We often discuss Galileo, primarily because of the lessons to be learned from the Galileo affair. We’ve also written about the astronomical evidence he produced — see Creationism, Galileo and the Phases of Venus — in favor of the sun-centered solar system first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), about which see Copernican heliocentrism.
But there was also another astronomical model floating around — the one proposed by Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601), described in his Wikipedia write-up like this:
As an astronomer, Tycho worked to combine what he saw as the geometrical benefits of the Copernican system with the philosophical benefits of the Ptolemaic system into his own model of the universe, the Tychonic system. His system correctly saw the Moon as orbiting Earth, and the planets as orbiting the Sun, but erroneously considered the Sun to be orbiting the Earth.
Wild, huh? The sun-centered solar system, along with everything else in the universe, orbited the Earth! Wikipedia has a whole section devoted to the Tychonic system. In that article, we’re told that Tycho was trying to reconcile Copernican system with the bible. Tycho’s system is illustrated in the diagram above this post, which Wikipedia says is public domain. You can see the unmovable Earth sitting in the center of everything.
Tycho died in 1601, a generation before Galileo’s famous confrontation with the Inquisition. So why do we bother to bring this up? It’s because of what we just found in the Boston Globe: The Inquisition followed sound science. The newspaper has a comments feature.
Ponder that title, dear reader. For almost 400 years, the trial of Galileo has been cited as a classic confrontation of science and religion — yet here is an article claiming that the Inquisition was following “sound science.” It was written by Jacob Haqq-Misra. We’re told that he is “a research scientist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science.” Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:
Our historical understanding of the Galileo affair tends to implicate the church as clinging unnecessarily to a literal interpretation of the Bible, which required the faithful to accept the untenable theory of geocentrism. From elementary school onward, we’re taught that the church stood firmly athwart scientific progress, bellowing “Stop!” Indeed, the clash has gone down through the ages as a sort of morality play of science versus religion, pitting the proponents of progress against religious reactionaries. But what if that morality play itself is nothing more than dogma?
We know that Galileo’s ideas were correct, yet the best science of the 17th century tended to favor a universe with Earth at its center. Did the Inquisition rely too heavily on theology, or did its perpetrators instead judge Galileo according to the scientific standards of their day? In other words: Did the Inquisition get it right?
Can you believe this guy? After several paragraphs about Tycho Brahe and his model, we’re told:
The literal interpretation of scripture favored by the church remained in harmony with Tycho’s system, while heliocentrism roused both scientific and theological suspicions. Historical accounts of Galileo’s indictment often focus on the claim that heliocentrism is heretical, but Galileo could have been fairly criticized based on scientific arguments alone.
On Feb. 24, 1616, a team of 11 consultants to the Inquisition of Rome, hired to investigate a complaint filed against Galileo, issued a statement condemning the Copernican system that Galileo supported. The idea of the sun at the center was said to be “. . . foolish and absurd in philosophy; and formally heretical, since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”
Okay, we know that. However, we’re told there was another issue:
The words of this statement (written in Latin) have been accurately preserved in historical accounts, but a peculiar issue with punctuation suggests both scientific and religious reasons for implicating Galileo. A semicolon separates the clause about philosophy from the next about heresy; sometimes this appears as a comma, and other times the punctuation mark is omitted entirely. The difference is critical (in the original Latin as well): Did the inquisitor’s consultants charge Galileo for separate scientific and theological objections, or is the objection regarding philosophy simply a parallel statement about heresy?
Aha — it depends on the punctuation. Maybe they attacked Galileo not only for heresy, but also for bad science. Moving along:
Physicist Christopher Graney recently generated new high-resolution images of the original verdict, showing that the full semicolon rightfully belongs in history. The consultants, and the inquisitors that followed, all believed that scientific arguments provided sufficient grounds for objecting to Galileo’s ideas. The charge of heresy provided further reason to act, but the scientific case against Galileo remained strong.
Then why did the trial end with a confession of heresy? See — Recantation of Galileo. June 22, 1633. But Jacob Haqq-Misra tries to be even-handed:
The church had obvious theological reasons to prefer Tycho’s ideas over Galileo’s, but it also had contemporary astronomy on its side.
That changes everything! Or does it? Let’s find out. Jacob Haqq-Misra says:
The pronouncement by John Paul II [in 1992 that Galileo was correct] came only about 150 years after conclusive evidence for heliocentrism was possible. While this still betrays a stoic resistance of the church, we cannot retroactively convict the church of engaging in scientific slander against Galileo. When the brightest minds in Tycho and others could answer all questions scientific and theological better than Galileo, who were they to believe?
Are you feeling some sympathy for the Inquisition? Here’s one more excerpt:
Galileo was clearly ahead of his time, even while observations favored a cosmology that differed from his own. But there was no evidence of a grand conspiracy against Galileo and no falsified data or pseudoscience was invoked as an alternative. The church certainly had other motives than the pursuit of pure science, but it also chose to accept the science of the day rather than remain wholly ignorant.
So there you are, dear reader. As that semicolon indicates, the Inquisition were really a bunch of good guys, just trying to get the science right. Now you know.
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