Because the tale of Galileo’s conflict with the Roman Church has now become part of our modern mythology, it has doubtless been deconstructed and analysed to death. However, I think there are still useful lessons to learn from the episode even if it is not exactly the standard tale we are frequently told of a conflict between faith and reason, paradoxically I would argue, the problem with Galileo is that the Church was too mixed up with reason. That said, against the reactionaries, I do think there is a kernel of truth to the standard tale which I think bears reflecting.
We all know what the standard tale is. Galileo was a brilliant scientist who proved that the earth orbits the sun but those bigoted Church authorities refused to look into his telescope, reject the evidence of science, stubbornly stuck to their primitive faith, and had Galileo placed under house arrest. Thus was science persecuted by faith until even the Church could not deny the facts.
The standard tale makes two core claims:
(1) The science favoured Galileo and
(2) The conclusions of Galileo prima facie conflicted with the faith.
Most reactionaries will argue that both (1) and (2) are false, but I would suggest that while (1) is false, there is a kernel of truth to (2). And further, the implication of (1) being false is not that therefore the Church was enlightened in listening to the best science, but that it reveals precisely the pitfalls of contaminating the faith with reason.
Let’s review first “the science”. The science, as they say today, was firmly on the side of the Romanists. Kepler had yet to frame the formula for describing planetary orbits which would provide the decisive evidence for the heliocentric theory. Galileo’s own theory lacked evidence, was not more parsimonious because it still postulated orbits in circles (rather than an ellipse) and which still needed epicycles, could not answer substantive obvious objections to his theories without making up ad hoc explanations, and was against the prevailing consensus of astronomers of that time.
Thus, if, and this is a very big if, the Church was meant to be the responsible guardian of “the best” science and the the best conclusions of reason, then the Church cannot allow people to go round spreading crackpot theories against the best scientific consensus of the time. Today we literally have people sent to jail for protesting the faxcine and being censored for denying the scientific consensus, if there is an institutional responsibility to protect “the science”, then the Roman Church performed that task admirably. They were right to censor idiots going round denying the scientific consensus of the time.
However the question is whether we should infer a modus ponens instead of a modus tollens from this. If “defending the best science” means the fiasco of using force to censor the heliocentric theory, then we shouldn’t bother defending the “best science” after all because the “best science” can change from age to age. Why should the Church taint its reputation and bring into doubt the certainty of divine faith by conflating it with the transient claims of science?
I would as such suggest that the High Middle Ages synthesis of Reason and Faith ended, not with the “Enlightenment” but with Kepler and Newton. Remember the Church always had an ambiguous relationship with this attempted synthesis cumulating with the Condemnation of 1277. The Condemnation proved prescient in its wisdom to circumscribe and limit the attempt to synthesise reason with faith, rightly anticipating scientific developments which would overcome the limits of Aristotelian natural philosophy and the limits which such “natural law” would place on the divine power to design the world. However the Condemnation was rapidly forgotten and the Catholic Church became drunk on the potent mixture, proved later to be toxic, between the Christian faith and all too fallible human philosophy and reason. By unnecessarily conflating divine authority with the fallible conclusions of Aristotle and Ptolemy, the Church has unnecessarily tainted and sullied its reputation with the errors of the Greeks. This would be true even if in the future it were shown that maybe it is a relative matter whether the sun orbits the earth or the other way round. (There are some who have been making that argument with General Relativity, but apparently it is not something which is consistent with all celestial mechanics laws.)
However, that said, even if the Church did not attempt to defend “the best science”, back then of Ptolemy, could there still be grounds for censoring Galileo purely on a theological basis? We come now to (2), and that despite the reactionaries best efforts, *there is* a prima facie conflict here. It would be instructive here to understand the (in)famous Cardinal Bellarmine’s own take on this:
If there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.
Bellarmine here was clear that he was not dogmatic about the sun orbiting the earth, he could be compelled to reject it *if* there were a true demonstration of the opposite. Only the strongest of proof would compel him against it, but as already discussed, there were no such strong proof for the heliocentric theory. What is of interest here however is his frank admission that the heliocentric theory does, prima facie, “appear contrary” to the express wording of the Scriptures. As such, even if the Roman Church did not feel compelled to defend “the best science” of the day, there is still the consideration that the Church *does* have a responsibility to defend what is the “obvious” reading of the Scriptures that the sun does orbit the earth. In this sense there is a kernel of truth to the “faith vs science” conflict myth, there is a conflict between what faith appears to teach and what science claims to be.
In practical terms Christendom got over this “conflict” pretty quickly, Newton became a star in Western Christendom and was given pride of place and honoured, Western science and mathematics flourished under the aegis of state churches and Test Acts, and Western Christendom marched on with Evangelical revivals and massive missionary expansion across the world. Point (2) does however suggest that we should presuppose from an outset, a form of neo-orthodoxy about the Scriptures. Even if we should not conflate the conclusions of transient science with that of theology, nor yield theological conclusions to every passing fad of science, there is a sense here that we should be circumspect about the scope of theological truth claims in the Scriptures and be a bit ambiguous about how “factual” it is in the positive sense.
Today almost every conservative Christian accepts that the earth does orbit the sun, despite the “obvious” wording of the Scriptures. We may need a sort of theological doctrine that the Scripture’s main purpose is to teach us knowledge about revelation and the divine will, not about celestial orbits or Newtonian mechanics. Or we may need a sort of “Kantian” doctrine that the Scriptures tell us how it appears phenomenally subjectively to men, and what it means subjectively to them, rather than what is “truly” the case objectively. It is God’s communication to men after all for their salvation and faith.
Whatever our conclusions, I think despite the many myths and misconceptions of the Galileo incident, it does still raise questions which remains relevant to this very day.