II. Galileo and the Church of Rome

(Reprinted from Bulletin of Tychonian Society, no.35-36, Jan.-Aug. 1983)

Whether a rehabilitation of Galileo will have been promulgated by the Vatican, and if so what form it will have taken, are questions without answer at the moment I am writing these lines. There are, however, straws in the wind that presage possibilities. One of these straws is a speech which the Pope, on May 9 of this year(1983), delivered to an audience of almost 200 scientists, among them 33 Nobel laureates and 22 cardinals in the Sala Regia of the Apostolic Palace in Rome.

To reproduce a translation of the complete French text, which recently has come in my possession through the kind offices of the Curia’s Secretariat for Unbelievers, would demand too much of the Bulletin’s cramped space and also be largely outside its scope. Suffice it here to quote the appraisal of Nature in the issue of May 12, 1983. The critic, Robert Walgate, called it “a most cautious and uncommitted speech on the subject”, and “a piece of classic prevarication – no doubt enforced by ultra-conservative elements in the Church.” I can understand why Walgate gives these grudging comments, for the Pontiff’s words indeed do not strongly prejudge the issue. They still offer a ray of hope that the secular sciences will be shown the place where they belong: barely above the “raw” phenomena, but light-years lower than Divine Revelation.

Though John Paul’s oration contains a carefully worded paean on the sciences and a vaguely phrased apology from the side of the Roman Church – it stops short of specifics, and must almost certainly have irritated many of the zealots for Galileo’s vindication among his audience. The convener of the meeting, Professor Antonino Zichichi, so concludes, for instance, the clearly disappointed Nature, “will have to continue longer with his efforts to persuade the Church finally to rehabilitate the ‘father of science'”.

I of course hope that Zichichi will never succeed in those efforts. And to hope this is, it seems to me, not hopeless. For almost at the end of his discourse the Pope put a restriction on what he called science’s “admirable task.” “To be sure,” he told his hearers, “your specialization imposes on you indispensable rules and limitations in your investigations, but let outside these epistemological boundaries the inclination of your spirit carry you to the universal and the absolute.”

It is this sentence which compelled me to send Karol Wojtyla, Bishop of Rome, the following letter:

Pitt Meadows, September 30, 1983 Your Excellency:

Only recently I have been able to study the complete text of your speech of May 9, 1983 about the Galileo affair. A critic in the scientific periodical Nature of May 12 called it “a piece of classic prevarication”, a sentiment, which from his point of view I can understand, but do not share. Quite the contrary. For, unless I completely misunderstand the closing paragraph of your oration, I conclude from your mentioning the epistemological boundaries set to science and research that you, in concord with the instrumentalist views of, e.g. Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, Pierre Duhem and virtually all modern philosophers of science, quietly wanted to remind and to warn your audience that at bottom the Galilei case is not a physical but a philosophical dispute. For the proud and myopic scientific realism of the Newtonian period with its “Science has proven that…” is not only lingering on among laymen, but also among the learned cadres of today, notwithstanding the devastating criticisms of a Sir Karl Popper, a Kurt Gödel, and their numerous disciples everywhere.

Man will “on his own” never reach absolute truth. However rationally and emotionally compelling a scientific theory “saves the appearances”, there may be a better one that research has not yet stumbled on – to this appraisal by the sages of the ages the modern philosophy of science happily again has returned.

You are undoubtedly aware that according to the prevailing Einsteinian adage the pre-Copernican viewpoint, to quote Sir Fred Hoyle, is “as good as anyone else’s – but no better”, all motion at the present held to be relative in a finite but unbounded Universe of which the circumference is nowhere and the centre everywhere. Inevitably however, any discussion about motion assumes a shared preconception of rest. Or, as the late philosopher of knowledge, Polanyi, with admirable candor, formulates it: “every object we perceive is set off by us instinctively against a background which is taken to be at rest”.

Overlooking the obvious question whether astronomical statements procured on such a sub-logical basis should ever be seriously considered, Christians, surely, have no need to build their cosmology on an instinctive, unverifiable notion. They believe, and therefore know, that there exists a higher mode of being than the one in which they temporarily find themselves alive, and that only observed from that mode, from the Great White Throne of Almighty God, the last Word about absolute motion and absolute rest can be ex cathedra proclaimed. And has been proclaimed!

During the first sixteen centuries of the Ecclesia Christi, she, on authority of the Divine Revelation entrusted to her, held on to an unmoved Earth hung upon nothing in the centre of the observable Universe, the unaided senses of all men daily attesting to the veracity of this proposition. Be it since 1822 hushed up, officially this is still your Church’s position. And I submit that there is not the slightest need for her to change this traditional attitude. Empirical science has no voice in the matter, since, says the late atheist Bertrand Russell, it “ought not to contain a metaphysical assumption which can never be proved or disproved, by observation – and no observations can distinguish the rotation of the earth from the revolution of the heavens”.

On the immanent level Galilei was not completely wrong but only relatively right. Imagine the Earth as seen from the Sun, then she indeed revolves around it. Seen from the Earth it is contrariwise the Sun that runs the annual course Copernicus assigned to us. Their motions are relative, and the irony of ironies certainly is that in Galileo’s Dialogue not super-clever Salviati but simpleton Simplicio, during the discussion about revolving sunspots, states this simple truth on which Einstein could build his theories!