10th Grade: The Galileo Myth

This week we continued with many of the same themes as last week, with a special focus on Galileo.

Thomas HobbesBefore tackling him, we looked at the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ concerned himself mainly with outlining his vision of a workable political system, but he was strongly influenced by the tenor of the times.  Hobbes, like Descartes before him, believed that getting at the truth meant reducing the world to its simplest, most understandable components.  If we dig deep enough, we will finally find an irreducible foundation.  For Descartes, it was thought, and Hobbes builds his politics on the concept of motion.  Mankind, for Hobbes, was in many ways “matter in motion.”

The Scientific Revolution did indeed change many things, and this concept of knowledge may have been at the heart of those changes.  The Medieval philosopher would have argued that to see a thing truly, it must be seen as a whole of many parts.  Not only that, they would have gone further and said that to know a thing, one must know its purpose, its end, its “telos.”

Galileo continued the revolution in other facets of thought.  Copernicus had established the possibility of a heliocentric universe in the 16th century, and while his ideas did not gain wide acceptance, Copernicus was not a controversial figure.  Aristarchus of Samos had, in fact, proposed a similar theory in the 3rd century B.C.  Galileo caused controversy by proposing a new idea of how we arrive at truth, and blurred the lines between theory and fact.  In 1543 a man named Osiander wrote in the preface to Copernicus’ work that,

[W]hen from time to time there are offered for one and the same motion different hypotheses…, the astronomer will accept above all others the one which is easiest to grasp. The philosopher will perhaps seek the semblance of the truth. But neither of them will understand or state anything certain unless it has been divinely revealed to him…. So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it.

Owen Barfield, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, wrote in his Saving the Appearances, that Galileo

began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only ‘saved the appearances,’ but was physically true.” What they professed was in fact a new theory of the nature of theory; namely that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth.

What (I think) Barfield meant by the idea of “saving the appearances” was the old idea that our notions of scientific truth should do their best to explain the reality that we see around us, to preserve the validity of the senses.  However, this was always recognized to represent our “best guess” and may not reflect actual truth.

But after Galileo the burden of proof shifted.   Arthur Koestler writes in his book The Sleepwalkers that,

if theologians could not refute Galileo their case [would] go by default, and Scripture must be reinterpreted.  This implied (though Galileo did not dare state it explicitly) that the truth of the system was rigorously demonstrated. It is all so subtly done that the trick is almost imperceptible to the reader and, as far as I know, has escaped the attention of students to this very day. Yet it decided the strategy he was to follow in the coming years.

Galileo was right about the Earth’s rotation around the sun, though we would later discover that the sun, too, is in motion.  The issue that I wanted to stress to the students, however, was the fact that one can be right for the wrong reasons.  Many great scientific minds of this time were likely sincere Christians, but the ways which they reached their conclusions may have helped lead people away from Christianity.  True knowledge must involve more than what we see with our senses.

The Scientific Revolution also raised the question of how we should interpret Scripture.  To what degree should scientific discoveries impact how we read the famous passage about the sun standing still in Joshua?

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
 So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,

as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Of course the Church made mistakes at this time too.  In condemning Galileo they surely overreached and made themselves look silly, contributing to an unnecessary and unhealthy divide between science and faith that lasted for at least three centuries, from which we have fully to recover.