Galileo, St. Robert Bellarmine, & Scientific Method

Galileo, St. Robert Bellarmine, & Scientific Method October 20, 2015


Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1636), by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681). [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


This mini-debate took place in the combox for my post, Galileo: The Myths and the Facts. See also my recent related post, The Galileo Fiasco & Catholic Infallibility. The words of Andrew G. will be in blue.

* * * * *

From my initial post (linked above):

Indeed, his biographer Giorgio de Santillana stated that “It has been known for a long time that a major part of the church intellectuals were on the side of Galileo, while the clearest opposition to him came from secular ideas” (The Crime of Galileo, University of Chicago Press, 1955, xii-xiii). But the scientist (though basically correct) was overconfident and quite obstinate in proclaiming his scientific theory as absolute truth, and this was a major concern.

Accordingly, St. Robert Bellarmine, who was directly involved in the controversy, made it clear that heliocentrism was not irreversibly condemned, and also that a not-yet proven theory was not an unassailable fact. Bellarmine actually had the superior understanding of the nature of a scientific hypothesis. Galileo was scientifically fallible, too. He held that the entire universe revolved around the sun in circular (not elliptical) orbits, and that tides were caused by the rotation of the earth. True heliocentrism wasn’t conclusively proven until some 200 years later. Pope John Paul II apologized for the Church’s mistake, but the Holy Office had done so in 1825, and Galileo’s written works were permitted in 1741.

I strongly recommend Annibale Fantoli’s The Case Of Galileo: A Closed Question? (translated by George Coyne, published by University of Notre Dame) for those seeking a more reliable account of the Galileo affair without either the mythologizing or the apologetic whitewash.

Where have I whitewashed anything?

Oh, let’s see:

1. Blaming the victim: framing the issue as being between a “reasonable” church and an “obstinate”, “overconfident” Galileo.

I blamed the victim precisely where he was in error, just as I blame the tribunal for making the dumb judgment. It’s about facts; it’s not about defending the indefensible.

2. Portraying Bellarmine as “actually [having] the superior understanding of the nature of a scientific hypothesis”. This is both false and ahistorical; Bellarmine nowhere evinces anything close to scientific reasoning as a basis for any of his actions in the affair.

That’s not how [at least some] historians who have looked at it think. They are the authorities for that. It wasn’t my argument about Bellarmine, but rather, noted Jewish philosopher and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn’s. I wrote in my book about science and Christianity:

Bellarmine didn’t consider heliocentrism proven beyond all doubt, like Galileo did, and in that respect he was right. Bellarmine actually had the superior understanding of the nature of a scientific hypothesis, . . . philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in his book, The Copernican Revolution (New York: Random House / Vintage Books, 1957, p. 226), after commenting on some folks who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, wrote:

Most of Galileo’s opponents behaved more rationally. Like Bellarmine, they agreed that the phenomena were in the sky but denied that they proved Galileo’s contentions. In this, of course, they were quite right. Though the telescope argued much, it proved nothing.

See this excerpt in my book, at Google Books.

3. Whitewashing the role of the pope (Urban VIII), who was by all accounts the prime mover in both the 1633 trial and the relative severity of its sentence.

I didn’t say a word about him. If he was a geocentrist, he was wrong. But there were many geocentrists then. It was a transitional time. My point again and again is that one standard is applied to and for the Church, and another for everyone else. WE make a [sub-infallible] mistake and the world has to hear about it for 400 years. Anyone else makes a mistake or commits a wicked act (like the “Enlightened” French revolutionaries killing the father of chemistry, Lavoisier), and no one’s ever heard about it. Those inconvenient facts are deliberately omitted in grade school and high school scientific education, or if not so, everyone is so ignorant about them they don’t even know enough to suppress the embarrassing information.

My original post had a lengthy citation that did mention him:

Can it be said that either Paul V or Urban VIII so committed himself to the doctrine of geocentricism as to impose it upon the Church as an article of faith, and so to teach as pope what is now acknowledged to be untrue? That both these pontiffs were convinced anti-Copernicans cannot be doubted, nor that they believed the Copernican system to be unscriptural and desired its suppression. The question is, however, whether either of them condemned the doctrine ex cathedra. This, it is clear, they never did. 

How any of that is to be regarded as “whitewashing,” however, is a mystery to me.

4. The subsequent developments: when Galileo’s works were finally permitted to be published a century later, it was with the condemnation and recantation attached, even though by that time it was clear that Galileo had been substantially correct.

If that was the case, it was wrong.

5. The terms in which heliocentrism was originally condemned were indeed “irreversible” and were treated as such until it became clear that geocentrism was completely untenable; at which point rather than admitting error, the church simply retconned the basis for the original judgement.


6. That the questioning of Galileo did not go beyond the verbal threat of torture, and that he was reasonably comfortably housed during his trial and imprisonment, has more to do with the fact that Galileo was 70 and had the Grand Duke of Tuscany as personal patron than with any desire for leniency on the part of the church.

Right. So now you can say that it would have been different if he were younger. How convenient. The Church did not kill scientists for doing science. That was left to the atheist French in the 1700s, and the Nazi Germans and Communist Soviets and Chinese in the 20th century. Bruno was executed in 1600 not as a “scientific martyr,” but as a rank heretic, according to Catholic teaching (he was an odd sort of pantheist).

1. Being wrong in science is an expected condition. Punishing people for being wrong—or worse, for being only partially wrong—is exactly the kind of anti-scientific attitude that is being criticized.

2. Kuhn in the work you quote does not make anything even remotely like the claim that you ascribe to him. (Note that the antecedent of “more rationally” in the passage quoted is not Galileo himself, but rather those who either refused to look through the telescope or who claimed that the phenomena observed were caused by the telescope rather than being real.)

Re: Bellarmine. He was the topic you brought up: i.e., his relation to scientific method. I cited Kuhn because he agreed with me on that score: Bellarmine understood scientific method better than Galileo did.

So, again, Kuhn wrote (my present bolding): “Like Bellarmine, they agreed that the phenomena were in the sky but denied that they proved Galileo’s contentions. In this, of course, they were quite right.”

Bellarmine said the telescope didn’t prove heliocentrism, whereas Galileo said it did. Bellarmine was right. Heliocentrism wasn’t proven till 200 years later. This is a particular question of scientific method

That was my point about Bellarmine, and Kuhn supported it, while acknowledging that there were also anti-scientific fools and idiots in the Church. That doesn’t overcome my immediate point here. You are just looking at what you want to see (always against the Church, no matter what). I am interested in all the facts: where the Church was wrong, where Galileo was, and where either got it right.

This is not apologetics; it’s history. Everyone knows the Church blew it on this one (i.e., one tribunal of the Church, which isn’t magisterial, or totally authoritative). I’m not saying otherwise. I’m simply taking into consideration all the relevant facts of the matter, as I learn of them.

You stated: “Bellarmine nowhere evinces anything close to scientific reasoning.”

According to prominent philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, he did do so: at least in the sense that I mentioned.

Where did Galileo say that [that the telescope proved heliocentrism]? And what standard of “proof” are you applying?

Kuhn nowhere in the cited text says or even implies that Bellarmine is a better scientist that Galileo in any respect. Clearly they disagree over what the observations imply; which may be a question of standards of proof, but in fact from Bellarmine’s letter to Foscarini it’s clear that Bellarmine is almost completely closed to the idea of an observational proof of heliocentrism (he discusses it as a possibility, but then goes on at length about how heavily the scriptural considerations weigh against it, which is of course a completely non-scientific (even anti-scientific) attitude.

Yes; at that point he thought Scripture was against it, but acknowledged a scenario whereby science might make it necessary to re-think that particular interpretation.

Thus, he is open-minded on that possibility (this also shows that there was leeway on the issue and that it wasn’t a matter of irreversible dogma) and the Catholic Church and Catholics have shown a full willingness to go where the science leads, in matters of science.

Bellarmine also stated: “if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false” (Letter to Foscarini, April 1615).

It is a matter of historical fact that the Church (following Bellarmine’s attitude above) has adjusted its views of biblical interpretation as science has progressed. So, e.g., most Catholics believe in an old earth now, and theistic evolution; in a local rather than universal flood, and uniformitarianism rather than catastrophism in geology; even in things like quantum mechanics (that one such as Einstein balked at).

But Bellarmine didn’t show any such willingness; to the contrary, he fully concurred with the 1616 decision of Paul V to suppress heliocentrism as being contrary to Scripture, thus staking the reputation of the church on the issue. Galileo wasn’t told “don’t hold or teach heliocentrism until you have sufficient evidence”, he was told “don’t hold or teach heliocentrism, full stop”.

The letter to Foscarini taken as a whole, rather than just an isolated quotation, doesn’t support the revisionist view of Bellarmine as some sort of exemplar of scientific virtue. I’ve already pointed out that Duhem’s claim of this is unfounded, and Kuhn isn’t making the claim at all; Galileo scholars such as Fantoli and Mcmullin reject your characterization.

Now, if you have a source that isn’t just parroting Duhem and has more backing than just a couple of sentences taken out of context, let’s see it.

I haven’t claimed that Bellarmine was a perfect specimen of scientific virtue, in every way.

You’re missing the point: which was that he understood the tentative nature of scientific theories better than Galileo did.

He was a geocentrist: not yet convinced of heliocentrism, but so were many at the time, including the great scientist Tycho Brahe, who had just recently died.

You appear to have quite a closed mind on this. You goal seems to be to follow every line of thought that makes Bellarmine an anti-scientific idiot in every way, Galileo perfect (whatever errors he held perfectly understandable, while Bellarmine’s errors are indefensible), and the Church anti-science. All the relevant facts of the matter, taken together, do not support that cynical, jaded view.

My goal is to present lesser-known facts that the secularists usually don’t provide. But there are sources that go beyond the polemics on either side, and get to the complexity that always characterizes real people and their views.

Oxford Bibliographies: “Cardinal Bellarmine” by Stefania Tutino, states:

Brodrick, James. The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J., 1542–1621. 2 vols. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1928.

Written also by a fellow Jesuit, this biography shares with the others a general apologetic and hagiographic tone. Nevertheless, it is the most accurate biography of Bellarmine, and it is substantiated by a rich array of primary sources.

This book states:

It is a curious and paradoxical circumstance . . . that as a piece of Scriptural exegesis Galileo’s theological letters are much superior to Bellarmine’s, while as an essay on scientific method Bellarmine’s letter is far sounder and more modern in its views than Galileo’s.

(Vol. II, p. 360)

Brodrick’s earlier Life and work of Robert Francis Bellarmine (London, 1928) is quite defective in its treatment of the Galileo case.

— Ernan Mcmullin, in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography (via

(Mcmullin was a Catholic priest, a professor at Notre Dame, and an expert on the life of Galileo)

The idea that Bellarmine’s scientific views were “more modern” than Galileo’s is a suggestion that seems to have been first made by Duhem and then variously repeated, but as Mcmullin says, Duhem is simply wrong here on the facts:

In his Système du monde, Duhem suggests that in one respect, at least, Bellarmine had shown himself a better scientist than Galileo by disallowing the possibility of a “strict proof” of the earth’ motion, on the grounds that an astronomical theory merely “saves the appearances” without necessarily revealing what “really happens.” This claim has often been repeated, most recently by Karl Popper, who makes Bellarmine seem a pioneer of the nineteenth-century positivist theory of science. In point of fact, nothing could be further from the case. Bellarmine by no means denied that strict demonstrations of what is “really” the case could be given in astronomical matters. In his view, however, such demonstrations had to rest on “physical” considerations of the type used by Aristotle, not on the mathematical models of positional astronomy.

Galileo’s excessive dogmatism about heliocentrism was verified in the paper, “Theories of Scientific Method from Plato to Mach: A bibliographical review,” by L. Laudan, History of Science, Vol. 7, p. 1-63 (1968); citation from p. 18: “Galileo was disposed to interpret the heliocentric system as a demonstrably true description of an actual state of affairs. He refused even to concede that it was an hypothesis . . .”

Also, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in its article on Galileo, states: “Cardinal Bellarmine was willing to countenance scientific truth if it could be proven or demonstrated . . .”

So you lump folks into “good” and “bad” Catholics, according to how they come down on the Galileo issue. Duhem and me are the bad guys because we point out merely that Bellarmine had some things right over against Galileo. Mcmullin is the good Catholic because he agrees with your take. But no bias on your end at all . . .

There are different opinions on the fine points, as with anything else. What I have shown is that my opinion is one permissible one, backed up by sources that are non-Catholic.

Karl Popper was mentioned unfavorably in your citation. He was, of course, a major philosopher of science and also a Jewish agnostic.

Thus, two of the greatest philosophers of science, Popper and Thomas Kuhn, both Jewish, take my general side on this issue. So you can cite one or two Catholics against my opinion; I cite Jewish philosophers of science Popper and Kuhn against yours.

Uh, I think every single source I’ve cited against you so far has been Catholic.

Kuhn was Jewish and you have claimed that I cited him incorrectly.

But my opinion as to what I commented upon is just as permissible or “respectable” based on various historical analyses, as yours is. Your claim that it was merely an apologetic whitewash has been shown to be an inaccurate one, since I have cited several non-Catholic reputable sources, which obviously have no “apologetic” motivation.

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