October 2, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Galileo Affair: Plenty of Blame to Go Around

What is the true account of Galileo Galilei’s troubles with the Catholic church?  We may never know.  Complex historical events are often difficult to interpret, and new details sometimes shed different light on commonly-accepted views.  One thing does seem certain, according to Thomas Mayer, historian at Augustana College, Illinois: “The notion that Galileo’s trial was a conflict between science and religion should be dead.”  He told this to Live Science in a report about new findings showing a new angle on the 17th-century trial of the eminent astronomer and physicist.
    There’s a difference between simple and simplistic.  Many adults grew up with the simple explanation that Galileo was a heroic victim in a classic clash with religion.  It was the theme of 19th-century books intent on exalting science by bashing the church – books now almost universally deplored as simplistic and wrong.  A clash existed, but its causes are multiple and intertwined.  Mayer has been poring over Inquisition documents and finding that many of them are just sloppy.
    While that’s a blot on the church, Galileo made his share of mistakes.  He could have avoided a lot of his troubles with a little research into the rules about negotiating a settlement, but he apparently didn’t.  Mayer says he “didn’t know the rules and deliberately kept himself ignorant of them.”  He contradicted himself, and “he made every imaginable mistake” in the second part of his trial, Mayer believes.
    Mayer is trying to understand the players as “human beings as opposed to cardboard cutouts” as they are often portrayed.  The Galileo Affair was not a simple, good-guy-vs-bad-guys story.  The nuances won’t diminish Galileo as a hero, nor exonerate the church for persecuting him, but it will surely make the story more interesting than a melodrama.

Could your entire life be reduced to a few episodes that would give a true picture of yourself?  That’s what we’ve done to Galileo.  Like the Scopes Trial, the Galileo Affair has been for too long a “cardboard cutout” story that has colored perceptions of the relation of science and religion.  Sometimes knowing more detail won’t change the conclusion, but it will significantly alter the route by which you arrive at it, and make the journey much more interesting.  It also softens hatred of villains into a kind of reluctant empathy when you understand their times and motivations.  Galileo remains a fascinating character, but if you want a better role model, check out Kepler.
Comment on historical interpretation
It’s common for history professors nowadays to emphasize that characters need to be evaluated in the context of their times and cultures.  It is not right, they say, for us to judge them by our cultural values; we need to put ourselves in their shoes and see the world as they saw it.  This is sensible as far as it goes, but taken too far, it can lead to a kind of relativism that is self-refuting.  To see why, picture a history professor, Dr. Smith, 400 years from now evaluating a history professor, Dr. Jones, from 2010.  He says, “To evaluate Dr. Jones, we need to judge him by his context, which was to judge historical characters by their context.”  800 years from now, another history professor, Dr. Bennett, says, “To evaluate Dr. Smith, we need to judge him by his context, which was to judge Dr. Jones by his context, which was to judge his predecessors by their context.”  Infinite regress: no context becomes solid enough to provide a basis for evaluating anything.  Instead, there needs to be a foundation for truth and values that is fixed and eternal, by which all things can be evaluated.  The Bible provides such a foundation for “building on the rock” instead of the shifting sands of human opinion (Matthew 7:24-27, Psalm 119).  Works for science, too.

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