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Maurice Finocchiaro, On Trial for Reason: Science, Religion and Culture in the Galileo Affair, 2019

Maurice Finocchiaro is well-known as one of the world-leading experts on Galileo. To this iconic figure of science-and-religion, he has dedicated several books, among them The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History (1989), a sourcebook offering superb English translations of the most relevant texts and documents leading to and reflecting both Inquisitorial proceedings (1615-1616 and 1633) against the Pisan scientist. The publication being reviewed here is a clear and well-written synthesis of all those previous works and can be regarded as the author's summa on Galileo, directed not so much to specialists but a general public of well-educated, intellectually curious readers. 

Finocchiaro's approach to the so-called 'Galileo affair' is based on the conviction that Galileo has stood trial twice: first by the Inquisition, for defending the geokinetic (and indirectly the heliocentric) hypothesis and questioning the astronomical authority of Scripture; and then, right after this first trial’s climax in 1633 and up to the present, by posterity, which has sought to determine not so much whether he was right or not (time settled that ques-tion by itself) but whether he was a sound scientist and intellectual or rather an intelligent cheater that knew well how to use faulty arguments with rhetorical effectiveness. The author intends to stand up for Galileo in both trials, presenting him as a model of critical reasoning who teaches us important lessons for our present. 

Finocchiaro affirms that both parts of the Galileo affair are characterized by a common tension between superficial appearance and deep structure. In both cases we encounter a conflict on the surface between science and religion: Until 1633 it was religion which aggressively proceeded against science, trying to at least keep it in check; after 1633 it was the other way around, with science attacking religion to first emancipate from it and then question its authority and legitimacy. But the deep structure looks, so Finocchiaro, a bit different: In the 17th century the real conflict was between conservative and innovative forces, regarding both astronomical and theological matters; and after Galileo’s condemnation, especially after his death, the underlying tension has rather been between facts and cultural myths which ignore or distort such facts (cf. 249-258). 

Almost two-thirds of the book are devoted to the original conflict. The author brilliantly presents the main lines of the Ptolemaic worldview and its ques-tioning by Copernicus, as well as the epistemological, astronomical, mechanical and theological objections against the geokinetic and heliocentric hypotheses. Those objections were so serious that Galileo, despite his sincere sympathy towards Copernicanism, defended it at first only half-heartedly. Everything changed in 1609: His observations with the newly invented telescope and his work on the foundations of a new mechanics removed most of the problems (save the star parallax). Now it was necessary to tackle the Scriptural objection against Copernicanism, based above all in Joshua 10,12-13, where Joshua orders Sun and Moon to stand still. In his letters to Castelli (1613) and Christina of Lorraine (1615) Galileo upholds that the Scripture does not have any authority in matters scientifically proven or at least provable putting forward the famous argument that it teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. This triggered the first Inquisitorial proceeding against him (1615-1616), which ended relatively well. The content of Galileo’s interview with Cardinal Bellarmino, head of the Inquisition, was and still is unclear, and this indeterminacy played an important role in the second proceeding fifteen years later. By then, both Bellarmino and Pope Paul V were already dead, and there were two divergent official documents regarding that interview so that it could not be settled whether Galileo had been allowed to use Copernicanism just as a convenient hypothesis to ‘save the appearances’ or had rather received an injunction not to discuss it at all. Problems sparked off again following the publishing of the Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632). The main charge was that Galileo had violated the alleged injunction not to teach, defend or support in any way the Earth’s motion, but his inadequate handling of an argument in favour of geostaticism which involved divine omnipotence and some related rhetorical excesses, supposedly against the pope, played a part against him too. After a short trial, Galileo was convicted in 1633 for “vehement suspicion of heresy” and forced to recite an abjuration of Copernicanism. He spent the rest of his life under house imprisonment. 

Finocchiaro narrates all these well-known events in a very detailed and clear, didactical manner. He analyses in depth not only the trial documents but also all Galileo’s relevant works and describes Galileo’s social and intellectual milieu, showing that there were many non-intellectual factors — ranging from the discord among schools of thought to considerations of international politics — which hindered the reception of his ideas. So he concludes: “Rather than the clash of ecclesiastic and scientific monoliths, the real conflict was between two attitudes that crisscrossed both... Galileo’s trial illustrates the conflict between conservation and innovation... This conflict is one that operates across many other domains of human culture... a moving force of human history” (207). However, in my opinion, the author does not convinc-ingly show that such a conflict is paramount in this case. Let me mention only one, but significant point: Was Pope Urban VIII conservative or progressive? He encouraged Galileo (with whom he was acquainted of old) to publish the Dialogue and it was two years later, after receiving several de-nunciations against the book, that he ordered the Inquisition to prosecute its author, showing no disposition to reach an out-of-court agreement. This extreme behaviour change cannot be explained in the terms proposed by Finocchiaro, but it could make sense in light of the accusation of covert Lutheranism thrown against Pope Barberini by the Habsburgs, as a reprisal because of his bias towards France in the Thirty Years War. He had no option but to show firmness against all sorts of supposed doctrinal deviation. 

When it comes to Galileo’s second ‘trial’, Finocchiaro sketches a brief his-tory of the most important developments in both science and theology rele-vant to our topic, leading to the vindication of Galileo not only as a scientist but also as a theologian (his views on the relationship of Scripture and science were sanctioned in 1893 by pope Leo XIII), as well as to his rehabilitation in 1992 by John Paul II. The author absolves the Pisan Scientist —perhaps a bit too perfunctorily — of two charges which are still often levelled against him: that he was a bad theologian due to inconsistencies when using the principle of autonomy of science and Scripture, and that he was a bad scientist because he did not adhere to a sound epistemology or methodology (or because he favoured scientific realism instead of instrumentalism, as Duhem reproached him). Finocchiaro takes issue as well with those “secular-minded and left-leaning intellectuals, such as Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Koestler, and Paul Feyerabend, [who attempt] to blame Galileo for many social and cultural problems” (171). But he is also highly critical of John Paul II`s sugar-coated presentation of Galileo as an exemplary instance of the harmony between science and religion. These interpretations of Galileo’s person and work are to his mind misrepresentations, myths that serve ideological interests, but do not stand the confrontation with objective facts, precisely those established in the previous part of the book. However, we must ask: Is such a stark myth-fact opposition justifiable? Can the dividing line between myth and fact be so neatly traced? Is it possible to establish (historical) facts beyond any doubt?

As already said, the pivotal point of Finocchiaro’s argument is that Galileo personifies critical thinking, i.e. “reasoning aimed at, or consisting of, the interpretation, evaluation, or self-reflective formulation of arguments, and guided by such ideals as the principles of fallibility, open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, rational mindedness, and judiciousness” (246). Both open- and fair-mindedness merit being highlighted: Galileo attached great importance to formulating his adversaries’ arguments even more sharply than they had done themselves and ascertaining that those arguments were properly stated before trying to refute them. And the author tries to emulate this strategy when defending Galileo and resorts to reason as his main tool to argue for one who was and still is ‘on trial for reason’. 

But such an emphasis on reason is not unproblematic. Reason is not atemporal; on the contrary, it is embedded in a complex web of both historical and personal factors. Finocchiaro is of course well aware of that, but the temptation to stylizing reason looms in the background. Notwithstanding that, he delivers a highly enjoyable and profitable reading experience. 

José Manuel Lozano-Gotor

Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 30:4 (December 2020), pp. 39-42