Galileo’s Mistake


The title and basic ideas behind this post derive from Wade Rowland’s book Gailileo’s Mistake: The Archaeology of a Myth (Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2001).

Wade Rowland makes a very persuasive case against the popular lesson drawn from the story of Galileo Galilee’s confrontation with the Roman Catholic church. The accepted version has the great astronomer trying to get a vital scientific truth past a bunch of hidebound religious fanatics who believed that the earth is the center of the universe.

The lesson impressed upon us is that science trumps religion as the ultimate source of truth.

What the legend fails to delve into is the philosophical basis of Pope Urban’s objections to Galileo’s publication of his theory of the sun-centered universe. The Pope suspected that the sun was the center of the solar system as Galileo thought, but he was not about to overturn centuries of tradition without empirical proof.

Unfortunately, such proof was not available to Galileo, who had only a theory on hand. A brief excerpt from the Catholic Answers website explains why the majority of Galileo’s fellow scientists did not believe.

Many people wrongly believe Galileo proved heliocentricity. He could not answer the strongest argument against it, which had been made nearly two thousand years earlier by Aristotle: If heliocentrism were true, then there would be observable parallax shifts in the stars’ positions as the earth moved in its orbit around the sun. However, given the technology of Galileo’s time, no such shifts in their positions could be observed. It would require more sensitive measuring equipment than was available in Galileo’s day to document the existence of these shifts, given the stars’ great distance. Until then, the available evidence suggested that the stars were fixed in their positions relative to the earth, and, thus, that the earth and the stars were not moving in space—only the sun, moon, and planets were. [http://www.catholic.com/tracts/the-galileo-controversy]

Aristotle was truly a genius. The irony is that it is precisely his methodology of parallax measurement from the opposite sides of earth’s orbit that eventually was used to determine the distance to the nearest stars. Of course that could only happen once the instrumentation was precise enough to do the angular measurements properly. So let’s not throw Aristotle out with the bathwater.

The legend also fails to note that the Pope actually liked the scientist and did his best to mitigate the sentence the Inquisition imposed on him. They had previously had several conversations about his observations. These included several discussions about the philosophy of knowledge and faith.

Several times the Pope urged him to stress the theoretical nature of his astronomical speculations – a plea that fell on deaf ears. Galileo was a vain and arrogant man who was out to prove himself better than all other scientists. His treatment of the work of other scientists in his later published papers – even that of some who respected him – did not endear him to the church hierarchy or its scientists. His vanity would lead to a confrontation that he could not win on theological or scientific grounds at the time. (This is not to say that the church made no mistakes on its own part with how it handled Galileo.)

The Pope and his science advisors had no objection to a theory that used a sun-centered approach as a mathematical model for convenience of calculation. In fact, Johannes Kepler had published a work 10 years prior to Galileo that did a far better job of presenting a heliocentric view, both logically and mathematically than did Galileo. Kepler was received better by the Roman Catholic Jesuits than by his own fellow Protestants.

The problem arose with Galileo’s insistence that the model is the same as the reality. In other words, that there is only one possible explanation for any physical phenomenon. The corollary to that is that when the math works, you can be confident that you have the sufficient cause.

The history of science actually demonstrates that latter point to be untrue. Being able to describe something mathematically does not mean that you now know exactly how it works.

For example, Newtonian mechanics seemed to adequately explain planetary motion until anomalies were discovered in Mercury’s orbit around the sun. The planet was observed by telescopes to “precess” at the two focal points of its orbit. It was left to Albert Einstein to postulate the curvature of space-time around large masses to account for this shift of orbit around the sun.  Newton was right about the motion of the planets – until observations that contradicted the equations were made. Einstein’s theory predicted that precession much more closely than Newton’s and therefore supplanted that theory. However, for almost all earth-bound phenomena, Newton’s equations perform quite well in predicting motion under almost all circumstances. For all of those phenomena, Newton and Einstein are equally correct.

Einstein was not always correct, either. As he was contemplating the law of gravity it occurred to him to wonder why the universe wasn’t shrinking. Astronomers of the day were convinced that the universe was static, or in a “steady state.” Starting with that assumption, he postulated an “anti-gravitational” force that worked on objects at far distances from each other and calculated a correction factor for that force that came to be dubbed the “cosmological constant.”

He was wrong. Discovery of the “red shift” in the spectrum of the farthest stars and galaxies from us by Edwin Hubble came to be seen as an indicator that those galaxies are moving away from each other with a speed that increases with distance. (Like the sound of a train as it passes you and the sound changes in pitch, so light appears to change in frequency as its source speeds away.)

This phenomenon suggested that the universe was actually expanding, necessitating a “big bang” as a possible explanation. In one version the universe started as a point of infinitely dense proto-matter that somehow “ignited” and blew up into the universe we now know. Prior to that explosion there was neither space, nor time, nor matter as we know it. We do not have the scientific or mathematical tools to study the pre-explosion universe, so we will never know how it “exploded” our present universe into being.  That is, assuming that theory is correct.

A recent discovery in astronomy indicates that the universe is expanding increasingly fast, suggesting that Einstein’s “cosmological constant” needed to be on the other side of the equation. They are blaming “dark matter” for the increasing rate of expansion of the universe, whatever that is.

Once again, theories are proposed to explain observed discrepancies in prior theories. Theories come and go as the technology for measurement improves and flaws in earlier theories become visible. That is why we cannot say definitively that science has “arrived” at a complete understanding of the universe around us. When does it end? When will there be a real scientific theory that actually explains the universe?

That, in a nutshell, is what Pope Urban VIII was trying to tell Galileo. There is no final scientific theory that can explain what only God the Creator can explain. Everything else is essentially an educated guess. We can’t see mesons, leptons, or hadrons, or even electrons for that matter. We don’t know why light sometimes acts like waves and sometimes acts like particles. We certainly don’t know how the universe came into being. Many of these things are beyond the ability of our instruments to measure. In fact, in many cases, we need a long apprenticeship to even understand how to properly use modern measurement devices, like supercollider field detectors, that require sophisticated computer programming to collate and study the results of particle collisions. We can’t actually see the collisions, so we trust our devices to store the information and analyze them according to theories about how the particles should break down.

Even scientists, however, don’t start their scientific careers with a blank slate. They grow up in families that teach them about life, like the rest of us. They go to school, like the rest of us. They choose a post-secondary education in science (ok, that’s different from the rest of us). From there, they are trained by scientists or science professors.

Not unlike a priesthood, scientists are inculcated in a set of principles and methodologies (akin to doctrines) that eventually are no longer questioned as they seek to understand the universe around them. Sometimes that leads to holding on to theories that no longer account for all of the latest discoveries. They can trace their knowledge back to elaborations on previous discoveries by ingenious individuals and teams.

Not unreasonably, they have a great deal of faith in both their methods and their conclusions.

So let’s talk about faith and methodology.

Many people have the idea that faith is something like the blind acceptance of an idea or ideal or a religion that happens in the absence of evidence or proof.

In reality, faith is, in a very real sense, the departure point for knowledge, which is what theologian Augustine of Hippo meant when he said, “Seek not to understand so they you may believe; but believe in order that you may understand” (Rowland, p. 181).

The point is this: You always have to start somewhere. There is no detached perspective from which to base all subsequent knowledge. There is always some assumption or some assumptions that you start your search for knowledge with, such as Descarte’s “I think, therefore I am.”

Even scientists start with a body of knowledge that they are taught and examined about before they can get on with their own experiments. They must first be initiated in order to be able to work within the scientific consensus. They follow the scientific method, carefully documenting their results. Others replicate their experiments or check the accuracy of what the new idea predicts with experiments of their own. Then their work must be accepted by a group of peers in order to be considered legitimate by the broader scientific community. These are sensible precautions to follow in the pursuit of knowledge, so let’s examine them in a broader context than the merely scientific.

When we get down to the basics there are three parts to knowledge: individual subjective experience (observation and experimentation), knowledge reached by consensus, and knowledge accepted from authority. Both scientific and religious knowledge are based on all three forms. Rowland describes it this way within a contrived dialogue with a character he calls Sister Celeste. She first points out,

Let us say you happen upon a person on her knees in a church. She appears to be speaking to someone, perhaps only silently. You ask her, “what are you doing?” and she says, “I am talking to God.” You ask, “But how do you know He is listening? And she replies, Because I have had experiences in the past in which my prayers have been answered in various, often surprising and unexpected ways. Moreover, the Holy Scriptures tell me He is listening, and so does the Church and all its greatest thinkers over the past two thousand years.”

Now, if you are a scientist, and if you take no time to reflect, you may say to yourself that this is no proof at all. But I think I have demonstrated that it is indeed proof of a nature very similar to, if not identical with, the proof that undergirds all science. That is to say, empirical, experiential evidence, and the accumulated wisdom of authority.

Sister Celeste also notes a philosophical flaw in the scientific method.[p.197-198] In brief, scientists work in one of two ways. Either the scientist observes something happening in nature and comes up with a theory to explain it or he has an idea first and then tests it with a experiments that can either prove or disprove it. “If the hypothesis stands up to experimental testing, it is accepted as fact. If the experiments don’t confirm it, it is either modified and tested again or discarded.”

Sister Celeste points out that modern science operates on scales so large or small that direct observation is no longer possible. We leave it to readouts on various electronic devices that must be interpreted in light of current theories. In other words, we are not directly testing reality. We are testing our theories.

How we test our theories is by comparing them to our experimental results.

We test our experimental results by comparing them to our theory.

It is what Rowland calls a “recursive loop.” There is no real separation between theory and experiment. All of this happens without direct observation of the phenomenon. It is one (or more) step(s) removed from the actual reality it is trying to understand. This separation is nowhere accounted for in scientific theory.

The problem is that there may be more than one possible explanation of the experimental result, rendering his theory just that – a theory. A theory that is useful in predicting certain events or results, but a theory nonetheless.

Not. Necessarily. A. Fact.

In fact, many useful things about the world around us can be found out in ways outside the scientific method. Rowland points out,

[Johannes] Kepler pursued his investigations of the solar system from a position that today’s science considers completely off the wall – Pythagorean mysticism, astrology, numerology, Christianity. And yet he came up with the right answers when Galileo, the father of modern science, could not…

…that’s the reason why Galileo is a hero and nobody’s ever heard of Kepler. Kepler is a scientific heretic. His views are heterodox. So he’s been suppressed, marginalized. If he were alive today he’d be drummed out of the profession, cut off from grants, denied a teaching position, out of a job…”

Yet Kepler’s careful observation led to the intuitive grasp that planetary orbits are described better by ellipses than by circles. He turned out to be closer to the truth than Galileo. Galileo fought for circular motion because circular motion seemed to him more aesthetically ideal than non-circular motion.

We now are now pretty sure, after advances in science, that Galileo was wrong about the earth being the center of the universe. What else will science be proven wrong about in the future? Probably a lot.

Current theories about the origins of life and the origins of the universe are unlikely to be proven by pure science – until science can begin to create universes (at least twice, for the sake of replication). Or until science can find a way to produce (without gaming the experiment) life by pure, random chance (again, twice).

I won’t hold my breath.

The wise Christian understands that knowledge is not limited to what science can understand, with its limiting set of assumptions.

Not all knowledge is definable by mathematics or measurement of the physical realm around us.

All knowledge begins somewhere. Why not start with: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” (Psalm 111:10 NRSV and all following)

Or its corollary: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Proverbs 1:7)

The writer of the book of Hebrews notes that Christian faith is not based on wishful thinking, but rather on promises made by a God who has interacted with many people throughout history. This God has made promises that have proven to be trustworthy. There are other promises made by God that are the basis for a future-looking faith, such as an eternal inheritance in a world without suffering and oppression. (Heb. 11: 1-40)

God promised to send a Redeemer/Saviour descended from Abraham and David and to thereby bless all peoples. He did so by sending Jesus the Messiah (Christ) to die on our behalf and to live again as Lord and King of the earth. There were many witnesses, and documentary evidence has been handed down to us in the form that we now call the Bible.

Believing in Jesus Christ is faith that is anything but blind.

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About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
This entry was posted in Faith, gospel, Religion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Galileo’s Mistake

  1. Descartes did not assume “I think therefore I am”, he simply saw this statement as a self evident truth. Similarly to how no-one assumes that a triangle has 3 sides, it’s a self justifying truth that if you understand you will recognise as true.
    No scientific theory is ever proven or seen as fact. What happens is that they gain so much evidence that it is understood that they are very likely to either be the case or be an approximation to reality.
    Your argument appears to be based off an argument in the Philosophy of science about whether or not theories are actually representative of what happens or just ways in which we interpret the results in order to have some intuition as too what’s going on. But where does the argument end, we have to interpret what we see through a microscope for example, but it’s pretty clear that there is no issue with this.
    You claim we “test our experimental results by comparing them to our theory.” This is not accurate. Yes results are compared to theories and if they disagree then they will be checked and redone. And if they still disagree with the theory then the theory is changed. The results are compared with other results to determine whether or not they are repeatable. That is the true test of any data, not how it corresponds to a theory.
    I’m also disappointed to see that you’ve rather lazily lapsed into the “it’s just a theory” argument. Scientific theories are fully developed and well supported ideas about the world. The argument that they aren’t fact and that this somehow greatly weakens their position is to make an argument which can be applied to any form of knowledge about the outside world. This is a view of radical scepticism from Descartes and is widely regarded as a ridiculous way to view the world.
    Nor is it enough to just say “why not start with” the Christian belief. If you wish to make such huge assumptions you should at least give us some reason to believe that is the case. To not do so is to effectively admit that any starting point is equally acceptable and that therefore you’re rather clueless for picking one and claiming it to be the correct one. You’re quite right that all knowledge has to begin somewhere, this is a very important one in epistemology and it may interest you to look into it further.

    • John Valade says:

      It is unfortunate that I seem to have given you the impression that I am against science. I grew up loving science. I am blogging on a computer and a worldwide network that would have been impossible without dedicated researchers using their imaginations and the scientific method. Science has been the most successful mode of inquiry the human race has come up with in its history. Science has accomplished many wonderful things in the relatively short time it has existed in its present form.

      The point is that every mode of inquiry has its built-in limits. Recognizing those limits does not render them unimportant. It does, however, give a good indication of how appropriate it is to apply that mode of inquiry to whatever you are investigating.

  2. Pingback: Does Science Have Limits? | Wascana Fellowship

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