Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Galileo's Heresy: Sun or Atoms?

We all are attracted to certain disciplines that we really like a lot and wish that we would have devoted more academic time to (when we were younger, of course), like, say, the history of science.

So whoever is interested in the history of science and the science of debunking “intentional” history, I recommend the following book. Published back in 1989 and written by historian Pietro Redondi, Galileo: The Heretic (finally down from an under-loved bookshelf) is a compelling and extremely well told narrative of the Church’s cover up of the actual purpose behind the prosecution of Galileo. The popular Galileo narrative that most of us have been exposed to is that Galileo’s acceptance of the Copernican heliocentric view of the solar system (earth moves around the sun and not vice versa) directly confronted the teachings of the Church, which saw the earth as the center of God’s plan and, therefore, the physical cosmos. Apparently, this charge was a pretext; the ulterior motive behind the trial was Galileo’s advocacy of the atomistic view of material, which, evidently, undermined the presumption of the sacrament of the Eucharist (body and blood of Christ).

To uphold the atomistic view meant you believed that the materials of earth, including wafers and wine, were composed of irreducible parts that have specific behaviors and properties that cannot, therefore, undergo transubstantiation, that is, changed into something like body and blood. This Aristotelian view confronted the more Eucharist-friendly Platonic view of the composition of matter, which tended to be more ethereal. To undermine the very ideal of the Eucharist was considered serious heresy punishable by death. The Copernican red herring turned out to be good for Galileo in the end, for advocating heliocentricity was a breach not so sternly punished: banishment, house arrest, no TV, etc.

Pietro Redondi, associate director of the Alexandre Koyre for the History of Science, had firsthand access to sealed documents kept in the Vatican, signed off and kept under lock by the chief Galileo prosecutor, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, a Jesuit who was elevated to sainthood in the 1920’s but not without controversy, resistance, lengthy adjournments, and stormy debate. Many within the Church itself had long resented what the Cardinal did to Galileo and, perhaps, to independent thought, which, again, contrary to popular thought, was important to many of the intellectuals of Catholicism, who were plenty and actually quite brilliant.

I recommend the book for many reasons, among them is the way the narrative is told. It is scholarly and reads with compelling fluency. The early development of Galileo’s heresy goes back to an early time when he was presented with a rock that glowed, a material of the earth emitting light though it was disconnected from any light source. For Galileo and his students, this phenomenon needed study, but also an interpretation that had “religious” connotation. They were not out to debunk religious tenants, but they could not ignore the function of reason. The rock and light raised questions about the particles in the rock that were obviously capable (because of their unique “properties”) of giving off light. It was a kindling of what would lead to an alternate theory about matter.

It’s important to remember that Galileo’s heresy occurred in the 1600’s, centuries after the Islamic world defrocked the hold of superstition and “theological” locks, and when Muslims had long observed in nature what nature revealed . . . without the “fear” that it would upset or challenge scriptural elan or apparent precepts. This is a broad generalization. But this is the blog-world where generalization is usually the rule.


Anonymous dawood said...

That's one to add on to my bookshelf! It sounds as though many intellectuals had similar issues in both the late-medieval Muslim world and Europe. Sounds like a fascinating book.

I for one would definitely like to see more of this type of thing, introducing readers to the great minds of the past - both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Keep up the good work and ma'a al-salama :)

11/21/2007 1:14 PM  

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