Galileos Conflict with the Catholic Church

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The dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church is used as a classic example of the tension between science and religion. Galileo was placed on trial before the Inquisition, forced to recant his assertion that the earth revolved around the sun, and was placed under house arrest which he remained until his death.

By today's standard, it is the Church that should be exiled from science; it is the Church that appears anachronistic and steeped in superstition and irrationality. However, to dismiss the controversy as merely "the Church is hostile to science" is an inaccurate headline of history. On the contrary, the Church was a patron of science.

The Church had a vested interest in celestial mechanics to determine the date of Easter for example. The Gregorian calendar used today is named after Pope and Saint, Gregory the Great. Also, Galileo had powerful friends and admirers in the Church hierarchy including Cardinal Barberini who would later become Pope Urban VIII and who opposed condemnation of Galileo by the Inquisition in 1616. The socio-political dimensions of the controversy vary from infighting among Galileo's rivalries vying for Church patronage to the political atmosphere created by the Protestant Reformation that challenged the authority of the Pope and Church teachings which left no choice but for the Pope to oppress any deviation including Galileo.

However, it is not intellectually honest to relegate the controversy either as a dispute of egos fomented among political adversaries, Galileo and the Pope or an aversion of the Church to modernity or incredulity of the latest empirical methods while not acknowledging the rich tradition of philosophy for which the Church deserves credit. Nuanced in the dispute is a deeper struggle between man's ability to create and man's relation to creation. As in Shelley's Frankenstein, when man deems himself to be creator, or more specifically to Galileo's case, to be judge of what creation "is", the consequences can have monstrous results. The spark of ingenuity can give life to the very means of our own downfall. Galileo did not merely assert that the earth revolves around the sun, but claimed only what can be mathematically ascertained is real. The astronomer had become the arbiter of what is truth. The Church saw the danger in this as reminiscent of the hubris that lead to man's fall from grace. It is this monster that Galileo allowed to escape from his laboratory and which the Church continues to wrestle back into the lab.

Galileo claimed only what can be mathematically defined is real. Man can discover "reality" and mathematics was the objective standard. Contrary to the Aristotelian framework of the "4 causes", and in particular the 4th cause, the "telos" or final purpose, Galileo shifted explanation away from metaphysical questions of purpose, meaning and emphasized the pushes and pulls characteristic of Aristotle's 2nd cause, the "Efficient cause", and at most the mathematical relationships governing these pushes and pulls in alignment with Aristotle's 3rd cause, the "Formal cause." Man could obtain complete knowledge, discern what is real without relationship to the telos. To the Church the central reality of man is always in his relation to God from which all meaning can be discerned regardless of mathematics. Man, the focus of God's love, is the center of the universe.

Galileo did not restrain his heliocentric creation to the confines of his laboratory as merely a tool in his work shed, but rather as an end onto itself. He divorced reason from the meta-physical and grounded explanation to the material, earthly pushes and pulls between observable parts. Out of Galileo's lab, lurched the beginnings of modern science, animated yet separated from meaning. While Galileo's results may have been vindicated, the danger of man's hubris is always a monster lurking in the background waiting to escape the lab, and it takes the Church to remind us that while we can dissect and piece nature back together, "true" understanding only comes when we contemplate our relation to God which can not be measured by man's standards.

More about this author: Anthony Cabral

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