In the popular imagination, Galileo was a courageous champion of Science (YAY!) against the corrupt and backwards Catholic Church. (BOOO!) This simplistic view is attractive to people with a natural hostility to people of faith. It is also false. On this feast of Saint Robert Bellarmine, we should remember that, contrary to the standard narrative, the Catholic Church has defended and promoted empiricism going back to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine and this was just as true in the early 17th century. Indeed, the Galileo Affair is relevant in our own time as we observe the ongoing inquiry into the nature and causes of global temperature variations, one of the great open questions of modern science.
The “Renaissance Mathematicus” blog provides a helpful summary of the sequence of events which ultimately led to the infamous confrontation between Galileo and his erstwhile friend Maffeo Barbarini, who would ultimately became Pope Urban VIII. [Spoiler Alert: the Pope wins.] Far from being an anti-intellectual rube, Pope Urban was a man of letters, a skilled public speaker, a savvy political operator, and a patron of the arts and sciences. Indeed, while Galileo’s theories were suppressed in the Papal States, this was not his undoing. Rather, it was by betraying Urban’s patronage that Galileo really got himself into trouble.
One modern physicist describes St. Robert Bellarmine as a better scientist than Galileo for his healthy skepticism based on the evidence available. We must remember that in Galileo’s day, heliocentricity was not at all obvious. It wasn’t until Sir Isaac Newton published the foundational treatise of the modern discipline of physics, the Principia Mathematica in 1687–35 years after Galileo’s death–that anyone was able to lay out a solid explanation for how a planet hurtling through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour could appear still and motionless to its inhabitants. Issac Newton was without question in the top ten of the smartest people to ever have lived, so this was no small feat. Prior to Newton, a heliocentric model of the solar system wasn’t just theologically problematic, but was also scientifically dubious.
Today we see similar themes in the healthy debate about global warming. We are far from a unified and well-understood consensus on the myriad forces and their effects which combine to regulate the global climate. Only time will tell whether global warming alarmists are visionaries or crackpots. Galileo has been elevated to a legendary figure because his theories were ultimately proven to be correct, but it must be emphasized that Galileo did not prove his own theories with anything approaching scientific rigor. When scientists claim certitude for their own theories and inflate their accomplishments, as Galileo did, it proves nothing. Without the parallel researches of Brahe, Kepler, Napier, Halley, Hooke, and Boyle–the “shoulders of giants” on which Newton so famously stood–Galileo would have been forgotten in the annals of history as little more than a rather annoying sociopath.
Wherever facts admit of doubt, certainty requires faith. Even the famous agnostic Carl Sagan struggled with the questions of faith and scientific empiricism. In the conclusion of his novel Contact, the atheist/agnostic protagonist begs her critics to take a leap of faith when she explains that she was transported halfway across the galaxy but lacks any evidence of her trip. Faith and reason are not only compatible, but essential companions in the quest for true knowledge. As a student of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine knew this all too well. Without one or the other, we are cursed to remain hopelessly adrift, like a postmodern Odysseus, in the endless void of an uncaring universe. It is only by uniting our faith and our reason together (along with a healthy dose of skepticism) that we can save ourselves from drowning in the bottomless sea of our own ignorance.