Monday, March 30, 2009

Why was Galileo Accused of Heresy?

This observation by Scott Aaronson was news to me:
I submit that Galileo’s greatest contribution here was not his account of how it could be possible for the Earth to go around the Sun even though we don’t feel the Earth’s motion. For that achievement was far surpassed by his creation of Simplicio: the amiable doofus (standing in for scholastic astronomers) who answers Salviati’s patient explanations with pompous Latin phrases and quotations from Aristotle. Apparently the main reason Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition was not his scientific arguments, which the Church assumed most people wouldn’t understand or care about anyway. Rather, Pope Urban VIII was outraged that Galileo put his (the Pope’s) own arguments about the limits of empirical thinking into the mouth of Simplicio.
I had heard the Galileo story many times as an example of religion shunning science, but this explanation makes much more sense. In this alternative narrative, the church does not disapprove of science but is merely annoyed by scientists disapproving of religion! What self-respecting human wouldn't be annoyed at being called irrational?

Are there any other grand narratives of history that could be explained by individual human squabbles that got out of hand? The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the overreaction of Kaiser Wilhelm (who was close friends with the archduke) to catalyze WWI strikes me as another potential example. The bottom line is that we have yet another reason to decentralize power.