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Posted by on Feb 2, 2009 in galileo | 13 comments

Galileo and revisionist history

Talking of the Galileo affair, there is another load of revisionist twaddle here from Peter Klein.

Read it, and then, if you are interested, try this piece I wrote earlier…

A quote from the first piece:

Consider these facts:

1. Neither Galileo, nor any other scientist, was put to death by the medieval Church. Giordano Bruno, a 17th-century Dominican, was indeed condemned by the Inquisition, not for his scientific views, but for preaching a quirky, New Age-ish view called hermeticism, which was only incidentally connected to heliocentrism.

2. The Catholic authorities of Galileo’s day had little trouble with heliocentrism per se. Many of the leading Catholic scientists were actually Copernicans. Copernicus’s treatise on heliocentrism had been in print for seventy years prior to Galileo’s conflict with the Church.

3. Galileo remained a devout and loyal Catholic until the end of his life. He held no animosity toward the Church over his conflict with Church authorities.

4. Most important, the conflict between Galileo and the Church took place in the context of the Protestant Reformation, a context that is almost always omitted from popular accounts of Galileo’s trial. The key issue in this conflict was not heliocentrism per se, but the authority of the individual Believer to interpret Scripture. Galileo’s argument that scientists should interpret the Bible to conform to their scientific views was close to Luther’s view that the Believer should be his own interpreter of Scripture. It was Lutheranism, not heliocentrism, that alarmed the Church leaders.

POSTSCRIPT. My piece does not contain the following bit of information
which is also pertinent:

The Vatican’s own documents now confirm Bruno was questioned on his cosmogeny conception. Go to:, where you will find this:

In one of the last interrogations before the execution of the sentence (maybe in April 1599), the Dominican friar was questioned by the judges of the Holy Office on his cosmogony conception, supported above all in the “La cena delle Ceneri”(Ash-Wednesday Dinner) and in the “De l’infinito universo et mundi”. Even then, he defended his theories as scientifically founded and by no means against the Holy Scriptures (left side, from the first line: Circa motum terrae, f. 287, sic dicit: Prima generalmente dico ch’il moo et la cosa del moto della terra e della immobilità del firmamento o cielo sono da me prodotte con le sue raggioni et autorità le quali sono certe, e non pregiudicano all’autorità della divina scrittura […]. Quanto al sole dico che niente manco nasce e tramonta, né lo vedemo nascere e tramontare, perché la terra se gira circa il proprio centro, che s’intenda nascere e tramontare [… ]). (Circa motum terrae, f. 287, sic dicit: Firstly, I say that the theories on the movement of the earth and on the immobility of the firmament or sky are by me produced on a reasoned and sure basis, which doesn’t undermine the authority of the Holy Scriptures […]. With regard to the sun, I say that it doesn’t rise or set, nor do we see it rise or set, because, if the earth rotates on his axis, what do we mean by rising and setting[…]).

Note Bruno was questioned on his “cosmogony conception”. And he defended his theory as “scientifically founded”. Note the phrase “even then” – clearly he’d been questioned on this topic before. Bruno was a contemporary of Galileo. The other documents relating to Bruno’s trial and execution have mysteriously disappeared. Of course, Bruno’s other unorthodox ideas also got him into trouble with the Church. But his cosmogeny conception – his scientific views – clearly had him in trouble too. Now read 1 above again. Puzzling, isn’t it?

POSTPOSTSCRIPT: re claim 2 “Many of the leading Catholic scientists were actually Copernicans” – check out my linked article where you will see that you were allowed to use the helicentric model as a hypothesis. But you were not allowed to say it was literally true, on pain of torture/death. Galileo did say that, and that is what got him into trouble. The records of his interrogation confirm this. So the above quoted line is, if not false, extraordinarily misleading. Many Catholic scientists would have used the heliocentric model to make predictions? Perhaps. But assert it was literally true? Only if you wanted to be handed over to the Inquisition.


  1. Lets get this clear this is revisionist revisionism isnt it stephen – thats a bit like pornographic pornography – the mistake is imputing that history is a mental creation – rather than realising that is what it has become. If all historians were historians of history you might get to enjoy a merry go round without getting dizzy in the process

  2. I remember I had an argument about this over at John Wilkins blog. He and a guest poster called anybody who suggested that the church was against heliocentrism Whiggish. I think it means you are retrospectively applying a progressive narrative to history. Anyway, apparently because Bellarmine handed over Galileo to a Secular court (the medieval xtian version of sharia) the church didn’t persecute him or something. Give me a break, Bellarmine knew that the secular court was based on that era church wisdom…..

  3. Hi Brain – yes, the Church always officially kept its hands clean. The Inquisition always handed the condemned over to secular authorities for execution.

  4. Hi Brain – yes, the Church always officially kept its hands clean. Hi Stephen, thanks for the compliment. Coming from a doctor of philosophy that’s high praise indeed. 😉 Well, it’s good to see the church never did anything bad then.

  5. By the way Stephen, ages ago, I asked if you could send me an article on philosophy. I tried emailing you as you requested but nothing seemed to happen after that. I probably got the wrong email. Is there a chance you can send it to me? baeng72 at hotmail dot com. Thanks.

  6. I think the idea that the church took no issue with heliocentrism is slightly troubled by the fact that many did recognise it as constituting a problem for Christianity. Some may know that Copernicus’ publication ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’ (1543) was tampered with at the time publication by a man Copernicus had entrusted to oversee its publication, Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran pastor. He took it upon himself to have inserted a preface that encouraged an instrumentalist interpretation of Copernicus’ theory (that is, the theory was to be considered useful insofar as it facilitated mathematical calculations, but was to be considered ‘neither true nor even probable’). Problem was, Copernicus himself made clear he was a realist, and intended a realist interpretation (i.e. he intended his theory spoke about the way things actually are, in fact)Now, there were other reasons aside from the religious for Osiander to have done that – namely, to preserve the literal truth of the Ptolemaic model from challenge. But then, doing that would also maintain the religious picture of geocentrism also.

  7. BrianI think I vaguely remember sending something. can you say what it was and i will try again…

  8. Surely the fact that the Catholic Church tampers with the truth, and always has, isn’t news.

  9. Thanks Stephen. It’s the paper by Prof. Hugh Mellor.

  10. Brian email me and i’ll attach it to reply…

  11. Sorry that this is off the topic of your thread.My copy of The Philosophy Gym just arrived (nicely in advance of my family vacation to the Dominican Republic) and I was wondering: do authors have any say in the size of the typeface used in their paperback editions? The font size used in your paperback edition is so minute I am going to need a magnifying glass to get through it. If the book caught my eye in a bookstore, the font size would be enough to dissuade me from buying it.Today I lso received a paperback copy of Colin McGinn’s The Mysterious Flame and it is far easier on the eyes.

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