Even the Good Guys get it wrong!

Another guest post by Thony Christie

John recently provided a link to a review of Steve Fuller’s newest book by Anthony Grayling. On the whole I find Professor Grayling’s comments excellent and applaud his put-down of Fuller but then in the last section of his review he goes and spoils it all, at least for me, by seriously abusing the history of science. As I recently took Rodney Stark to task for his misuse of the history of science in the cause of Christianity I feel obliged in the interest of fairness to do the same to Grayling. Just because I think he is on the right side does not give him the right to misuse and abuse another academic discipline. Grayling himself is a philosopher.


This time I won’t deal with all of Grayling’s false or twisted claims but just concentrate on one that blatantly turns the historical facts on their head. In the course of his review Grayling makes the following statements:

witness the church’s denial of Copernican heliocentrism and the trial of Galileo for two related instances. And the religious are still at it today – the ID theorists are the inheritors of Cardinal Bellarmine in refusing to accept what science discovers, as is the Vatican in its opposition to stem cell research.

(Psalm 102, beloved of Bellarmine in his efforts to shut up the astronomers and philosophers of the era of Descartes). It removed the necessity of having to distort observations, facts, experimental results and observations to fit an antecedent doctrine as far from what observation and experiment revealed as one could possibly get. (Think about seeing the moons of Jupiter through a telescope in an age when the earth was – by order! – at the centre of the universe and man and his man-made religion was the most important thing in it, with the Pope and the Office of the Inquisition daring you to think otherwise.) [My emphasis]

Now as it happens next year is the Unesco Year of Astronomy and one of the reasons why next year was chosen was because it is the 400th anniversary of the first telescopic astronomical discoveries, and because this is one of my special areas of interest I am at the moment engaged in researching and preparing several public lectures on the invention of the telescope (1608) and the its early users in astronomy. So I would like just to sketch the story of the discovery of the satellites of Jupiter and the reaction and involvement of Bellarmino and the Jesuits in this discovery.
Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter for the first time on the 7th January 1609. Interestingly, Simon Marius, the court astronomer of the Margrave of Ansbach, also observed them for the first time exactly one day later on 10th January. Marius did not publish his observation until four years later and so has disappeared into the sump of history, Galileo, however, realised at once that he was onto a winner and as soon as he had enough evidence together to confirm his first observations he rushed into print with his discovery of the “Medicean Stars” as he had christened them; a smart move that brought him the appointment of court philosopher to the Medicis. Interestingly, the names they now have Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede were given to them by Marius at the suggestion of Kepler. Galileo’s publication, his Sidereus Nuncius, went off like a bomb, transforming its author from an obscure Paduan professor of mathematics into the most famous scientist in Europe virtually overnight.
Enter Bellarmine: at this time Bellarmine was head of the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit University in Rome, and he asked the professor of mathematics at the Collegio, Christoph Clavius, if there was any truth in Galileo’s claims. Clavius ran Europe’s first institute for advanced mathematics at the Collegio and two of its members – Odo van Maelcote and Giovanni Paolo Lembo – had already been making telescopic observation of their own before Galileo had published his pamphlet. Lembo knew that his telescope was not powerful enough to confirm or refute Galileo’s claims and tried to construct a more powerful one but failed in his attempt to grind and polish the necessary lenses; a problem that was to plague many of the telescopic pioneers. Meanwhile, Christoph Grienberger, the senior mathematician at the Collegio after Clavius and his soon to be successor, who had been absent at the time of Galileo’s publication, returned to Rome and he and Lembo succeeded in constructing a suitable instrument and in confirming all of Galileo’s claims. These things did not, of course, take place overnight. In 1611, Galileo visited Rome where he was invited to a banquet in his honour at the Collegio at which Odo van Maelcote held an Oration celebrating his discoveries. Clavius, a friend of Galileo’s for many decades, published these discoveries and his institute’s confirmations of them in the last edition of his Sphaera , the most important textbook for astronomy in Europe, in 1611 shortly before his death in 1612.
Contrary to Grayling’s claims Bellarmino did not deny or attempt to block Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter but rather the Jesuit mathematical astronomers under his authority at the Collegio Romano investigated his claims in a totally correct scientific manner and having confirmed them honoured him publicly for them.

48 thoughts on “Even the Good Guys get it wrong!

  1. Well, I only had Wiki at my disposal. So, Bellarmine, knowing that he was handing over a guy to secular courts where herecy was punishable by death is exculpated because he recommended leniency? Pilate would have liked it.
    As to the original argument, I don’t see how Thorny C has made the case that Grayling was wrong in suggesting that it was dangerous to study thinks that rocked the churches ordained view of the universe. Galileo wasn’t a seer, thus he couldn’t have known the outcome of his unorthodox studies and publications, whether they’d lead to acclaim or rebuke or both. It would take a brave man to do this I still think in that climate. The fact that at first he was acclaimed, later warned in a friendly manner and still later forced to recant is irrelevant to Graylings arguments that those were dangerous times for free thinkers (due to the church and similar). Thorny also argued what seems a strawman saying Grayling had suggested that Bellarmine personally was after Descartes when Grayling only suggested that Bellarmine was an exemplar of the zeitgeist of the times.
    Anyway, I think I see where there is no point arguing anymore. You do know the nuances far better than I, but you don’t seem to be arguing against the case Grayling made, just your own version of it.

  2. I wasn’t trying to make “propagandistic uses of it to demonise the Church”, I simply made an error in saying he presided over both trial and execution. My bad. So he only presided over the trial. Just remove the word “execution” from my post, and my point still stands.
    I still don’t see why we should take Bellarmine’s statements purely at face-value. That seems simplistic and naive to me. This is what the Inquisition said at Galileo’s conviction:

    Whereas however we wanted to treat you with benignity at that time, it was decided at the Holy Congregation held in the presence of His Holiness on 25 Feb 1616 that the Most Eminent Lord Cardinal Bellarmine would order you to abandon this false opinion completely; that if you refused to do this, the Commissary of the Holy Office would give you an injunction to abandon this doctrine, not to teach it to others, not to defend it, and not to treat of it; and that if you did not acquiesce in this injunction, you should be imprisoned. To execute this decision, the following day at the palace of and in the presence of the above-mentioned Most Eminent Lord Cardinal Bellarmine, after being informed and warned in a friendly way by the same Lord Cardinal, you were given an injunction by the then Father Commissary of the Holy Office in the presence of a notary and witnesses to the effect that you must completely abandon the said false opinion, and that in the future you could neither hold, nor defend, nor teach it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing; having promised to obey, you were dismissed.
    http://astro.wcupa.edu/mgagne/ess362/resources/finocchiaro.html

    They certainly wanted to portray themselves as friendly and benign. And it seems to me that this notion of Bellarmine being friendly and reasonable is derived from how the Inquisition chose to portray itself.
    Why should I trust how these institutions choose to portray themselves? If anything, I feel I have good reason to be highly distrustful of such self-portrayals. You accuse me of propaganda to demonize the church, but I don’t have any such intention. As far as I can tell this “friendly warning” stuff is just 17th century propaganda itself. Of course powerful political institutions want to portray themselves in the most favorable light possible. They all do that. But that doesn’t mean we should take it at face value.

  3. I wasn’t trying to make “propagandistic uses of it to demonise the Church”, I simply made an error in saying he presided over both trial and execution. My bad. So he only presided over the trial. Just remove the word “execution” from my post, and my point still stands.
    I still don’t see why we should take Bellarmine’s statements purely at face-value. That seems simplistic and naive to me. This is what the Inquisition said at Galileo’s conviction:

    Whereas however we wanted to treat you with benignity at that time, it was decided at the Holy Congregation held in the presence of His Holiness on 25 Feb 1616 that the Most Eminent Lord Cardinal Bellarmine would order you to abandon this false opinion completely; that if you refused to do this, the Commissary of the Holy Office would give you an injunction to abandon this doctrine, not to teach it to others, not to defend it, and not to treat of it; and that if you did not acquiesce in this injunction, you should be imprisoned. To execute this decision, the following day at the palace of and in the presence of the above-mentioned Most Eminent Lord Cardinal Bellarmine, after being informed and warned in a friendly way by the same Lord Cardinal, you were given an injunction by the then Father Commissary of the Holy Office in the presence of a notary and witnesses to the effect that you must completely abandon the said false opinion, and that in the future you could neither hold, nor defend, nor teach it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing; having promised to obey, you were dismissed.
    http://astro.wcupa.edu/mgagne/ess362/resources/finocchiaro.html

    They certainly wanted to portray themselves as friendly and benign. And it seems to me that this notion of Bellarmine being friendly and reasonable is derived from how the Inquisition chose to portray itself.
    Why should I trust how these institutions choose to portray themselves? If anything, I feel I have good reason to be highly distrustful of such self-portrayals. You accuse me of propaganda to demonize the church, but I don’t have any such intention. As far as I can tell this “friendly warning” stuff is just 17th century propaganda itself. Of course powerful political institutions want to portray themselves in the most favorable light possible. They all do that. But that doesn’t mean we should take it at face value.

  4. I find it interesting that to justify your own negative opinion of what actually took place in 1616 between Galileo and Roberto Bellarmino you quote only the trial sentencing from 1633, by which time the situation was totally and utterly different but you do not quote the letter from Bellarmino that was personnally requested by Galileo in 1616 to clarify what had actually taken place at their meeting

    Cardinal Bellarmine’s Certificate (26 May 1616)
    We, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, have heard that Mr. Galileo Galilei is being slandered or alleged to have abjured in our hands and also to have been given salutary penances for this. Having been sought about the truth of the matter, we say that the above-mentioned Galileo has not abjured in our hands, or in the hands of others here in Rome, or anywhere else that we know, any opinion or doctrine of his; nor has he received any penances, salutary or otherwise. On the contrary, he has only been notified of the declaration made by the Holy Father and published by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, whose content is that the doctrine attributed to Copernicus (that the earth moves around the sun and the sun stands at the center of the world without moving from east to west) is contrary to Holy Scripture and therefore cannot be defended or held. In witness whereof we have written and signed this with our own hands, on this 26th day of May 1616.
    The same mentioned above,
    Robert Cardinal Bellarmine.

    which does indeed allow one to say that Bellarmino’s warning was friendly, which is how Galileo himself interpreted it.

  5. Sitting on an ant heap.
    When a historian of science posts anything on a blog in the Internet to do with Signor Galileo Galilei, that well know 17th century polemicist, he commits the mental equivalent of stripping naked, smearing honey on his genitals and then sitting down on an ant heap. As soon as he presses that button to post he knows it is only a matter of time before the black crawly hordes will be nibbling on his gonads. Should he make the fatal error of saying something positive, or even implying something that could be interpreted as positive, about Roberto Bellarmino then that relatively harmless swarm of common or garden type will instantly turn into an army of fire ants determined to ensure that he will never put his love tackle to use again.
    I am amazed at how many people comment without apparently reading what I have written. My post on what I see as Anthony Grayling’s failings dealt with one very specific claim that he made in his review of Steve Fuller, namely that the Catholic Church in the person of the flamethrower wielding fork-tailed Signor Bellarmino had denied the existence of the, from Galileo telescopically discovered, moons of Jupiter. I pointed out that in this case Grayling had in fact turned the historical facts on their head, far from denying their existence, the Jesuit astronomers under Bellarmino’s authority has scientifically examined Galileo’s claims and having found them to be correct confirmed and publicised them; at the same time showering great honours on their discoverer for his brilliant technical abilities. Judging by the comments that this post provoked one would think that I had actually posted something totally different.
    To my second attempt to explain my intentions posted in the comments Brian English responded:

    so, in a climate of the Church happily killing or torturing people who don’t tow the line, you seem to think that this wouldn’t weigh on the mind of someone who proposed a non-church sanctioned view of the universe? I really find this a bit odd.

    Brian, having twice explained in graphic detail that the Church had in fact sanctioned the discovery of the moons of Jupiter I do not find your comment a bit odd I find it totally mind-boggling!
    Moving on to other testicle chewing insects, it did, of course, not take long before somebody uttered the name of the blessed “martyr to science”, Giordano Bruno. Come on people this is boring, exercise a little fantasy or even better display some superior general knowledge in the poker game of Church demonising; I’ll see your Bruno and raise you one Miguel Serveto. At least here we get a chance to take a sideswipe at the Calvinists instead of just using the poor old Catholics as our punch bag. But if you prefer taking pot shots at the Church of Rome why not go for Marco Antonio De Dominis, apart from having a much more impressive name, a genuine Croatian scientist has got to be worth more than a mere Italian in a game of intellectual trivial pursuits; after all you really can’t top the suffering of De Dominis at the hands of the Inquisition. Having had the audacity to die in their dungeon while still awaiting his trial, De Dominis was still not able to stop those jolly burners of all good scientific martyrs. If they couldn’t put the man on trial they would try his corpse instead! This doesn’t mean that they tried him in absentia, they actually placed his coffin in the dock with his portrait on top and having tried him and found him guilty they duly took his out and burnt him. Sarcasm aside, all of this suffers from one irritatingly small error, none of the three immolated victims of religious intolerance was in reality a martyr of science. All three of them were found guilty of heresy not because of their scientific views but because of their theological ones.
    I think there should be a history of science equivalent to Godwin’s Law anyone who mentions Bruno in a discussion on Galileo, science in the early 17th century or science and religion has automatically lost! To close my comments on the Nolan neither Kepler nor Galileo the two leading heliocentrists at the beginning of the 17th century ever makes a single reference to Bruno in their extremely voluminous writings.
    “A friendly warning”: I have also been taken to task for describing Bellarmino’s famous meeting with Galileo as a friendly warning, unfortunately for Galileo this was how he saw the situation. Had he taken Bellarmino’s informal and very gentle warning more seriously then he might not have taken the risks that he did in writing and publishing his Diologo. In general concerning Bellarmino I refer people to Brandon’s comment #18 and John Wilkins’s response to it #20 in the comments thread to my post, a voice of reason in the clamour of denunciation.
    gillt wrote:
    Thony, you completely leave out the well-known letter to the Duchess. Galileo sent a manuscript to the Duchess Christina explaining his most heretical theories in order to curry favor with nobility to the purpose of protecting him from religious inquisition.
    I left it out because it has no relevance to the topic that I was discussing which was the discovery of the moons of Jupiter by Galileo and its subsequent scientific confirmation by the Jesuit mathematicians of the Collegio Romano
    Having vented my frustration at all the misinterpretations of my last post I shall now drink a nice cup of tea and think about what I can post next time in order to provoke all of the people kind enough to read my intertube scribblings. Send in the ants…

  6. I’m not convinced that Bruno’s copernicanism is what got him burned. He also preached that Christ was not divine and that Mary wasn’t a virgin…
    oh yeah, well, then it’s perfectly okay to torture people and burn them at the stake for those reasons …. >:-(

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