The Galileo affair: who was on the side of rationality?

by Val 5y15th Feb 201571 comments

36


Introduction

A recent survey showed that the LessWrong discussion forums mostly attract readers who are predominantly either atheists or agnostics, and who lean towards the left or far left in politics. As one of the main goals of LessWrong is overcoming bias, I would like to come up with a topic which I think has a high probability of challenging some biases held by at least some members of the community. It's easy to fight against biases when the biases belong to your opponents, but much harder when you yourself might be the one with biases. It's also easy to cherry-pick arguments which prove your beliefs and ignore those which would disprove them. It's also common in such discussions, that the side calling itself rationalist makes exactly the same mistakes they accuse their opponents of doing. Far too often have I seen people (sometimes even Yudkowsky himself) who are very good rationalists but can quickly become irrational and use several fallacies when arguing about history or religion. This most commonly manifests when we take the dumbest and most fundamentalist young Earth creationists as an example, winning easily against them, then claiming that we disproved all arguments ever made by any theist. No, this article will not be about whether God exists or not, or whether any real world religion is fundamentally right or wrong. I strongly discourage any discussion about these two topics.

This article has two main purposes:

1. To show an interesting example where the scientific method can lead to wrong conclusions

2. To overcome a certain specific bias, namely, that the pre-modern Catholic Church was opposed to the concept of the Earth orbiting the Sun with the deliberate purpose of hindering scientific progress and to keep the world in ignorance. I hope this would prove to also be an interesting challenge for your rationality, because it is easy to fight against bias in others, but not so easy to fight against bias on yourselves.

The basis of my claims is that I have read the book written by Galilei himself, and I'm very interested (and not a professional, but well read) in early modern, but especially 16-17th century history.

 

Geocentrism versus Heliocentrism

I assume every educated person knows the name of Galileo Galilei. I won't waste the space on the site and the time of the readers to present a full biography about his life, there are plenty of on-line resources where you can find more than enough biographic information about him.

The controversy?

What is interesting about him is how many people have severe misconceptions about him. Far too often he is celebrated as the one sane man in an era of ignorance, the sole propagator of science and rationality when the powers of that era suppressed any scientific thought and ridiculed everyone who tried to challenge the accepted theories about the physical world. Some even go as far as claiming that people believed the Earth was flat. Although the flat Earth theory was not propagated at all, it's true that the heliocentric view of the Solar System (the Earth revolving around the Sun) was not yet accepted.

However, the claim that the Church was suppressing evidence about heliocentrism "to maintain its power over the ignorant masses" can be disproved easily:

- The common people didn't go to school where they could have learned about it, and those commoners who did go to school, just learned to read and write, not much more, so they wouldn't care less about what orbits around what. This differs from 20-21th century fundamentalists who want to teach young Earth creationism in schools - back then in the 17th century, there would be no classes where either the geocentric or heliocentric views could have been taught to the masses.

- Heliocentrism was not discovered by Galilei. It was first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus almost 100 years before Galilei. Copernicus didn't have any affairs with the Inquisition. His theories didn't gain wide acceptance, but he and his followers weren't persecuted either.

- Galilei was only sentenced to house arrest, and mostly because of insulting the pope and doing other unwise things. The political climate in 17th century Italy was quite messy, and Galilei did quite a few unfortunate choices regarding his alliances. Actually, Galilei was the one who brought religion into the debate: his opponents were citing Aristotle, not the Bible in their arguments. Galilei, however, wanted to redefine the Scripture based on his (unproven) beliefs, and insisted that he should have the authority to push his own views about how people interpret the Bible. Of course this pissed quite a few people off, and his case was not helped by publicly calling the pope an idiot.

- For a long time Galilei was a good friend of the pope, while holding heliocentric views. So were a couple of other astronomers. The heliocentrism-geocentrism debates were common among astronomers of the day, and were not hindered, but even encouraged by the pope.

- The heliocentrism-geocentrism debate was never an ateism-theism debate. The heliocentrists were committed theists, just like  the defenders of geocentrism. The Church didn't suppress science, but actually funded the research of most scientists.

- The defenders of geocentrism didn't use the Bible as a basis for their claims. They used Aristotle and, for the time being, good scientific reasoning. The heliocentrists were much more prone to use the "God did it" argument when they couldn't defend the gaps in their proofs.

 

The birth of heliocentrism.

By the 16th century, astronomers have plotted the movements of the most important celestial bodies in the sky. Observing the motion of the Sun, the Moon and the stars, it would seem obvious that the Earth is motionless and everything orbits around it. This model (called geocentrism) had only one minor flaw: the planets would sometimes make a loop in their motion, "moving backwards". This required a lot of very complicated formulas to model their motions. Thus, by the virtue of Occam's razor, a theory was born which could better explain the motion of the planets: what if the Earth and everything else orbited around the Sun? However, this new theory (heliocentrism) had a lot of issues, because while it could explain the looping motion of the planets, there were a lot of things which it either couldn't explain, or the geocentric model could explain it much better.

 

The proofs, advantages and disadvantages

The heliocentric view had only a single advantage against the geocentric one: it could describe the motion of the planets by a much simper formula.

However, it had a number of severe problems:

- Gravity. Why do the objects have weight, and why are they all pulled towards the center of the Earth? Why don't objects fall off the Earth on the other side of the planet? Remember, Newton wasn't even born yet! The geocentric view had a very simple explanation, dating back to Aristotle: it is the nature of all objects that they strive towards the center of the world, and the center of the spherical Earth is the center of the world. The heliocentric theory couldn't counter this argument.

- Stellar parallax. If the Earth is not stationary, then the relative position of the stars should change as the Earth orbits the Sun. No such change was observable by the instruments of that time. Only in the first half of the 19th century did we succeed in measuring it, and only then was the movement of the Earth around the Sun finally proven.

- Galilei tried to used the tides as a proof. The geocentrists argued that the tides are caused by the Moon even if they didn't knew by what mechanisms, but Galilei said that it's just a coincidence, and the tides are not caused by the Moon: just as if we put a barrel of water onto a cart, the water would be still if the cart was stationary and the water would be sloshing around if the cart was pulled by a horse, so are the tides caused by the water sloshing around as the Earth moves. If you read Galilei's book, you will discover quite a number of such silly arguments, and you'll see that Galilei was anything but a rationalist. Instead of changing his views against overwhelming proofs, he used  all possible fallacies to push his view through.

Actually the most interesting author in this topic was Riccioli. If you study his writings you will get definite proof that the heliocentrism-geocentrism debate was handled with scientific accuracy and rationality, and it was not a religious debate at all. He defended geocentrism, and presented 126 arguments in the topic (49 for heliocentrism, 77 against), and only two of them (both for heliocentrism) had any religious connotations, and he stated valid responses against both of them. This means that he, as a rationalist, presented both sides of the debate in a neutral way, and used reasoning instead of appeal to authority or faith in all cases. Actually this was what the pope expected of Galilei, and such a book was what he commissioned from Galilei. Galilei instead wrote a book where he caricatured the pope as a strawman, and instead of presenting arguments for and against both world-views in a neutral way, he wrote a book which can be called anything but scientific.

By the way, Riccioli was a Catholic priest. And a scientist. And, it seems to me, also a rationalist. Studying the works of such people like him, you might want to change your mind if you perceive a conflict between science and religion, which is part of today's public consciousness only because of a small number of very loud religious fundamentalists, helped by some committed atheists trying to suggest that all theists are like them.

Finally, I would like to copy a short summary about this book:

Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 43, No. 2, p. 215-226
In 1651 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli published within his Almagestum Novum, a massive 1500 page treatise on astronomy, a discussion of 126 arguments for and against the Copernican hypothesis (49 for, 77 against). A synopsis of each argument is presented here, with discussion and analysis. Seen through Riccioli's 126 arguments, the debate over the Copernican hypothesis appears dynamic and indeed similar to more modern scientific debates. Both sides present good arguments as point and counter-point. Religious arguments play a minor role in the debate; careful, reproducible experiments a major role. To Riccioli, the anti-Copernican arguments carry the greater weight, on the basis of a few key arguments against which the Copernicans have no good response. These include arguments based on telescopic observations of stars, and on the apparent absence of what today would be called "Coriolis Effect" phenomena; both have been overlooked by the historical record (which paints a picture of the 126 arguments that little resembles them). Given the available scientific knowledge in 1651, a geo-heliocentric hypothesis clearly had real strength, but Riccioli presents it as merely the "least absurd" available model - perhaps comparable to the Standard Model in particle physics today - and not as a fully coherent theory. Riccioli's work sheds light on a fascinating piece of the history of astronomy, and highlights the competence of scientists of his time.

The full article can be found under this link. I recommend it to everyone interested in the topic. It shows that geocentrists at that time had real scientific proofs and real experiments regarding their theories, and for most of them the heliocentrists had no meaningful answers.

 

Disclaimers:

- I'm not a Catholic, so I have no reason to defend the historic Catholic church due to "justifying my insecurities" - a very common accusation against someone perceived to be defending theists in a predominantly atheist discussion forum.

- Any discussion about any perceived proofs for or against the existence of God would be off-topic here. I know it's tempting to show off your best proofs against your carefully constructed straw-men yet again, but this is just not the place for it, as it would detract from the main purpose of this article, as summarized in its introduction.

- English is not my native language. Nevertheless, I hope that what I wrote was comprehensive enough to be understandable. If there is any part of my article which you find ambiguous, feel free to ask.

I have great hopes and expectations that the LessWrong community is suitable to discuss such ideas. I have experience with presenting these ideas on other, predominantly atheist internet communities, and most often the reactions was outright flaming, a hurricane of unexplained downvotes, and prejudicial ad hominem attacks based on what affiliations they assumed I was subscribing to. It is common for people to decide whether they believe a claim or not, based solely by whether the claim suits their ideological affiliations or not. The best quality of rationalists, however, should be to be able to change their views when confronted by overwhelming proof, instead of trying to come up with more and more convoluted explanations. In the time I spent in the LessWrong community, I became to respect that the people here can argue in a civil manner, listening to the arguments of others instead of discarding them outright.

 

36