De Labore Solis

Tradition has it that, when he was visiting Pope Innocent II in 1139 A.D., St. Malachy O’Morgair, Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, gave this Pontiff a list of short and enigmatic Latin phrases prophetically alluding to the Servants of servants still to come after him until the end of our age. About the value of these auguries per se I withhold comment. Yet in the context of a history of astronomical science at least two of these mottoes appear to me singularly apt.

On April 4, 1615, during “what has been described as the first process against Galileo”(96) the only wise man in the trial, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), wrote a letter to the Carmelite monk Foscarini, who had published a book in defense of Copernicus. This well-known letter has generally “been interpreted as an assertion of the cognitive limits of scientific theories”,(98) in this case specifically with regard to the validity of the heliocentric hypothesis. It is enlightening to read how the Study Group constituted by John Paul II, eager to see Galileo rehabilitated, plays down the force of Bellarmine’s letter. “Historiography has commonly accepted Duhem’s (1908) interpretation of the topics of the letter, although not necessarily his positive evaluation of them.”(99) Why not? – no arguments are given! “To demonstrate that the appearances are saved by assuming the sun at the centre and the earth in the heavens is not the same thing as to demonstrate that in fact the sun is in the centre and the earth in the heavens”, thus the Cardinal, “I believe that the first demonstration may exist, but I have very grave doubts about the second, and in case of doubt one may not abandon the Holy Scriptures as expounded by the holy Fathers. “(100) If there were a real proof, then, yes then…, but in 1615 there was none. And today, I repeat, there still is not any.

In taking this “Wait and see” standpoint with regard to final conclusions about all celestial matters terrestrially observable, the Cardinal echoed the so-called “instrumental” insights of, to name a few authorities, the heathen Claudius Ptolemy (c.100-170) in his Almagest, the Jew Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the Catholic Thomas Aquinas (1224-1275), and the Lutheran Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), as the latter expressed it in his anonymous foreword to Copernicus, De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Tersely to formulate the opinion of these four distinctly heterogenous luminaries: a theory may be useful, but is therefore not yet truthful. There are only two methods that will enable us to overcome this limitation of all scientific endeavours groping for true facts behind the bare facts. Either an infinity of affirmative test results without any outcome queering the pitch, or otherwise the endorsing input of One Knowing Everything will offer us certainty. Sadly enough, the former way of doing cannot be walked to its end in potentially endless time, and the second option requires acceptance “in faith”. For foolish is a pupil knowing less than his teacher who questions that teacher’s dicta. A man may consider himself the measure of all physical things about which he knows something, but a meta-metaphysical judgement seat from where he will be authorized to affirm or disqualify a message presenting itself as metaphysical… that seat is must definitely not within his reach.

It is not only befuddled Biblicists, who profess such a humble outlook. Bellarmine, siding with savants of old, was also ahead of his time and now earns posthumous approvals. For after three centuries of an arrogant “scientific method” being the vogue, things have come full circle. Today “very few philosophers or scientists still think that scientific knowledge is, or can be, proven knowledge”,(101) a statement that, I hold and have shown, needs no super-human intelligence for its affirmation. As John Paul II on May 9, 1983 warned an illustrious audience, including 33 Nobelists:epistemolo-gical frontiers impose indispensable rules and delimitations on our questing towards that which is universal and absolute.(102) No explanation, no theoretical approach has ever been without more or less plausible rivals. Hence for a final choice between them, hardheaded logic contends, the adjudicators will have to be conversant with all possible choices – which they are not. Myopic therefore is he who does not wisely always keep a back door open for an as yet unknown solution until he shall have found the philosopher’s stone. I certainly do this with respect to the nuts and bolts of the astronomical model I prefer!

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur – the world wants to be deceived, therefore be it deceived! Every attentive student of the Galileo affair knows that the man had not a shred of positive evidence. His telescopic observations made short work of Aristotle’s ideas about the structure of celestial bodies, but nothing more, for “mountains on the moon prove it is not a perfectly crystalline sphere, but they do not prove that the Earth moves”.( 103)

Be this as it may: the Chief Mathematician and Philosopher of Cosmo II de Medici had his mind made up, and therefore the sagacious words of Bellarmine fell on deaf ears. So equally did the latter’s 1616 Declaration to Galileo Galilei , ostensibly on second thoughts toned down to bare minimum by denying any abjuration on Galileo’s part, but by implication warning him to keep science as science and Revelation as Revelation.(104)

Unhappily, such a wise disengagement between these two incompatible kinds of information was not kept in sight. Pro and contra a geostatic view, as is the way of the world, the attitudes hardened. Eighteen years later, twelve years after the Cardinal’s death, and his astute approach fallen into oblivion, the outcome of the 1533 Galileo trial put the Church of Rome in a corner she should have shunned at all costs. Pitting Revelation against human theorizing, the Inquisitors demeaned the former and unduly exalted the latter. If they had expressly allowed Galileo and his followers the use of the heliocentric theory as a working hypothesis but no more, then the Church’s position would, from 1533 until today and for all time still to come, have been and be logically untouchable. Not only that: by unremittingly refusing to budge unless faced with indisputable evidence, mankind might have remained aware that Copernicus’ model is only one out of many – as during the first half of the 17th century still was acknowledged.(105)