Conflict of Church and Science – The Problem With Galileo


In the world of modern day university researchers the rules are clear and simple: publish or perish. This rule is too often re-interpreted to mean that your prospects of timely promotion hinge on the number of papers you publish. And often enough, one finds evidence of the unintended effect of the rule of the game in large numbers of sterile academic papers being churned out from universities.

But there was a time in the past when the security of job and prosperity as a university teacher did not depend on how many papers you published. Research was not a driving force in the universities. Original thought and innovation was not encouraged. Welcome to the world of the ivory towers of seventh century Europe. A world that included on the list of academic staff of a prestigious university in Italy, the name of the famous Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).

Indeed, Galileo was a square peg in the round hole of the academic professional world of his time. In Galileo’s days God ruled the academic world from heaven by the deputation of his archangel Aristotle. Aristotelian philosophy was the holy grail, and anyone contradicted Aristotle’s position on any matter at dire risk to himself. Then came along this enfant terrible, a clear thinker, admittedly; brilliant and insightful, irresistibly forceful in marshaling logic in defense of his theories, but at the same time annoyingly flamboyant, caustic tongued man who simply did not suffer fools gladly and was too readily given to putting people less intellectually endowed in their place. In short, the assortment of personality traits in Galileo was perfect recipe for making enemies in the type of conservative environment in which he found himself.

It has for too long been thought that the conflict over Galileo’s ideas was primarily one of a conflict between Church and Science. The evidence, however, is that Galileo’s first and greatest enemies were his colleagues, the Liga, at the university, who found it convenient to recruit the powers of the church and state in their support.

Galileo’s famous astronomical discoveries in 1609 and 1610 were made while he was in Padua, Republic of Venice, where he held the Chair of Mathematics. Padua was under the authority of the Doge of Venice who was very well disposed to Galileo and willing to protect him. Galileo, on August 1609, made a demonstration of a telescope which had originally been invented by the Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershey in 1608. Galileo heard about the invention and from information available to him he built one of his own(he hadn’t actually seen Lippershey’s telescope). With his telescope Galileo discovered the four satellite bodies revolving around Jupiter. But more importantly, Galileo used his telescope to test the theory of a heliocentric solar system that had previously been proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus(1473-1543). Galileo discovered that Venus goes through phases like the moon, indicating that it must revolve around the sun such that we see different parts of its daylight side at different times. His demonstration of the new equipment, with obvious military uses, so impressed the Doge that his salary was doubled and he was granted lifetime tenure as a professor at the university. This aroused the envy of some his colleagues who must have felt that he should not have been so rewarded since the telescope really was not his invention.

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But Galileo, soon after, took the decision to go to Tuscany where he had been offered the position of Chief Mathematician and Philosopher to the Duke of Tuscany. At Tuscany, he cultivated the opposition of a group at the core of which were the university professors in Florence. These soon managed to drag the church into their conflict with Galileo. The first sign that the Church had taken interest in the conflict between Galileo and his colleagues was in 1614 when a church preacher, in Florence, declared all mathematicians agents of the Devil who ought to be banned from Christendom. But Galileo, by this time, had become popular with the masses, for his works were written in the vernacular of the people, and not Latin, which was the language of the educated elite of his time.

In 1615, Galileo was accused of denial of the scripture by his enemies. Historians are generally of the opinion that Galileo made several mistakes in his debate with his opponents. First, he allowed himself to be drawn into theological issues in which he had no expertise. Some historians also point out a pride in him which made him try to prove Copernicanism without acknowledging the work of Kepler(1571-1630), and the massive data from Tycho Brahe(1546-1601). After a long and rather messy affair, he was sentenced to imprisonment and ordered to stop spreading his views on the “mobility of the earth and the stability of the sun.” His books, the Dialogue, and Two Prinicpal World Systems, in which he had argued in defense of “Copernicanism,” were prohibited.


Source by John Thomas Didymus