Friday, June 08, 2012

Galileo And False Hypotheses

Years ago, two researchers claimed they had perfected cold fusion. They could create limitless energy without danger, pollution or expensive raw materials. It sounded too good to be true. In the end, their claims were proven false and they became a footnote of failure in the history of science. Whoever supported them was likewise tarred with the stain of their mistakes.

Around 1600, the Catholic Church was the primary patron of learning and art by a wide margin. The Pope funded all manner of research.  The Church embraced the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas who, in the 1200s, had shown that God did not create contradictions which meant that science must have supremacy over theology.  Science could be proven, but theology must rely on divinely inspired reason.

At the time of Galileo's work on heliocentrism, there were all kinds of wacky theories being bandied about. Human anatomy and medical research was crude and the germ theory of disease was a long way off. Learned men searched for the Philosopher's Stone, a device that would transmute lead into gold. One can imagine the list of crazy theories and inventions the Church was asked to endorse. It's reasonable to assume that the Church was conservative in its support for any particular theory for the same reason that the supporters of the cold fusion study should have been. The price for failure could be a significant loss of prestige.

Galileo's crime against the Church was not one of scientific discovery, but one of impatience. The heliocentric model of the planets was gaining in popularity and the Church, in addition to funding and supporting Galileo, had an independent group of Jesuit astronomers looking into the same thing. The Church asked Galileo not to teach heliocentrism prior to external confirmation and he promised not to do so. In time, his impatience got the better of him and he went back on his word. That was the cause of his trial, not the content of his teaching.

If you look at the problem from the astronomy layman's perspective and you think of all the examples of scientific quackery at the time, it's no wonder the Church, in its role as arbiter of what was true, was slow in recognizing heliocentrism.

It should have been obvious when the planets were all lined up like this.


tim eisele said...

I will grant that some caution on the part of the Church was in order, but I don't know - needing 148 years to think it over seems a bit excessive.

(Galileo got started pushing heliocentrism around 1610, and heliocentric writings weren't taken off of the "Index of Forbidden Books" until 1758. And the Church didn't really make their position fully clear until around 1820, another 62 years later still. This in spite of the fact that Kepler's three laws had been observationally confirmed, and explained by Newton's theory of gravity, by 1687.)

Going to your comparison example, it was pretty clear that "Cold Fusion" was going nowhere within less than a year after it was announced. And there was no need for the Church to get mixed up in it at all.

K T Cat said...

The role of the Church in learning during the cold fusion thing wasn't quite the same as it was for Galileo.

As for the index of forbidden books, that seems pretty trivial when astronomers like Cassini were in the pay of the Church.

Louis XIV built the Paris Observatory. It's doubtful that the researchers were busy drawing wacky orbits to match their findings. The French kings were nothing if not intertwined with the Church.

So on the one side, we've got construction and funding and on the other side, we've got the Index. I'm sure there was some conflict, but by the time the first astronomers were taking measurements from the observatory, it must have been pretty obvious which way things really went.

K T Cat said...

One of the difficulties in understanding the Church as an outsider is its enormous size, scope and diversity. Right now we have crazy communist Jesuits and hardline conservative Franciscans. You could pick out writings from either side and claim it shows that the Church is either a pack of subversive revolutionaries or a cluster of hidebound reactionaries.

When single examples from our history are used to show this or that, it's got to be taken with a grain of salt. Yep, there certainly was an Index of Forbidden Books. There was also a lot of scientists pursuing "forbidden" knowledge who got their support from the Church at the same time.

Shane Atwell said...

Seriously defending the church on this?

K T Cat said...

Putting things in perspective.

Foxfier said...

Galileo was also largely charged with being an ass, back before that was a protected class. Note: if your buddy becomes Pope, don't assume you can call him an idiot without blow-back.

Kinda like that Bruno guy, the claims don't live up to the man....

tim eisele said...

"You could pick out writings from either side and claim it shows that the Church is either a pack of subversive revolutionaries or a cluster of hidebound reactionaries."

Ah. So the Church as a whole is much like the Bible itself, then.

Foxfier said...

Ever deal with a barracks lawyer? Even when they're quoting regulations they do the whole "selective" thing to prove their point.

I can't think of a decent sized collection of writing that doesn't lend itself to being selectively quoted for this or that purpose-- ran into another example yesterday, with Thomas Jefferson. He said something about how it didn't hurt him any if his neighbor believed in 20 gods or only one, and a friend of (from memory) "Secular Progressive Humanists" on facebook shared it.
In the same paragraph, he mentions that it's as crazy as the gov't taking care of your health and food.... (The actual point was not that it's immoral for gov't to do either, but that gov't is really bad at it.)

If you're dealing with a group of people, and strip all context away, and can pick a small handful of examples.... goodness, you can prove most anything.

Lady Harriet said...

As my awesome (and decidedly non-communist!) Jesuit philosophy professor in college always said, "Text without context is pretext for prooftext." Whenever someone starts quoting a small part of a larger document in an argument, I start to get suspicious.