Galileo- The Mistake the Church Never Escaped From
One of the most powerful images in history is that of Galileo standing before the inquisition, forced to recant his belief that the Earth went round the Sun.
Legend has it, after his public recantation, he whispered under his breath 'But still it moves', meaning, the Earth.
That last bit, may be legend, but the fact is the trial happened.
And it is used over and again, to support the legend of a battle between the forces of reason and religion, as if the two have been eternal enemies.
Because this story is true, it allows other myths to survive; that the Church taught the world was flat, that the Church opposed Darwin, that the Church denies modern physics.
With regard to the first, it never happened, and we'll come to that.
With regards to evolution, the theory never provided much trouble for the Catholic Church, which even in the middle ages never insisted on a literal interpretation of Genesis. It embraced Darwin fully in 1908, two decades before the famous Scopes 'Monkey' trial.
Modern genetic theory was founded by a Catholic abbot, Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century.
The Big Bang too, has always been a favoured child of the Church, one of its first proponents being a Catholic priest, Abbe Georges Lemaitre, and being embraced by Pope Pius XII in 1953.
Generally, the record of the Church on Science has been exactly the opposite of its general perception, so how on Earth did it make this stupendous blunder, one which destroyed its reputation in matters scientific- to the degree that it will carry this on its shoulders for ever after?
First, it's worth understanding what Catholic Christianity was in the Middle ages, and in a sense remains.
In my opinion, Catholic Christianity, was something different to any religion that came before. It was the first ideology. It wasn't a series of myths designed to explain the World. It was a system of values, designed to alter the world.
And one of its key values- certainly within its structure- was its aim to understand the mind of God, to seek knowledge for its own sake. One of its initial attractions, why it won so many converts, was because it had intellectual appeal. It succeeded because it was taken in droves by the intellectuals of the Roman Empire.
Up till then, empires had come and gone, cultures had advanced and retreated. Christianity set up a structure the main aim of which, was actually the protection, dissemination and development of knowledge- the monasteries.
Its often forgotten the huge advances that were made in these places between the fall of Rome and the Voyage of Columbus.
For example, ancient medicine was purely concerned with the wounded. The sick were considered unclean, and excluded.
It was Christian Monks who first made efforts to understand disease and contagion- because of Scriptural teachings on lepers.
Christian monks sought out knowledge and devoured it, reworked it, analysed it, put forward fresh opinions.
And more. They did what the ancients had been less inclined to do. They experimented.
Empiricism has its roots in the 'Test it, prove it', approach of Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus and Wiliam of Occam- the man who first put forward the sound scientific principle of always assuming the simplest explanation, Occam's Razor.
We hide from history by not realising the reasons behind the explosion of the west onto the rest of the world in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It happened, because Europeans had lands which produced more people, dieing less and reproducing more than much of the rest of the world. They had more knowledge, more learning and more technology at their fingertips than any people they encountered. That's the brutal, controversial, but realistically unchallengeable facts.
And how had they achieved this?
After a thousand years of rule by an all powerful Church?
You see, it is undeniably true that the Church did use strongarm tactics to impose its authority, but impose it it did.
The advantageous position the West found itself in, is a direct result of the fact that after the crusades and the journeys of Christian Monks and Venetian traders bringing knowledge back to Europe, there was nowhere in the world where more knowledge was being collated and analysed anywhere in the world, than within the Catholic Church, in its monasteries and its universities.
Lets not forget, in those days universities were part of the Church.
It taught Aristotle, Plato, Galen- but also Muslim thinkers and scientists, Averroes, Avicenna, Al Geber (from whom the word algebra comes from). It never took the view that only the Bible provided answers. It didn't think the brains of pagans or infidels didn't work.
It also took the view that not everything in the Old Testament might actually have happened. Now that might seem startling. But it is nevertheless true. The medieval Church actually held, that some parts might be allegorical. Instead scholars looked for the hidden meanings. Genesis is a case in point. Many Church intellectuals doubted the time frame- some suggested Adam might be the first Jew, since a close reading of genesis implied God made other people first, maybe millenia before Eden.
In terms of the World and the Universe, the Church stood behind the best scientific model of the day, that of Ptolemy of Alexandria.
This stated- correctly- that the earth had a circumference of 25,000 miles. At the centre, was the point of gravity. Earth was at the bottom of the universe, clumped around this centre of gravity, then water (the oceans). For some reason, on one side of the globe, the land came out of the water- Europe, Asia, Africa, this was the world.
On the other side, just Ocean from Spain to Japan.
Think how big that ocean would be. Take the Americas off the globe, and imagine one Ocean, stretching across that distance.
Columbus wasn't derided, because people thought he'd sail off the edge of the world. He was derided, because it was assumed he'd starve.
Above the waters, was the sphere of air, stretching up 60,000 miles, then the sphere of the final element, fire.
All fire rose, to join the rest of fire, just as all earth sank, to reach the rest of earth. that how it worked. Lightening, comets etcetera, were events in the sphere of fire.
Fire stretched up to the Moon- correctly put at 320,000 miles away. They had its size and distance correct.
And then, the Universe.
Here most of the guesses were wrong. But they WERE founded on good observation.
The Sun was assumed to be about four and a half million miles away. That still meant it was twenty times the size of the Earth.
The rest of the planets, posed problems. They clearly didn't move in simple circles. We know now, this is because we are moving, and so are they.
But their movements were explained by Ptolemy by assuming each planet circled a point, which itself then circled the Earth.
Mercury, for example rotated every 88 days around a point which rotated annually around the Earth.
Mars on the other hand, rotated every 365 days around a point which rotated every 687 days around the Earth.
Now the fact that 365 days appeared somewhere in the rotation patterns of every 'planet', bar the Moon did mean, that the possible solution of everything going round the Sun had occurred to people before.
But rejected. And there was a very good reason for that.
At the edge of the universe were the stars. They didn't move. They were fixed in the firmament, seventy million miles away. The whole firmament rotated daily, east to west, around the Earth, carrying with it everything above the sphere of fire.
The fact is, when we see the stars, they look bigger than they are. We don't really see them, we see their light. But they ancients assumed, they saw their outline. They couldn't be as far away as we know them to be, because of how big they'd have to be- many, many times bigger than the largest planet, the Sun- which they assumed to be twenty times smaller than it is. They DID assume that several stars were as big as they assumed the Sun to be, therefore seventy million miles, was about how far away they'd be.
In which case, if the Earth DID move, we'd see changes over the year in the positions of the stars. They'd APPEAR to move.
They didn't. THAT was the scientific proof for the Ptolemaic system.
But Church thinkers weren't narrow minded. In 1378 the Archbishop of Paris started a debate by attempting to prosecute an author for suggesting multiple worlds. The Church came down on the side of the writer, saying it was unprovable that the creator HADN'T made other world like ours. No one could know. To say categorically he HADN'T would be to limit the possibilities of his omnipotence, thus the Archbishop should shut up.
Further, in the following century, leading Church thinker, Nicholas of Cusa, suggested that assuming the rotation of the Earth daily made more sense than ascribing it to the Universe.
Since no one could state WHAT was outside the universe, than it made no difference which was rotating, except that the Earth was smaller than the Universe, therefore it made more sense to assume the rotation of the Earth. If this was so, maybe the fixed stars weren't fixed in anything. Maybe what we saw was the distant light of other world like ours, with their own Suns and Moon circling them.
The Church made no ruling on this- it never felt it had to. Why?
Because no one was challenging its authority. Let these things be discussed. Eventually, truth would out.
Unfortunately, for these days of liberal thought, along came Martin Luther.
It wasn't just Indulgences, Papal corruption and the like that Luther fulminated against.
It was the eclectic thinking of the Church, its studying of pagan and infidel thinkers, its toleration (by his standards) of Jews, its views that bits of the old testament were true only in an allegorical, not a literal sense.
Luther taught that truth could only be found in scripture- well, those bits he liked. Catholics possess a bible with books Protestants don't possess, because Luther banished them. He tried to banish several New Testament books as well, especially the ones which support the teaching of Purgatory and Justification through good works, as opposed to Faith alone.
Luther forced the Church into defensive thinking.
And it was totally the wrong time for new thinking to appear on cosmology.
Copernicus published his treatise in favour of the heliocentric system on his deathbed. Luther denounced it. The Catholic Church made no statement.
Indeed, in 1582, it accepted it quietly, in a way no one would notice they had.
Pope Gregory XIII issued a new calendar, so accurate we use it today- the Gregorian calendar.
It was based on the assumption that the earth rotates around the Sun.
Now the fact was, only a few leading church thinkers could know that the inner body of the Church had come the conclusion that only a calendar based on this assumption could work.
But it couldn't risk stating it. There was still the issue of why the stars didn't move. It was a gamble, and the Church couldn't allow itself to back a theory, which could still be disproved, at a time when large parts of Europe were proclaiming it the Anti-Christ.
It could not afford to lose this ideological war, just because it made a rash judgement on the movement of planets.
And so things continued.
Galileo was convinced of the reality of the heliocentric model. Furthermore, he knew that the Church was sitting on the fence for political reasons. But he was so sure of himself, so sure that the Church had a chance to outsmart its opponents by publicly taking on a theory which he felt would win, whilst they supported the losing one
And so, he made an error of Judgement. The Pope at the time, Urban VIII, was in fact a man of scientific bent. He had shown himself open to discussion on the two opposing cosmologies, but maintained that in public anyway, it made sense to assume that the Earth at the centre of the universe, was reality.
But Galileo persisted. His aim was get the Church to publically support the Copernican model.
This, with the Thirty years war raging, it could not do.
When Galileo published a book called 'A Dialogue Between the Two systems of the World', set as a fictional debate between supporters of both positions, the character arguing for the Ptolemaic system used identical words to Urban VIII. Worse, he was given the name Simplicio- Simpleton.
How Galileo thought he was going to get away with it remains to be seen. During the worst Religous war between Protestants and Catholics, he had called the Pope a simpleton.
Since he hadn't exactly made friends with the key figure in the inquisition, he could expect retaliation.
And he got it.
Ironically, there is considerable evidence the Pope tried to extricate him. Partly, because they had once been friends.
But partly because, by trying Galileo, the Church would now have to do what Galileo had wanted to force them to do- get off the fence publicly.
And politics dictated, that if the Church really had to jump, it could only jump one way.
Had Galileo left it, it would be a matter of twenty years before the scientific argument would essentially have been over. And almost certainly, the Church would have publicly embraced the heliocentric model.
It was a dark day for religion when Galileo was forced to recant. A dark day for Galileo, maybe, but a darker day for the long partnership of faith and reason, one which never recovered. No one since has trusted the Church on matters scientific, it will never regain its lost credibility.
It is an irony perhaps, that it happened because Galileo was SO convinced he was right, that he wanted the Church he was likewise convinced was right, to back him up.
It's a funny old world going round the sun.