January 22, 2022

In this episode, Kurt talks with Ted Davis, Professor of the History of Science, on the misconceptions about the Galileo controversy.

Listen to “Episode 126: Galileo” on Spreaker.

Kurt: Well a good day to you and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. We have a very nice episode coming for you today, an important one. I called it a niche one on my personal Facebook profile and it’s niche because it’s sort of a very narrow topic. We could be very broad, but there’s something, a reason for this episode. We’re talking about an important figure from history who was chastised by the Roman Catholic Church and some atheists believe that because of this that the Christian church, broadly speaking, is anti-science, among other reasons for why it’s anti-science. Who was that individual? This person is mentioned in a musical song in the 1980’s. Yes. He was. Who was he?

*clip plays*

Kurt: None other than Galileo. Alright. If anyone caught that, that was Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. We’re talking about Galileo today on our program and joining us to discuss him and who he was and the controversy surrounding him is none other than Ted Davis who is a professor of the history of science at Messiah College. Ted’s been a professor there teaching for a number of decades. He has Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from Indiana University. He has spent his career researching this area and I’m glad he can really enlighten us to understand these misconceptions about Galileo. Ted. Thank you for joining us on our program today.

Ted: I’m delighted to be here, Kurt. Thanks very much for your interest in this topic.

Kurt: Yeah. We met at the Bradley Study Center, the talk that I gave I guess a month and a half or so ago, some time that was, and we went out to eat afterward and then I discovered that this was your area of research and I thought we’ve got to have you on the program. This is a great opportunity for someone like you. You’re not a Galileo expert, but you are an expert of this time period, of this field, of the relationship between science and religion. You are certainly competent to enlighten us today.

Ted: It’s true. When I say I’m not a Galileo expert, I mean, for example, that I don’t write about Galileo in professional literature trying to provide other historians to take a different view of this or that aspect of Galileo. I don’t dive into the Galileo manuscripts. Other people do that. I read their work and I try to keep up to date.

Kurt: Before we jump into the main topic for today, let me ask you what got you interested in studying this?

Ted: The Galileo subject or science and Christianity?

Kurt: Just broadly speaking, yeah.

Ted: I developed my interest in Christianity and science very broadly when I was teaching high school science and mathematics at a Christian high school in Philadelphia. Pretty quickly, I made a decision to study these things more deeply and to do that I wanted to do graduate study. In those days it wasn’t obvious how you would do it to learn more about Christianity and science generally. I just chose the route of the history of science because it was there and it was interesting to me. It was a way I could get it done.

Kurt: Yeah. And now, decades later, all the more important it is that you have gone into this field and you’ve given talks on that relationship, it’s a very hot topic for a number of people. They think if they were to affirm the scientific consensus, say about how humans arrived at our present state, they think they couldn’t believe the Bible to be true. You’ve given talks and written on that. You’ve done some good work so thank you for that.

Ted; Thank you. I’m glad you found it worth reading.

Kurt: I just want to say hi to James who’s currently watching us online. If you are one of our viewers right now, feel free to ask any questions of Ted that you might have as they come up throughout our discussion today. That’s really how I try to format these episodes. I try to make them a discussion, but mainly where we can learn from these experts, these scholars that we’ve brought on to talk about a variety of topics. If you do have a question, feel free to let me know in the comments section. I am following along. You can also text the word VERACITY to 555-888 and I’m keeping tabs on that to see if anyone will be texting in today. We’d love to hear from you. Let’s start off. This is going to be the hardest question for you, Ted. Who was Galileo?

Ted: There’s a lot of ways to answer that, but the simplest way is that he was a 16th and 17th century scientist is what we would call him today, although at the time he would never have recognized that word, not only because it’s an English word, but also because nobody had invented that word scientist yet. It’s a 19th century word. Prior to that point, among other words that could be used to describe him, he would have thought of himself as a mathematician. He was really a professor of mathematics for awhile in his early career. He was a professor of mathematics at Pisa and Padua. He also perhaps would have recognized the term astronomer and would have answered to that, though primarily it would have been mathematician. He also thought of himself as a philosopher. Philosopher was the closest equivalent to the word then to the word scientist now. Natural philosophy was the name that Aristotle gave to the study of nature. A natural philosopher shortened to philosopher is some other term he would have answered to.

Kurt: How important it might be to refer to still refer to scientists as natural philosophers. I think some scientists have neglected that area of the humanities, philosophy and recognizing philosophical assumptions that they might have and advocate. It seems like maybe we should try to bring that back.

Ted: I think it’s apropos. Above all, I think in the physical sciences where these metaphysical questions about space and time and measurement, these types of things, still do boil to the surface from time to time. I think by and large, those philosophical issues which are important remain far below the surface of the ordinary conversation in science, but every once in awhile they boil up, especially when you have disputes that result in what we might call scientific revolutions and people really talk about those things to a great extent in the scientific literature itself even. They’re just there. They’re just kind of buried.

Kurt: Very nice. There’s an article on livescience.com written by one Tanya Lewis and she talks about the turbulent history between science and the Catholic church, as if science were just this monolithic agent. She talks here, “In the early 1600’s, a certain Italian astronomer came into conflict with the Catholic Church over his support of the Copernican view that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo, himself a Catholic, was tried for heresy in 1633 by the Roman Inquisition which forced him to recant his views and live out his days under house arrest. It wasn’t until 2000 that former Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology for the church’s treatment of Galileo.” This paragraph, if I could epitomize it, might draw this view that the church was anti-science. How dare those people condemn and put him under house arrest for simply wanting to explore what nature was like? Is that your understanding of the controversy surrounding Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church?

Ted: I would say that everything she wrote is right. It’s just a piece of the story and there’s a much bigger story there about Galileo and the church, but each of those things that she referred to is either a fact in and of itself or I would say a fair interpretation of a limited state of facts. I don’t dispute what she says, but I would say it’s hardly the whole story.

Kurt: Without providing that greater framework, the truth is complicated. When we only provide a small number of facts, we might be making certain implications, like the church is anti-science, but really, when you take a step back and you look at all or at least more of the facts, the truth has a way of coming forward, so if you could, could you tell me more about how this controversy all began? We’ve had this term, the Copernican view, enlighten us here, Ted.

Ted: It’s a long story and I don’t know how much of it you want me to tell. Why don’t I do this? I’ll tell you part one and then if you want more I’ll go part two and keep going, but you might want to get other topics.

Kurt: I’ve got some Skittles here on my desk and I’ve got some water so go ahead.

Ted: Part one. Was the Copernican view itself a problem for the church? If you mean the church as a whole as an institution as opposed to individual within it because the church is no more monolithic than science is and the answer is no, it was not, until Galileo’s time, until after his discovery of objects in the heavens that seemed to indicate that the Ptolemaic system, the classic Greek way of looking at the heavens with the Earth in the middle, couldn’t be right. He wasn’t able to prove that the Copernican system, the solar system is true. He couldn’t prove that although for awhile he believed he could. His evidence isn’t strong enough to do that, but his evidence was decisive against the view that the Earth must be the center of all rotation in the universe. That was pretty clear. The decisive piece of evidence here was the phases of Venus. Galileo observes the phases of Venus just within two or three years after he improves an existing spyglass into a real astronomical telescope. He’s able to see something that nobody had previously seen. Namely that Venus has a full set of phases just like the moon, but different from the moon. Those phases differ a lot in apparent size so that the little crescent you get of Venus has a very big radius to it and the full Venus is really quite small in diameter compared to the crescent. That’s unlike the phases of the moon which are pretty much the same size. In the case of Venus though, they vary a lot in size because Venus orbits the sun and just as the Earth does and sometimes Venus is relatively close to the Earth, in between the Earth and the sun, and then other times it’s behind the sun from our point of view, it’s on the other side of it’s own orbit. The distance between Venus and the Earth changes pretty dramatically over the course of a year and even less than a year, but if you think of it in terms of[NP1]  motion over the course of a year, Venus changes its distance from the Earth quite a bit. It’s apparent size when seen through a telescope changes a lot and it shows these phases. That’s the key issue. In the Ptolemaic view, there is no way you can get full Venuses in view. You get crescents of various sizes, but you shouldn’t even get a half Venus let alone a full. Since Galilee did see a full set of phases of Venus, he knew the Ptolemaic system could not be right. There had to be another center of rotation in the universe other than the Earth if you assume the Earth was the center, but as I say, that didn’t happen until Galileo’s time. Prior to that, how long is this period we’re talking about? It’s roughly 70 years from when Copernicus’s view is first published in 1543 down to the time when Galileo publishes his letters on sunspots which contains the Venus observations. That’s 1613. That’s when things really get dicy, because it does look as though the traditional view is wrong and Galileo advocates that the Earth is actually moving, that the solar system view explains his observations better than Ptolemy, and that’s true. It does, but it’s not the only possible theory that explains his observations better than Ptolemy as well. He pushes it as if it’s the only alternative, it’s A vs. B. If A is wrong, Ptolemy is wrong, then B, Copernicus must be right.

Kurt: Keep going. Before you continue to part two, you talked about Venus and how it moves. I want to share this video of the vortex view of the solar system, which I think can help demonstrate, I need to just quickly connect my computer though so one moment here, Ted.

Ted: Okay. I have the disadvantage of not seeing it at the moment. 

Kurt: I’ve connected my computer here and I’m going to share this as it connects here to my monitor. Basically, what I’m going to share here is the popular view of what people are taught about our solar system, that usually the sun is in the center and it’s just standing still. Every elementary school kid creates their little diagram of how the planets rotate around the sun and it really fails to do justice to the magnificence of what is happening right now as we fly through outer space, so Chris, if you’re ready I’m going to hit play here. This is the old heliocentric model of our solar system. Planets rotating around the sun. You can see there, I’ll even turn up the music I think. You can see there the planets rotating. The guys says this is boring, but it’s also incorrect.

Our solar system moves through space at 70,000 kph. What would that look like? Here’s what it looks like. There’s the sun and there are the planets going around it. It creates a vortex. You can see here when Ted is talking about how Venus is further away and when it’s behind the sun you can picture how it might be harder to see that they don’t appear to us as equal, the crescent and the full view. I think that’s pretty neat. It helps grasp what’s happening with the planets rotating. It’s almost as if the planets are in the wake of the sun which is a really neat thing to think about. Okay. It goes on. That’s enough for that. Ted. I just wanted to share that so people can get their mind here about what Galileo and other astronomers or mathematicians would be looking like or trying to understand and they’re dealing with a different framework. They don’t have the knowledge we have. We’re looking at these things in retrospect. For us, that should be a point of humility that it’s easy to play, what are they called, Monday morning quarterbacking. You say the quarterback should have done this or should have done that, but think about what they were like in their position, the knowledge that they had, the incomplete knowledge, and maybe the incorrect models they were dealing with and had to figure out. That was a challenge for them and here was Galileo. He’s saying, “Wait a second. The Earth is not the center of the solar system”, but now the Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, was their reasoning for chastising Galileo, was it because of scientific reasons or because they thought the Bible said it a certain way?

Ted: Yeah. This gets very interesting. First of all, let me point out that the reason opposition to Galileo first arises on the part of some people in the church is partly because they’re goaded into bringing this topic into focus by some of Galileo’s academic opponents. Galileo’s not the popular guy in the world in his day. I have the sense in reading about him and what people will say about him in correspondence that he was sort of like maybe an American like Franklin Roosevelt who in his day was either really loved by people or really hated by people, depending on which side of the political spectrum they laid on. Galileo was that type of an individual. He was a polarizing personality. Those who loved him really did love him and they would line up and support him pretty much no matter what. His opponents, the opposite. Some of his academic opponents were perhaps a little jealous of his success with the telescope and his growing reputation begin to urge that the church might look into this question of Copernicanism and see whether or not it’s biblical. There’s also a couple of people in the church at the time, a couple of priests who agree it may be not biblical and that Galileo might have to have his ears pulled back as it were. The opposition doesn’t originate as it were solely within a church context. There’s opposition to Galileo for various reasons having to do partly with his personality. He’s the type of person who just loves to get into arguments and he slings mud and he likes to win. He’s never wrong in his opinion. He’s never wrong.

Kurt: Chris. Do you know anyone like that who likes to get into debates and arguments?

Chris: No. Not at all. Certainly not here on Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on all things.

Ted: Galileo’s, it wouldn’t be right to say his interest isn’t the truth, because he is interested in the truth, but he sometimes seems incapable of acknowledging that other people can come to that conclusion when it’s different from his own. He’s that type of individual. He’s polarizing. 

Kurt: I know a few people like that and somedays when I look in the mirror too.

Ted: Exactly. He’s not the only one at the time who’s interested in the Copernican question, but it’s not widely held by people. In fact, from the time of Copernicus down until Galileo’s observations with telescopes are published, in the whole world, there’s either a dozen or a baker’s dozen of people who we know were Copernican, that is who thought Copernicus was right, that the Earth really moved, and Copernicus was one of those people and so was his only student, a Luthern astronomer from Wittenburg named Georg Joachim know as Rheticus. He was one of those people. I don’t know want to give you the whole list. I’m sure you people don’t want to hear that. The point is there aren’t very many and we actually know who they are. For a period of 70 years there just aren’t very many people that think that Copernicus is right. The most famous of the people probably to your audience, the most famous of the people who doesn’t think that Copernicus is right or at least we have no evidence that he ever thought that the Earth moved at all was John Calvin and so Martin Luther, another one. Luther hears about Copernicus, there’s evidence of that. There’s no direct evidence that Calvin knew about Copernicus, but his whole life as far as we know, like everyone else in the 16th century, Calvin thought the Earth was in the center of the universe and did not move, did not rotate around its axis and didn’t move around the sun. That was standard opinion and there were lots of reasons that it was good opinion that I don’t really want to prolong this to go into all that, but scientifically people were still taught that the Earth was in the center of the heavens in the early 17th century. The textbooks would have taught them this in Galileo’s day. This was standard scientific knowledge, that the Earth is at rest in the center. Anyway, as people being to wonder about this, some people start throwing the Bible up as a reason not to believe the Copernican system and they’ll quote verses, a few, there’s maybe a half a dozen biblical passages, none of them very long, that get interpreted in this regard. One of them, for example, is the one from which Ernest Hemingway later gets the title of a novel, the verse in Ecclesiastes that says the sun also rises and the sun goes down. People thought that was a literal direct reference to the motion of the sun in the sky and not just a language of appearances. Another one is the famous text in Joshua 10 about the Earth, when Joshua needs to get more time in the day to bring his army into battle against the Amorites. He asks that the sun stands still in the sky and Scripture reports that the sun stood still and the moon stayed over the Valley of Ajalon and so this is a famous text. It’s one that Luther knew about and when Luther makes an off-the-cuff remark that one of his disciples writes down, which is why we know he said, an off-the-cuff remark at the dinner table one evening, he says when he hears about these ideas, he doesn’t name Copernicus but he speaks about this particular person whom he doesn’t name who thinks that the Earth moves around the sun and he says, “But Joshua said the sun stands still and not the Earth.” That’s how Luther sees it. There are people who know about these ideas and just don’t think they’re true and they may be contrary to Scripture in the opinion of some of the time, but it doesn’t really become an issue until after these observations have started to come out, these observations in the heavens and it looks like Copernicus could be true. The evidence certainly supports that theory more than the old view. People start to wonder and in a few years it really comes to head when the reigning Pope at the time, this is 1616, asks a committee of cardinals to make a ruling on whether the Copernican view is in fact, contrary to Scripture. This committee is headed by a distinguished cardinal named Bellarmine, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, and he is the standard go-to person for the church in arguments about theology with the Protestants. He’s known as the Hammer of the Heretics. He comes in and leaves this committee.

Kurt: That’s a fun nickname. The Hammer of the Heretics.

Ted: It is, but Bellarmine’s pretty sophisticated. He’s not a stupid interpreter of Scripture who doesn’t know anything about context and intention and all that, so you would expect better of him on this basis, looking at these texts. He himself had taught astronomy briefly at an Italian university for a couple of years and so he wasn’t wet behind the ears on this subject, but he knows full well that there is no direct evidence of the Earth’s motion, and Galileo actually knows this as well. Galileo’s trying to make indirect evidence for the Earth’s motion. He knows there’s no direct evidence for it. For example, if the Earth really does move around the sun every year, then at opposite times of the year such as January and July the Earth is by modern numbers nearly a couple 100,000,000 miles away from it where six months earlier. Even in the Copernican scales it’s something like 20 million or so miles across the Earth’s orbit and so there should be a difference when we look in the sky and look at stars. They shouldn’t be in exactly the same places as seen from the Earth in January as in July. In fact, we now know that that’s true. They’re not in the same places. This is something, a phenomenon known as annual parallax of stars. It wasn’t discovered until 1838. This is 1838, this is 200 years after the trial of Galileo. Until that point theoretically, until that point, there is no direct observation of the Earth’s motion, or you could make the argument in the 18th century, the apparition of starlight proved that the Earth is moving. That’s another technical argument, but that’s still more than a hundred years after Galileo. There is simply no evidence available at any point in the 17th century to demonstrate that the Earth actually does move at all, let alone around the sun. It’s not unreasonable that people find objections to Galileo’s science. They think he’s not proved this. It’s a conjecture that they don’t think has strong evidence in favor of it. The other point as Bellarmine knows, when Copernicus’s book was originally published at the time of his death in 1543, it contained an anonymously written preface, right in the front of the book, that speaks of Copernicus in the third person so it’s clear that Copernicus didn’t write it, but it doesn’t identify the author of this in the book itself. We know now the author was a Lutheran clergyman named Andreas Osiander, he was actually the first time a Roman Catholic priest in Nuremberg converted to Catholicism, he was a distinguished person in early Lutheran Nuremberg for reasons that I won’t go into are fairly complicated. He ends up supervising the publication of Copernicus’s book. In the end, he slips this anonymous preface in because he thinks it’s going to make it easier for people to give these ideas a serious consideration. The anonymous preface says, “These theories of Copernicus are purely mathematical hypotheses and we can use them to calculate” basically he’s arguing you can use them to calculate the positions of planets at any point in the future, but you shouldn’t take them literally. There’s no reason to take them literally any more than any other astronomical hypotheses can be taken literally, and this is an old tradition. Astronomers have often approached things with these ideas that we’ll use these various geometrical devices, epicycles, and deferents, and equants, and other things to find where planets will be in another year, but we don’t know that they’re literally true. We can’t know that. All we can know is that mathematically they work more or less well for our purpose. Bellarmine knows that preface is in the book and he thinks this is what Copernicus intended, that his ideas not be taken literally, but they be used as mathematical hypotheses. When he reviews the book not by Galileo but by a Roman Catholic priest named Paolo Foscarini, a book arguing for Copernicus on biblical grounds, Bellarmine’s not happy and he writes a letter to Foscarini and this is what he says. I’m going to quote the translation by Stillman Drake.

Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Famous classic translation. For those who want to have a copy of this, there’s a lot of them around the world. I’m going to start reading on page 162. Here’s what he says. He writes a letter to Foscarini and he says,

“First, I say it appears to me that your reverence and senior Galileo did prudently to content yourselves to speaking hypothetically and not positively as I have always believed Copernicus did, for to say assuming the Earth moves and the sun stands still, saves all the appearances better than eccentrics and epicycles is to speak well.” I should add that his language about saving the appearances is really old language that goes all the way back in the astronomical tradition to the Greeks and probably may have been stated by Plato in a work now lost. That just means saving the appearances means explains what you see in the sky. Bellarmine continues, to use this as a mathematical hypothesis, he says “This has no danger in it and suffices for mathematicians and to the extent that Galileo wants to do that, wants to propose a new hypothesis, he’s perfectly free to do that” in Bellarmine’s opinion and so is anyone else, and he continues, “But to wish to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and merely turns upon itself” that means on its own axis “without traveling from east to west and that the Earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves swiftly around the sun is a very dangerous thing” says Bellarmine. Not only by irritating all the theologians and scholastic philosophers, but also by injuring our holy faith and making the sacred Scriptures who’s false. Bellarmine’s the one who lays out this issue most clearly for the Catholic Church in 1616. He’s speaking on behalf of a council or a committee that’s been put together by the Pope himself. This becomes the church’s official position at that time, although as modern commentators correctly point out, it’s never officially declared to be the way you must interpret these Scriptures by papal decree. Whether its formally become heretical to disobey this or not is a matter of nuance I’ll leave to the Catholic experts. Functionally, interpreting the Earth’s motion literally at this point will become functionally heretical in my opinion, in the early 17th century if you’re a Catholic and that is because the way Bellarmine makes his next move. The background to his next move is that in the 16th century, prior to the time of Galileo, the church had held a long and important council to respond to Protestantism. It’s called the Council of Trent. At the Council of Trent among many other things, the church ruled that if the church fathers, meaning the great original Christian theologians in the first few centuries of the church, if they had held a unanimous opinion on an interpretation of a given biblical text and if it were a matter of faith and morals, that’s an important point to add here, then it was binding on the church and so you couldn’t change that. If there had been a consensus of the church fathers and if it had been a matter of faith and morals. What Bellarmine does here, in my view, is he makes a very significant mistake when he’s interpreting how the Council of Trent applies to this issue. As he goes on to point out, he says, “As you know, the Council would prohibit expounding the Bible contrary to the common agreement of the holy fathers and if you would read not only all their works, but the commentaries of modern writers” and of course here he means Renaissance writers, the commentaries of modern writers on Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you would find that all agree in expounding literally that the sun is in the heavens and travels swiftly around the Earth while the Earth is very far from the heavens and remains motionless in the center of the world, so he’s saying as far as his study is concerned, everybody has always agreed when you interpret these texts in terms of geocentrism, that’s the correct interpretation. He then says, “Now consider whether in all prudence the church could support giving Scripture a sense contrary to the holy fathers and all the Greek and Latin expositors.” Here’s where he now brings up the issue of faith and morals. He says, “Nor may it be replied that this is not a matter of faith.” That’s Galileo’s view. Galileo thinks that the structure of the world is not a matter of faith. It’s not a matter of faith whether the Earth goes around the sun for Galileo. It has nothing to do with salvation. It’s not a matter of faith or morals, but Bellarmine says, “Nor may it be replied that this is not a matter of faith since if it is not so with regard to the subject matter, it is with regard to those who have spoken, “says Bellarmine. What he means is maybe it could make the case that astronomy doesn’t matter in terms of faith and morals, maybe you could make that case, but because God Himself says it in Scripture it becomes a matter of faith. That’s what he says. So he says, “Thus that man would be just as much a heretic who denied that Abraham had two sons and Jacob twelve as one who denied the virgin birth of Christ for both are declared by the Holy Ghost through the mouths of prophets and apostles.” So you can see where he’s going in terms of those examples he gives. Suppose Abraham had three sons or Jacob 13 or 11, particularly in the case of Jacob. Suppose Jacob had 11 children or sons or 13, would that really matter in the biblical narrative in any important way? No. It wouldn’t. You would have 11 tribes of Israel instead of 12, or 13 instead of 12. The virgin birth is of course, a different matter. Bellarmine puts them all on the same level from the point of view of interpreting the Scripture. As he says “Both are declared by the Holy Ghost through the mouths of prophets and apostles.” He’s saying that he read the Scripture in this case quite flatly in a way that’s rather surprising given in some of his other works including his commentary Genesis. He’s pretty sophisticated in how he reads other texts, but here he feels he has no alternative because everybody has always read the text this way. He thinks because the Scripture seems to him clear in how he sees these things. God says this thing so it has to be true. That’s his approach. He brings in a really kind of strict literalism on this particular issue. The church paints itself into a corner on this one through Bellarmine’s maneuver there about faith and morals.

Kurt: Fascinating. Ted. We’ve got to take a 90-second break. When we come back though, we do have a question from one of our online viewers and we’ve got a few more questions as well to talk about, Galileo and the controversy here, but it’s great learning all this history. I didn’t even know who Bellarmine was, but he clearly played an integral role in the position that the Catholic Church would defend and so it’s up to us, the interpreters, looking back to say, “Hey. Was he correct? Was he wrong?” We can see there that maybe he was stretching his interpretation of Scripture in a way the text itself doesn’t warrant. Stick with us through this short break from our sponsors.

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Kurt: Thanks for sticking with us through that short break from our sponsors. If you’d like to learn how you can become a sponsor, there are different levels of sponsorship. You can go to our website Veracityhill.com and click on that patron tab. If you’d like to become one of our patrons, those are folks who just chip in a few bucks each month to help our program continue to grow, to continue to go and grow so we are currently in talks with a radio network to actually air episodes of Veracity Hill on the radio waves so we would love to get your support. It has been part of our long-term vision to bring this program into households and cars through the radio which is still obviously a very popular way of listening to different programs. Podcasts, of course, are very popular and that’s how we got our start and speaking of that, if you haven’t yet reviewed our program on iTunes on Google Play, would you please give us a rating? We’d love a five-star rating and talk about what you like. Maybe give us some helpful tips on what we can do better as well. We are striving for truth here so we want honesty even on how we are doing our program. Today, I’m joined by Ted Davis, he is a professor of the history of science at Messiah College which is in Pennsylvania, and he has an interest in looking at, Ted, how would you describe not only this time period but the relationship between faith and science, it’s kind of a niche topic itself that wasn’t there when you were studying. You sort of had to create your own path here.

Ted: People have studied this interface between Christian faith and science for a very long time, but in the modern academic world there wasn’t outside of seminaries at least, there wasn’t any obvious place that people would do that in terms of an academic discipline. The reason I chose to do history of science as a route to this is because historians of science have for quite a long time talked about the history of science and religion, though not always frankly, in the most objective manner. In fact, when the History of Science Society was founded somewhere around 1920 if I recall correctly, somewhere around there, probably not the exact year, but roughly a century ago when the History of Science Society was founded by a Belgian scholar who taught at Harvard named George Sarton, he wrote in the first article that he put in the journal that he founded called ISIS, the same as that terrorist group today, he put in the journal ISIS, he said when we deal with the history of science and religion, we’re going to be, to paraphrase him just a little bit, he says, “We’re going to make a series of footnotes to Andrew Dickson White.” Andrew Dickson White was a now infamous historical commentator from the United States, the first president of Cornell, who had this vision, this one-size-fits-all vision of the history of science and religion which is that religion has a single role in the history of conversation with science, namely to hold back its progress, and that religion can never contribute anything positive. Technically, I shouldn’t say religion. Let me correct myself. Christian theology is really what it says. He himself thinks religion is a good thing, but he thinks Christian theology has not been a good thing in the history of thought and its sole role with regard to science is to hold back progress.

Kurt: How unfortunate because the Bible itself from my read of it depicts a number of phenomenological experiences which have great scientific explanations and so we know people observed these crazy events back then that really happened. That is unfortunate. 

Ted: That’s right. I’m part of a generation of historians of science who are really correcting the record with regard to Andrew Dickson White. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been situations in which science and religious beliefs come into conflict. We just gave an example with Galileo. To the extent that Bellarmine did speak for the Roman Catholic Church in 1616, his interpretation of Genesis and his interpretation of Copernicus came into conflict with Galileo and Galileo’s science turned out to be right in the long run and that’s, of course, the ultimate lesson most people have drawn from that, and I think there is a lesson there in the sense that one mustn’t be too dogmatic in one’s pronouncements about some subjects on the basis of one’s own preferred interpretation of Scripture. Bellarmine himself acknowledged that he might be wrong, but he had to be shown to be wrong. He didn’t see the evidence to the contrary so in his view, until you proved it, until you proved the Earth moved you shouldn’t expect the church to change its mind about these texts.

Kurt: Before we continue on with that discussion, Ted, we do a segment on our program called Rapid Questions where we ask short random questions, we get to know a little bit more about you. They’re totally unrelated to our topic today. I didn’t tell you about this because I didn’t want you to prepare. I don’t know how anyone really could prepare for Rapid Questions.

Ted: If the question’s too tough I’ll punt.

Kurt: That is fine. We put 60 seconds on our game clock here and you won’t hear it, but I’ll click it and ask the first question. Are you ready?

Ted: Yeah. Go ahead.

Kurt: Here we go. What’s your clothing store of choice?

Ted: Joseph A. Bank.

Kurt: Taco Bell or KFC?

Ted: Taco Bell.

Kurt: Who’s one person you’d like to have dinner with to discuss a topic you disagree on?

Ted: The late Robert Boyle.

Kurt: Okay. The Hokey Pokey, Electric Slide, or the Macarena?

Ted: Neither one of them. I don’t dance.

Kurt: When’s the last time you swam in a pool?

Ted: Probably a couple of years ago in Greece when it was really hot.

Kurt: Would you rather go bungee jumping or skydiving?

Ted: I’m fearful of heights. Neither of the above.

Kurt: Do you drink Dr. Pepper?

Ted: Every once in awhile.

Kurt: Do you believe in love at first sight?

Ted: Probably not.

Kurt: Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Ted: Morning person.

Kurt: A morning person. Okay. Ted, thank you for playing Rapid Questions. The love at first sight question, that caught you off guard huh? Probably, that’s a safe answer.

Ted: I said probably not.

Kurt: Very nice. Good. That’s great. Tell me, Robert Boyle. 

Ted: Yeah.

Kurt: Remind us, who is Robert Boyle and why would you want to have dinner with him?

Ted: Well, he was a 17th century natural philosopher in England. His approach to the scientific enterprise, to scientific knowledge itself and to the scientific community is very helpful I think for us historically to think about. He was one of the people who helped create the modern scientific laboratory and its methods. He was also a person who stressed the need to treat one’s colleagues in a very fair, respectful manner. He says at one point even that to rail against a man’s person, if you will, is misbecoming both to a philosopher and a Christian, so he didn’t hesitate at all to argue about people’s ideas. He had his ideas and he thought a lot of other ideas weren’t right, but he didn’t make personal attacks on people and so that’s very important, not just for our contemporary political discourse I think, but for the discourse in history and science then and now, discourse in science, excuse me, then and now. Galileo got into trouble with people partly because he did do this. He railed against people’s persons often. He seemed to relish it and so did some of his opponents. They would just sling mud at one another. 

Kurt: That can be a problem when people are unwilling just to stick to the ideas and even when people say that they’re willing to stick just to the ideas, you can find people are still putting in these sly remarks which can be insulting to people so it’s important to recognize these relational aspects and the academy is a place for the discussion of open ideas. That’s good. Very good. We’ve got a question here from Kyle which will move us along into our conversation today about Galileo and the controversy surrounding him. Kyle writes this, “I inhabit several different spheres that use Galileo to support their views on science vs. religion debate. Some on the left, evolution vs. creation, climate warming, etc. and even some on the right, gender sexuality. Where do you see this story of Galileo finding its most relevant insight into contemporary science vs. religion debates?”

Ted: That’s a great question. I think Galileo got some things right. What I would recommend to people in the audience, if they want to explore this more fully themselves and draw their own conclusions, go have a read of Galileo’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. This comes out of the context that we were talking about before with how the church is going to respond to Galileo’s ideas. Shortly before Roberto Bellarmine issued his ruling on the Copernican view, Galileo wrote a lengthy open letter to his patron’s mother, his patron was the Grand Duke of Tuscany based in Florence. His mother had been the Duchess of Tuscany, Grand Duchess of Tuscany before her husband died and she was still very influential and a power behind the throne. Her name was Christina De Medici. Galileo writes to Grand Duchess Christina an open letter and you can find the whole letter, in fact, you can easily find in translation on the internet. People will look for this, Galileo’s letter to Christina. Set aside 2-3 hours to read it slowly and carefully. That’s what it really takes to do it properly, and then start thinking about the things that he says. I think people will find much in there to benefit. Whether or not you always agree with Galileo’s answer to a question, people will probably agree he’s raising some important questions. I like him for the questions that he asks sometimes as much as for the answers that he offers. Having said that, what are some of the answers he gives that may be helpful to people? One of them certainly helpful to me is his famous place in the letter where he quotes someone whom he had known, a man who had recently died, a Vatican cardinal, who was, in fact, a librarian at the Vatican. His name was Cardinal Cesare Baronio and apparently Baronio said in Galileo’s presence once that the Bible tells how to go to heaven, not how the heaven goes. That, I think, is very insightful. It argues by itself without anything else, it argues for a separation view of science and the Bible and I wouldn’t necessarily endorse that as a general view, but I do think that in general, that as far as it goes, that’s true. The Bible says a whole lot of things about salvation and spiritual matters that we need to take pretty seriously, but it speaks about nature in ways that would have been understood by the ancient audience for whom the Bible was written that really don’t transcend their own time and shouldn’t be taken literally in my view and in Galileo’s view. Galileo makes the point even that if the Bible was to be a textbook on astronomy, it certainly doesn’t say very much about it. We can’t rely on it for very much even if we should rely on it for that. The point is the Bible as John Walton, biblical scholar, likes to say, was written for us, but not to us, and so when the Bible is being written into this ancient culture in Galileo’s view, it is written with the background assumptions about how the universe is put together and how it works and that the Bible’s purpose is not to challenge those assumptions about how that goes. Instead, the Bible works within that conceptual framework to make the points that we do need to hear about ourselves and about God so that it doesn’t try to challenge ancient conceptions of nature. If it did, Galileo says, if it did try to challenge ancient conceptions of nature people wouldn’t have believed it and they wouldn’t have believed it on more important matters such as the resurrection of Jesus is one of the things that Galileo himself says in the letter to Christina. So if the Bible seems to speak about an Earth that is at rest and a sun that is in motion, that’s because as Galileo himself says, the Holy Spirit accommodated Himself to the ordinary person who was rude and unlearned. That’s how he put it. Calvin interestingly enough was using exactly the same kind of language long before Galileo. I doubt Galileo ever read John Calvin, after all, Galileo full of himself as a good Catholic and Calvin’s on the list of prohibited books, Galileo is probably not reading Calvin, but Calvin and Galileo are both reading Augustine and Augustine does have this notion that the Bible is written into a time of place that accommodates to our understanding, the understanding of the ordinary person, it’s not sophisticated scientific understanding.

Kurt: We’ve got a couple more questions here with just a few minutes left. What did Galileo himself believe about the Bible? It’s language, it’s purpose, it’s relationship to scientific knowledge?

Ted: The purpose of the Bible according to Galileo is for the salvation of souls. That’s what it’s there for. It’s for the knowledge of God and the salvation for souls. It’s not there to tell us things that we could figure out for ourselves from nature, using our minds that God has given us. It’s purpose isn’t to teach astronomy or any other scientific information. It’s purpose is to teach us about God and salvation and that’s a message, of course, that everyone needs. That’s the purpose of the Bible. The audience for the message of the Bible is the ordinary person as well as everyone else. So the Bible is written with this very important message, it is important to everyone, it’s written to be understood, it’s written in the conceptual vocabulary as well as the verbal vocabulary of the commoner and not of the technically informed astronomer. It doesn’t bother to correct these things as we already talked about. It doesn’t bother to correct common misconceptions from the modern point of view, common misconceptions about how the universe is put together. What it does try to correct is common misconceptions about who we are and who God is. It does try to correct those because those are very important. We need them for our salvation. We don’t need to know anything about how the world works for our salvation.

Kurt: What would you say the Galileo affair has come to symbolize?

Ted: The Galileo affair has come to symbolize what you opened this talk with, that quotation from this particular writer who wants to blame Christianity, even the Roman Catholic Church as part of that or Christianity more broadly for an age-long conflict with science. It’s come to symbolize what science and religion must be in relation to one another. Confrontational and obscurantist, not mutually influential and helpful, so that’s the problem with it. It’s a symbol of the view that is popularized by so many writers since Galileo’s day including in the United States by the Andrew Dickson White from Cornell who I already referred to. His section on Galileo is very interesting to read, but you shouldn’t believe it. It’s called the War on Galileo, the section in his book that deals with this. That whole section I’ve read many times, though not as recently as yesterday, but I’ve read it many times and there are so many things in that section that are either just extraordinarily misleading in the way the reader’s going to come away with a certain conclusion, or just flat-out wrong. Things are presented as facts to the reader, are simply not true. A famous example of this in that section is a quotation from John Calvin that Calvin never wrote. Calvin never anywhere in his works or sermons uttered the name of Copernicus and yet according to White, Calvin quoted one of the Psalms against Copernicus in his commentary on Genesis according to White. Calvin never did any such thing. This spurious quotation is still quoted in some modern books today, especially in the work of history of science that has sold almost more than any other book in the history of science, the great book The Copernicus Revolution by Thomas Kuhn quotes that passage from Calvin which he himself, Kuhn, took from White. I wouldn’t blame Kuhn for not going all the way back to the original source in John Calvin. Kuhn wasn’t a historian of science and religion. He wasn’t really interested in that subject. He was relying on another scholar that he believed to be reliable, the first president of Cornell who was also the president of the American Historical Association. He just assumed White has done his homework when White obviously had not done his homework. Later in this same paragraph, White puts a quotation, a few words from John Wesley, a few words that Wesley did utter, that were written, however, about the idea of extraterrestrial life. They were not written about the idea of Copernicus, and in the context of the paragraph, White presents it unambiguously as a viewpoint of Wesley rejecting the Copernican view. That’s completely wrong. Wesley was fully as Copernican as anyone else, a learned person of the 18th century. He knew that Copernicus was right. He never challenged that. Those are outrageous statements in White, just outrageous. He presents in the same section, he presents the view that the great Jesuit astronomer, Christopher Clavius, he misreads Christopher Clavius’s interpretation of the work of Galileo as well as recently as just the year after Galileo’s first publication on On the Heavens: The Starry Messenger. Clavius praises that and sends his students to read it in his commentary On The Heavens. Clavius didn’t oppose Copernicus either as far as we can tell. Certainly didn’t oppose Galileo, and yet he’s presented in White’s book as if he’s an obscurantist refusing to listen to Galileo or to Copernicus.

Kurt: So there certainly is a misuse there of peoples’ perspectives, unfortunately. At the end of the day, last question to you, why would you say Galileo was put on by the Inquisition?

Ted: Was put on trial.

Kurt: Yeah. Put on trial.

Ted: For me, it boils down to a crucial thing that took place. I would call it a gross misunderstanding. Namely this, Galileo, when Galileo’s friend, Maffeo Barberini, was elected Pope Urban VIII in the 1620’s, Galileo arranged to have a personal audience with the Pope that lasted a week, exactly what they talked about we can’t know because there’s no transcript of the conversation, but from subsequent events, it seems clear that Galileo believed he had a green line to go ahead and write his book about the Copernican solution in the form of a dialogue in which different characters hold different views and one person speaks for the Copernican view in Galileo, one person speaks for the Ptolemaic view, the traditional view that’s most widely held, and one person seems to be a neutral party who has to sort out the argument. To make a long story short, it was clear that the Pope wanted one particular argument put into the book. When Galileo first drafted the book, it wasn’t there. The censors who were looking at the book and I remind listeners that in the 17th century you didn’t have intellectual freedom. Pretty much anywhere in the world, you had to get your book passed by censors for political and religious reasons. Galileo’s book was looked at by the censors and they noticed that this argument wasn’t there and they reminded him that the Pope wanted it there and so he came in and put the argument in the mouth of the idiot in the book, this guy who loses all the arguments and is the butt of all the jokes. His name is Simplicio which basically does mean a knucklehead. It’s that character where the argument ends up and the Pope doesn’t read this book when it comes out. He’s too busy, but his advisors do and when they see this, they take it to him and the Pope agrees with them that Galileo is trying to insult him even though they had been friends for many years, very good friends. The Pope never speaks to Galileo again. He thinks he has made him look like an idiot. Was that Galileo’s intent? I doubt it. Did he act maybe foolishly or in haste? Maybe. We don’t know exactly what was in his mind at the time that he wrote this. What we do know is that people perceived it as an insult of the Pope and perhaps a modern author would have received it the same way if they’d been the target of such a move in the book and so the Pope orders the Inquisition to haul Galileo down to Rome and put him on trial. He’s put on trial. In the end, what he pleads guilty is a vehement suspicion of heresy which is a lesser charge than full heresy, sort of like we have charges in the American legal system for various levels of crimes, various levels of murder even. They have different levels in the Inquisition for various levels of heresy. Of course, the point of an Inquisition trial is not to convict anyone of anything. You’re already guilty before you’re called in. The Inquisition has already decided you’ve done things against the Scripture and they want to persuade you of this and cause you to repent and be restored to the good graces of the church. That’s the point of an Inquisition trial. Galileo is brought to Rome and embarrassed in this particular way. I’m persuaded myself that if he had handled that differently and if he had made the dialogues a more balanced book in the presentation of the issues in science which even then, as I reminded people, you couldn’t prove the Copernican system. There was reasonable doubt about it and there were good alternatives, like the system of Tycho Brahe, that gets kind of dismissed in the book as a real possibility. If he had handled these things differently, he probably never gets called to Rome. There’s probably no trial and he probably doesn’t stand as a great example in the mind of people like A.D. White as an example of the warfare of science and Christianity. That’s my take on it. I think politics has much to do with this as much as anything else in the ultimate handling of all of this. Did the Church though say that it was heretical to say that the Earth literally moves? Technically, say the Catholic scholars, no, because of the way it went down, but in practice, yes, and promoting the Copernican view by Foscarini was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books because it tried to say that the Scripture was consistent with Copernicanism. It’s not a clear black and white in this case. There’s a lot of murkiness to this historical picture, but Copernicus’s book we must say was not banned. It was suspended until corrected meaning that a few years later some corrections were given that good Catholics were supposed to cross out half a dozen sentences and chapter headings and rewrite them or just leave them crossed out. The bottom line of those corrections was that he Copernican book then wouldn’t come out as proclaiming as an absolute truth the Earth’s motion, but it would treat it as a mathematical hypothesis. That’s the way the theory gets treated officially at least in Catholic circles for another 100+ years after Galileo.

Kurt: Quite a different world than our own.

Ted: Indeed. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

Kurt: I like that.

Ted: That’s not original to me.

Kurt: I hadn’t heard it before, but yeah, that’s nice.

Ted; They do things differently there as it says. 

Kurt: Ted. Thank you so much for joining us on our program today. I would love for you to stick on the line here while I sign off, a few more things to chat with you about, but thank you so much. Great to have you here. We’ll put a link to your website here, I’ve got it from your faculty profile page. We’ll put that on our website as well so people who want to learn more about you can do so. 

Ted; I’d rather have you actually put down the link to my blog at Biologos which currently is inactive, but it has more than a 100 columns on it and it’s called Reading the Book of Nature at Biologos.

Kurt: You’ve got it. We’ll be sure to share that as well and perhaps in our feed too of the Facebook Vodcast here. Thank you, Ted. We’ll be in touch.

Ted: Thank you very much, Kurt.

Kurt: Alright. That does it for our program today. I’m grateful for the continued support of our patrons and the partnerships that we have with our sponsors. They are Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, The Illinois Family Institute, Fox Restoration, and Non-Profit Megaphone. Thank you to our technical producer today, Chris, and to our guest, Ted Davis. Last and not least, I want to thank you for listening in and for striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. 


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Seth Baker

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