Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Galileo vs. Bellarmine

This is a recent comment exchange between me and Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong on his Patheos blog. Armstrong, in a post on the Galileo affair, repeats some of the classic tropes of apologetic whitewashing of the Church's role in the incident. Since Armstrong seems to like the format of pulling up blog comment exchanges into a post, I figure he won't mind me doing it too.

I'm particularly interested in any corrections or clarifications to my side of the argument, or any major points that I missed.

I strongly recommend Annibale Fantoli's "The Case Of Galileo: A Closed Question?" (translated by George Coyne, published by University of Notre Dame) for those seeking a more reliable account of the Galileo affair without either the mythologizing or the apologetic whitewash.

The Case Of Galileo: A Closed Question? by Annibale Fantoli, trans. George V. Coyne (book sources)

Where have I whitewashed anything?

Oh, let's see:

1. Blaming the victim: framing the issue as being between a "reasonable" church and an "obstinate", "overconfident" Galileo.

2. Portraying Bellarmine as "actually [having] the superior understanding of the nature of a scientific hypothesis". This is both false and ahistorical; Bellarmine nowhere evinces anything close to scientific reasoning as a basis for any of his actions in the affair.

3. Whitewashing the role of the pope (Urban VIII), who was by all accounts the prime mover in both the 1633 trial and the relative severity of its sentence.

4. The subsequent developments: when Galileo's works were finally permitted to be published a century later, it was with the condemnation and recantation attached, even though by that time it was clear that Galileo had been substantially correct.

5. The terms in which heliocentrism was originally condemned were indeed "irreversible" and were treated as such until it became clear that geocentrism was completely untenable; at which point rather than admitting error, the church simply retconned the basis for the original judgement.

6. That the questioning of Galileo did not go beyond the verbal threat of torture, and that he was reasonably comfortably housed during his trial and imprisonment, has more to do with the fact that Galileo was 70 and had the Grand Duke of Tuscany as personal patron than with any desire for leniency on the part of the church.

1. I blamed the victim precisely where he was in error, just as I blame the tribunal for making the dumb judgment. It's about facts; it's not about defending the indefensible.

2. That's not how historians who have looked at it think. They are the authorities for that. It wasn't MY argument about Bellarmine, but rather, noted Jewish philosopher and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn's. I wrote in my book about science and Christianity:

"Bellarmine didn’t consider heliocentrism proven beyond all doubt, like Galileo did, and in that respect he was right. Bellarmine actually had the superior understanding of the nature of a scientific hypothesis, . . . philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in his book, 'The Copernican Revolution' (New York: Random House / Vintage Books, 1957, p. 226), after commenting on some folks who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, wrote:

'Most of Galileo’s opponents behaved more rationally. Like Bellarmine, they agreed that the phenomena were in the sky but denied that they proved Galileo’s contentions. In this, of course, they were quite right. Though the telescope argued much, it proved nothing.'

See this excerpt in my book, at Google Books:


3. I didn't say a word about him. If he was a geocentrist, he was wrong. But there were many geocentrists then. It was a transitional time. My point again and again is that one standard is applied to and for the Church, and another for everyone else. WE make a [sub-infallible] mistake and the world has to hear about it for 400 years. Anyone else makes a mistake or commits a wicked act (like the "Enlightened" French revolutionaries killing the father of chemistry, Lavoisier), and no one's ever heard about it. Those inconvenient facts are deliberately omitted in grade school and high school scientific education, or if not so, everyone is so ignorant about them they don't even know enough to suppress the embarrassing information.

4. If that is the case, it was wrong.

5. Ditto.

6. Right. So now you can say that it would have been different if he were younger. How convenient. The Church did not kill scientists for doing science. That was left to the atheist French in the 1700s, and the Nazi Germans and Communist Soviets and Chinese in the 20th century.

1. Being wrong in science is an expected condition. Punishing people for being wrong—or worse, for being only partially wrong—is exactly the kind of anti-scientific attitude that is being criticized.

2. Kuhn in the work you quote does not make anything even remotely like the claim that you ascribe to him. (Note that the antecedent of "more rationally" in the passage quoted is not Galileo himself, but rather those who either refused to look through the telescope or who claimed that the phenomena observed were caused by the telescope rather than being real.)

3. re. the role of Urban VIII, see your following post and the material you quote in it.

"Oxford Bibliographies": "Cardinal Bellarmine" by Stefania Tutino, states:

Brodrick, James. "The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J., 1542–1621." 2 vols. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1928.

Written also by a fellow Jesuit, this biography shares with the others a general apologetic and hagiographic tone. Nevertheless, it is the most accurate biography of Bellarmine, and it is substantiated by a rich array of primary sources.


This book states:

"It is a curious and paradoxical circumstance . . . that as a piece of Scriptural exegesis Galileo's theological letters are much superior to Bellarmine's, while as an essay on scientific method Bellarmine's letter is far sounder and more modern in its views than Galileo's."

(Vol. II, p. 360)


Bellarmine also stated: “if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false” (Letter to Foscarini, April 1615).

Brodrick’s earlier Life and work of Robert Francis Bellarmine (London, 1928) is quite defective in its treatment of the Galileo case.

-- Ernan Mcmullin, in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography (via encyclopedia.com)

(Mcmullin was a Catholic priest, a professor at Notre Dame, and an expert on the life of Galileo)

The idea that Bellarmine's scientific views were "more modern" than Galileo's is a suggestion that seems to have been first made by Duhem and then variously repeated, but as Mcmullin says, Duhem is simply wrong here on the facts:

In his Système du monde, Duhem suggests that in one respect, at least, Bellarmine had shown himself a better scientist than Galileo by disallowing the possibility of a “strict proof” of the earth’ motion, on the grounds that an astronomical theory merely “saves the appearances” without necessarily revealing what “really happens.” This claim has often been repeated, most recently by Karl Popper, who makes Bellarmine seem a pioneer of the nineteenth-century positivist theory of science. In point of fact, nothing could be further from the case. Bellarmine by no means denied that strict demonstrations of what is “really” the case could be given in astronomical matters. In his view, however, such demonstrations had to rest on “physical” considerations of the type used by Aristotle, not on the mathematical models of positional astronomy.

Galileo's excessive dogmatism about heliocentrism was verified in the paper, "Theories of Scientific Method from Plato to Mach: A bibliographical review," by L. Laudan, "History of Science," Vol. 7, p. 1-63 (1968); citation from p. 18:

"Galileo was disposed to interpret the heliocentric system as a *demonstrably* true description of an actual state of affairs. He refused even to concede that it was an hypothesis . . ."


This is referencing, again, Duhem's false characterization of Bellarmine as a proto-instrumentalist. And again, the article you cite does not make the claim that you present: it simply points out that Galileo did indeed take the realist view of heliocentrism, it in no way claims or supports the claim that his doing so was "excessively dogmatic".

(I had not previously noticed that Duhem was also a Catholic; it explains much.)

Yes of course. Every Catholic has to be biased about Galileo, and every non-Catholic or atheist is a paragon of objectivity.

There are different opinions on the fine points, as with anything else. What I have shown is that my opinion is one permissible one, backed up by sources that are non-Catholic.

Armstrong edited the above comment after I replied to it (or at least, I replied to the old version). The new text was:

So you lump folks into "good" and "bad" Catholics, according to how they come down on the Galileo issue. Duhem and me are the bad guys because we point out merely that Bellarmine had some things right over against Galileo. Mcmullin is the good Catholic because he agrees with your take.

But no bias on your end at all . . .

There are different opinions on the fine points, as with anything else. What I have shown is that my opinion is one permissible one, backed up by sources that are non-Catholic.

Karl Popper was mentioned unfavorably in your citation. He was, of course, a major philosopher of science and also a Jewish agnostic.

Thus, two of the greatest philosophers of science, Popper and Kuhn, both Jewish, take my general side on this issue. So you can cite one or two Catholics against my opinion; I cite Jewish philosophers of science Popper and Kuhn against yours.

Now responding to the edited version:
I find it somewhat odd that you consider my use of Catholic sources to be in any way objectionable.

Duhem is "the bad guy" because he is distorting the actual history in order to claim Bellarmine as a kind of early proto-instrumentalist and Galileo as being on an epistemologically unsound footing. Historians of the Galileo affair (at least Fantoli, McMullin, Finocchiaro) disagree with this interpretation; I'm not finding any reputable sources that support it.

Popper does not support your position in the source cited by McMullin ("Three Views Concerning Human Knowledge"). He makes no attempt to argue that Bellarmine had an understanding which was in any way superior to Galileo's, merely that Bellarmine saw instrumentalism as a way to deal with otherwise inconvenient hypotheses. (In fact he notes that Bellarmine was "by no means a convinced instrumentalist himself".)

In fact what Duhem is saying is really little more than:

1. Bellarmine was an instrumentalist and Galileo an essentialist;

2. modern physics is instrumentalist;

3. therefore Bellarmine's view of the nature of science is closer to the modern one than Galileo's view.

This leaves unanswered the question of whether Bellarmine's position was justified even on an instrumentalist view (hint: no). It also leaves us with the question of whether we should regard point 2 as even being true (Popper argues against it in "Three Views"), and therefore whether we should accept conclusion 3 even if we accept (contra the historians) Duhem's interpretation on point 1.

(p.s. Popper was Jewish only by ancestry; his parents converted to Lutheranism before his birth.)

And as I've said, nowhere in The Copernican Revolution does Kuhn say anything that supports your claim.

You can have the last word.

The above was then edited to:

You can have the last word. Lutheran still ain't Catholic, so the all-important finding of a non-Catholic to support Catholic views of any sort has been fulfilled.

I elected not to respond to the edit. Nothing I can find that Popper wrote supports Armstrong's position in any way. My response to the unedited comment had been:

Actually I had no intention of saying anything further (after my comment below), except to reiterate my recommendation of Fantoli's book (The Case of Galileo: A Closed Question?) for anyone interested in the subject.

This was my response to the old version:

Uh, I think every single source I've cited against you so far has been Catholic.

Kuhn is Jewish and you have claimed that I cited him incorrectly.

(I didn't pursue this part of the exchange; seemed pointless.)

Re: Bellarmine. He WAS the topic you brought up: i.e., his relation to scientific method. I cited Kuhn because he agreed with me on that score: Bellarmine understood scientific method better than Galileo did.

So, again, Kuhn wrote: "Like Bellarmine, they agreed that the phenomena were in the sky but denied that they *****proved***** Galileo’s contentions. In this, of course, they were quite right."

Bellarmine said the telescope didn't PROVE heliocentrism, whereas Galileo said it did. Bellarmine was right. Heliocentrism wasn't proven till 200 years later. This is a particular question of scientific method

That was my point about Bellarmine, and Kuhn supported it, while acknowledging that there were also anti-scientific fools and idiots in the Church. That doesn't overcome my immediate POINT here. You are just looking at what you want to see (always against the Church, no matter what). I am interested in ALL the facts: where the Church was wrong, where Galileo was, and where either got it right.

This is not apologetics; it's history. Everyone knows the Church blew it on this one (i.e., one tribunal of the Church, which isn't magisterial (totally authoritative). I'm not saying otherwise. I'm simply taking into consideration all the relevant facts of the matter, as I learn of them.

YOU stated: "Bellarmine nowhere evinces anything close to scientific reasoning."

According to prominent philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, he did do so: at least in the sense that I mentioned.

Bellarmine said the telescope didn't PROVE heliocentrism, whereas Galileo said it did

Where did Galileo say that? And what standard of "proof" are you applying?

Kuhn nowhere in the cited text says or even implies that Bellarmine is a better scientist that Galileo in any respect. Clearly they disagree over what the observations imply; which may be a question of standards of proof, but in fact from Bellarmine's letter to Foscarini it's clear that Bellarmine is almost completely closed to the idea of an observational proof of heliocentrism (he discusses it as a possibility, but then goes on at length about how heavily the scriptural considerations weigh against it, which is of course a completely non-scientific (even anti-scientific) attitude.

Yes; at that point he thought Scripture was against it, but acknowledged a scenario whereby science might make it necessary to re-think that particular interpretation.

Thus, he is open-minded on that possibility and, as I've shown, the Catholic Church and Catholics have shown a full willingness to go where the science leads, in matters of science.

But Bellarmine didn't show any such willingness; to the contrary, he fully concurred with the 1616 decision of Paul V to suppress heliocentrism as being contrary to Scripture, thus staking the reputation of the church on the issue. Galileo wasn't told "don't hold or teach heliocentrism until you have sufficient evidence", he was told "don't hold or teach heliocentrism, full stop".

The letter to Foscarini taken as a whole, rather than just an isolated quotation, doesn't support the revisionist view of Bellarmine as some sort of exemplar of scientific virtue. I've already pointed out that Duhem's claim of this is unfounded, and Kuhn isn't making the claim at all; Galileo scholars such as Fantoli and Mcmullin reject your characterization.

Now, if you have a source that isn't just parroting Duhem and has more backing than just a couple of sentences taken out of context, let's see it.

I haven't claimed that Bellarmine was a perfect specimen of scientific virtue, in every way.

You're missing the point: which was that he understood the tentative nature of scientific theories better than Galileo did.

He was a geocentrist: not yet convinced of heliocentrism, but so were many at the time, including the great scientist Tycho Brahe, who had just recently died.

You appear to have quite a closed mind on this. You goal seems to be to follow every line of thought that makes Bellarmine an anti-scientific idiot in *every* way, Galileo perfect (whatever errors he held perfectly understandable, while Bellarmine's errors are indefensible), and the Church anti-science. All the relevant facts of the matter, taken together, do not support that cynical, jaded view.

My goal is to present lesser-known facts that the secularists usually dot provide. But there are sources that go beyond the polemics on either side, and get to the complexity that always characterizes real people and their views.

Saying that Bellarmine "understood the tentative nature of scientific theories better than Galileo did" is both ahistorical and false.

Ahistorical because it's an attempt to apply modern concepts to a time long before they were adequately developed. False because Bellarmine did not apply those concepts, and someone with a modern understanding of scientific methodology but access to only the then-known facts would have unhesitatingly sided with the heliocentrists: the Ptolemaic system is ruled out by observation, and the Tychonic system is an obvious bodge-to-fit job.

The point is not that Bellarmine was unconvinced of heliocentrism or that he regarded any scientific hypotheses as tentative or merely instrumental. The point is that he, along with Paul V, was prepared to suppress a scientific position without regard for whether it might later be shown to be true. Of course their actions were anti-scientific; there is no possible way to justify them.