Thursday, October 29, 2009
In his non-stop thriller, 'Angels and Demons', Dan Brown explores the works of Galileo and his relationship with the Catholic church. In attempting to understand Galileo, we must morph back through the portal of time over 1,800 years before the Italian scientist, to the age of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322BC).
Aristotle's doctrine, that the universe was uncreated and had the earth at the centre of the cosmos, was widely believed and accepted in Galileo's day. It had survived eighteen centuries but the Renaissance Man was out to propose a new idea, and to prove it too.
At this point, we need to acknowledge another figure in the form of Copernicus (1473-1543). Just as John the Baptist was the forerunner for Jesus Christ, so Copernicus prepared the way for Galileo. His proclamation of a Sun-centred solar system with the planets rotating around the Sun, must have felt like somebody saying that humans would one day be zooming around the globe at unimaginable speeds in machines with wings...
Copernicus, friendly with the church, was however, roundly ignored in favour of the traditional Aristotlean theory.
A flurry of names appear in the early developments of Renaissance astronomy. Adding to the list now is that of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). The Catholic church, already slightly annoyed at Copernicus, became extremely agitated with Bruno as he bravely dared to vigorously promote Copernicus' heliocentric theory. With the church firmly rooted in their theory that God couldn't have put us humans anywhere but in the very centre of His universe, Bruno's repeated declarations to the contrary finally rubbed the church up the wrong way.
After spending seven seemingly unjustified years in prison, Bruno was given the opportunity to recant his position and support of heliocentrism, to which he refused. He was sentenced to death and burned at the stake.
And so the historical context is set for the introduction of Galileo Galilei. Those before him had insistently claimed that Aristotle's age-old theories were in fact untrue, making the church's interpretation of scripture similarly untrue, but without any justifiable proof for these statements. Heresy. Galileo, however, had something else up his sleeve. He made the planets and stars observable by his significant enhancement of the telescope.
His father, Vincenzo, had a great impact on his son, in particular his detest for those who blindly followed theory. "It seems to me that they who rely simply on the weight of authority to prove any assertion, without searching out the arguments to support it, act absurdly." A strong quote, especially in these somewhat fragile times where the Catholic church's authority on matters was expected to be final.
The church's 'blind' reliance on the sayings of a pre-Christ philosopher probably irked Galileo as he pondered his father's wise words. To him, the church was throwing all it's eggs into one basket without a semblance of supporting proof. To the church, Galileo was seen as a disturbance to doctrine that had been established for centuries, another Copernicus or Bruno rising in rebellion against the Bible, against authority, which was all-encompassing.
Richard J. Blackwell, Galileo scholar, explains how "since God is its author, every statement in the Bible must be true...the loyal Christian believer is required to accept it as true as a matter of religious faith." However, according to Charles Seife, author of 'Alpha and Omega', Galileo's insistence on the truth of Copernican doctrine provided a conflict, in that he "claimed that science could force theologians to change their views, rather than vice versa."
And so we arrive at the science versus religion dispute highlighted by Dan Brown in 'Angels and Demons.'
Galileo, despite the influence of his father, had nevertheless endeavoured to merge his scientific beliefs in accordance with those religious beliefs of the church. "Holy scripture and nature proceed equally from the divine word..." he maintained, whilst endorsing the view that "the Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." He deeply felt that the Book of Scripture, and the Book of Nature (whose secrets were unlocked by mathematics) were two distinct avenues to truth that shouldn't conflict with each other.
Being a staunch Catholic himself, perhaps Galileo was torn between making the truth of his observations known, and being politically correct by adhering to church doctrine, in the midst of a Protestant uprising. Through his telescopic observations, he had the right message, but unfortunately, it had arrived at the wrong time.
Galileo agreed, at the demand of Cardinal Bellarmine, to teach the Copernican theory as a 'hypothesis,' being forbidden to teach it as 'true.'
For the church, it wasn't so much a science versus religion issue, as Dan Brown would have us believe by merely reading his book, but was more of an authority issue. It was about how truth is learned and who has the authority to teach it. Galileo countered that there were two books - the Book of God (the Bible) and the Book of Nature (God's creation). Galileo intimated that the only people who were essentially qualified to interpret the Book of Nature were mathematicians. In other words, he was saying that theologians lacked the technical knowledge to comprehend the natural world.
The church could not accept playing second fiddle, filling in the blanks to science, with the Bible eventually becoming unnecessary as it was prone to human error in interpretation, whereas science dealt directly with nature, which was its own perfect interpreter. And where would moral values go in Galileo's purely mathematical world?
For fifteen hundred years of existence, the church had presided over all fields of intellectual and spiritual enterprise. And now one man, Galileo Galilei, sought to disprove, discredit, and undermine their current, and future, authority. It seems that Galileo just couldn't resist teaching what he had gazed at with his very own eyes in the heavens, as 'truth' and not a 'hypothesis', as he was commanded. And who could blame him, having seen celestial objects that no man had seen before, not even the Pope and Cardinals, who assumed authority over such things.
Maybe adding to the church's late hostility towards Galileo was the notion that he, and probably the church, saw himself as some kind of Prophet figure. In his book entitled "The Assayer" he wrote, "It was granted to me alone to discover all the new phenomena in the sky and nothing to anybody else." He died in captivity under house arrest.
In the end, the Catholic church made their biggest mistake in condemning Galileo's defence of Copernicanism, which theory later proved to be absolutely true. He was a man most definitely ahead of his time. However, the church had felt forced to make this harsh stance in light of the hostile political climate of the day.
Galileo's greatest and most significant contribution to the sciences was his creation of detailed observations to test theory. Einstein acknowledged him as the founder of modern science. John Castro concludes, "Galileo was right. Unencumbered by doctrine or prejudice, he opened the skies to the mind of man, and in so doing, inaugurated the modern age."