As science educators, we experience the intersection of science and culture every time we talk with a student whose personal beliefs conflict with scientific knowledge. Outside of the classroom, we witness politicians and other influential people who doubt, distrust, or even condemn scientists and the knowledge they produce. Conflicts can arise when there is misalignment between science and one's religion, politics, or worldview.
If we consider the history of science, Galileo's trial in the 17th century was certainly not the first conflict between science and culture, but it was perhaps the most prominent and its effects the most long-lasting. In On Trial for Reason, historian Maurice Finocchiaro provides a nuanced and thoughtful analysis of the trail of Galileo, including the issues that preceded it and those that continue today.
In 1633, Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Catholic Inquisition for his empirical defense of the Copernican idea that the Earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the Sun (these perspectives are known as geokinetic and heliocentric, respectively). As a result of the trial, Galileo's published work was banned and Galileo himself was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.
On Trial is more than a historical retelling. It is a reflection on empiricism and the defense of scientific knowledge. It is about the conflict between innovators and those who cling to the past. It is also a rich historical analysis of an influential event that occurred during the nascent years of the scientific revolution. And yes, it is about the conflict between science and religion. But as Finocchiaro reveals, the conflicts between Galileo and the Catholic Church have since dissipated (more on that below).
On Trial is intended for a general audience, but it teeters between scholarly manuscript and popular nonfiction. The writing style is formal, the arguments sometimes esoteric, and the passages redundant at times. But Finocchiaro does a great job of explaining complexities to a lay audience, clearly with the intent of promoting deeper understanding. Such awareness is required to understand the nuances of Galileo's trial, which involved theological, scientific, and epistemological arguments.
For the most part, On Trial is written chronologically. After a brief overview of the entire Galileo affair, it backtracks to an earlier time when a dying Copernicus published his revolutionary model of a geokinetic and heliocentric universe. Copernicus, however, provided no rigorous empirical defense for his ideas and so they languished. It would be another 89 years until Galileo published his defense of Copernicus, thanks to his telescopic discoveries, and this finally gave the geokinetic and heliocentric model the scientific support it needed.
Finocchiaro dispels the notion that Galileo's trial is a simple conflict between science and religion. For example, the Church was not united in its condemnation of Galileo. Several prominent theologians sided with him, even publishing their own pro-Copernican ideas. Interestingly, prior to his trial, Galileo had a personal and amicable relationship with the very pope who would later condemn him. Additionally, there were many sensible concerns about the scientific details, in addition to novel epistemological questions such as “whether artificial instruments like the telescope have any legitimate role in the search for truth.”
On Trial recognizes Galileo as a pioneer in empiricism and critical thinking, a discoverer of astronomical observations and physical laws, and an important figure in the scientific revolution. Finocchiaro writes that Galileo advocated “the principle of autonomy, according to which scientific investigation can and should proceed independently of scripture.” Galileo had reverence for scripture and was deeply hurt by his conviction for heresy. In preparing for his trial, he crafted theological arguments for his principle of autonomy. He was condemned for this and for his Copernican ideas that contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible.
The irony is that Galileo was right on both accounts. The Earth does move around the Sun, and scripture does not have authority on scientific claims. Both were ultimately recognized by the Church. In the 1990s, for example, Pope John Paul II (who was posthumously declared a Saint) voiced support for Galileo's theological arguments, while bemoaning Galileo's trial as an injustice. Finocchiaro writes, “The Galileo affair displays not only conflicts between science and religion, but also harmonies between them. It embodies the complexity of the relationship between the two, as well as the way in which conflict and harmony can co-occur.”
On Trial is recommended for biology educators, upper-level undergraduates, and graduate students seeking a nuanced case study that demonstrates the complex ways in which science, religion, and culture can intersect.