Previous . Next


Galileo Galilei 1564-1642

The story of Galileo is complex, not least because the man was complex. Just when you thought that Galileo had a solid argument for Copernicus' theory, he would bring up an invalid argument about tides that even his supporters found specious. Or when he had carefully separated religion and science, as in his letter to the Grand Duchess, he would suddenly use a religious reason for a scientific theory, tying them back together again. Clearly the man did not have an overriding concern to make a consistent metaphysics, rather he staunchly believed in a theory and was willing to bend all the rules to increase the weight of evidence for the theory. Now why would a supposedly objective, rational, scientist use sloppy metaphysics in support of a particular scientific theory? The embarassing answer one can hear scientists state even today, is "Why not?".

That is, one can read between the lines of many of these men, from Galileo to Gell-Mann and find ambitious, aggressive, even obnoxious men who wanted desperately to succeed, to leave their mark, to change the world. Galileo turned down many offers of safe haven, many admirers who would have happily supported his research in order to make an impact on that center of world influence in the early 17th century, Rome. In the end he failed to change the Catholic church, perhaps as much from political naivete or unfortunate circumstance as from hubris, though one can hardly fault Galileo for trying. After all, Martin Luther didn't succeed either. But perhaps one can fault his motivation for trying.

The lesson I get from Galileo is not the classic church versus science, or even a scientist ahead of his time. He had many natural gifts, and could write eloquently in Italian (I am told) so that he communicated very well to the people of his time the changes he wanted to make. Likewise we too are constantly living with the same tensions today between old and new theories, so that scientists are always ahead of their time. No, the lesson I learn from Galileo is one of scientific hubris. That is, scientific theories have their own life cycle that cannot be rushed (see Kuhn). Galileo fought for Copernican science a little too fiercely, and unwisely drew as many incorrect conclusions as correct. Even today as historian of science, Stephen Brush, points out about Nobel prize winner Hannes Alfven, scientists are much less willing to forgive wrong conclusions than they are to remember right ones. If Galileo had only been a little more relaxed, a little less dogmatic about his "tides proof" or silly arguments over who first saw sunspots and what was the nature of comets, if he had given the field chance to develop, he might have been more successful. But in his rush to prove his theories correct he overstated his case and drew false conclusions, making his sentence by the Church court all the more severe. When the Church, on Oct 31, 1992 pardoned him, they did not so much acknowlege his innocence but the overly severe sentence he received. (See The Galileo Affair)

Dismissing the "conflict" myth that Galileo was persecuted by the Church for being a scientist is relatively easy, which is what nearly all the "science and religion" textbooks aim to prove. Brookes, however, goes one step further to analyze the proposed thesis that the Catholic Church was more resistant to science than the Protestant Church. His conclusion was that there might be a slight propensity for Protestants be more accepting of new scientific theories, but more likely it was politics that got Galileo, and the catholics just had far more of it than the protestants. One could easily make the opposite argument (as Stanley Jaki does), that catholics often are better scientists today because they have more commitment to scientific metaphysics than do protestants. So although the Galileo affair doesn't boil down to a simplistic science vs. Catholic church debate, there are important lessons here that remind me of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", about the line between humility and hubris.

These are personal observations, highly subjective, and greatly influenced by wounds that still smart. I may outgrow these thoughts, but for the record, here is where I vicariously empathize with Galileo. He had a scientist's nose for "good theory", one that is elegant, simple and just "had to be right". But he didn't have a lot of evidence. He hears about a new invention, the telescope, and has to have one. With his new toy, he starts getting lots of really cool pictures. Suddenly that gut feeling about Copernican theory is turning into a gold-mine of supporting data: craters on the moon, spots on the sun, satellites around Jupiter, phases of Venus. A lesser man would take 2 years to write about one of those discoveries, analysing it with every current theory, timidly proposing that it might possibly support a Copernican world view. Galileo immediately sees the importance and impact of the data and is loathe to tiptoe around the egos and institutions invested in the past, he's going for the big tamale, a complete reorganization of world view. As a priest once said to me, "When you're right, and you know you're right, you can't possibly be wrong." It was that religious certainty Galileo had that drove him, like Jesus, to his eventual demise. Should he have been more timid? Was there any other course of action that might have avoided the pain?

Certainly, but one does not achieve greatness, whether it be scientific, political or religious, without confrontation, without principles. And in these confrontations all our weaknesses, all our sins come back to haunt us. It was while coming out of his mistress' hotel room that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. It was in Galileo's trial that his vanity concerning comets and sunspots became the crucial fact in turning his allies into his enemies. For all of you budding scientists who still dream of winning the Nobel prize, my counsel to you is to be totally unswerving in your defense of the truth, but completely deferential in the defense of yourself. Then when you are put on trial, it will be your ideas and not your person that comes under attack. Paradoxically then, it will be those who do not seek the Prize who find it first.

Despite much hype about genius and luck, it is my belief that all the great names in science, be they Newton, Darwin or Einstein, all of them contributed to science not because of their genius, but in spite of it. Never let the obsession of the press with "men of genius" cloud the fact that these men prevailed on the basis of their ideas, not on their personalities.


Isaac Newton: 1642-1727

Newton, the physicist

As a physicist, I have perhaps underestimated Newton, because I did not realize how important his many contributions to mathematics and geometry were. More to the point, I have disparaged the emphasis in 1st year Physics curricula on "Newtonian Mechanics", commenting that it is really a mathematical introduction, not physics. Having read more of Newton's mathematical work, I can say that it is entirely appropriate that Newton's name be associated with mathematical aspects of physics, which despite his theoretical bent, emerged in his ability (rare among theorists) to make careful experimental measurements to confirm his theories.

Unlike Galileo, Newton does not seem to have the same hubris, the same desire to change the world. Almost all of his publications came years, if not decades, after they were first presented in his lectures, and often at the insistent urging of friends. His early work on optics at Cambridge was attended with much controversy which seemed annoyed Newton a great deal. He couldn't bear seeing the quality his work doubted. Much of Newton's work was published anonymously out of Newton's subsequent avoidance of controversy. In the later decades of his life, he was embroiled in an argument with Leibnitz as to who developed calculus first. One historian says that Newton was scrupulously accurate, but not generous with others and took offense easily. Having met physicists with many of these identical characteristics, I can easily see Newton's personality in the memory of a graduate student who worked 18 hour days and then slept 7 hours, resulting in a time schedule that slipped by an hour a day, so that one could often find him roaming the halls in the wee hours of the morning. Like Newton, he did not suffer gladly the company or criticism of fools. It is genius, but fragile genius, that perhaps accounts for his illness at age 50 and the waning of his powers. Unlike Galileo or Einstein, Newton's reputation evidently grew with time, and mathematicians of later centuries marvelled at his geometrical acumen.

Newton, the metaphysicist

What interests me most, however, is not the sheer ability of Newton to generate mathematical results, but the metaphysics that he employed. This is the topic that Brooke touches on in his book, noting that Newton required a special dispensation to study at Trinity College when he decided he could not assent to the 39 Articles, the confessional statement of the Anglican Church. Newton, whatever his faults, always wanted to keep his conscience clear, and to the great embarassment of future generations of scientists, spent the last decades of his life writing theology, or more precisely, a defense of his Unitarian beliefs.

Now this is significant for several reasons. First, one's metaphysics does not arise in a vacuum. Nor does it appear preformed from the mouth of one's teachers. Rather, everyone develops their own peculiar flavor of metaphysics as they attempt to make sense of the world around them, and their part in the universe. Often a traumatic event in childhood will be encapsulated in some quirk of one's metaphysics. For example, Einstein's celebrated remark about the unreasonableness of Bohr's Quantum Mechanics was "God doesn't play dice." Clearly, games of chance were abhorrent to Einstein. Contrast this position with Darwin who saw in "Chance" the impersonal working out of evolutionary advance. Why do these two, essentially modern scientists, have such opposite metaphysical attraction to chance? One possible explanation, though by no means exhaustive, might be their respective upbringing.

A second motive for one's metaphysics is harmony with one's life and lifestyle. For example, Flannery O'Connor writes novels about people who are highly conflicted, who preach one message but practice another. These dissonances are highly stressful, leading such people into contradictory and unpredictable behavior. Usually one either adapts the practice to the preaching or the preaching to the practice. It is so common as to be a mark of a cult when the cult leader finds some religious justification for some otherwise common vice.

So applying these principles to Newton, what connection do we find between his Unitarian theology, expressed early in his career at Cambridge, with his metaphysics of gravitation? Stanley Jaki has argued, as I have said earlier, that the medieval synthesis achieved modern science because it was able to balance the hypothetical science with the belief in the existence of a real external world. In Newton's case, this led to a careful path between Scylla and Charabdis, between the atomists who rejected "forces" and the magicians who invoked "souls". Logically, the extreme positions are always the easiest to defend. But Newton insisted on gravitation requiring "spooky action at a distance" while simultaneously rejecting organic metaphors for such attractive forces.

To us moderns, this balancing act seems as difficult as walking while chewing gum, but for Newton it required some peculiar metaphysics. Remember, whereever he looked, whether it be the proverbial apple or the Moon in the sky, he discovered the same law of acceleration, an acceleration that only really only made sense when one adopted the language of the calculus. Why should "acceleration", a non-intuitive mathematical construct, possess such universal, ubiquitous and unchanging attributes? Aristotle would have said that it was in the psyche or soul of the object that one should look for these attributes. The Medieval scholastics would put the attributes in the mind of God. Newton found it in the power of the mathematical description of reality. What is a velocity but dx/dt, the change in position with change in time? And what is an acceleration but dv/dt, the change in velocity with change in time? And if these are to have unchanging qualities for all bodies in the universe, then must not the units, the space, the time, be also unchanging? Thus he felt that it was space, time and matter that formed the Eternal Truth (much as the Greeks had posited 1500 years earlier), requiring neither the spirit of objects nor the will of God. But now Newton had a problem.

If the eternal trinity for Newton became space-time-matter, then he had already been condemned by the medieval church, which said such Aristotelian concepts were unchristian and unacceptable. Bruno had been burned for beliefs such as these. So we see Newton at the cross-roads we mentioned above, and he chose the path of adapting his theology to his metaphysics. Since the medieval church had formed its opinions on the critique of St. Augustine, clearly, Newton must have felt some animosity for this early church father. In rejecting Trinitarian doctrine, Newton may have been trying to drive a wedge between the Holy Scriptures, and the wholly medling of Augustine. If this assumption is correct, then I can almost see Newton, satisfied that his life output of mathematics was published and summarized neatly, going back to his college days and wanting to tie up that loose end of his youth. Newton would have written those theology books to absolve himself of the criticism of apostasy, just as I watched my graduate colleague working late in the night on an obscure integral.

Jaki would say that it was Newton's fundamentally Christian metaphysics that enabled him to propose the theory of gravity. The Enlightenment skeptics would seize upon Newton's rejection of the Trinity as the first step toward enlightened atheism, along with his mechanization of the celestial spheres. Yet that peculiar drive to exonerate oneself is an ethical drive, a moral drive, the crusade of an unjustly sentenced man. As C.S. Lewis was to say in this century, the opposite of theism is not atheism, for both of these views are about God; the opposite of theism is agnosticism, a profound disinterest in the whole affair. Newton shows all the characteristics of a man deeply concerned about God, attempting to fit God within his abiding faith in mathematics. For Newton, geometry was not only his forte, it was his faith.

As we will see, this shift of allegiance was to result in the anti-clerical atheism of the Enlightenment, as well as the "naive realism" that forms the basis of the modern metaphysics of "scientific naturalism". It is this 200 year metaphysical foundation that is so profoundly shaken by the 20th century physics we discuss later in this course. An earthquake that to my mind, should result in a radical restructuring of the way we teach physics, and the way we practice theology.

Last modified, January 12, 2003, RbS