Galileo Galilei

Galileo-Galilei-z3“The Book of Nature,” wrote Galileo (d. January 8, 1642), “is written in mathematics.”

“Philosophy [i.e. physics] is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”1

In these words from Saggiatore—his mid-career manifesto setting out the principles of the scientific method—we find one of many examples of Galileo’s genius. Everyone knows him for his adaptation and improvement of the telescope and for the astronomical discoveries he immediately began to make as he pointed it toward the sky. But he revolutionized more than just astronomy. It was Galileo who brought the promethean fire of celestial mathematics to the dark labyrinth of the Earth and physical bodies in motion here below.

Prior to Galileo, the heavenly spheres were conceived of as pure, divine substances whose motions were manifestations of an eternal, flawless, and unchanging divine realm, a hierarchy of being with the stately stars at the outermost firmament and the sun and the planets below them, all moving in intricate, mathematical precision. At the very bottom of this chain of being was the Earth, around which the providential heavens revolved and where things came into being and were destroyed, unlike anywhere else in the cosmic order of things. Here, bodies collided or moved in erratic patterns, blown about by winds or washed around by seas. Disastrous and unpredictable events like storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions confirmed that the Earth was a chaotic place very different from the sidereal heavens and planets. It was not expected that laws as consistent and mathematically elegant as those that described the heavens could ever apply to objects on earth, though there were efforts, of course, to measure and explain things quantitatively.


Folio page 28, manuscript copy of Sidereus Nuncius, showing Galileo’s aquatints of the moon.

With Galileo, the gulf between the heavens and the Earth began to be effaced. He observed the Moon and reported that it had mountains and craters: it was a physical— not purely spiritual—body that was in some significant respects like the Earth. Jupiter had moons orbiting it, an observation that destroyed definitively the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic assumption that everything revolved around the Earth. And the sun itself was observed to have blemishes (spots) and a rotation. At the same time, Galileo’s revolutionary approach to physical objects on the Earth proceeded from the hypothesis that the same mathematics that described the heavens could be applied to physical bodies on the Earth, setting the stage for future advances by Descartes and Newton and further narrowing the imaginal separation between the human realm and the eternal worlds.2

Galileo brought evidence from outside the received system of knowledge of his day that disrupted what nearly everyone thought they knew about God’s creation. His discoveries were apocalyptic—revelations that seemed to portend the end of everyone’s conceptual worlds. Given the magnitude of the implications of his discoveries, it might even be surprising that he received the degree of forbearance that he did from the religious authorities of the Inquisition. With hindsight, we now see that Galileo was showing humanity how to read the Book of Nature with the same fidelity and care as we had been reading the Book of Scripture. Both books, it turned out, were needed—each in order to better understand the other. Both pointed to truths that mattered. Both were revelations, and both required interpretation.

At the end of the apocalypse, after the passing away of the Ptolemaic world, surprisingly enough, there was found a new heaven and a new earth—very much like the old ones—but viewed now with clearer, truer eyes than ever before. God was not banished nor his works degraded in this new order of things. Only our perspective had shifted and certain stories we had told ourselves had to be reinterpreted based on new information.

We lose nothing worth keeping when our errors are shown as such, and there is no truth that has any need to fear any other truth. As we celebrate the life and revelatory career of Galileo Galilei, let us ask ourselves: What is our relationship to truth today and to the evidence that sustains that truth? When new information challenges our understanding of things, what should we do? How can we manage risk as we explore truth—not only physical risk, but spiritual risk, since what we discover, we might not always be prepared to understand correctly? How can we discern when the time has come for us to change long-held views? What if others are not ready? And if the need for change comes, how can we embrace it gracefully and with respect for the faithfulness of our predecessors? How can we look on the past “with joy and not with sorrow, neither with contempt, concerning [our] first parents”?



Mormon Lectionary Project

Collect: Our Heavenly Father, we acknowledge thy hand in all things and confess the wonders of thy love as displayed in the heavens and in the Earth. We thank thee for the light and knowledge thou gavest to thy servant Galileo and through him to all humanity. We confess that thy ways are higher than our ways. Grant us, therefore, grace for the journeys of understanding that still lie ahead of us, and courage to follow wherever thy truths shall lead us. Thus we pray in the name of Christ our Lord, who is one with thee and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Psalm 19:1–4

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Deuteronomy 10:12–15

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.

2 Peter 1:16–21

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Alma 32:21–23, 26–27

And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true. And now, behold, I say unto you, and I would that ye should remember, that God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word.

And now, he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned….

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge. But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.


Disclaimer: I’m no scientist and so make no claim to authority on the facts I’ve tried to lay out here. I have made an effort to state things accurately as best I can judge them from reliable sources, but if I’ve missed a nuance somewhere, I’m happy to be corrected.

1. Galileo Galilei, The Assayer, translated by Stillman Drake in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (1957), 237–38.

2. Here’s how the Encyclopædia Britannica puts it: “Galileo was the first man who perceived that mathematics and physics, previously kept in separate compartments, were going to join forces. He was thus able to unify celestial and terrestrial phenomena into one theory, destroying the traditional division between the world above and the world below the Moon. (New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed. (1989), Macropædia, s.v. Galileo).


  1. “With hindsight, we now see that Galileo was showing humanity how to read the Book of Nature with the same fidelity and care as we had been reading the Book of Scripture. Both books, it turned out, were needed—each in order to better understand the other. Both pointed to truths that mattered. Both were revelations, and both required interpretation.”

    Perfect. A wonderful tribute to the tides of Truth revealed to all of humanity through Galileo’s work. Prophecy assures us that Truth will sweep the Earth as with a flood in the last days and Galileo certainly played a large, surely Providentially appointed, role in opening the flood gates!

  2. “His discoveries were apocalyptic—revelations that seemed to portend the end of everyone’s conceptual worlds. ” Yes. But it is hard to see how powerful these things were in the day. Are there similar things in the wings? I think so.

  3. Those are powerful questions in your last paragraph, Morgan–and you’ve assembled a very provocative constellation of scriptures. Thank you for this great contribution to the MLP!

  4. Galileo’s appeal to a book of nature was a rhetorical device by which he hoped to sideline any appeal to the priesthood authority from the Catholic church. It was his attempt to say that there are scriptures which anybody can read on their own without any need of official interpretation. (And this in the middle of the 30 years war in which the Catholic Church is literally fighting for its life.) But nature is not a book, let alone scripture. The idea that nature is scripture is a myth developed by intellectuals who did not like the idea of being bound by mortal, imperfect and thus “arbitrary” men. Thus, it is an attempt to undermine and subvert appeals to authority/tradition, appeals which lie at the very core of a religious worldview.

    Galileo had a gift for using rhetorical devices to bias the debates in which he participated. For starters, contrary to his famous book, there were more than two worldviews such than his disproving the Ptolemic model did nothing at all to prove his model was right. He very conveniently sidelined Tycho Brahe’s geocentric model – a model which was empirically indistinguishable from that of Copernicus – for the simple fact that he could not refute it. Another rhetorical ploy would be the inclusion of a third character within his great book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, that pretended to be “neutral”, thus pretending to represent a “fair minded” reader, but in practice sides with the Copernican model at every turn. It’s also worth mentioning that Galileo rejected Kepler’s model of the elliptical motion of planets since the former insisted that celestial motion must be circular and thus perfect. There were also numerous empirical objections which nobody at the time was in any position to address – such as the lack of parallactical motion in the heavens, a lack of perceived motion on earth, etc. In other words, he was hardly a model of scientific objectivity.

    Yes, Galileo made significant contributions to the advancement of legitimate science. But, in all honesty, I think it would be more accurate to admit that he is remembered and praised for his rebellion against traditional religious authorities more than anything else – a very odd thing for LDS members to praise.

  5. Galileo isn’t the only scientist to view nature as God’s record. “The Creator has made a record in the rocks for man to decipher,” stated Elder James E. Talmage, in “The Talmage Story: Life of James E. Talmage, Educator, Scientist, Apostle.”

    Jesus rebelled against traditional religious authorities, as did Joseph Smith and many others. When the religious authorities are wrong, as they were in Galileo’s day, often rebellion is the right thing. There’s nothing wrong with praising it in these circumstances.

  6. There is a difference, however, between rebelling against a particular set of religious authorities (as in the case of a restoration of true religious authority), and rebelling against religious authority as such (as in the case of the reformation that happened in Galileo’s time). Jesus and Joseph Smith most definitely did NOT (by Mormon standards) engage in the latter, whereas Galileo most definitely did.

    This is exactly what makes Galileo’s use of the metaphor so different from Talmage’s. After all, Mormonism is (guardedly) pro-science … so long as it does not trump authoritative statements. But this last part is exactly what Galileo was rebelling against and it was precisely this that made him such a cultural icon. His fame comes from insisting that science can unilaterally and uncompromisingly constrain religion.

    Of course the immediate rejoinder is that there is no “real” contradiction between true science and true religion, but this same weapon is used by both sides of the conflict against the other in such a way that it resolves nothing. One side uses it as a way of rejecting science that conflicts with the official faith while the other uses it as a way of rejecting religion that conflicts with official science. Thus, if one wants to use this reply they must first ask themselves from which side of the debate they would use it. In other words, it is not an argument at all so much as a declaration of faith that “the other side” will eventually turn out to be wrong.

  7. The heavens are telling, indeed!

  8. Jeff, what evidence do you have that Galileo was “rebelling against religious authority as such”? You have offered none. There’s not really any evidence that he was rebelling at all. Resistance and rebellion are not the same thing.

    If your point is “Mormons shouldn’t rebel against the Mormon church,” then say so, but don’t make a mess of history or completely get Jesus and Joseph Smith wrong in the process.

  9. This is a beautifully written piece, with a message that I think is extremely important to the world we live in today, i.e. that science and religion need not be at odds. As the author says, “God was not banished nor his works degraded in this new order of things. Only our perspective had shifted and certain stories we had told ourselves had to be reinterpreted based on new information.” Authority is about authoring — and science, itself, makes no claims to authoring, only to description. Some scientists, stretching beyond science, have certainly made claims to deny all authorship, but such was not the case with Galileo who used science to describe, not to deny. He remained a good Catholic and believer throughout his life.

    Coming back to this essay, I think the writer gets a little carried away at times, such as in this very evocative sentence:

    “It was Galileo who brought the promethean fire of celestial mathematics to the dark labyrinth of the Earth and physical bodies in motion here below.”

    Well, that is beautifully written, but I’m not sure it is valid. When we look back at those we admire in the past we have a tendency today to think that they must be important because they said or did something new. But Galileo’s originality, such as it was, is perhaps a bit more prosaic than this lovely sentence would suggest. He was a practical scientist, in other words he did experiments. Not many scientists were doing experiments at the time. They read Aristotle and a handful of other works, such as Ptolemy and Galen, and commented on them the way good scholars do. Galileo, as a revolutionary, revolted against that scholarly, non-experimental practice, and throughout his life he was forever at war with the Aristotelians.

    His originality was not in bringing mathematics to the heavens (which one might say goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians), — but in bringing empiricial observation to science — and as this was actually implicit in Aristotle (a fact that the Aristotelians tended to overlook), we can say comfortably that this was not his personal invention, — although it was his passion.

    Jeff G. in a comments suggests that Galileo was rebelling against God and religiion. I think it is clear that Galileo was revolting against the Aristotelians, but that he was revolting against religion, is not nearly so clear. The modern myth of Galileo often reads that his greatest nemesis was the church (even thought Galileo thought it was the Aristotelians) and that he fought one of the early battles in the war between science and religion. Certain groups, quite honestly the new atheists, have a large need for such a myth — as it contains something essential to their dogma.

    But, while I am no Galileo scholar, my reading of the incidents, to the extent I know them, suggests to me that Galileo was legitimately surprised when his book was received in the way it was. He seems to have thought that he had the full support of the pope and the church, in general. And, indeed, prior to writing the book had engaged in discourse with the pope and others within the church and had received some encouragement to go ahead. Much happened in the meantime and the pope was being increasingly pressured to stand up against the reformation. Galileo had received hints that he might have some trouble. But with such a passionate, and, to be honest, strong-willed and often arrogant man, he chose to ignore those hints.

    But Galileo, I am quite convinced, never rebelled against the pope, the church, or religion. He spent the first months of house imprisonment at the home of a close friend: the friend was a bishop, the home was the bishop’s palace. Indeed, many major figures within church continued to support Galileo. I believe that Galileo remained a good Catholic to his dying day, and that he thought himself a good Catholic when he offered up his book.

    It is easier to believe that Galileo was a rebel against God and church than to understand the complexities of his situation. Galileo has become one of the great factotums of modern science — and we tend to see science and religion as eternally at odds — so surely Galileo must have been part of that on going debate. I don’t believe that science and religion need to be at odds — and that is the most important point made in this essay. I think Galileo should be seen as an significant figure in the effort to conduct science within the grounds of a religious world view. It is unfortunate that both events and our own modern conceptions of the world conspire against him so that he has become the very opposite image of what he sought to be.

  10. Great comment, Mark David Dietz. Thank you so much for this great input. I agree, actually, with most of what you say here, including even that the sentence you quote might go a little far rhetorically. But just to be clear, I’m not saying he brought math to the study of the heavens. I’m saying (and I cite the Encyclopedia Britannica in a note to back this) that he was one of the first to see that the math that was already being applied to heavenly bodies (as you rightly say) was going to be relevant to investigating physics—then understood as the study of sublunar bodies. This was news to me, actually, as I did the background reading for this post.

    Galileo’s contributions to hammering out the experimental method are crucial, and I’m glad you’ve pointed those up.

  11. Jeff, you really need to take heed of Steve’s succinct rejoinder. You’re embarrassing yourself in an attempt to cast Galileo’s historic and important contribution to furthering humanity’s understanding of empirical Truth against the tyrannical dogmatic religious authorities (who effectively wielded secular authority as well and could therefore punish Galileo for pursuing Truth by restricting his freedom or inflicting bodily harm on him) of his day as the work of just a meany “secularist” in the contrived culture wars of the American evangelical right at the present time (well, if you consider the perpetuation of the intellectual debates of 1968 through to today to be “current “). Your argument is forced and seeks to twist the history of this episode to support your insinuation, constantly lurking below the surface, that BCC (or any Mormon who fails your own personal orthodoxy demands) is supposedly trying to undermine the religious authority of Mormon Church leaders by celebrating the tragic experience of Galileo and his struggle against religious authorities whose views hold nothing at all binding or guiding for Latter-day Saints. This is, of course, nonsense.

    At the very least, you are incorrect about Jesus and Joseph Smith who both openly rebelled against established religious authority as such, in exactly the strong way you are hamfistedly denying. They restored correct religious authority and in doing so directly and very publicly undermined the established religious authority with the exact same consequences that you regularly try to mete out against people you think are trying to undermine religious authority.

    It is apparent that you are invested in religious authority as such, regardless of its source, because of your commitment to what you regard as the conservative principle that society must be subject to such in order to be conservative. The problem is when you get history wrong in an attempt to force it to support your view and enable you to cast faithful Latter-day Saints as apostate for inappropriately, in your view apparently, criticizing seventeenth century Catholic Church authorities because in your new views (for which you receive much praise and support on Mormon blogs from Mormons who regularly pronounce blanket denouncements of all the other Mormon blogs as unfaithful), one simply shouldn’t ever criticize any religious authorities, even when they are patently and provably wrong, and deadly so (and even when those religious authorities have no authority over us today, not least because they are long gone and long since proven wrong not only on the science but also in their methods of force, coercion, and religious/social pressuring not to oppose them even when they are wrong). Your change from years of constant criticism of Mormon truth claims and leaders in the name of what you understood to be the demands of liberalism to your current constant fetishizing of religious authority as such in the name of what you now believe to be the demands of conservatism (submission to religious authority as such simply for the same if submission because that is for you a conservative principle) is a fascinating phenomenon, to be sure. It’s interesting though that many of the same people who argued against you then in defense of the church as you sought to tear it down are still arguing against you now in defense of our faithful devotion to the Church and our sustaining of its leaders in the face of your accusations and insinuations that celebrating Galileo is a veiled attempt to undermine Mormon Church leaders. It appears to me, however, that this gives you little pause and that though you’ve flip-flopped on your political views (which you’ve apparently conflated and made coterminous with your religious views), you have remained consistent in your lack of self awareness about your approach as you accuse and make insinuations against faithful Latter-day Saints.

  12. By the way, if you choose not to view Galileo as a hero or his work as essentially prophetic for its time in ushering in truth in the face of manifest error perpetuated by a religious authority at his time seeking to maintain absolute dogmatic control of knowledge, learning, behavior, and the economy, that is completely fine!

    The problem is your culture warrioring on this thread, confronting faithful Latter-day Saints for our celebration of Galileo as if we’re surrendering to “secularism” in the process and surreptitiously trying to undermine Mormon Church leaders by celebrating the prophetic role he played.

    And make no mistake, speaking for myself (wouldn’t want to make a blanket statement on behalf of BCC authors or other Mormons in general), the Reformation was an inspired development as well, as was the Enlightenment (the Scottish and English enlightenments followed by the more general continental European enlightenment), both of which provided essential groundwork and created the conditions in which the Restoration could happen. Whether that complies with the views of the First Things crowd, I could care less.

  13. Morgan I love this. I’ve spent much of my life trying to show that faith and science are compatible, and the idea of adding this to the Lectionary Project was both beautiful and heartwarming.

    Jeff G gets a number of things wrong both historically and conceptually. I think John f. handled most of these, but I’d like to add a few things. To defend authority as such without context is torturous and harmful. To claim that Galileo’s appeal to the book of nature was a ‘rhetorical device’ is just silly, it was one of his deepest beliefs and commitments. He was also deeply religious and committed to the idea he was discovering things about God’s creation. He was not trying to “subvert appeals to authority/tradition” he was trying to discover things about the world. As John points out, he thought the authoriies of the day would rejoice over his findings.

    Jeff G also complains about Galileo’s lack of objectivity, a value unknown to the science of the day. Remember the methods of science were just getting articulation at that time. Francis Bacon and Descartes who begin to explore the idea of experimental science and method were contemporaries. Expecting Galileo to be a modern scientist is also silly.

    What bothers me most about JeffG’s second comment is that it maintains and reinforces the religion and science war rhetoric that has proven so harmful to both ways of learning the beauties of our universe. Such fear-talk does damage and is an unnecessary.

    Morgan this was fantastic.

  14. I’m late to this but so glad I didn’t miss it. thanks, Morgan.

    As a multigenerational heir to the gospel, I am in awe of converts who dare to cross over the chasm to belief and baptism. I have a hard time believing I would have accepted it, because as a practical matter it seems that nearly all of us have to accept a human testimony first — listening to a missionary, talking with a friend — before being willing to read scripture or pray or open ourselves up to a spiritual confirmation. How much more in awe I am of the first generation of converts, who didn’t have that personal support, or the example of friends or grandparents — to be the first to cross into faith is something I can barely comprehend.

    “With Galileo, the gulf between the heavens and the Earth began to be effaced.”

    As multigenerational heirs of Galileo’s observations and system and truthtelling, and with the imagination to see even the most faintly what our world and lives would be today without him or someone like him, we should (and some of us evidently do) have the greatest awe and admiration and respect for him.

  15. kowsdontski says:

    Wasn’t it God who brought the order to the heavens and earth that we call math and science? Surely Gallileo was led by God to reveal these laws (of “nature”) to a world bound by laws of men, and man’s inadequate interpretation of God’s word.

    I loved this post. Thanks for posting.

  16. Wow. Some pretty over the top responses.

    Steve E,

    I provided plenty of evidence for quite a few claims. I think everybody here is well-educated enough to know that the Enlightenment, for which Galileo was a major inspiration, very nearly defined itself in terms of the rejection of religious authority as such. The line that separates the Mormon view of Joseph Smith from essentially all Enlightenment thinkers is that the former spoke of and hoped for the restoration of a proper religious authority, something which Galileo and the like were more than happy to do without.

    For example, Galileo played a major role in demoting scriptural truth to an “allegorical” status while the “book of nature” is what gives us literal truth. Make no mistake, he very much meant this as a demotion. The Catholic Church, seeing his goals for what they really were, gave him plenty of opportunity to teach anything he wanted about the heavens so long as he didn’t say that Copernicus was literally True in the sense of falsifying the Catholic reading of scripture. What’s funny, it that 400 years later, scientists still haven’t been able to establish that what they are doing goes beyond the instrumentalist position that the church fully allowed Galileo. But Galileo wasn’t interested in merely useful models of the world, he wanted truth as the scriptures had always promised to give us.

    The case of Galileo’s refusal of an instrumentalist position is especially ironic given the fact that he had zero empirical evidence that refuted Brahe’s theory that was itself fully compatible with Catholic teachings. This in addition to his refusal to accept the empirical evidence that Kepler brought against his (Galileo’s) theory as well as Galileo’s uncompromising insistence that is was the sun that caused the earths tides (this was at the very heart of his heliocentrism). Given these contradictions within his behavior, it makes perfect sense to see his insistence on Truth being the object of his theory as being more a fight with church authority than with other scientific contenders. (Mark, the idea that Galileo was fighting against God is ridiculous, since atheism would not become a socially acceptable position for many generations to come.)

    Yes, Galileo was a pioneer in bringing mathematics to the physical sciences and his experiments with rolling objects down inclined planes deserve all the credit that we do give them. The point, however, is that the general public doesn’t give him much credit at all for this, they being instead focused on his rebellion against the church. In other words, Galileo was much closer to a Richard Dawkins than he was an Albert Einstein in this sense..


    As sad as it is, there was no difference between the church and Aristotelianism at that time. A rebellion against the latter just was a rebellion against the former. I’m well aware of how well Galileo got along with many within the priesthood, but this does not change the fact that they gave him many, many chances and plead with him to be a little more modest in the conclusions that he was arguing for, if not out of respect for church authority then out of respect for the lack of empirical support for his claims.

    Of course it would have been foolish for Galileo to launch a fully articulated and unabashed attack against the church. Galileo being a very smart and politically savvy guy, this is quite obviously not what Galileo was doing. Instead, my point is to look at the political effect that his rhetorical devices would have, and did have within that context. His appeal to a book of scripture that all had equal access to (very Protestant), his refusal to settle for an instrumental conception of Copernicus despite his having no empirical evidence to support his decision, etc. These all point to, if not an attempt, then at least the predictable consequence that he surely foresaw to undermine the church authority over natural philosophy (science wasn’t a word yet). And this is exactly what he gets praised for. We might see science and religion as being eternally at war with each other, but we must admit that it was Galileo that pretty much started that war.


    I can’t think of any reason for discussing Galileo if it weren’t for the relevance that he has to religion/science today. Most discussions of Galileo are very selective in their portrayal of Galileo, as they are typically aimed at establishing a harmony between religion and science without compromising the latter. I am not at all against this quest, but I am against short cuts. Very rarely will you here somebody mention the third great world system that Galileo conveniently ignored, his rejection of Kepler, his inability to respond to various empirical objections, the role that solar tides played in his thought or the instrumentalist options that the church openly allowed him. Just as rarely will anybody mention the role that positing a second book of scripture, that of nature, along side the Bible would play both politically and culturally. These points are all very relevant to us today.

    As for your attempt to address my supposed motives (seriously, where did that come from?) rather than the ways in which I supposedly “twist” history, I feel no obligation to respond to those. People can take whatever lessons they want from these relatively unknown facts about Galileo’s case – although I have a hard time seeing how my comments amount to support of religious authority of any kind, as you say. My point is that Galileo is most well-known for the fight that he had with and the corrosive effects that his thought had upon religious authority, more than anything else. Yes, Galileo absolutely deserves credit for his mathematization of science. He was not, however, an experimentalist in a Baconian sense of the word. In this sense, he was a lot more like Newton in preferring idealized thought experiments to actual experiments – his rolling objects down inclines being an important exception.


    You mostly attack things that I do not believe and I apologize if I gave the impression that I did. I am not at all attempting to defend Catholic authority. This being a Mormon forum, I took for granted that we all reject that. My point was that the ways in which he framed his beliefs and defenses of them were not at all limited to the authority of the Catholic church, but extends to all religious authority. There mostly definitely is a tension between religious appeals to authority (and we Mormons do endorse these in some sense) and scientific rejection of any appeals to any such kind of authority. This tension is not merely rhetoric. Indeed, my attempt was to get behind the rhetoric that is meant to obscure and repress this tension. If you would rather than I leave it obscured and repressed, I guess I don’t have much to contribute then. Such a preference doesn’t seem very scientific to me though.

    As for the book of nature as a rhetorical ploy, I fully agree with you that Galileo most definitely endorsed it and it would be a mistake to think that it was simply disingenuous trick on his part to disguise his true beliefs. My point is that the book of nature was a conceptual metaphor invented by intellectuals for the express purpose of sidelining appeals to authority. No doubt, most people here think this is a good thing. I’m not really sure how I feel about it myself, but it must be admitted that this is exactly the purpose which the metaphor serves since it never comes up in any other context. It was a means by which intellectuals could blaze a trail to Truth (not merely useful or empirically well-confirmed models) independent of church authority.

    In summary (and I promise not to comment any more on this thread if this doesn’t get deleted), we often misconstrue the case of Galileo for the purpose of dissolving tensions between religious authority and well-established science. Rather than acknowledging that Galileo’s defense of Copernican astronomy wasn’t a clear case of well-established science, or acknowledging the tensions that really did (and still do) exist between natural science and religious authority, these attempts seek to (inaccurately) portray Galileo as a shining example of both science and religion. I think this is just wrong. To be sure, we all have to come up with our own ways of dealing with the tensions between science and religious authority, and I don’t think mine is the only or even the best way for everybody to do so. I’m just don’t think that seeing Galileo as an intellectual hero is an unambiguously good way of doing this.

  17. Yes, the reader will judge. I stand by my comments, both as to your defense of religious authority as such and to your broader culture warrioring motives, which are the reason for your comments here on a devotional thread honoring Galileo in a way completely consistent with belief in the Restoration (truth sweeping the earth as a flood, from whatever source) and sustaining present church leaders.

    What you have to explain is what to do when those holding religious authority are just plain wrong, both as to issues of substantive knowledge but also as to their representations of what God’s will is and their methods of oppressing thought, speech, and belief, and their ability to do so through the arm of the state through imprisonment, torture, or even execution. That is the situation Galileo found himself in contra the established religious authority of his time, the Catholic authority, which, yes, you are defending with your arguments defending religious authority as such (and against “intellectuals” who are supposedly challenging it as such rather than its substantively and provably wrong pronouncements in your broader swipe at “secularism” which you set up as a pole opposing Truth and then relegate BCC authors and “intellectuals” to).

  18. After reading the comments that followed Jeff’s posts, I felt it necessary to reread his initial post. I do not see how john f came to the conclusions that he did. Cultural warring and unabashed defense of all religious authority? It seems to me he read something entirely different from what I read. And I must agree that Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ rebelled against particular religious authority, and not religious authority in general. The immediate example that comes to my mind with Christ is His insistence all along that he came to fulfill the law of the prophets, not to tear the law down. And indeed, the Enlightenment is defined as a rejection of religious authority as keepers of any sort of truth.
    With that said, free speech is alive and well today- and given the latest, literal assault on free speech that took place in France this week, it is fantastic to read each and every comment.

  19. Jeff G,
    Let me begin by apologizing for taking so long to reply. I notice that the site, by now, has a rather extended thread. I haven’t read all of the posts here, so excuse me if I cover some ground that has already been covered. My response is to the two paragraphs you directed toward me in your comment of Jan. 10 at 1:27. And I will try to keep my comments short, but that will be difficult given the degree to which you have built your own arguments on quite a few tenuous assumptions.
    (1) You say: “As sad as it is, there was no difference between the church and Aristotelianism at that time.” That’s a bit of a reckless assumption. Two very different philosophies are present here. One is Thomism, the work of St. Thomas Aquinas which was built upon Aristotle; the other is Aristotelianism which involved a more direct study of Aristotle, without the intervention of Aquinas other than as a respected commentator. The two did overlap, and some in the church and the academy had come to believe that to question one was to question the other (which is your reading). Not a very sophisticated position, and not a position held by all. Additionally, it is my understanding that in historical works on this period a distinction is often made between the two: Aristotelianism being a direct study of Aristotle by academic scholars, and Thomism being a study of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, and being of greatest concern to the administrators of the church. More importantly, this seems to be a distinction that Galileo made. He did not see challenging Aristotle as challenging the church. As your project seems to be an attempt to determine Galileo’s intention relative to the church, then his belief is of greater weight than that of others. Your comment introducing this point, “as sad as it is,” is a rather unfortunate editorial comment and leaves open the question of why you would be sad that Thomism had such a significant position (a position it was about to lose in the counter reformation). This is one of the reasons your argument feels as if it were preconceived on a desired end, not upon historical realities.
    Bottom line: Your comment on the church being totally engaged in Aristotelianism is difficult to accept even though it is to some degree true. But it is impossible to accept, without explicit evidence, that Galileo believed that critiquing Aristotle was tantamount to critiquing the church. And the latter point is the only one relevant to this argument.
    (2) “I’m well aware of how well Galileo got along with many within the priesthood, but this does not change the fact that they gave him many, many chances and plead with him to be a little more modest in the conclusions that he was arguing for, if not out of respect for church authority then out of respect for the lack of empirical support for his claims.” Concerning Galileo’s friendships in the church and the warnings he received, as you note I had already addressed those. However, I do not see them as indicating what you want them to be, a lack of respect for church authority. Galileo was a typical scientist, and not very socially adept or savvy. He seemed to have been easily confused on issues that others would have said were fairly obvious.
    On lack of empirical evidence: let me offer you sun spots and the moons of Jupiter. The whole reason Galileo wanted to publish was to get that particular data dealing with these two phenomena into the public record. And to this day, that data is regarded as more than amply sufficient to prove the basic contention that the Earth revolves around the sun. And that is all the empirical evidence that Galileo needed. That he was wrong about Kepler, is simply an example of a scientist being wrong. Galileo thought that the tides of the ocean were caused by the movement of the earth swishing the water around the ocean basins. Kepler thought tides resulted from the pull of the moon. Galileo thought circles were perfect; Kepler thought the ellipse better explained the movement of the planets. Score Kepler 2, Galileo 0. And for me, I’m just sitting here shrugging my shoulders wondering why you are adding irrelevant comments to the debate, since neither of these points have anything to do with challenging church authority. But they do help suggest that Galileo was human and not in the least politically or socially savvy.
    (3) “Of course it would have been foolish for Galileo to launch a fully articulated an unabashed attack against the church. Galileo being a very smart and politically savvy guy, this is quite obviously not what Galileo was doing.” Foolish seems an odd choice of terms for something that we have no evidence that Galileo ever considered. Why would he have launched a “fully articulated and unabashed attack against the church” when we have no evidence he ever possessed such an argument? To do so, he would have had to have feelings about the church that would drive him to want to attack it. And no one has offered any evidence, that I know of, that he ever felt this way. About a hundred years after Galileo was dead, some historian added a footnote to history that has taken on a life its own. Galileo was made to declare at his trial that the earth does not revolve around the sun. But as he was leaving he said, sotto voce, “and yet it does.” You seem to be of a mind with that intrepid historian who had to imagine such statement for no evidence of it had previously appeared.
    When you declared that Galileo was “a very smart and politically savvy guy,” I have to admit, I did a double take, literally. I thought I had misread. But if he was politically savvy, why would he take a path that was politically un-savvy and terribly dumb to boot, by going ahead and publishing anyway. No one I know has ever accused Galileo of being politically savvy – not in his dealings with others in the academy, not in his dealings with the church, not even in his dealings with other scientists and humanists around Europe. He was arrogant, always sure he was right, and constantly bickering with his peers. Now in my book, that does not read as “a very smart and politically savvy guy.” According to you, he had thoughts that could result in a “fully articulated attack that he wished to make on the church.” A politically savvy individual would have known not only where such an attack was likely to lead (to being burnt to death tied to a stake), but that even harboring such thoughts was dangerous. And then publishing a book against the recommendations of his friends, how is that an indication that he was politically savvy? Not only is your conclusion contrary to what other historians have concluded, it is grossly inconsistent with the facts. His dealings with Kepler, of course, only provide additional evidence that Galileo was not the most socially or politically savvy individual.
    (4) “Instead, my point is to look at the political effect that his rhetorical devices would have, and did have within that context. His appeal to a book of scripture that all had equal access to (very Protestant), his refusal to settle for an instrumental conception of Copernicus despite his having no empirical evidence to support his decision, etc.
    I’m going to deal with these two sentences in reverse order. Well, actually the second is a fragment, but never mind. On Protestantism, Galileo read Latin and, therefore, had access to the Vulgate which was essentially available to anyone who could read Latin. I’m not even going to entertain any notion that Galileo was a protestant. That is rather extraordinary and, frankly, not worth a response. On lack of empirical evidence, see my argument in (2) above.
    The first sentence here introduces an interesting motif into your argument. You tell us now that you want to look at the consequences of Galileo’s rhetoric. The obvious questions that raises is whether or not Galileo 1) was aware of these consequences, and 2) whether he should be held responsible for those consequences, particularly if they entail misunderstanding and misreading – and we’ve already seen that you have offered quite a few misreadings. Nothing I’ve read really suggests that Galileo in any way was aware of the consequences of his actions, particularly in terms of being a representative action of the relationship between religion and science. You suggest that he had contempt for religious authority. Assuming he did, and that, as I have already pointed out, is an enormous assumption not significantly supported by what we know, could he possibly have been able to predict the transformation of philosophy into something called science, the counter reformation, the change in social institutions that resulted in science becoming a singularly significant institution late in the nineteenth century, etc. etc.? This is the danger of reading history backwards. You already believe Galileo is a villain, so why not saddle him with all the vicissitudes of science in the modern world? (By the way, while we’re at it Galileo is not responsible for allegorical readings of the Bible. Try Dante Alighieri.)

    (5) “These all point to, if not an attempt, then at least the predictable consequence that he surely foresaw to undermine the church authority over natural philosophy (science wasn’t a word yet).”
    This is one of the most convoluted sentences I think I’ve ever read. You seem to offer the hypothetical that Galileo may not have intended to undermine church authority. Nonetheless, he was able to foresee the predictable consequences of his actions. This is an interesting way of making your argument. You let us briefly assume he had no antiauthoritarian intention, only to turn around and say the consequences were so easily predictable (although, I think we’ve already established that they were not) that in the long run he must have had antiauthoritarian intentions. Let’s be honest, this is too much wanting to have your cake and eat it, too. And I don’t think we need spend much time on it. I’m almost tempted to ask what possessed to write such an incredibly strange thought, but I’m thinking it is probably better just to push on. (By the way, science was indeed a word at the time; it just did not mean what we take it to mean today. It meant simply study.)
    (6) “And this is exactly what he gets praised for.” This is a curious statement. And I think we begin to see more and more of your personal concern coming out as argument. Quite simply put, we cannot blame Galileo for how he is seen today. We cannot attribute to him the praise he receives, nor the calumny. I noticed in another post you state that usually Galileo is seen as innocent of any antiauthoritarian intent. This would be the opposite of what you are saying here. But, in fact, Galileo is normally held up as one who spoke truth to power. That is the modern Galileo myth. It is no more true than your notion that he wished to undermine the authority of the church. What did he want to do? He wanted to publish his data. He wanted to get credit for the brilliant thinking he had done. He was passionate about his studies. And he would not believe that others would not be passionate as well. That should sound familiar – it’s what you’re doing right now. Except that Galileo did not make up his data; his was all quite valid, and supported by later observations.
    (7) “We might see science and religion as being eternally at war with each other, but we must admit that it was Galileo that pretty much started that war.” The situation certainly can be read as one of the earliest incidents in the unfortunate war between science and religion. However, Copernicus’s work had appeared earlier (it would be hard for Galileo to respond to it, if it hadn’t already appeared). And there had been other salvos in this unpleasant war. Nonetheless, the character of this incident “as sad as it is” certainly engorges much that has characterized the war between science and religion, including an arrogant and unaware scientist, a controversy within the academy spilling into the public forum, and conflicting objectives on the side of science; while on the side of religion we have a heavy-handed officiousness, the over-stated significance of an otherwise irrelevant passage from the Bible, and what you are doing right now, a tendency to demonize a well-meaning but socially and politically inept gentleman.
    Today, we can be assured that there are more than a few scientists who wish to destroy the authority of God, religion and the church. When they point to this incident, they wish to make a hero out of Galileo, but they invariably are most emotionally responsive to the inability of the church to adapt itself to changing times. This incident showed the church in an unpleasant light. Galileo did not wish that to happen. If he is not perhaps such a hero as the scientists would make of him, he is most certainly not the villain that you have imaginatively painted.
    Now I’m not LDS, and perhaps I have no real right to say this, but that’s never stopped me before. I’m going to suggest that your actions, Jeff, do as much, if not more, to damage church authority as anything the scientists and atheists are doing. People leave churches not because of critics on the outside, but because of those on the inside who show petty animosities, a willingness to distort the truth, and an inability to foster within the church the depth of responsibility to the present that is needed to balance the responsibility for the past and the great traditions of the religion.
    Regards, Mark David Dietz

  20. Morgan, I also owe you a response. Don’t worry it won’t be as long as my response to Jeff G. I just want to thank you for your clarification on Galileo and the maths of the heavens — that certainly makes good sense to me. And again thank you for the article.

  21. Mark David Dietz, thank you for your comment. Though I must reproach you a little: Here it is only January 12, and you have already effectively obviated any contest for comment of the year. What you have to say near the end is so needed in our community just now, I can’t even tell you. Amen, and amen.

  22. Excellent comment, Mark!

  23. Jeff G. said “For example, Galileo played a major role in demoting scriptural truth to an “allegorical” status while the “book of nature” is what gives us literal truth.”

    Allegorical scriptural interpretation was around long before Galileo. It wasn’t even originally a Christian device. Philo of Alexandria, a Jew, was one of the foundational popularizers of it it in part because he was seeking a bridge between revelation and Platonic philosophy. There are some interesting corollaries here when thiniing about the relationship of “science” and “religion,” but the black-and-white science-versus-religion narrative invariably misses every interesting thing about it.

    On Galileo in particular, the idea that he was secretly trying to destroy religious authority and was an enemy primarily to the Catholic Church not a persuasive when digging into the actual history. Jeff brings up Galileo’s dismissal of Kepler and a few other things as being evidence that he was driven more by religious animus than scientific rigor, but in fact, his dismissals of other views stemmed from his confidence in his own scientific observations, however wrong-headed that confidence was it was not rooted in religious animus but in bull-headed scientfic reasoning. For more, see this great book:

    Ronald L. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

    I reviewed a few other science/religion books here:

    Mark David Dietz: I really enjoyed your comments. Thanks so much.

  24. Grammar and spelling all amesh, oh my! Sorry about that.

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