men ‘in the way men could understand and were accustomed to’. Bellarmine himself asserted that the ‘Holy Ghost intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go’.
But if Calvin refused to read Scripture through either an Aristotelian or a Copernican lens, it would nevertheless be a mistake to think that the Reformation did not have an impact on the rise of modern science. It is well known that science flourished in northern Protestant Europe, and a high proportion of the leading scientists in the 17th century were Protestants. According to Bertrand Russell, this can be explained by appealing to the fact that the Protestant Church would have liked to have resisted scientific progress, but had less power to do so than the Catholic Church. But this view is largely discredited today.
Reformers such as Calvin on the one hand, and pious scientists such as Newton on the other hand believed that careful observation and investigation of creation would bring glory to the Creator.
Four aspects of the influence of reformation thinking on the scientific movement may be noted:-
First, biblical thinking de-deified nature. In the Platonic view, there was no sharp distinction between God and nature. Indeed, nature itself was often personified as a goddess. Such a view promoted superstition and magic, and militated against the biblical command to ‘subdue’ the earth. By rejecting this view, the Reformers paved the way for free enquiry of the natural realm. And, whereas many Enlightenment philosophers saw progress as consisting in an assault upon nature (so that ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ becomes ‘the earth is ours and we can do what we like with her’; dominion becomes domination) Calvin and others understood God as Creator, entrusting his world to humankind, and giving us stewardship over it.
Second, biblical thinking promoted dominion, rather than domination. The Bible teaches us not only to learn about the wonders of God’s creation but also to exercise dominion over it. This provides a mandate for the development of technology. But we should do this with respect for the Creaotr who loves and care for his handiwork, and in love and service of one another. This idea of working with, rather than against, nature is reflected in the Puritan opposition to cruelty towards animals.
Third, biblical thinking emancipated reason. In Greek thinking, reason constrained, rather than enabled, investigation of the natural world. They reasoned, for example, that the heavenly bodies must be perfect, and therefore must have circular orbits. Galileo’s hero finds himself constantly offering observations in response to his Aristotelian anti-hero’s reasons. The Reformation identified reason as dependent upon God, rather than as a separate form. In doing so, it set reason free to investigate God’s wonderful creation. Calvin regarded the creation as a ‘mirror in which we ought to behold God’.
Fourth, biblical thinking recognised the place of covenant law. God was seen as the great law-giver, and men therefore expected to observe lawful regularities. For Newton and others, scientific experiments discovered God’s activity in the world. Most modern scientists have forgotten what their forbears were well aware of, that the metaphysical foundation for their work lies in the biblical concept of God and creation.
The Galileo myth was developed by French Enlightenment thinkers as part of their anti-clerical propaganda, and picked in the post-Darwinian era as part of the story of conflict between science and religion. In the myth,
Science carries the shield of tolerance and enlightenment with which to defend democracy against the invasion of religious superstition. Religion, on the other hand, fights a rearguard battle, sniping irrationally at new discoveries, and cruelly oppressing the scientists whenever it gets the opportunity.
The polarisation is unfounded and unhelpful. It silences debate, and drastically reduces the chances that theology can guide science, and vice-versa. Science and biblical faith should be regarded as friends, not foes. It is certain that the scientific enterprise unguided by faith in a loving and purposeful Creator is capable of wreaking untold harm, as well as achieving great good.
Based on Sampson, Six Modern Myths Challenging Christian Faith, 27-46.