CLAIM: Galileo was persecuted by the church because the church was anti-science.
REALITY: This is over simplistic and misleading. The story that people have been led to believe is that Galileo was persecuted by the church because he discovered heliocentrism, the belief that the sun was the center of the solar system and the earth orbited around it. The claim is that the church persecuted Galileo because they were anti-science. Galileo was indeed persecuted by the church, but there was more to the story. There are important details that are intentionally omitted.
For starters, the church was the chief pioneer of scientific research during Galileo’s time. The church was responsible for creating the very university that Galileo studied at. To claim that the church was anti-science is completely false. Also, Galileo was a devout Christian and considered himself a man of God. He believed that science and religion were not separate but divinely connected.
During Galileo’s day, the widely accepted view was the Ptolemaic system. The Ptolemaic system was the theory that the sun and planets revolved around the earth, which is the opposite of heliocentrism. This theory was first discovered by Aristotle and further developed by Claudius Ptolemy.
In 1610, after Galileo observed the phases of Venus, he believed in the theory of heliocentrism. Heliocentrism directly opposed the Ptolemaic system. Instead of building upon his discovery, he immediately tried to discredit the known scientific theory at the time.
The Pope allowed Galileo to publish his work, as long as he identified it as a hypothesis. The Pope was willing to accept Galileo’s position, if he could provide proof, even going so far as to provide Galileo with all the resources he needed. The problem is Galileo failed to convince people of his theory. The proof he provided for his theory was based on the movement of the tides. The problem was he was wrong about the cause of tides, which he attributed to the movement of the Earth, rather than the gravitational force exerted by the moon. This was a major objection his scientific peers had made. Galileo also couldn’t answer other objections raised by his peers. According to author Dava Sobel, “Galileo missed the discovery of Neptune; could not accept the moon’s impact on tides; and was convinced that comets were atmospheric disturbances instead of objects in the heavens.”
Even though Galileo was right, he couldn’t convince his scientific peers or the church.
Finally, what happened to Galileo was very political. The Pope at the time felt insulted by Galileo. In 1632, Galileo wrote a book titled, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” The book was a fictional book about a debate between a character named Salviati and a character named Simplicio. The character Salviati was intelligent while Simplicio was a fool. Salviati was a representation of what Galileo believed (heliocentrism), while Simplicio was a representation of what the church believed (Ptolemaic system). This book made the church look foolish. This deeply offended the Pope and the church. The Pope felt especially betrayed since he provided Galileo with resources and considered Galileo to be a close friend. The book was subsequently banned and Galileo was charged with heresy. As for Galileo’s punishment, he was put on house arrest for the rest of his life. He spent the rest of his days in his villa in Arcetri, near Florence Italy. During his house arrest, he was allowed visitors and continued his scientific research. In 1638, he wrote “Two New Sciences,” which focused on kinematics and the strength of materials. On January 8, 1642, Galileo died at age 77.
It’s important to mention that Galileo didn’t discover heliocentrism, nor did he prove it. Copernicus and Johannes Kepler had written about heliocentrism long before Galileo. What’s interesting is when Johannes Kepler proposed heliocentrism, he was not persecuted by the church. Johannes Kepler was a devout Christian (Protestant) living in a Catholic country under a Catholic monarch, around the same time as Galileo.
Also, Copernicus was apprehensive to publish his work on heliocentrism, not because of the church, but because of ridicule from his scientific peers. It wasn’t just the church that opposed Galileo’s views, but the scientific community as well.
As I said, it’s an oversimplification and outright false to state that Galileo’s persecution was because the church was anti-science. The church was responsible for heading every major scientific institution at the time. The decision to persecute Galileo was rooted in politics just as much if not more than it was rooted in religion.
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