Alejandro H. Rodriguez-Giovo

Alejandro H. Rodriguez-Giovo

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Why Galileo Was Wrong

February 4, 2010 2 Comments


Everyone knows the famous story of how, in 1633, the Catholic Church obliged Galileo to recant his confirmation of the Copernican theory that the Earth is not the centre of the universe – as in the Ptolemaic conception that had prevailed for over a thousand years – but that it in fact orbits the Sun, and not the other way round. An apocryphal detail is frequently added to the tale: having humbly “abjured, cursed and detested” his past errors, Galileo muttered under his breath, as he rose from his knees: “Eppur, si muove” (“And yet it moves” – “it” being, of course, the Earth).

That he should have got into trouble with the Church is not altogether surprising. In his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which expounds the heliocentric conclusions of his astronomical observations, Galileo adopted a provocative rather than scientifically sober approach, venturing into Biblical interpretation and implicitly taunting Pope Urban VIII. The latter was, in fact, generally well-disposed towards Galileo and, like other members of the Church’s hierarchy, well-informed about and interested in scientific matters. Along with its not unnatural reluctance to reinterpret scripture in the light of heliocentricity, there was in Catholic establishment some bona fide scientific scepticism regarding Galileo’s proofs and arguments.

Urban VIII

 Today it is taken for granted that the Church’s repressive (though not brutal) reaction to Galileo’s writings was motivated primarily by its obscurantist attitude and urge to preserve its monopoly on truth and power. This is to overlook a subtler but more crucial consideration: if the religious authorities were gracefully to accept that Galileo was correct – even in a purely (some might say trivially) material sense – what might be the long-term consequences of this new-fangled vision of the universe? It was feared that the repercussions of the “discovery”, when disseminated far and wide, would generate facile, half-baked philosophical conclusions about the incidental status of mankind that eventually would undermine our understanding and appreciation of ourselves. This in turn might lead to the nightmarish scenario we are in fact facing in the XXI Century, when much of the scientific establishment and its Mephistophelian acolytes in education, politics and the media are relentlessly browbeating human beings into regarding themselves as no more than congregations of molecules, assembled by chance – mere “quintessence of dust”, as Hamlet puts it. Man today is actively “deconstructing” himself, rapidly shedding any last vestige of his transcendental, spiritual, sacred dimension, and thereby exposing himself to the designs of those who cynically may wish to use him as a slave, sex-aid, source of spare parts or compost, as the case may be.

What does poor Galileo have to do with any of this, you may ask? Well, let us examine his proposition that the Earth is not the stationary centre of the universe, and that it in fact revolves around the Sun. Physicists today inform us that nothing in the universe is fixed; everything is in movement and gyrates around something else. If nothing can be regarded as the immovable centre, “Of whose true fix’d and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament” (Shakespeare again), then anything can – depending on its perspective – claim the title of centricity. And here is my point: there is, as far as can be ascertained, no perspective in the universe other than the human perspective. Ours is not only a point of view, to be considered and assessed in conjunction with the points of view of Jupiter, Canopus and the Milky Way; it is the only point of view. Each day the Sun appears to rise in the east and set in west, and so it does –  simply because we say so. The Sun cannot put forward an alternative interpretation of reality, as it is only a massive, inorganic, incandescent object that has no awareness of anything at all, and no will. In that respect, even the most humble invertebrate is to be taken more into account than the Sun, as it has an animus which enables it to perceive and to act.

Of all the animals, only human beings – as far as we can reasonably judge through all the empirical evidence available to us – have consciousness (i.e. philosophical self-awareness; the ability to think “I am”, and to conceptualize past, present and future) and a conscience (i.e. an understanding of good and evil). Scientists who make headlines with the revelation that human beings share 92% of their chromosomes with earthworms or 98% with chimpanzees have really nothing more profound to say than Copernicus or Galileo. What is truly remarkable and spectacularly obvious about human beings in comparison with earthworms and chimpanzees is our essential, intrinsic, immeasurable difference. Evidently chromosomes cannot be so important after all. (I might add that I happen to regard our primate cousins as intelligent and sensitive creatures, worthy of our respect and protection. However, since they are not endowed with moral awareness, they can have no duties, and consequently no rights – but that is a topic for another article.)

As astronomers have gradually revealed to us the unimaginable immensity of the universe, Man’s loss of confidence in his own significance, so feared by the Church in the 1600s, has accelerated exponentially. “How arrogant and self-centred it is,” the standard argument goes, “to believe that God created a seemingly infinite universe just for the insignificant creatures that we are. Clearly we are no more than a minute and meaningless by-product of the blind, cosmic forces that shaped reality.” Those who put forward this line of reasoning rarely provide us with details of the kind of universe they think would be a plausible, tailor-made environment for human beings. Perhaps they feel that if there were a God, he would necessarily be less wasteful, more responsibly economical in his design. Doubtless he would limit the universe to a sensible celestial dome hovering not too far above our heads. But what would happen when you reached – conceptually or, as in “The Truman Show”, physically – the edge of such a universe? What lies beyond? “Nothing” is not a very meaningful answer. In fact, any conceivable universe in which we might find ourselves would be equally sensible or absurd, and would prove nothing about God or our place in the overall scheme of things. Personally, I think that one could regard the vastness of the universe we inhabit as a homage to human beings, or an affirmation of their importance: all this endlessly expanding immensity was necessary, from the “Big Bang” onwards, just so that we could exist. This would be a purely poetic or emotional, rather than a scientific or rational, truth – but no less valid a perception for all that.

After all, it is only our perception of ourselves and of the world that surrounds us that is definitive, conclusive and real, for there is no other – save that of God, if he is more than just a concept. “Man is the measure of all things”, wrote the Greek philosopher Protagoras in the V Century B.C.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.