A plea for the pope

This isn't something I would often write, but I think that the recent protest against the Pope speaking at the secular university La Sapienza in Rome is misplaced.

Critics say that the Pope, when he was of more humble rank, had in 1990 defended the Inquisition's judgement against Galileo in 1633.

Signatories to the letter protesting the planned visit recalled a 1990 speech in which the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and head of the Roman Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog, seemed to justify the Inquisition's verdict against Galileo in 1633.

In the speech, Ratzinger quoted an Austrian philosopher who said the ruling was "rational and just".

Said philosopher was Paul K Feyerabend, and this has been systematically misrepresented. Here is my reading:

Feyerabend was playing out a reductio ad absurdum against rationalists in the philosophy of science. These folk argue that science is all about the application, rationally, of the scientific method. But there's a problem - there is no such eternal beast, only the standards of rationality that apply at the time. According to the rationalists, Cardinal Bellarmine, who prosecuted Galileo, was actually right, said Feyerabend. Galileo, on the other hand, was being "irrational", in that, in the absence of evidence or predictive power that was better than the existing Ptolemaic astronomic system, and without a physics to back him up, he should, if the rationalist view of science were right, have backed down.

He didn't, of course, and in the process started a whole new program of science, especially of physics, which lead to Newton. And that is Feyerabend's point: Bellarmine was being rational, but he was wrong. Galileo was not following the rules, and he turned out to be more right than the rationalists of his day.

Now what use Ratzinger made of Feyerabend I can only guess. If he was appealing to Feyerabend's authority as a secular philosopher, then he has systematically misread Feyerabend (something that is easy to do), but if he was simply pointing out that standards of rational inference are occasionally broken to good effect, and therefore that one need not be bound by modern rationality in all cases, he is actually quite right. And so one need not condemn the Pope just in virtue of that one claim (I am sure there are one or two other claims under attack). To do that would be ahistorical, unfair, and ill-informed.

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I've always been intrigued by the Roman Catholic Church's relationship with science and intellectualism in general. On the one hand, the church's history is not one anyone who cares about reason would be proud of, what with the Inquisition, its opposition to Copernican theory and whatnot. On the…

I have encountered fundamentalist Catholics who have defended the Church's treatment of Galileo on the grounds that Galileo's persecution wasn't actually as bad as it has been made out to be and in fact, it was only Galileo's stubbornness that resulted in his poor treatment. Based on this, I thought it unsurprising that Ratzinger, whose responsibilities were the enforcement of fundamentalism, would make such remarks.

Your defense though, seems to me to be entirely valid. However, if you do not know what use of Feyerabend Ratzinger made, then I cannot concede your point.

I searched 'Galileo Ratzinger 1990' in Google and visited the first link:

Here is Ratzinger quoting Feyerabend:

If both the spheres of conscience are once again clearly distinguished among themselves under their respective methodological profiles, recognizing both their limits and their respective rights, then the synthetic judgment of the agnostic-skeptic philosopher P. Feyerabend appears much more drastic. He writes: "The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's doctrine. Its verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism."

I do not see any discussion of how Galileo was not following the rules, but was more right than the other people of his day. On the contrary, Ratzinger continues:

From the point of view of the concrete consequences of the turning point Galileo represents, however, C.F. Von Weizsacker takes another step forward, when he identifies a "very direct path" that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb.

To my great surprise, in a recent interview on the Galileo case, I was not asked a question like, "Why did the Church try to get in the way of the development of modern science?", but rather exactly the opposite, that is: "Why didn't the church take a more clear position against the disasters that would inevitably follow, once Galileo had opened Pandora's box?"

It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics. The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality, but from its fundamental affirmation and from being inscribed in a still greater form of reason...

Then it sounds like the Cardinal was in fact playing a number of rhetorical games here:

1. Guilt by association - from Galileo to the atomic bomb? Ergo we should not learn physics?

2. Argument from authority: the Church is not anti-knowledge, it's anti-Frankenstein. Sure. Like Bellarmine could foresee any of that.

3. False dichotomy: there's scientific reason and there's the higher rationality of the Church.

All of that is pretty crappy and deserves to be attacked, but on that one point about Feyerabend, the objection is misplaced.

Feyerabend was playing out a reductio ad absurdum against rationalists in the philosophy of science. These folk argue that science is all about the application, rationally, of the scientific method. But there's a problem - there is no such eternal beast, only the standards of rationality that apply at the time. According to the rationalists, Cardinal Bellarmine, who prosecuted Galileo, was actually right, said Feyerabend. Galileo, on the other hand, was being "irrational", in that, in the absence of evidence or predictive power that was better than the existing Ptolemaic astronomic system, and without a physics to back him up, he should, if the rationalist view of science were right, have backed down.

Cf. Pierrre Duhem, SOZEIN TA PHAINOMENA, essai sur la notion de théorie physique de Platon à Galilée, Paris, Vrin, 2005 (1st ed. 1908).
Feyerabend read Duhem and I think (I'm not specialist) he found in this author his idea about Galileo and Bellarmine.

These folk argue that science is all about the application, rationally, of the scientific method. But there's a problem - there is no such eternal beast, only the standards of rationality that apply at the time.

This is definition-based sophistry. The fact that people may have used the word differently in the past does not constrain our use of the word in the present-day, nor does it present a challenge for modern advocates of rationality.

The large number of ad hoc corrective mechanisms needed to make the Ptolemaic system function made its acceptance conditional to the lack of justifiable alternatives. The discovery of Jupiter's moons destroyed the validity of the assertion that everything in Creation went around the Earth - and once that was acknowledged to be false, the necessity of making ad hoc corrections fell away.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

At least in the context of the American Evolution/Creationists wars, there is a rather weird flavor of epistemological relativism in a lot of arguments from the religious side. All the "evolution is a religion", "evolution is a socially imposed construct and dissent is crushed" arguments and their variants are oddly reminiscent of arguments made a few decades earlier by people that the creationists wouldn't be caught dead associating with(postmodernists, feminist critics of science, just about anybody who has ever used the phrase "alternate modalities of knowledge"). I can't tell if they are sincere, or if it is a clever rhetorical trick to push the issue into the realm of pure belief, an area in which they are rather strong.

The pope strikes me as markedly smarter and more subtle than the standard creationist stump speaker, so I'm not sure if he is trying something in that vein here or not. Playing the epistemological relativism game seems like a dangerous path for a religious leader; but it certainly seems like he is edging in that direction.

The thing I find most striking about the case, though, is how most of the argument seems to have blown right past the punchline and into the details without so much as a pause.

A religious institution imposed civil penalties on somebody because of his disagreement with them on a doctrinal point.

That, right there, is outrageous and crazy enough. Did Galileo, in fact, get off fairly lightly? Sure. Was he, in fact, a stubborn bastard who effectively turned down several chances to give up quietly and without further consequences? Sure. Does that make the case any less crazy or more acceptable ? No. Full stop.

I think that, in this case, the protests are somewhat misplaced in latching on to a quotation from a speech a decade old; but the protesters are very much correct in their assessment of the Pope's position. He is definitely no friend of scientific inquiry, he certainly doesn't seem willing to abandon his claim to epistemic superiority over the sciences, and he seems quite willing to indulge in the trope of science as an inhuman, unnatural creator of horrors best left unknown.

The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's doctrine.

You missed a fallacy. This appears to be a fallacious appeal to consequences.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

Feyerabend has been misread and misrepresented left and right ever since, and I agree with you, John, that Ratzinger might not have "misread" it in that sense. But I still think he's misusing it, quite consciously and wilfully:

John sez:
Now what use Ratzinger made of Feyerabend I can only guess.

I think that's exactly what Ratzinger intended. Everybody who hasn't read Feyerabend would quite automatically understand Ratzinger's argument as an argument against science plus that rational thought is on the side of the church, and everybody who has read Feyerabend can't accuse him of misrepresenting Feyerabend and would be unsure as to what Ratzinger is actually up to.

Now that's a fine piece of dialectic, my friends! Of almost Jesuit quality, I'd say.


Regardless of what the pope thinks, or how he interprets Feyerabend, Galileo could have avoided some nastiness if he had backed off his metaphysical realism with respect to his theories. Bellarmine adopted a straightforward instrumentalist position and wanted Galileo to do likewise. The arguments Galileo could marshall in support of his realism weren't (and still aren't) persuasive.

Even though I have realist leanings, I don't know of a good argument showing that realism is rationally superior to instrumentalism.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

How is the argument that Cardinal Bellarmine was the rationale one made? Isn't that like saying a 6 year olds belief in Santa Claus is rationale? Study of an ancient text (that is contradictory and revised to fit current human beliefs) and appeal to authority do not constitute rationalism....or am I missing something.

By the way read Feyerabend's essay in Rosenberg's "Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction" and am left to wonder, why does anyone give this guy 2 cents? He seems like your classic loon.

John, I am a long time reader of your blog, also if its the first time I write.

I am Italian and I live in Rome so I had the chance to see this horrible mess from close distance, and I assure you pope Benedict XVI doesnt need any plea. He won this match fully.

As gyokusai rightly wrote his old speech is a fine piece of dialectic and he is a great tactician.. of jesuit quality. A masterpiece to spread some lies on Galileo and scientific thought without chance to be accused.

It is really easy to misrepresenting it, a perfect trap. And a trap it was.

What happened actually happened at university La Sapienza?

- The pope was invited for the opening fot academic year.
- A group of (left-wing) teachers contested this choice on the basis of a erroneous and superficial -interpretation of this speech
- A group of more extreme left wing student associations took the chance to organize a demonstration against him for his involvement in the new laws against staminal research, gay marriage, and abortion etc etc
- Mass media started to say that laicist extremists wanted to block the pope to have his lesson.
- the student movement was SILLY stupid and more political (than scientifical) motivated and did nothing to testify his willingness to have a peacefull demonstration (actually too many political demonstration at university end in a big mess with the police)
- Our brilliant interior secretary declared that the Pope was perfectly safe at university (in Italian politics that means it wasnt of course)
- the Pope renounced with grief to have his lesson
- the mass media moaned the Pope was blocked by the laicist and scientist intolerance!!!
- Politician deprecated the censorship by all this godless bunch of amoral agnostics that doesnt kneel in front of the tollerant Holy See
- Taking the wave all the catholic media and blogsphere used this martyrdom to improve his revisionism (I found at least two creations Italian sites linking the darwinist oppression to the the opposition to the papal lesson)

And now the Pope diffused his projected lesson. Of course all the media are quoting it:

University and Science should be laical, Science should aim and obey only to the truth!

Beautiful isnt it? A pity they read only the first page and forgot the conclusion. Of course the Science obey only to truth.. but who knows the truth? Try to guess?

The truth is God, and of course the Pope and his church are His link with the world Ergo.

Nothing less

So do not plea a lot for him. In the Vatican are cheering for this victory

I think Darth Ratzinger should be allowed, encouraged even, to speak when and where he likes. He's so reactionary that he hinders his cause, except amongst the most conservative and medieval, just about every time he opens his mouth in public. Stopping him from speaking is anti-free speech and allows him to play the reasonable victim who only wants to put his side of the story across but is being stopped by those nasty secularists and atheists.

By Brian English (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

From the Grauniad:

The newspaper Il Giornale, which republished his 1990 speech, said the Pope had "expressed a different position" from that of the Austrian scholar Paul Feyerabend, "absolutely not adopting it as his own". The Vatican's own daily, L'Osservatore Romano, carried an article by the Jewish mathematician Giorgio Israel, in which he wrote that the Pope's address "could well be considered, by anyone who read it with a minimum of attention, as a defence of Galilean rationality against the scepticism and relativism of postmodern culture".

Is an English translation of that 1990 speech available?

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

How is the argument that Cardinal Bellarmine was the rationale one made?

If one accepts a belief in the Christian God and the truth of the Bible which both Bellarmine and Galileo did, then the following famous quote from a letter that Bellarmine wrote in 1615 on the subject is indeed eminently rational.

Third, I say that, if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion false which is proved to be true. But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me. To demonstrate that the appearances are saved by assuming the sun at the centre and the earth in the heavens is not the same thing as to demonstrate that in fact the sun is the centre and the earth in the heavens. I believe that the first demonstration may exist, but I have very grave doubts about the second; and in case of doubt one may not abandon the Holy Scripture as expounded by the holy Fathers.

Thanks for the reply Thony C. But I noted that appeal to authority and ancient texts do not constitute rationalism. This seems analogous to a parent telling a child about Santa and then reading The Night Before Christmas makes Santa Claus a rational tenet.

My tacit point is I think Ratzinger and Feyerabend are making a mistake in logic. Just because most people believed the sun revolved around the earth did not make it so nor did it make it rational. The fact most Americans believe Saddam was involved in 9/11 does not make it so or rational.

I still want to know why anyone talks about Feyerabend, did he actually add anything of use to philosophy (Im not trained in philosophy, just science). It seems his only role was to give those, who want to tear down any intellectual advancement we make, a platform to spout off.

So, why would a rational person even give lip service to Ratzinger in his rationalization of the case.I think Galilo did indeed have the requisite evidence!

By Morgan-LynnGri… (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

Ombrone, thank you. What I reasoned "in theory" your vivid account bears out "in practice." Only, the ramifications are even worse than I thought.


then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion false which is proved to be true.

In the description of the building of Noah's ark, its dimensions are given. These dimensions require that pi be equal to three.

Shall we discard the work of the ancient Greeks? Pretend that we do not understand what the words clearly say? Or acknowledge that the Scriptural statements are wrong?

The Scriptures also say that the Earth is flat with the heavens placed above it like an inverted bowl. Do we not understand what it says, or is it wrong?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

Good discussion. Thanks to Ombrone for the local knowledge.

If I understand PKF properly it is because Jason Grossman pointed it out to me. But I am solely responsible for this.

On reading the link given by Tegumai, I find that speech a piece of sophistry. And I do not think Ratzinger is all that sophisticated or subtle - there are Catholic intellectuals, but he's not one of them.

The model Galileo was arguing against was Aristotelean, not Biblical. So claiming that Bellarmine was rational by the lights of Catholic theology is wrong.

Ummm, you do know that Bellarmine was some time after Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, don't you?

Ombrone gives a good account of much of the fight, but doesn't begin at the beginning. The original problem had nothing to do with Galileo or with science; it was Italian politics and the Pope's greatly excessive influence in it, as perceived by academics. There is an account here
which seems to me quite remarkably good; and the long comments thread has much good stuff also.

(And there are followups, and now I have one more must-read entry on my blogroll, dammit.)

"...Pope Ratzinger is expected to give a speech at the Rome University �La Sapienza� at the end of the ceremony for the start of the academic year. He was invited to do so by the University, but a physics professor emeritus, Marcello Cini, took and manifested his dissent in a public letter to the rector of La Sapienza, Renato Guarini. [He links to the letter] in italian. Professor Cini declared to be outraged by the decision of the rector, explaining the reactionary views of pope Ratzinger and the 705-years-old laic and autonomous tradition of the La Sapienza University."

Then another professor, with lots of co-signers, wrote an "and what's more" letter that cited the Galileo thing; apparently it was supposed to be a private letter unlike the public original, but it's now really really public. That's when it got to be an internationally known fight, with everyone screaming about suppression of free discussion.

When I read the excerpt from the Pope's 1990 speech, I was struck by the resemblance to the earlier one about Islam. His ability to say lots of things without saying anything that you can identify as his point puts poor old Greenspan to shame.

But there's a particular method to it. He drags out a bunch of quotes that will please his church's Yahoos, and keeps his deniability and reputation for being a fantastically learned philosophical type by saying he's just citing a lot of ideas. Note that he never cites the ones that would offend vulgar Catholocism and just says he's neutrally exploring them. Those are to be mentioned only to be denounced. It's pleasing to see that this has not escaped the people who read (much less the person who runs) this blog. It sure seems to have escaped everybody else.


you are right: the origin of the protest was mainly political. Actually accademic world is not the only one perceiving a strong influence of the church in the italian society and politcs.

I do not want to bore you with the byzantine complexity of our useless political world, but the point is that the occasion was used more to make some silly political point (and have some media visibility) by the left wing groups than to defend laicity or science. The vatican out maneuvered everybody pretending to be a poor victim.

Defeated the left wing... and worse pretended that the demostration was a typical example of the behaviour godless laical scientist.

John believe me do not undervalue Pope Ratzinger. He could be not a Great Intellectual, but he is smart politician and a fine sophist.

Actually the 1990 speach should be intrepreted carefully from a "political" point of view, with different level of meanings. Galileo is only a straw man...

1 level. He is defending someway Galileo. Doing a little mess of quoting and misreading other thinker.

2 level. Defending or not, he got the chance to say again that someway Galileo it was not so right.

3 level. But he cannot be attacked: he is only quoting some quite atheist thinker.

4 level. Hey boys look! It is not the inquisition saying that Galileo was wrong! Even your atheist godless philosopher are saying that! So please stop brag about laical science having answer since you cannot even agree on that point. Believe me only God got answers. gotcha

And maybe there are even other reading level I cannot even imagine.

Without offense.. he is not a corn belt preacher.. he is SMART.

I've never denied that Ratzinger and his predecessor were smart - politicians don't get to that level without being smart. It's just that I've read and heard a lot of folk saying "Well, now we have an intellectual on the throne". I'm very unimpressed by what I've seen so far, and I think you are quite right about the layers of meaning he (or his advisors) have loaded into such statements and reactions.

I always find it odd that people whose entire advocacy is for an absolutist view so often find it convenient to employ epistemic relativism.

Ratzinger is a ghoul. The reading of his complete quote shows a brazen contempt for rationality. That he quotes a philosopher to make his point does nothing to cloud his point.

And, also, I'm not a historian of science, but from my memory, Galileo came to his conclusions through assuming his heliocentric model and discovering that the math was a lot easier. He then figured that maybe it made more sense that the earth revolved around the sun than that some planets went backwards and then forwards, as demmanded by the Ptolemaic model. Unless someone wants to correct me on the facts, I'm going to assume anyone accusing the Church of being "more on the side of reason that Galileo" is a complete and total jackass.

Also, on the political point, thank you, Ombrone, for giving us some of the local color.

I'd be interested to see if the Catholic Church's love of free speech extends to allowing guest lectures on evolution during Sunday mass.

And, also, I'm not a historian of science, but from my memory, Galileo came to his conclusions through assuming his heliocentric model and discovering that the math was a lot easier.

No, that would be a better description of Copernicus. Galileo observed clear evidence opposing the then-current geocentric model, such as the moons of Jupiter (which orbited Jupiter rather than Earth) and the phases of Venus (establishing that it orbited the Sun).

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 18 Jan 2008 #permalink

in the absence of evidence or predictive power that was better than the existing Ptolemaic astronomic system, and without a physics to back him up

And parsimony? :-)

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 18 Jan 2008 #permalink

I just noticed that "absence of evidence or predictive power" is wrong: the Venus phases are predicted by the heliocentric model.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 18 Jan 2008 #permalink

Kepler's hybrid model? Do you mean Brahe's hybrid model (which, as far as I can see, doesn't predict them)?

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 18 Jan 2008 #permalink

Oops, sorry, yes, Tycho. Why doesn't it predict the phases of Venus? At opposition, Venus will be full and smaller, and at conjunction it will be larger and phased, just like the heliocentric model.

If you can't be bothered to express your criticisms directly, Calendonian, you shouldn't be posting on this blog.

That should be more than sufficiently direct for anyone. Wikipedia clearly explains how the phases of Venus are relevant - you ought to read it sometime.
Feyerabend was incorrect. The new astronomical observations produced a number of results that the geocentric model simply could not accommodate, and the only way to reconcile them with the idea of the Earth being at the center of the visible universe was to introduce a major ad hoc factor whose only purpose and function was to preserve geocentricity.

Educated people had already accepted that the world was spherical, not flat, as the Scriptures clearly indicated, so this wasn't a conflict between Biblical authority and observable reality. It had already been acknowledged that literal readings of the text did not accurately describe the nature of the world. The conflict was between the authority of the Church, which claimed the geocentric model as reinforcing humanity's centrality in Creation, and the authority of observation, which excluded the geocentric model.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 18 Jan 2008 #permalink

What is at ncrcafe is a not very good translation of excerpts from a longer address.

I haven't read that address and haven't got a judgment about it, though I plan to try to read it soon. But it appears that it is actually published in English, in the book "A Turning Point for Europe?" (http://www.amazon.com/Turning-Point-Europe-World-Assessment-Forecast/dp…)
This can be looked at using search inside the book at Amazon, and from this I determine that the entire text of the speech in question is on pp. 81-111. So what's at ncrcafe.org is just a little bit of the longer address, "Paths of Faith in Revolutionary Change," which I would say can't be judged without further reading.

One interesting thing that emerges from looking into this is that the supposedly offending lecture was given in 1990 at La Sapienza in Rome... (See footnote on p. 81 in the book mentioned above.)

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 18 Jan 2008 #permalink

As Wikipedia already states, the lack of parallax was a severe counterargument against the heliocentric system. Brahe tychonic model does predict Venus phases and does not excludes Jupiters moon motion so it isn't refuted by both.

As long as Keppler wasn't able to replace epicycles by ellipses it was a daunting task to model mars and moon motion because these are most elliptical. This can easily led to more epicycles in the heliocentric system because our ancestors were mathematically handicapped to optimize
the epicycles.

Tegumai - Thanks. I got Copernicus and Galileo confused. That's what happens when I post on science blogs.

Ok. Let me take a step back and ask this question: Is it reasonable for someone looking back on geocentric vs heliocentric debate at the time of Galileo and conclude that the geocentric model is "more rational" than the heliocentric? From my reading of the comments, it seems to me that both theories were at a draw, and geocentrism won largely by tradition. Isn't that the more appropriate lesson to draw? That established ideas are don't change easily?

And from watching Cosmos, I recall Kepler's real struggle was not with the mathematics, but with the possibility that God did not lay down the orbit of the planets in a perfect circle. That seemed to him to be a really bitter pill to swallow. The Pope is trying to sound like the Church is a voracious learning machine running on a rational engine fueled by pure reason, but the evidence seems to point to a rigid set of pre-formed ideas that inhibit new discoveries.

A few people have alluded to this already, but I simply must add my voice to those calling for some historical contextualization. It is quite disturbing to me that this is being presented as though Bellarmino and Galileo were scientific colleagues sitting around a conference table rationally debating the finer points of epistemology. Galileo was a scientist, fighting for his very life. Bellarmino was the representative of an institution that, far from seeking the truth, had a vested interest in maintaining the acceptance of its particular view because it was considered essential to retaining its grip on power. However much conservatism and inertia there may be in science - significantly less than some seem to believe - the Church wasn't interested in scientific investigation, in weighing the scientific merits of competing "theories" or methods, or in advancing knowledge. Since when is heresy a scientific term? They were not participants in a scientific dialogue. They wanted to stop the process of scientific investigation in this and every other sphere in which empirical findings might potentially conflict with their doctrine. And to do so they prohibited people from writing, teaching, or talking about certain subjects (as I understand it from Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter, he thought he had received some kind of special dispensation in this regard); banned books whose publication they couldn't stop (about 4,000 titles on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1948); and imprisoned, tortured, and killed those who dared to challenge them (Giordano Bruno had just been burned at the stake in 1601). The inhibiting effects of this reign of terror on the development of scientific knowledge are beyond measure, and Ratzinger, chillingly, seems to think they haven't done enough.

There are some interesting similarities (and of course important differences) here with the actions of tobacco companies in the second half of the twentieth century, as described in Allan Brandt's great book The Cigarette Century. In this case industry operatives, early on, exploited and distorted an existing debate, for years dismissing the findings of medical scientists whose work had demonstrated the harmful effects of smoking through clinical and statistical research. Brandt notes that while real-world clinical and population studies had a long and distinguished history in epidemiological investigation, and many viewed diverse methods as necessary and complementary in public health, some scientists, "steeped in the values of the laboratory, with deep intellectual and cultural commitments to controlled experimentation" (150) were initially skeptical concerning findings arrived at through these methods. "The question that troubled the entire medical community in the late 1950s," he suggests, "was what constituted adequate medical knowledge to act in the various realms of medicine, public health, business, and politics. No one doubted that it would be valuable to understand the most basic mechanisms of carcinogenesis. But neither would anyone in public health or medicine presume that all knowledge short of defining those mechanisms was inadequate or suspect. Medical and public health interventions had often been pursued with great benefit before causal mechanisms were known" (152-3).

The intervention of the tobacco companies in this discussion served to distort its terms and thwart its scientific resolution. Brandt demonstrates that this was not a battle between laboratory and statistical methods, but rather "an example of how powerful economic and industrial interests would deploy their resources to influence, delay, and disrupt normative scientific processes" (153). As the scientific consensus grew in the case of the harms of cigarettes, the tobacco industry turned increasingly toward a dedicated PR strategy, pioneering the now-familiar tactics: operating in the mass media rather than in scientific fields, refusing to contend scientifically with existing evidence, promoting the belief that a controversy raged among scientists concerning cigarettes' effects, repeatedly insisting that more research was needed to resolve the alleged controversy, and attacking scientists who had published evidence of the dangers of smoking.

As Brandt notes, "The industry's insistence...on the notion of 'no proof' and the need for 'more research' was an inspired manipulation of the natural tendencies within science to encourage skepticism and seek more complete answers to important questions" (204). They may initially have had a scientifically rational basis for questioning findings from clinical or population studies. But no amount of evidence was ever going to make them acknowledge the effects of cigarette smoking on human health, and they brought their vast arsenal to bear in a campaign to mislead the public and to discredit and intimidate scientists who sought to publish contrary findings. Was this rational, scientifically speaking? Would it have been rational for the US government and the fossil fuels industry to subject climate scientists to an Inquisition in the 1980s based on the contention that they had not yet adduced conclusive evidence of global warming and therefore shouldn't be speaking or writing about it? If so, would it have been rational on the scientists' part to have backed down and apologized, ceasing to investigate the matter further?

I don't wish to spam John's excellent blog with links to my own work but the lack of knowledge of Galileo Studies displayed by some here is lamentable and merely adding to the misunderstanding ostensibly responsible for the Pope's speech being cancelled (actually, it seems clear enough that the motive was political). I wrote a detailed and thoroughly referenced account of the so-called Galileo Affair, based on the most recent translations and research, and if anyone wants to read it and possibly reconsider their opinions then it is here. It covers the many arguments against Galileo's ideas that convinced his contemporaries he was wrong and the hermeneutic adopted by Bellarmine that at once made him "more rational" at the time and yet trapped the Church for years to come.

Paul -- Thank you for a very readable summary of the Galilleo affair.

It does nothing to change my mind, however, since it clearly seems to be religious authorities (jesuits, cardinals and bishops) attacking Galileo on the grounds that he is contradicting scripture.

All said that this proposition [heliocentrism] is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology. (XIX, 321)

I mean, come on, I've been reading complaints from the religious for years that people don't really understand the Galilleo affair. Yes, there are many wrinkles to it, just as opposition to Darwin was scientifically acceptable. But the fact remains that Galilleo's ideas were deemed heretical, not by scientists, as you point out, but by theologians who, as again you point out, were way out of their mathematical depth. You further point out that Galileo is making a play for distinguishing science from religion, and theologians were rightly threatened by that. Patroange was involved, so were egos and politics. So fucking what? That doesn't change the underlying reality; Galileo's ideas were a threat to religious orthodoxy -- according to the church itself. I don't understand why this is such a difficult point to comprehend.

I don't know how you could take that interpretation from reading what I wrote. Since religious authorities at all levels also supported Galileo, no one working in Galileo Studies takes such a simplistic view of the affair these days. There were a great many arguments against Galileo's ideas, all of which Bellarmine understood well, and even the conceptions of proof and justification were understood differently in those days, which is why Galileo had to reduce the prominence of his arguments from the tides. Ultimately Galileo was undone by the machinations of his rivals and by his own arrogance. There are reasons to criticise the Church for how it treated Galileo, especially Bellarmine's hermeneutic principle that most commentators pass over, but reducing such a complex affair to a single stick with which to bash the Church - and even the current Pope - has little to do with accurate history, philosophy and science and much more to do with politics.

Paul -- I appreciate your efforts to try to get me to understand your point, and I see that there are many layers to the story, but the crux of the argument was a conflict with theology. As you point out, there was the politics of patronage involved, but Galileo's difference with theology was the one thing without which none of this would have occured. And from that POV, there is nothing wrong with attacking the Church on those grounds. Does scripture take authority over science? Ultimately, the Church's answer in this case was, "yes." And that's what they wrote. There is more to it, but it is an essential ingredient.

Everything is more complicated than a simply story. But nothing you wrote obscures that main conflict -- science vs. theological dogma.

I again point you to Darwin. There were several reasonable arguments against Darwins theory at the time, but, obviously, what bothered people was the idea that humanity wasn't divinely inspired. It's "not as simple as that," but it sure does explain a whole helluva lot.

If you want to accuse my "simplification" of being political, I would accuse your elaborate attempts obfuscation to be equally political.

And however much educated smoke you want to throw up about Galileo, the Pope's remark seem patently anti-science and he seems fundamentally confused about the nature faith and of reason, and on those grounds alone, the professors are justified.

Well, I provided a detailed, fully-referenced account. I hope readers of this blog will take the time to look at it, along with the many excellent works in the field of Galileo Studies, and make up their own minds.

I think that there are two ways to look at some past event. One is to take the contrasts and issues of the present and interpret what happened in the past in the light of that. Victorious groups love to do this in history, as it supports their self-assessment.

The other is to look at the situation as it appeared to the protagonists themselves. Here you have two combatants - each motivated by what they see as a love of truth. Neither has much in the way of deciding evidence (the phases of Venus only eliminated Ptolemy, not Tychonian geocentrism), and one of them has, so far as he can see, the entirety of physics on his side. The other guy has had to invent his own physics to support his claims. Both are playing Church politics.

If described that way, who seems the more "rational"? I think, and many historians such as those Paul lists, that the "rational" man here is Bellarmine. Hence, Feyerabend claimed, science does not require as a necessary condition the implementation of rationality.

And this must be true. Many instances of science advancing from what we would now think were illicit grounds such as pythagorean mysticism of numbers, or alchemical or religious speculation can be adduced. And yet some of it becomes our best science. So if there is anything that makes something scientific, it need not be rational, but rather something else (and I would say, success thereafter, but that's another rant).

Excellent work, Paul

I was away for the weekend and so missed out on this bun fight. Paul has said almost everything that I would have said, and some more, and probably said it more elegantly than I ever would have. There is however two points that I wish to add which is almost certainly covered exhaustively on Paul's web site that I have not had time to read yet.

Several commentators have falsely claimed that there was by the time of Galileo enough evidence to scientifically choose a heliocentric model of the solar system over a geocentric one. To understand why this claim is false is much too complex to explain here but centricity is only one aspect of the problem and nobody has mentioned the other major aspect geostatic contra geodynamic. A heliocentric system, whether Copernicus' or Kepler's is irrelevant, requires an earth that moves and that in two different ways; diurnal and annual. All the natural philosophical theories available at the time and all of the empirical evidence spoke against such a possibility.

Question: If the earth rotates on its axis once every twenty-four hours why doesn't everything get blown away?

Answer: Because the earth and everything on it are contained in an atmospheric envelope that rotates with it.

The proof of this simple answer literally contains a century a very complex scientific research and evolution of scientific theory that was carried out by a large number of very brilliant scholars in the decades following Kepler and Galileo. I could go on but I think most of the readers here should have understood my point by now. For those with some knowledge of 17th century natural philosophy think Torricelli, Pascal, Hooke, Boyle, von Guericke, van Helmont, Newton etc. on air pressure, gases, gravity and so on and so forth.

The people who rejected heliocentricity in the second half of the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century did so mostly for very good scientific reasons. That brings me to the second and last point that I would like to make.

The old, very boring, claim that it was only the ignorant theologians who rejected heliocentricity. This is complete and utter crap and is such an ignorant point of view that those who still insist on propagating it should be ashamed of themselves. Their ignorance is on a level with that of the Intelligent Design morons. Bellarmine for example had received the best education in mathematics and astronomy available in Europe at the time and as is obvious from the letter I quoted his objections to heliocentricity are founded in solid scientific theory and not theology. During the 17th century an incredible amount of the scientific work that was done that led to the acceptance of the new astronomy was carried by Jesuit educated scientists such as Mersenne, Gassendi, Descarte and Cassini and Jesuit scientists such as Kircher, Scheiner, Grimmaldi, Riccioli and many more. The attempt to stylise the evolution of science as some sort of conflict between theologians and scientist is complete and utter rubbish.

Should anybody accuse me of being an apologist for the Christian religion as has already happened several time when I have criticised the religion bashers here on Science Blogs I repeat; "I am a radical atheist born and bred and I think all religion sucks big time and that the Roman Catholic Church is the most evil criminal organisation that has ever existed in the history of the human race". However as a historian I am aware of the necessity of being just as objective as a scientist.

By the way Mr Wilkins, I liked your last rant here very much.

I guess TSK is making some good point here.

Quite sure Bellarmino was everything but an ignorant theologians, quite sure he was a brilliant intellectual, and probably quite able to appreciate and evaluate the scientific side of the issue.

I am not so expert of the field, but I could easily agree that Galileo ideas, from an astronomical point of view caused more than resolved problems, he could even be totally bloody wrong.

But all this totally miss the very important point of what happened.

Galileo Affair was not an accademic issue.

It was not accademic from a substantial point of view: it was not argued if he is theory was better or worse of others. It was, just to remind it, accused to be heretic and thats ideas were contrary to the bible.

It was not accademic from a formal point of view: quite unusual being called in front of a tribunal with your own life at stake.. and being condemned to house arrest for a wrong theory, isnt it?

So scientific considerations doesnt matters here. He would have been condemned in any case.

Even from a religious point of view the Galileo affair is of course, in any case, totally wrong for our modern ideas: at least if we do not want to admit that Religious authority have the right to persecute legally people who differ from their orthodoxy.

But I would like to add another layer of meaning: was it Galileo affair a religious one? Probably not.

Galileo was in a very peculiar position during its life he was not only the protégée of the GrandDuke of Tuscany, but it was also for a long time the protégée of the Cardinal Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII), and this gave him a lot of chance to work and write freely

How it happened that it was the same Urban VIII who pretended to bring Galileo in front of inquisition? How it happened that this same man was ready to strain to the breaking point the relationship with the powerful GrandDuke to have Galileo? How it happened that it was the same man that resisted all attempts to have Galileo pardoned?

This change of attitude was not due to philosophical or religious difference: quite simply Urban VIII never forgave that Galileo mocked his own ideas in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World. It felt personally offended. That was the crime of Galileo. Mocking some ideas of the Pope, for that he was judged and condemned and silenced. Heresy was the first chance, a good catch all term to condemn him.

So probably the Galileo Process was probably written from the beginning. It was not really matter of his ideas, or what was written in the bible. The Pope wanted him silenced and humiliated. Period Inquisition just took the chance and obeyed.

So Galileo Affair was not only a mockery of science It was probably even a mockery of religion.

Its right Galileo was not condemned by ignorant fanatics, it was condemned by bright, educated people, that obeyed to the very personal will of a Pope, in spite of their intelligence and of their faith. And that sounds even worse.

I just want to agree with Ombrone and inkidu. Whether or not Galileo was 100% correct or not is besides the point; the point is that he was put on trial specifically to forbid further inquiry. As with Giordano Bruno, the Church attacked free inquiry and the expression of ideas with force and fire.

I've been reading the original argument advanced by Paul K. Feyerabend in his Against Method (it's partially available online at http://books.google.com/books?id=8y-FVtrKeSYC ); the chapter in question appears to be number 13 (it has the header of "The Church at the time of Galileo not only kept closer to reason as defined then, and in part, even now; it also considered the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's views. Its indictment of Galileo was rational and only opportunism and a lack of perspective can demand a revision.")

As best as I can tell, the thing is a thinly-veiled apologetic for the evil and insane actions of the Church; Feyerabend sounds like a concern troll in his soft stance towards the Church, and also towards creationism.

I call bullshit on Feyerabend's moral and philosophical relativism.

Speaking of Bruno -- do any of those who have commented here have any additional context for Giordano's fate, only a few decades before Galileo's own troubles?

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 22 Jan 2008 #permalink

Feyerabend's argument was a reductio, as has been explained in this discussion and by John previously. (I covered it in detail here and Gonzalo Munevar explained his claim that "it should be an embarrassment to the profession that many reviews were completely unable to see the structure of this simple reductio" here.) As for the reasons behind Galileo's trial, I again offer my fully-referenced essay linked above, which is consistent with the current state of Galileo Studies of which I am a small part.

As for Bruno, I think it is fair to say that it is well known within the history of science community that there is considerable additional context to what happened to him. His trial records are lost (although a few summaries exist) and no one really knows exactly what went on. I am no expert on Bruno, though.

(I hope it's okay to add these links.)

Some remarks:
While Thony C. said that the Roman Catholic Church is the "most evil criminal organisation", it does not mean that the Church took pleasure in the suffering of their citizens. No, as long as you stayed loyal (most time of it, I will note the exceptions later), you had nothing to fear and you could get help. But if you contested the Church, even in the most innocent ways, they dropped the iron hammer on you. What is most frightening apart from the despicable acts was the Church was successful with it a very long time.
Since the late ancient world and the early Middle Age the population thought that the kings and sovereigns rules the worldly affairs and the Pope and bishops the religious affairs. That is the theory, but the reality was a continous and cruel power struggle which was most intense in the 11th and 12th century. In the early 14th century the Church was at the peak of its power, but not only the sovereigns noticed the moral corruption of the Church. The monasteries, thought as an location of reclusion, were basking in luxury. Not only that the Pope was indulged in prostituition, nepotism, squandering etc. etc., he extracted more and more money from the cities and countries which were prospering with the help of the new class of tradesman. So any resistance against the Church had chances to met less and less resistance in the population.
Until the time of Galileo and Bruno the Church experienced several antipopes (at one time even two of them), the Great Schisma, several religious movements like the Catharians,
Anabaptists etc. (all brutally persecuted) and several
Reformationists (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Hus, Muentzer).
All in all the power of the Church was severely diminished
and that is apparent: Bruno was able to escape the grip of the Church in several countries for a long time and instead of burning him immediately they incarcerated him several years and tried to get him back by revoking. Both men had a knack of making enemies (apart from the Church) by their lack of diplomacy.

As with Giordano Bruno, the Church attacked free inquiry and the expression of ideas with force and fire.

Speaking of Bruno -- do any of those who have commented here have any additional context for Giordano's fate, only a few decades before Galileo's own troubles?

In discussions about Galileo and the Church one of the The Catholic Church was totally anti-science brigade can be guaranteed to bring up Giodorno Bruno. First off, Bruno was not a scientist. He did produce some cosmological speculation about an infinite universe but these should be considered more as science fiction than as science. These speculation have led to him being wrongly attributed as the first thinker to propose an infinite Copernican universe, this honour actually goes to the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Digges. Despite the fact that Robert Westman lists Bruno as one of the ten Copernicans who existed between the publication of De Revolutionibus in 1543 and 1600, he wasn't even strictly a Copernican preferring his own geometrical cosmology to the mathematical astronomy of Copernicus a system that owes more to mathematical mysticism than to hard science. Having said all that Bruno was not even a science martyr, he was tried for heresy because of his theological views and not because of his cosmological speculations. Those speculations did appear as a minor point on his charge sheet not however because they were Copernican but because his theory of an infinite universe with an infinite number of inhabited worlds, that of course has nothing to do with Copernicus, contradicted almost all of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, we are God's unique creation, he gave his only son to save us etc. etc. Bruno was not a scientific martyr but a theological rebel who if he were posting on the web today would be regarded as a mega-woo-master.

In discussions about Galileo and the Church one of the The Catholic Church was totally anti-science brigade can be guaranteed to bring up Giodorno Bruno.

I think it's particularly appropriate, given that the same Cardinal Bellarmine oversaw both trials.

First off, Bruno was not a scientist.

Which was why I used the more general phrase "free inquiry and the expression of ideas".

I should add that the Church had no right to pursue and persecute Bruno for whatever reasons!

Which was my entire point.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 23 Jan 2008 #permalink

Feyerabend's argument was a reductio, as has been explained in this discussion and by John previously.

Hm. John does also say that Feyerabend is easy to misread.

Just to clarify: Does Feyerabend at any point explicitly condemn the Church's judgment of Galileo?

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 23 Jan 2008 #permalink

I think it's particularly appropriate, given that the same Cardinal Bellarmine oversaw both trials.

Given the fact that Bellarmine had already been dead for twelve years when Gallileo was put on trial I hardly think so!

Given the fact that Bellarmine had already been dead for twelve years when Gallileo was put on trial I hardly think so!

OK, sloppiness on my part. Bellarmine presided over the trial that led to the execution of Bruno, and his later order to Galileo "not to hold or defend the Copernican theory", and also forbidding Galileo to "discuss the theory orally or in writing" eventually led to Galileo's own trial later.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 24 Jan 2008 #permalink

OK, sloppiness on my part. Bellarmine presided over the trial that led to the execution of Bruno, and his later order to Galileo "not to hold or defend the Copernican theory", and also forbidding Galileo to "discuss the theory orally or in writing" eventually led to Galileo's own trial later.

That's not quite right either. There has been considerable controversy about whether Galileo ever was issued with a formal injunction not to "hold, teach, or defend" a heliocentric opinion "in any way whatever, either orally or in writing". I get the impression from the recent book The Church and Galileo, edited by Ernan McMullan, that modern scholarship tends to favour the view that this injuction was in fact issued. But if it was, the primary sources indicate that it was done shortly after Bellarmine had warned him merely that he could not "hold or defend" the said opinion, and that it was the Comissary of the Holy Office, then Fr Michelangelo Segizzi, not Bellarmine, who did it.

By David Wilson (not verified) on 24 Jan 2008 #permalink