A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Galileo and the Scientific Revolution #2: Copernicus

Before Galileo is discussed more substantively, the work of Galileo's predecessor, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) must be understood in order to make sense of what got Galileo in trouble with the church. Copernicus wrote a book entitled, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres. Copernicus was the first to suggest that the earth moved. This implied that the earth was not the center of the universe since the center would not be in motion. The earth not only moved, said Copernicus, but it orbited the sun. Unlike Galileo, however, Copernicus was not condemned by the church for the same theory. This fact often comes as a surprise to those who think that the church officials at the time were little more than ignorant men obsessed with their own power. Indeed, many highly acclaimed accounts of the beginnings of the scientific revolution pass over this fact, either out of ignorance, or because this truth fails to fit the narrative they want to weave. In fact, in 1533, Pope Clement VII arranged for a public lecture to be given at the Vatican to explain the theory of Copernicus, which was circulated as early as 1530. The pope responded to Copernicus favorably. Copernicus was urged by Nikolaus Cardinal Schoenberg to arrange for its publication in full detail. Copernicus resisted, not because he was afraid of church authorities, but rather he was concerned with being ridiculed by his scientific peers.

The crucial question is why was Copernicus' theory entertained by the church, while Galileo, who simply built upon Copernicus and others was not? The answer is to be found in their respective methodologies. While Copernicus' interpretation was revolutionary, his method was not. Copernicus came to his conclusions through what was the best science of his day and continued to hold to the basic theological and philosophical foundations that were accepted at the time. For example, Copernicus argued that the earth orbiting the sun was to be preferred to the other way around because it was nobler for a divine body to be at rest than in motion. Since the sun had a higher dignity, it is proper for the earth to revolve around the sun. (Copernicus did not propose the movement of the sun.) It must be remembered that the sun was a divine body because Copernicus was still working with the two-fold understanding of the universe. The earth was terrestrial and everything else, including the sun, was celestial, that is, heavenly. Notice that Copernicus was still looking for mathematical simplicity and harmony, which were part of the neo-Platonic worldview.
It was Galileo who is usually credited with being the first to employ modern scientific method in the understanding the world. What made Galileo unique was that instead of being concerned with discovering why the planets and stars moved the way they do, he asked just how one ought to go about answering such a question. His was a methodological concern. Previous scientists and philosophers may have disagreed over their conclusions, but they employed the same method. As long as the method went unquestioned, the basic worldview remained the same. When one changed the method, however, accepted explanations began to fall like dominoes. Just as crucial was the fact that when the accepted method was questioned, so were the accepted authorities who employed that method. It was not too long before many would question, not only the authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy, but also the authority of the church and the Bible.


NWilliams said...

You might wish to read http://internetreviewofbooks.com/may08/copernicus.html
or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copernicus or more in agreement with your blog, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/copernicus/....perhaps we all need to become classical humanists to study the original text...but so little time to do so.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks, N, I will check out the links.