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Posted by on Jul 17, 2007 in galileo | 12 comments

Galileo, Bruno, and the Inquisition – more!

Just put this in a comment to my previous post (read the preceding post before reading this). But it’s worth posting properly, I think.

Rev Sam points out that Galileo acknowledged there was a lack of proof for the heliocentric model. I reply…

Sam – you raise an interesting point, but what is its relevance to the issue here? Are you drawing a conclusion?

The issue I am discussing, remember, is: was Galileo indeed hauled before the inquisition for his scientific views (though no doubt his comments on the interpretation of scripture etc. would have provoked ire too)?

And was he shown the instruments of torture and imprisoned for life for , among other things, daring to claim the heliocentric model was literally true?

The answer is “yes” twice, isn’t it?

True, G was wrong about some things, and some of his arguments were faulty. And yes he could be less than tactful, and indeed may have lampooned the Pope. Possibly he had bad breath too. Conservative Catholics love to point these things out. But this is all smoke-screen.

It seems to me that, whether or not G’s scientific position was fully justified, and indeed whether or not he was a cantankerous old git, the Catholic Church did ban him from expressing it, and then did threaten him with torture and imprison him for life for continuing to express it. It was wrong to do so.

Those are the facts that some Catholics (like McAvearey and simply deny, while others attempt to excuse or obscure by banging on about G’s lack of proof, his disagreeable personality traits, trickiness, etc.

I should add, of course, that very many Catholics will rightly be embarrassed by McAvearey’s revisionist history. Don’t wish to tar all Catholics with this brush.


Letter was published – go here.


  1. The point that Rev Sam fails to grasp is the corruption of the scientific process, not the precise merits of the various theories.Because scientific theories are complicated and non-obvious, it is critically important that we have free and open debate on the rational merits of competing theories. It’s not that the Church backed the wrong horse, it’s that they tried to fix the race.

  2. I do not understand why some Catholics attempt to obfuscate the reality or complete evil of the Church silencing Galileo. So long as the body of the Church averts its gaze from the Church’s sins, it will continue to commit them, and fail to live up to the incredible potential it has shown at different moments in history. The Holy See, at last, confessed its wrong here: do these people believe they can save face for the Church even now?

  3. Hi Stephen,I’m not enough of an expert on the intricacies to be confident of drawing too many conclusions – hence my pointing to Feyerabend, because I think his article is really interesting. But I will gladly agree that the RC church was wrong to even threaten torture to Galileo. I suspect, however, that the wrongness rests more on theological grounds (in all sorts of ways), rather than anything to do with respecting ‘scientific process’ (see this book if anyone wants to dig deeper into that point). The turn of the Latin church towards torture, inquisition etc was a product of it becoming more ‘scientific’ in its understanding (via Duns Scotus).Strangely enough, the holy part of science is its capacity to question itself, to say that it is open to error. If Galileo had been sufficiently scientific in that sense there wouldn’t have been a problem, as the Bellarmino quotation shows. So although it was his “scientific” views that were being debated, it’s not clear to me that those views could be abstracted from the wider issues at stake.

  4. By the way, I wrote a little bit about this topic here last year.

  5. Hi SamI read your piece – thanks for the link. You say:”In other words, if Galileo could have proved his point, then the Church would have backed down. I think this is very important to bear in mind. It doesn’t exonerate the church for what they did, but it does clarify what it was they were objecting to. And that makes all the difference.”Your view is that Catholicism was not anti-science, then?I think you might be right. The Church was not anti-science per se.But you agree that it was prepared to censor – backed up with threats of torture and death – any scientific view over which there was any doubt, if that view was awkward or an embarrassment to them?Is that any less bad? And does it not at least reveal a strongly anti-science bias (religion trumps science, until science can conclusively and irrefutably prove it wrong)?

  6. Timmo: The notion that the Church can be in error at all would seem troubling. If the possibility of error exists, then what authority can the Church legitimately claim?Without authority, the best the Church could claim is expertise, presumably available to any ordinary person by natural reason. But there is no basis—except the Church’s authority—to evaluate that expertise.

  7. I have to disagree with you: The example of Galileo clearly shows the anti-science nature of the Church.To call a person or institution pro-science (or even not anti-science) it is not enough to simply believe particular statements about the world. To be pro-science, one has to be committed to a method of inquiry.Even if Galileo had been absolutely, 100% wrong about the science, the proper scientific response would have been to examine his theories in light of the evidence and present a counter-argument. The effects of his theories on the interpretation of scripture should have been utterly and completely irrelevant.This passage is especially risible: “[T]he church [was] suppressing an arrogant scientist who was claiming more than he could prove at the time,” as if the Church were not making far more extensive claims—including claims of political authority—without the even the tiniest bit of proof.It is still a trope to call anyone who makes a definite, confident claim on the basis of evidence and reasoning arrogant, dogmatic, shrill or even militant if that claim undermines the supposedly (by contrast) “humble” claim that a magical sky fairy has granted some person or institution the authority to condemn or compel ethical behavior.

  8. Hi BBIf that’s how you define science, then, yes, I agree with you.(I was going with the most charitable interpretation, though.)

  9. Hi Stephen. Blogger seems to have swallowed a comment that I left a day or two ago, but briefly: yes, the RC church was wrong to do what it did, but no, I don’t think it makes sense to see the episode as primarily about science – that’s just one element of the conflict.

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