English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Follow-up to
Jacob Bronowski's program "The Starry Messenger"

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Here are some things to reflect on concerning the videotape we viewed in class ("The Starry Messenger," from Jacob Bronowski's series The Ascent of Man) on the trial of Galileo.

Let's focus on the implications of Bronowski's formulation of what was at stake in the conflict between Galileo and the Church (as headed by Pope Urban VIII, Maffeo Barbarini):

The Church's position (says Bronowski) was that "Faith should dominate," whereas Galileo's conviction was that "Truth should persuade."

Note that it doesn't make sense to say (on the basis of this) that "the Church believed in Faith, whereas Galileo believed in Truth"!  Things are more complicated than that, and we have to puzzle out how things stand, under B's formulation.  Let's try to pull out for inspection the CONTRASTING ASSUMPTIONS BEHIND these conflicting mperatives.

That "Faith should dominate" presupposes that

(1) belief is a function of the will;

(2) the natural will (being sinful) is too corrupt to submit itself on its own to the beliefs;

(a) that God ordains (i.e., wills us to believe), and

(b) that God communicates to man through His chosen avenues of disclosure:  the Church -- and, by way of the Church's mediating scrutiny, Scripture, the authoritative writers of antiquity (e.g., Aristotle), and Nature itself.

(3) those who refuse to submit to the decrees of the Church must be reduced to obedience by force.

A will in the thrall of the flesh can be spoken to only through the body.  To break the defiant will, it is necessary to break the body whose appetites hold it in subjection.  Hence the rack (and, through the imagination, the threat of the rack, the garrote, the fire at the stake).

That is, Faith has no other recourse than violence when obstinate sinners take refuge, sincere or hypocritical, in "reason and the evidence of the senses" in refusing to admit what right-believers know BY faith.

That "Truth must persuade" presupposes

(1) human beings possess adquate natural faculties by which a compelling CASE FOR the truth can be recognized.

(2) these faculties are reason, imagination, and the senses.

Imagination invents different hypotheses -- i.e., ways of rationally accounting for the appearances.

Reason determines which hypotheses best accord with the appearances.

The senses put us in touch, directly and through instrumentation, with the appearances Nature affords us. These appearances both set the task for explanation (interpretation) and serve as the final arbiter among competing interpretations once their implications have been clarified by reason.

[Faith, in its aspect as "intensity of conviction," is not in itself a warrant of truth (since one can be fervently convinced of something and still be mistaken).]

(3) discovery of the truth is an inherently social enterprise:

(a) the contributions of many individuals are essential;

(b) these contributions - observational, theoretical, critical - must be synthesized and criticized by the community of inquirers.

Hence force can never serve the cause of truth:  not only can it not make something true that is untrue, but insofar as human beings are fallible, the use of force to shut off discussion forecloses the possibility of future discovery of error.

Can force then serve the cause of authority?  Note that in Bronowski's picture, the Pope Urban VIII (and his inner circle) believed that RESORT TO TERRORISM was necessary in order to PRESERVE THE AUTHORITY they held.  Presumably they were conscious of the logical distinction between Power and Authority:  the latter is the right to exercise the former, i.e., it is the legitimation of power.  To say that authority itself is constituted by power is thus flagrantly to beg the question, by reasoning circularly.  That is, they would agree that the doctrine "Might makes Right" is absurd.  Yet, in Bronowski's picture, they were reduced to a show of force in order to uphold their authority.  How can this be?

We have to distinguish between two very different senses of the term "uphold authority." The authority they upheld by a show of terroristic force directed against those who wanted to carry on public discussions of cosmology was PUBLIC RESPECT FOR THE JUDGEMENTS OF THE CHURCH -- what we might call "effective social authority." To this end, it made sense to shut down public discussions whose implications might cause public respect for the teachings -- and hence the authority of the Church itself in promulgating those teachings -- to erode.  The authority they believed they held that entitled them both to determine what ought to be taught and to exercise this power in these ways is something else again.  We might call it "substantive legitimacy." And, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, as you recall, the basis of its claim to this sort of authority was the Doctrine of the Apostolic Succession.

Now let's take up a couple of questions thus arise that Bronowski's program (excellent as it is) does not address:

(1) How did the Pope come to believe that, in his capacity as Peter's successor, he was competent to rule on a question of substantive astronomy?. 

The answer, as your participation in our course will have enabled you to see, is that the cosmological issues that emerged in the course of the controversy over Copernicus were inextricably involved with traditional religious teachings.  If Copernicus was right, then either those teachings were mistaken or they had been mistakenly held to be integral to religion.  When we appreciate the force of this answer, we may be moved to ask

(2) how it was that Galileo thought he, as a private person subject in principle to sin, was competent to contradict the Pope on such issues?

Consider Joshua 10:12-14, which tells of a moment in which God works a famous miracle on behalf of his Chosen People, helping them to reclaim the Promised Land from the people who inhabit it (Canaan) when the new generation of Israelites emerge from the forty-year Sojourn in the Desert (after the Deliverance from the Egyptian Captivity): 

"Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.  And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.  Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.  And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man:  for the Lord fought for Israel."

The sun, it was argued, could be said to "stand still" here unless its normal behavior is to be in motion over the earth during the day.  Indeed, the passage here explicitly says that, after this extraordinary day, the sun did indeed "go down." Here we have the Word of God Himself that the sun moves about the earth.  But the Copernican hypothesis denies that the sun moves, and relegates the path of the sun across the sky to a mere appearance due to the daily rotation of the earth about its axis.  The Copernican hypothesis therefore contradicts the explicit meaning of the Bible.  So:  either the Bible is not the express Word of God, or God does not speak the truth, or the Copernican hypothesis is false - or this particular passage of the Bible is to be understood in some other (non-literal) fashion.

But the Church (and for that matter Luther) had always understood the passage as saying what seemed to be obvious to the senses (and straightforwardly accommodated in the Ptolemaic picture), namely, that the earth was stationary, and the sun was not.  So:  either the Copernican hypothesis was wrong, or traditional understandings of Holy Scripture were mistaken. 

Why was Pope Urban VIII unwilling simply to adopt the latter way out? Presumably the problem was that to do so would mean acknowledging that a pope could be mistaken in his interpretation of Scripture (or at least that he could have been mistaken even though he was pope), and such an acknowledgment struck him, as pope, as running counter to the Doctrine of the Apostolic Succession.  So:  as pope, he would have been in error either in his interpretation of the Bible or in his interpretation of the implications of the Apostolic Succession.  And to confess this, we imagine, struck him as publicly conceding the fallibility of the pope ON QUESTIONS OF RELIGION ITSELF - not just on questions of astronomy, which, by themselves, he would have been perfectly willing to leave to the astronomers, physicists, physicians, chemists, and their successors.

Hence he took the position that when the conclusions of natural scientists ran counter to those of the Christian religion, as authoritatively interpreted by God's appointed vicar on earth, THOSE conclusions of natural scientists were thus knowably false.

Galileo was thus put in a very tricky position.  The Church claimed the competence to define the precincts of theology itself.  It was inclined to define them in such a way that conclusions of natural science might in principle logically conflict with those of religion.  But to argue philosophically that this was a mistaken way to define the field of theology was taken by his opponents as an incursion into the precincts of theology itself! He tried to negotiate these dangerous shoals with delicacy and tact in a manuscript which circulated only among friends and of which, when requested, he provided a carefully checked copy to the Church authorities.  It is known as the "Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina" [of Florence], and was published only after his death.

Galileo argued that the way out, in such cases as presented by the passage from Joshua cited above, was to reflect on the intentions of God in speaking in the particular ways He does in this or that passage of Scripture (through the whatever inspired vehicle [prophet] the message comes into the hands of humankind).  Just as God spoke to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language, which they understood, and not in some other dialect unintelligible to them in their condition of the moment, so He spoke to them according to their conceptions of the situation they were in.  It would not have been to the point to interrupt the narrative with a disquisition on the truths of astronomy.  The point is merely that a miracle was performed in the fulfillment of His plan for his Chosen People.  Their mistaken conceptions He undertakes to correct only when these present obstacles to the accomplishment of His Plan -- and then only under circumstances, and at a time, determined under His Providence.  Thus, there are certain truths necessary to our salvation that are made clear to mankind only in the course of Jesus' mission on earth, and not before.  We are to suppose that, as God is the Creator not only of our constitution, with its faculties of knowing nature, but of Nature itself, with its capacity of being known to these faculties, God intended Nature itself to be a mode of revelation to us.  And His foresight will have unerringly anticipated when the time is ripe for humankind to rise to new understandings of His handiwork (Nature).  That is, if the Copernican picture (or some other) is more in accordance with the truth than the Ptolemaic, it will, God willing, become known to be so, at a moment in history suitable to his purposes.  At such time, we may suppose, he expects us to reform our earlier notions of His behavior (e.g., the details of creation) and intentions (e.g., the meanings of his Word in its earlier formulations), in accordance with what he has allowed to come to light through the mind of man (reason and sensation) brought to bear upon the rest of His creation.  In the meanwhile, Galileo says, we should recall the advice of Augustine:  human beings should be provisional and hesitant in committing themselves to specific interpretations of Biblical language concerning the operations of the natural world, since these are matters of dispute, or can become such.  The proper method for deciding such questions is careful investigation of the observable facts, in the light of reason.  The results of such inquiries, with the proviso that they are always subject to revision in the light of better evidence and argument, should govern our interpretation of the Bible in those passages in which natural objects and operations are spoken of.  Meanwhile we may be assured that these are not going to be points on which our salvation directly depends.

You will have noticed that this way out appeals to a picture of God's way of communicating to mankind, within an unfolding process of history.  That is, it involves a particular conception of Divine Providence, and thus offers a particular picture of the nature of God.  You can thus understand why this suggestion of a "way out" might strike one as a position WITHIN theology, and why one who held as an article of faith that the pope was the supreme authority on matters of religion might also hold that the pope was entitled to accept or reject it according to his (divinely guaranteed) lights.

But you should also be able to appreciate why many educated people across Europe took Newton's triumphant integration of Galileo's studies of the behavior of terrestrial projectiles and Kepler's version of the Copernican picture of the solar system under his own (Newton's) formulation of the laws of motion and of the law of gravitation as an overwhelming demonstration, indirectly, that a pope could be mistaken on questions of religion.  He had, after all, not merely pronounced the central Copernican theses about the relationship between the sun and the earth to be false in fact.  He had insisted that they were HERETICAL.  But they were now recognized (on the authority of human reasoning upon observations obtained through the senses) to be true. 

TRADITIONAL religious faith was therefore confronted with a choice:  it would therefore have to

(1) surrender the field, or

(2) adjust its content, or

(3) declare itself to be fundamentally irrational, in a way that it had never done before.

Return to the Study Guide to Bronowski's program on "The Starry Messenger."

Return to Reading List #3.

Return to the Home Page for English 233 (Introduction to Western Humanities:  Baroque & Enlightenment).

  Go to the Study Guide to Bronowski's program "The Starry Messenger."

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright 1997 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 20 January 1999.