Myths of Science

Myths of Science February 23, 2018

Galileo Goes To Jail, a 2009 collection of essays edited by Ronald Numbers, examines 25 myths of science and religion. The essays aren’t defenses of religion by any means; they instead aim at complicating the received scientific triumphalism and set records straight.

Maurice A. Finocchiaro tackles myth #8, that Galileo was imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition. Finocchiaro admits that court documents make it appear that Galileo was jailed and perhaps tortured. Other evidence indicates that Galileo was treated far more mildly: “With the possible exception of three days (June 21–24, 1633), Galileo was never held in prison, either during the trial (as was universal custom) or afterward (as the sentence decreed). Even for those three days he likely lodged in the prosecutor’s apartment, not in a cell. The explanation for such unprecedentedly benign treatment is not completely clear but includes the following factors: the protection of the Medici, Galileo’s celebrity status, and the love- hate attitude of Pope Urban, an erstwhile admirer” (74).

As for torture: “This deposition leaves no doubt that Galileo was threatened with torture during the June 21 interrogation. But there is no evidence that he was actually tortured, or that his accusers planned actually to torture him” (76).

Myth #13 is that Newton believed in a mechanical, clockwork universe. In fact, he explicitly denied it. In a letter to Samuel Clarke, Newton wrote, “The notion of the world’s being a great machine, going on without the interposition of God, as a clock continues to go without the assistance of a clockmaker; is the notion of materialism and fate, and tends, (under pretence of making God a supramundane intelligence,) to exclude providence and God’s government in reality out of the world” (121).

This wasn’t some tangential concession, a God of the gaps. Newton believed that God Himself was the cause of gravity: “Shortly after the Principia was published . . . Newton came to believe that God the Father might be the direct, immediate cause of gravitation: the omnipresent God, in whom we live and move and have our being, moves matter through space—what Newton called God’s ‘sensorium’—as readily as we move the parts of our own bodies” (120).

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