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

by Val7 min read15th Feb 201571 comments


ReligionHistoryPractice & Philosophy of Science


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.



- 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.



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tl;dr: The side of rationality during Galileo's time would be to recognise one's confusion and recognise that the models did not yet cash out in terms of a difference in expected experiences. That situation arguably holds until Newton's Principia; prior to that no one has a working physics for the heavens.

The initial heliocentric models weren't more accurate by virtue of being heliocentric; they were better by virtue of having had their parameters updated with an additional 400 years of observational data over the previous best-fit model (the Alfonsine tables from the 1250s). The geometry was similarly complicated; there was still a strong claim that only circular motions could be maintained indefinitely, and so you have to toss 60 or so circular motions in to get the full solar system on either model.

Basically everyone was already using the newer tables as calculational tools, and it had been known from ancient times that you could fix any point you wanted in an epicyclic model and get the same observational results. The dispute was about which object was in fact fixed. Kepler dates to the same time, and will talk about ellipses (and dozens of other potential curves) in place of c... (read more)

7RichardKennaway6yThank you for that informed account of the history. You mention three times, without attributing it to any contemporary of Galileo, that the telescope "distorted the vision", which is a tendentious description. Given that the military application of the telescope was grasped as soon as the instrument became known, who at the time made this criticism? Did they similarly eschew its terrestrial use for the improvement of vision?
5Jonathan_Lee6yThe precise phrasing is deliberately a little tendentious, but the issue of the epistemological status of the telescope was raised by loads of people at the time. For a modern review with heavy footnotes, see eg Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism, pp 95-100 [] , (though the whole chapter is good) For example, the first anti-Galilean tract is by Horky in 1610 and focussed mostly on the lack of reliability of the telescope. For another, Magini's letters (confirmed in Kepler and Galileo) write of a "star party" in 1610 where Galileo attempted to convince a number of astronomers of the discovery of the Medician (now Galilean) moons; noone else could see the moons and additionally the telescope produced doubled images of everything more distant than the moon. There wasn't much dispute about terrestial applications. Under Aristotle's physics everything above the moon is made of different stuff with different physics anyway, so any amount of accuracy when looking at stuff of the four elements doesn't allow one to induct to accuracy in observations of the heavens.
5RichardKennaway6yI think these words are rather telling (emphasis in the original, p.96): And it goes on to show how the dispute was conducted on both sides in terms of status, Galileo getting princes on side by sending them telescopes, and his opponents attacking him because he was succeeding. That sounds a rather odd argument to make, even at the time. Astronomy from antiquity was founded on accurate observations. Galileo's contemporaries could argue that the telescope wasn't good enough, but hardly that getting a better view of the heavens could reveal nothing new. They were arguing over what could be seen, not that seeing was the wrong thing to do.
3Jonathan_Lee6yAstronomy and epistemology aren't quite the same. Predicting where Saturn would be on a given date requires accurate observation, and nobody objected to Coperniucus as a calculational tool. For example, the Jesuits are teaching Copernicus in China in Chinese about 2 years after he publishes, which implies they translated and shipped it with some alacrity. The heavens were classically held to be made of different stuff; quintessense (later called aether) was not like regular matter -- this is obvious from the inside, because it maintains perpetual motion where normal matter does not. A lot of optical phenomena (eg. twinkling stars, the surface of the moon) were not seen as properties of the objects in question but properties of regular 4-elements matter between us and them. By a modern standard, the physics is weird and disjointed... but that is historically how it was seen.
3Douglas_Knight6yDo you have a citation for that? Added: No, this is false. The Jesuits were founded in 1540; Copernicus published in 1542. Francis Xavier proposed sending astronomers to Asia while in Japan in 1552. In the same year he died trying to reach China. I don't think Jesuits learned Chinese until about 1580. One of the first to do so, Matteo Ricci, again asked for astronomers in 1605, which suggests to me that he was not, himself, teaching Copernicus.
1V_V6yI wonder how current physics will look like if/when GR and QM will be finally unified...
0Luke_A_Somers6yI'd lay my money on their both being recognizable, but QM coming through cleaner than GR. They both pull a lot of weight - a lot more than 16th century physics did.
0Epictetus6yIt's worth noting that Copernicus' use of circular orbits required the use of epicycles to make the theory fit the observations.
0Jiro6yEpicycles are sort of like Fourier analysis. Just like you can break down a non-sine function into sine waves, you can break down a non-circular orbit into a combination of circles.
0Epictetus6yBut if you're going to use epicycles anyway, why prefer Copernicus to Ptolemy?
0Jayson_Virissimo6yFewer epicycles means easier calculations. Still, it isn't clear why you should prefer the Copernican system to the Tychonic (the other major contender in Galileo's time) when evaluating based on some mix of accuracy and ease of calculation (if your goal is to know "where Saturn would be on a given date").
2Epictetus6yGoing by wiki [], Copernicus' system had more epicycles.
0Jayson_Virissimo6yWhoops, you're right. It seems as though Copernicus dropped an equant at the cost of adding even more epicycles. Hardly an unambiguously preferable trade-off.
-1[anonymous]6yAccording to Koestler (The Sleepwalkers) Copernicus just hated Ptolemy's "eccentrics" because a good Platonist God does not do ugly assymetrical work like that. []

Yes, Galileo was an asshole. Yes, he had many bad arguments and couldn't tell which were better than others. Yes, Riccioli was a good scientist. But the conventional wisdom is pretty much correct. Your essay is largely cherry-picked and misleading. You may not be Catholic, but I've heard identical ones repeatedly from Catholics, including identical ignorance of what Galileo actually contributed. So it appears to me that your sources were designed for the purpose of rehabilitating the Inquisition.

Also, the question is not merely, whether the weight of the evidence in 1616 or 1633 was against of heliocentrism, but whether it was so overwhelmingly in favor that argument should be banned.

his opponents were citing Aristotle, not the Bible in their arguments

They were citing both. Most of them did not consider the Bible infallible on temporal matters, but they did consider it powerful evidence, starting with Martin Luther, who condemned Copernicus by citing Joshua's miracle of stopping the motion of the sun across the sky.

Martin Luther may seem out of place in Catholic arguments, but he changed history. His contemporary Copernicus didn't run into trouble because the Catholic Church wa... (read more)

2Val6yI'm sorry that I included the contributions of Galilei only in a comment, not in the main article. I never intended to claim that Galilei didn't contribute anything to science, nor did I intend to claim that the Catholic Church was always right.
5[anonymous]6yYou're missing the point. The phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter were arguments for the heliocentric view contributed by Galileo but noticeably absent from your article.

Hi, and welcome to LessWrong! (I'm assuming you're new around here because your first posts are from January.)

I hope you'll keep posting, but I do want to provide a little bit of feedback. The following sections of your intro and disclaimers struck me as a bit condescending:

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.

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.

It sounds like you've been burned by some knee-jerk reactions on other discussion forums before. But reading the above paragraphs made me update away from thinking this art... (read more)

3Val6yThank you for your patient words. You are right that I'm not yet fully accustomed to the culture of this site, and I've seen some valid concerns about the formulation of some of my statements. Had I written this essay now after seeing some of the comments, I would have been probably somewhat less defensive. (Actually, most of my defensiveness comes from an observation that whenever theism came up in a main article, easily defeatable young earth creationists were prominently featured. Maybe it's just a sampling problem, and by reading more articles here on that topic, it would seem less prominent) Nevertheless, you raise a valid point that my disclaimers were overdone. Also, I should have mentioned some of the merits of Galilei in the article, instead of just acknowledging them in the comments, otherwise some might think that my goal was to flame against him. My main point was to show an example where seemingly rational scientific proofs can lead us astray, and to show a well-spread bias in popular history: upon these two pillars was my essay built. I should have striven to write it in a tone of a journal article, but as the topic was quite provocative knowing the ideological backgrounds of many readers, I went with a more provocative, sensationalist tone. Maybe I overdid it a little. Is it a custom here to make such adjustments to an existing essay, or would people think that I did the changes to make their criticisms look unjustified? Thanks again for the feedback.
1ChristianKl6yMost of the time bashing theism isn't the main point. It's seldom interesting to engage with theism on a deep level to show it to be wrong. This is not a place where we focus on bashing theism to make us feel better about ourselves.
1ESRogs6yThanks for the thoughtful reply! Ah, that makes sense. I have a better idea where you were coming from now. Yeah, I think it's fairly common to make minor edits to a post. If you make a major change (adding or removing whole sections), then it might be helpful to include a note somewhere (e.g. at the bottom) saying that you've made such an edit just so people don't get confused.

"Deliberate purpose of hindering scientific progress" is taking it too far. But:

  • The Church's primary consideration in its dealings with Galileo was the preservation of its power over the masses. Not by ensuring they knew less than it did (as you say, that was an irrelevance), but by ensuring that the pope's authority was respected.
  • The Church's actions were inimical to scientific progress. Not because they were wrong at the object level - as you say, the geocentric viewpoint had a reasonable amount of evidence in its favour. But they were wron
... (read more)
1buybuydandavis6yYes on both points. That's what I felt the OP missed. Galileo is more a symbol for freedom of speech and freedom from theocracy than a personal champion of rationality. And I was surprised to see this point get little play in the responses so far.
-1Val6yIn what way do you think your first point would contradict anything I wrote? Your second point can be disproved by the book of Riccioli, which was exactly what you asked for: a free and open debate. And as the Church funded most of the research, without it, none of this (not even the pro-heliocentric research) would have happened. The "Deliberate purpose of hindering scientific progress" is believed by a lot of people, so I think it is a valid bias to fight against.
6hairyfigment6yNo, it isn't. People believe the Catholic hierarchy opposed heliocentrism on biblical grounds, which they did. I'll grant you this paints an incomplete picture. But phrasing it as a "deliberate purpose of hindering scientific progress" is a clear strawman. Perhaps because he published and died at roughly the same time. His followers apparently did not make much of a fuss before Galileo. Until this proved impossible, in a difference you conceal under the phrase "a lot of very complicated formulas". Actually, geocentrism required a departure from the regular circular motions that Aristotle's physics predicted. They called it the "equant". As a physical process it would be a non-circular motion, though we could find other ways to interpret it. And even Tycho Brahe required this [] (see the third use of the term, if it doesn't take you there). Note that Kepler discovered this before your Riccioli wrote the book you speak of, and indeed Kepler published his more correct heliocentric account - to explain the observations - long before. (I'll grant you Kepler included a lot of other ideas, probably all wrong.) Newton founded modern science by building on Kepler, hence the lack of interest in the later work of Riccioli.
  • This is an essay which I or others could use to claim the study of history is fraught with problems. However, it's only popular history that poses the problems. It's from other books on history that you yourself were able to relay this information to LessWrong. I'm curious what are heuristics for identifying better sources for studying history, i.e., to identify signals among the noise of historical sources.

  • I don't live in the United States, so I'm unaware of how much a threat Young Earth Creationists pose to the teaching of proper scientific knowledge

... (read more)
4Manfred6yI think you may be underestimating what Val is not mentioning []. Galileo's Dialogue that Val focuses on so exclusively was not published for another 15 years after Copernicanism was banned (de jure at least). We have to strike a balance between not overgeneralizing, when the Catholic church did include good scientists, and also not over-dividing, when the Catholic church as an organization was very anti-scientific in its approach to heliocentrism.
0Val6yI was never claiming that the Catholic Church was always right, I was only talking about some very heavy biases a lot of people have in this topic.. One of the articles I linked ( []) deals specifically with the importance and weight of the ban you mentioned.
5Manfred6yYou seem to say this a lot in the comments. I'm not sure whether you're obliquely agreeing that the Catholic church's sum effect was antiscientific in the case of heliocentrism, or whether you're just trying to dodge the issue.

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.

Are you sure you are not attacking a strawman/nut picking? I mean, there are certainly people who believe that, but is it really a representative position among atheists (*)?

(* Here I assume we are talking about atheists who don't partecipate to a secular/political religion, as these ones lend towards fanaticism, therefore I suppose they are more likely to hold false and i... (read more)

1Val6yThis is certainly a valid concern. I have mostly only anecdotal evidence based on my personal experience, but I've seen these views held by a large number of people, even otherwise intelligent people. For example, a geography professor I know was feeling sure that Galilei was burned at the stake. Another point which hints me strongly is that I've even heard this view from committed Catholics who were ashamed by what their church did in the past. Also, I linked an article ( [] ) which is a proponent of this view, and I've seen this argument coming up plenty of times in discussions about arguments against theism. However, I don't have any real studies about the percentage of people who hold this view. This is why I also included a poll, and based on the results, there are some people here (who I think are well-read and intelligent, otherwise they would not be visiting this site much less paying attention to the articles) who do or did have such views. If I remember Aristotle well, he did propose two fundamental kinds of motion, a linear and a circular one. So far as I know, Aristotle wasn't a monotheist, and the Greek gods were not described as omnipotent. However, my knowledge here is limited, I would need to read more from Aristotle to be capable of discussing this topic further.
0alienist6yIf the earth has a sublunary sphere, that suggests the earth is 'special', which is certainly more parsimonious in a geocentric universe. Also why doesn't earth's sublunary sphere cause it to fall into the sun?
0V_V6yEither way the Earth has to be special. Because nobody figured out that the Sun had gravity before Newton.

The first part of this article lowered my expectations, but maybe it's the sort of thing some people need to hear, so okay.

But in the second part, you tell a few flat-out lies - about historical context, about the work of Galileo, and about what evidence contemporaries had. For a more complete picture, as usual, I recommend wikipedia, specifically this page on the timeline of heliocentrism. Especially if you don't know what was going on with Brahe and Kepler - or like me, you didn't have a good understanding of when these things happened relative to each other.

-2Val6yPlease tell me exactly what you consider to be a flat-out lie, preferably with proof. Otherwise you did nothing but accept only what you believe in, and refuse proofs supporting what you don't believe in.
3Manfred6yWhen you say "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," you falsely do it a service, because you overstate the practical differences. Galileo was no Kepler - he didn't have improved observational accuracy. The Copernican model and the Tychonic model (adopted by the Catholic church only a decade and change before Galileo published the Dialogue) make basically the same predictions for planetary movement. This means the really interesting lie is "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." Because Galileo's answer is what this was really about! If Tycho Brahe was right, Earth was made of a lazy type of matter, which desired to be at rest and fall down, while the heavens followed an entirely different set of rules that demanded perpetual motion. But if Galileo was right, an object in motion would stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, whether on earth or in the heavens. After 1610 or so, if one had a decent understanding of astronomy, one accepted that Ptolemy was wrong and that heliocentrism was now not about overthrowing the Greeks' astronomy, but their mechanics. Who was right? Was it Aristotle and Brahe? Or was it Descartes and Galileo? Of course, the discussion would have been a lot more interesting if the church hadn't started banning the books of one side after they declared heliocentrism heretical, but oh well.
0komponisto6yThis is a very insightful comment -- in the sense of making something "click" for me that hadn't done so before. Namely: So, thank you. (Cf. Douglas Knight's comment [] , which also implies that Galilean relativity was central to the argument.)
[-][anonymous]6y 4

Here are some interesting blog posts on the subject. I cannot speak to the veracity of the author's claims, but I found them engaging and surprising reads.

Not a substantial comment, but -- would you mind fixing the arXiv link to point to the abstract rather than directly to the PDF? From the abstract one can click through to the PDF, not so the reverse, and from the abstract you can see other versions of the paper, etc. (And you've made getting back to the abstract from the PDF a bit more annoying than usual as you've linked to it at some weird address rather than the usual one.) Thank you!

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.

We have alternative hypotheses for a lot of things we didn't have then. We know a lot more things that don't make much sense with a God than we knew then. Science and religion weren't always in conflict. The conflict doesn't occur until you have empirical evidence against religeon.

-1Val6yIf you define God as "an invisible bearded wizard living on the top of the clouds", then yes, we have empirical evidence against that. But that's not the only definition of God. But as I said, there are much better places of coming up with proofs and disproofs about the existence of God that this article.
2Antiochus6yI find more sophisticated theologies as unconvincing. The fundamental problem is the more coherent and logically provable your god is, the less she matters, until it's nothing left that could be thought of as a god at all, let alone produce any real consequences that we should worry about. It's like the driving paradox - to paraphrase George Carlin, everyone that drivers slower than you is an idiot, everyone that drives faster is a maniac. If someone has a more literal god than you (you in the general sense) they're clearly just a straw man or an idiot. If someone has a less literal god than you, they're misguided or heretical or cowardly. In this analogy, I choose not to drive.
0DanielLC6yWe have disproven a higher portion of hypotheses that include God than that do not.

I like this quote from Paul Feyerabend:

Copernicanism and other "rational" views exist today only because reason was overruled at some time in their past.

(Emphasis mine).

I disagree, though, with your points about Galileo ridiculing the pope. Sure, it was an unwise choice, but there's nothing unscientific about it. It was just a response out of frustration.

3Val6yWhat I meant by him ridiculing the pope is that he created a character called Simplicio (meaning simple-minded, idiot) modeled from the pope. Maybe I didn't formulate it well enough, but I wasn't calling his book unscientific because of ridiculing the pope. I called it unscientific because of the lines of reasoning he used (look at the sloshing water example). Also, he failed to present both sides of the argument with their counter-arguments, he wrote a heavily biased book instead. Of course, there are also some merits in the works of Galilei, he made observations and improved instruments which did add value to science. However, he is too much overrated compared to other scientists of his time.
1passive_fist6yIf that's your point then I agree. It just seemed to me as if you were suggesting that a scientific attitude should be non-provocative, which I disagree with. Being provocative is sometimes necessary to get people's attention.
1Val6yIn this case I agree with you. However, I would like to add that when we judge people's decisions we should judge based on the era in which they were made. In an era where pretty much anywhere in the world corporal and even capital punishment was the norm even for minor crimes (like theft), and if you insulted a nobleman you had a good chance of being challenged to a duel and killed, insulting the head of state only got him house arrest. A (comparatively) pretty mild punishment in my opinion. Of course, such a punishment would be unjustified in today's world where we value the freedom of speech a lot. However, publicly calling a head of state an idiot would probably have some repercussions even today, even if just a fine, or a lawsuit to post a correction or apology in the next edition. Sorry, I just love playing advocatus diaboli :)

Please fill out this survey after having read the article:

  1. Did it change any of your previously held beliefs? [pollid:820]
  1. If you were a well-studied man in the early 17th century Italy, on which side of the heliocentrism debate would you have been, if you didn't had the knowledge of later eras? [pollid:821]
  1. Have you heard about Giovanni Battista Riccioli before reading this article? [pollid:822]
4ChristianKl6yThe first question really needs an "Other" option in (1). I would guess that for a majority of people on LW neither of the options is accurate.
5NoahSiegel6yMy answer to (1) is "This article changed my mind . . .". Not because I'm entirely convinced of the article's thesis, but because it provided enough evidence to update my prior about the role of the historical Catholic Church. I had sort of assumed that would be the consensus definition of "changed my mind" around these parts.
5ChristianKl6yThe core issue is the prior. It's quite possible to have the prior that the Catholic Church was not out to quash science and spread ignorance without knowing most of the arguments of the article. There are atheists who believe "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" as their prior belief but I don't think that's the prior of a majority of LW. There are reasons why two people called it a strawman. "it successfully challenged some of the biases I held about it." has some quality of "I have stopped beating my wife" to it.
0Val6yIs there a way to edit it? I'm fairly new and inexperienced in the mechanics of this forum. I guessed that the third option already covered everything not in the first two. I would happily include an "Other" option if it was possible.
4ChristianKl6yNo "most of the arguments are already known" doesn't cover everything. It's perfectly possible to not know most of those arguments and still not believe that the Catholic Church had the agenda of hindering science and propagating ignorance. The assumption that everybody who doesn't know the arguments believes that is baseless. If I remember correctly, unfortunately no.
0NancyLebovitz6yI also previously believed the case showed that the Catholic church didn't care much about science, rather than having a consciously anti-science agenda. I believe it had a strong bias towards staying in charge.
0Jiro6y2 needs an option "What a well-studied man in the 17th century would have thought is irrelevant to whether the Church was working against science, because remaining in power by suppressing the side which doesn't have well-studied men is just as bad as remaining in power by suppressing the side which does".
0[anonymous]6yTo judge whether the Catholic Church was actively hindering science at all, not just for the express purpose of keeping power, I would need to read about what the Church did or did not do with the aim of hindering science. Galileo was a very interesting person, but I have no way to determine how representative was his situation of the general state of affairs, especially if he was friends with the Pope.
0[anonymous]6yWhy don't the polls work? I followed []

A close reading of Wikipedia on Galilei matches your points. I guess multiple levels of interpretation with hindsight bias are the cause of the commonly held view. It could still be that Gelilei himself had sufficient reason to trust the heliocentric view - kind of like Einstein had for the theory of relativity. Galilei no doubt was a genius with all those inventions invented of used by him. But it could also be that he fell to his own halo effect like other overly successful physicists and that he was right only by luck.

[-][anonymous]4y 0

Related: The Roman Inquisition's precept to Galileo (1616) (an contribution to how the process began.)

I thought this was very well done. For a much more extended exegesis on this, see here:

Hmm let's look at what he was found "vehemently suspected of heresy" for.

Wikipedia: "Galileo was found "vehemently suspect of heresy", namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to "abjure, curse and detest" those opinions."

To be specific, the notion that the Sun was unmoved at the center was he... (read more)

0Val6yI would still argue that the decision of the Inquisition to call Galilei a heretic wasn't done with the main goal of suppressing heliocentrism in general (much less to suppress science), but it was done as an excuse to suppress Galilei personally. The following arguments would I mention in the support of my claim above: * Both Galilei and others did spend a lot of time and effort in searching proofs for heliocentrism. Even the pope himself knew this, and didn't discourage Galilei and didn't try to stop him. * There were others who handled heliocentrism as a valid (just less probable) alternative theory instead of handling it as heresy (e.g. Riccioli) and they weren't bothered by the inquisition. * Galilei came forth with his own theological views and interpretations of the Bible, I would guess this pissed off the church much more than his scientific works.

Galileo was eventually demonstrated correct. Were there trials where the church was eventually demonstrated correct?

6ChristianKl6yIf the OP is right then Galileo was wrong in a lot of arguments he made.
4Gondolinian6yA broken clock may be right twice a day, but you still shouldn't use it to tell time.
1imuli6yThis is not a test as to whether we should judge the truth by what the church condemns, but rather for the OP's thesis that they are/were not specifically opposing the progress of truth on an object level.
2Gondolinian6yI think we might both be misunderstanding each other? I thought your post was implying that the most important thing was that Galileo's theory was empirically confirmed and the church's falsified, I then intended to imply that someone could have a correct theory through blind luck while still being unscientific/irrational. (I don't know enough relevant history to have much of an opinion on the specific case of Galileo, I'm just pointing out the meta-level rule.)
2alienist6yYes, not quite a trial but the condemnations at the University of Paris []. In every statement falsifiable among them, the church was eventually correct, e.g., the universe isn't infinitely old, vacuum exists, astrology is bunk.
-2bobfrank6yThat's just the thing, though. For all the hoopla people have made over it, Galileo was not eventually demonstrated correct, for the very simple reason that he was factually wrong. Yes, the Sun is the center of the solar system, not the Earth. But that's not what he was teaching. He was teaching that the Copernican model of orbital dynamics was literally correct, and it isn't. It got heliocentrism right, but a lot of other important details wrong, and Galileo was teaching that not only was this incorrect model literally true, but that it also had scriptural support. (Which means he truly was a heretic, by the definition being applied there.) At his trial, he was offered the chance to produce scientific evidence to prove his position, but he couldn't actually do that, because his position could not be proven by scientific evidence due to being factually incorrect.