The Galileo Affair — Was the Inquisition Wrong?

Tycho System

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.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “The Galileo Affair — Was the Inquisition Wrong?

  1. As that semicolon indicates, the Inquisition were really a bunch of good guys, just trying to get the science right.

    I don’t think Haqq-Misra’s trying to claim the Inquisition were good guys. The point he’s making is actually I think quite a good one. (It’s easy to sneer about the semicolon, but punctuation often does play a large part in conveying meaning — remember the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves?) My only quibble with his argument would be that I don’t think the Tychonic model ever reached the level of “the scientific standards of their day”; my understanding — which may be wrong — is that the Tychonic system was generally regarded as little more than a curio (although the guy who instituted the modern system of naming the lunar craters believed in it, which is why he gave the name Tycho to such a whopping big crater!).

  2. So Galileo was convicted for contradicting “sound science”? Boy, we cam always trust the Vatican to support science!

  3. michaelfugate

    I think what most historians would say is that it was a different time and trying to impose our standards on theirs doesn’t make sense. Also searching for heroes by finding someone who shared a modern view is silly. Take people like Newton or Kepler – on one hand they were pretty advanced scientific thinkers while on the other they were just plain nuts viewed from our perspective. Which is correct?

  4. The following quote from the trial seems to me to convey the position of the church and it doesn’t support a ‘scientific’ view. “To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin.” So said Cardinal Bellarmine at the trial of Galileo in 1615.

  5. So we’re to believe the church preferred Tycho not because he confirmed scripture but because his science was better than Galileo’s?

  6. The sound science of that day was Aristotelian physics, which was known to be in conflict with Ptolemy’s system. For example, that the planets had to penetrate the spheres which carried one another. What Galileo had shown was that there was more problems with A’s physics – the big one is that there was no distinction between the sub-lunar world, an imperfect, changeable world made up of the elements, earth,water, air and fire; and the realm of the heavens, perfect, unchangeable, made of quintessence, with its own laws of circular motion. The hypothesis that the Earth was in motion was a secondary proposition in this challenge to A’s physics. Galileo had no direct observational evidence for the motion of the Earth. Galileo had observations of changes to the heavens, and how they were like the Earth.
    (Of course, this is a simplified version of what was going on. But it wasn’t as if Galileo pointed his telescope into the sky and saw that the Earth was moving around the Sun. The first evidence which is counted as “direct observational evidence” of the motion of the Earth was the measurement of stellar aberration, well after heliocentrism was no longer controversial.)

    This is interesting because today’s creationists rely in part on the claim (mistaken, but that is beside the point) that there is no direct observational evidence for the changes to “kinds”.

  7. No analysis of the Galilei trial is complete without mentioning him insulting the pope. That was not a sensible thing to do for a catholic in a time of religious wars. For some reason those who proclaim Galilei an antireligious hero always omit the fact that he was one. For probably the same reason they always omit the fact that Galilei was hardly punished (three weeks imprisonment in a three room apartment of the Duke of Ferrara) compared to especially Giordano Bruno. And they always omit Galilei maintaining that Copernicus’ model was the absolute truth, which is as unscientific as it can get.
    One source: Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers.

    Koestler wasn’t exactly a catholic.

  8. mnb0 says: “Galilei was hardly punished (three weeks imprisonment in a three room apartment of the Duke of Ferrara)”

    After the trial he was kept under house arrest for the remainder of his life. And his work was banned.

  9. For those who think that Darwin recanted on his deathbed and that should mean something for us evil-illusionists … Galileo recanted. Really.

  10. @mnb0

    One source: Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers

    That’s the account I was thinking of when I said I was under the impression no one paid much attention to Tycho’s system.

    There’s a further thing, and I can’t remember how much/if Koestler covered it, and that was that Galileo had pissed off large parts of the scientific community in Italy because of his arrogance and because people had great difficulty replicating his kinetics experiments — in fact, people reckoned (and reckon) that he faked quite a few of his results. Galileo’s response to the complaints was that they were idiots and he was a genius — hardly a tactic designed to enlist support for him when times got tricky. My guess is that a good chunk of the scientific community might have been only too happy to agree with the Inquisition that Tycho’s model was jolly good science, oh yes.

  11. The church had no business judging science in the first place, and to the degree that it did, it was whether or not the science agreed with church doctrine. If there was some popular “scientific” belief that bolstered the church’s position against Galileo, they might choose to reference it, but otherwise I doubt they considered it at all.

    The church’s opposition to Galileo was based his disrespect of the pope and, to a lesser degree, his propensity to spread his heretical idea that earth was not the center of all things.

  12. I encountered a nice theological conundrum involving punctuation once.

    As I’ve written elsewhere, I spent several unhappy years in a Seventh-Day Adventist grade school, targeted for conversion (and for abuse for resisting it). On one occasion I got into a debate with one of my teachers over the meaning of Luke 23, Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross next to his, which varies dramatically according to whether a comma is placed before or after the word “today”.

    If it’s after, then Jesus is saying that someday the thief will go to heaven, which squares well with fundamentalist beliefs that no one will do so until the Rapture and then after the Judgment. But if it’s before, then Jesus is saying that the thief will go to heaven that day–which is totally against the fundamentalist view. Since the original text contained no punctuation, it’s impossible to say with certainty which version is correct. (Quantum theology!)

  13. Sorry: the scripture reference should be Luke 23:43.

  14. Dave Luckett

    Eric Lipps, it’s a very good point. Where does the comma go? The answer is, nowhere. The original autograph text – which is the only version that’s inerrant, remember – has no commas, no punctuation of any sort. It consisted of script in capitals only with not even spaces between words.

    So evidently it was God’s intention that either or both readings should be possible. So much for controversy; it’s simply another mystery – a thing Man Was Not Meant To Know.

    Me, I rather like the implication: the only person in the whole of the scriptures who was promised paradise was a dying thief, and his only qualification for it was that he acknowledged his guilt and asked to be remembered.

  15. the only version that’s inerrant
    Remember that there are people who say that the KJV is the only version that’s inerrant.

  16. Punctuation is important. Traveling salesman with an ailing wife back home. Gets a telegram with a misplaced comma. Telegram read “Not getting any, better come home.” Bit of a changed meaning from moving the comma one word to the right.