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Galileos Legacy
In papal Rome in the early 16th century the Good Book was the reference book for all scientists. If a theory was supported in its holy pages, or at the very least not contradicted, then the idea had a chance of find acceptance outside the laboratory. Likewise, no theory no matter how well documented could be viewed with anything but disdain if it contradicted with the written word of, or the Churchs official interpretation of scripture. For these reasons the Church suppressed helio-centric thinking to the point of making it a hiss and a byword. However, this did not keep brave men from exploring scientific reason outside the canonical doctrine of the papal throne, sometimes at the risk of losing their own lives. While the Vatican was able to control the universities and even most of the professors, it could not control the mind of one man known to the modern world as Galileo Galilei. Despite a wide array of enemies, Galileo embarked on a quest, it seems almost from the beginning of his academic career, to defend the Copernican idea of a helio-centric universe by challenging the authority of the church in matters of science. Galileos willingness to stand up for what he held to be right in the face of opposition from Bible-driven science advocates set him apart as one of the key players in the movement to separate Church authority from scientific discovery, and consequently paved the way for future scientific achievement.
Galileo even as a boy seemed destined to challenge the scientific thought of the day. He has often been characterized as a pioneer of rebellion against authority. If that was true then he was only following in his fathers footsteps. His Father, a revolutionary man in the world of music who spoke out against the music theories of his day, was quoted as saying, “It appears to me that those who try to prove an assertion by relying simply on the weight of authority act very absurdly” (White, 196). Galileo continued in his fathers rebellion against contemporary views with his support of a helio-centric-universe, a view previously argued by Copernicus, but for the most part ignored by scientists for its contradiction with the established, church-endorsed system of Ptolemy.
Despite his reputation for being an enemy of the church, Galileo was actually a devout Catholic who committed both of his daughters to convents. He was good friends with a number of high-up Catholic authorities, including Pope Barberini, the Pope who was in power for the latter part of Galileos life. Earlier in life Galileo even tried, against the advice of his friends, to get an audience with the pope to convince him of the truth of the Copernican system. Unfortunately his request for an audience was met with a papal decree that helio-centric views, those espoused by Galileo and also by Copernicus, were heretical. Galileo persisted with his views but obeyed the papal ban on teaching helio-centrism as anything more than a theory. However, Galileo continued his fight for acceptance when he argued against viewing religious officials as authorities in science in his infamous letter to the Grand Duchess.
Galileos arguments for scientific independence from Biblical oppression found a voice in his letter to the Grand Duchess. Galileo received a letter from a former student informing him of a conversation that took place at the home of the Duchess widow of Ferdinando de Medici I. The conversation consisted of a visiting philosopher/priest telling the Duchess the earth was not in motion, turning to biblical passages for proof. Galileo used this as a spring board for explaining his stance on the proper relationship between the Bible, the Church, and scientific thought. Galileo both insulted his critics as well as implying that the authority of neither the Bible nor the Church should have been an authority in observable science when he argued that his opponents have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible (Bragg 222). In his arguments there was a fleeting feeling of wanting to protect the church from its own ignorance, as well as wanting to purge its false scientific views.
Galileo further argued that scripture ought not to be the standard for measuring the validity of scientific theory, because scriptures may be misinterpreted. Again referring to his enemies in his letter to the Grand Duchess, Galileo argues that they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense (Bragg, 223). At no time does Galileo argue that the Catholic church is false, or that the Bible is anything other than divinely inspired. However, he does not hesitate to argue that mans interpretation of the Bible may be incorrect, and therefore ought not be held as ultimate truth, overriding scientific observation. Galileo even goes as far as saying that his critics, many of whom were officials high-up in the Catholic church, neither read nor understood the Bible (Bragg, 220). Galileo recognized that because the Bible could be understood to mean so many different things it should not have been used as an absolute in matters of science. Instead, Galileo argued for the use of the senses, observation, and experimentation in the scientific study of the world and universe around them. Despite all of his best efforts Galileo was tried and convicted by the church for violating its decree that Helio-centrism was not be taught as truth.

The Church has disagreed with some of the most fundamental scientific discoveries over the nearly four centuries since Galileos time. The roundness of the earth, though excepted by most of the contemporary groups from the Egyptians to Greeks as well as civilizations that existed centuries before the Catholic church, was soundly rejected by the early church on the basis of scriptural interpretation. This took hundreds of years to reverse, using science, as well as scriptural interpretations, to show otherwise. If the church had been the sole source and final judge of scientific reasoning, modern thought might still be dominated by a world as flat as a board (White, 198-205). The Churchs opposition to scientific reasoning in general along with observation as the basis for science, the modern view, is best summarized in its support of Aristotle who did not espouse observation as a means toward scientific enlightenment. Evolution, Newtons laws of motion, fossils as proof of the changes of life, continental drift, and the big bang, all of which met with Catholic disapproval are now commonly accepted and researched (Bragg, 224). If the Church had its way these all would have been dismissed without experimentation. Instead these ideas have found acceptance regardless of Papal disdain on the basic idea that church endorsement is not a necessary step in the scientific method.
Galileos contributions to the science of Physics and Astronomy were many. His conviction was legendary. His willingness to suffer for his beliefs exemplify true courage in the name of truth, and has inspired others to venture intellectual independence from the Churchs creeds, edicts, and proclamations. Perhaps these contributions led to the call for an investigation into Galileo’s conviction, eventually calling for its reversal, in 1979 by Pope John Paul II. But regardless of his standing in the annals of the Catholic church he will always be the man who began the separation of science and religion.

White, Andrew Dickinson, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, New York: D. Appleton and company, 1996.

Bragg, Melvyn, On Giants’ Shoulders: Great Scientists and Their Discoveries from Archimedes to DNA. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.