Galileo, Science, and the Smirking Chimp

Not long ago, someone at a Web site called “The Smirking Chimp” saw an episode of my EWTN series “The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization” (based on my book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization) and took me to task for my comments about Galileo. According to the Chimpster, my argument was: “Galileo had only a theory, and not ‘ironclad proof’ of anything.”
“With this kind of logic,” he goes on to warn, “what voter can parse subtly the relative merits of difficult moral issues?” Um, come again?
His argument, best as I can make it out, is this: People like me offer sledgehammerish arguments about subtle questions, and thus my point about Galileo is likely to lead Catholics to make poor electoral decisions. (See if you can glean from it anything more coherent than that.)
I’ll leave aside his strange point that if it weren’t for abortion, Catholics would surely see that “everything in their worldview” should lead them to vote for an establishment hack like Barack Obama. For what it’s worth, I support neither of the empty suits the major parties are offering us, since both are dangerous on the economy and hopeless on foreign policy (anyone who thinks Obama represents “change” hasn’t really been listening to him or looking at his foreign-policy team).
The three points I was making on the EWTN episode Mr. Chimp watched are not all that controversial, yet he seems to have grasped none of them. The first was that it was still intellectually respectable to be a geocentrist in Galileo’s day. It is not the case that 17th-century geocentrists were imbeciles who refused, or were unable, to follow a simple argument; Tycho Brahe was not exactly a moron, and he was unpersuaded by Galileo’s case. The latter’s attempt to use the tides as evidence of the earth’s motion could hardly be taken seriously. And he could not answer the key geocentrist objection involving stellar parallax, which I explained in great detail in the very episode my critic complains about. So describing Galileo’s case as lacking “ironclad proof” is the least one could say about it.
(Of course, my critic mentions none of this — all the better to caricature my position, and make me seem like the one oversimplifying things. Physician, heal thyself!)
My second point was that, although I do not defend what happened to Galileo — the Galileo case being the “one stock argument,” as John Henry Cardinal Newman put it, that is constantly trotted out against the Church — I do not think it unreasonable for churchmen like Robert Bellarmine to have hesitated to reinterpret biblical verses along heliocentric lines until they saw more persuasive evidence. That seems like common sense.
My final point was that the Galileo case was an unusual exception, and that it is absurd to employ it in support of the predictable refrain that religious people are stupid, and skeptics and atheists are the great avatars of Western progress. A century ago, the consensus view was summarized in Andrew Dickson White’s two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. That continues to be the position that the overwhelming majority of schoolchildren are taught, even though any competent historian of science today laughs contemptuously whenever he hears it.
Not long afterward, Pierre Duhem did pathbreaking work in the history of science that showed the doctrines of the Church to have been a clear ally of, rather than an obstacle to, the success of the scientific enterprise in the West. Duhem’s scholarship was scandalously neglected until Stanley Jaki helped rescue it from obscurity later in the 20th century.
Catholic and non-Catholic scholars alike have spent the past six decades overturning White’s indefensible thesis — among them Edward Grant, David Lindberg, A. C. Crombie, Thomas Goldstein, J. L. Heilbron, and Stanley Jaki. Revealingly, the Teaching Company, whose lectures are as moderate and inoffensive as possible in order not to alienate its customers, categorically rejects the older view and vindicates the Church’s contributions in its own course on the history of Western science to 1700. In other words, it (like everyone else who knows anything about the subject) sides with the modern consensus.
Ever since the 18th century, the West has labored under an insidious Enlightenment myth: The Church’s influence on the world has been one of obscurantism and repression, and what progress our civilization has enjoyed has occurred at the hands of religious skeptics. This assumption has led to innumerable errors in Western scholarly work, as professors followed evidence where they thought it should lead rather than where it actually did lead. It took two centuries to break through this self-imposed wall of ignorance.
Thus it wasn’t until the 1950s that we learned how instrumental the Late Scholastics had been in developing the discipline of economics, centuries before Adam Smith. It has been only within the past two decades that we have fully discovered the extent to which the natural-rights tradition flows from the canonists and popes of the High Middle Ages. The truth about the Church’s influence on the sciences began to emerge only in the mid-20th century. And so on — and on and on. That’s what my book and series are all about.
And that was the context of my discussion of Galileo — not that you’d know it from reading my critic. It’s as if the poor guy knows not a blessed thing about the findings of the past 60 years of historians of science. Not that he has anything to worry about: No one else knows about them, either. But although parroting the Church-as-obstacle theory out of ignorance of six decades of scholarship will still win you the applause of the half- educated — and you can be sure no one at the Smirking Chimp will know any better — that doesn’t make it any less stupid or dishonest, and that’s why I was spending my time refuting it.



Thomas E. Woods Jr. is the author of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization and the first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards for The Church and the Market. His most recent book is Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts will Make Everything Worse. Dr. Woods earned his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University.

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