Galileo and the Foundation of Science

By Dale H. Easley

December 8, 2000

A few years back, I was in the home of a missionary in Haiti. Upon learning that I was a geologist, the missionary asked, "You don't teach plate tectonics, do you?" I was a bit surprised at the question. After all, nowadays we have the technology to measure the rate at which plates move, and plate tectonics has become the unifying theory in geology. I might have been a bit less surprised by a question about my views of evolution, but Plate Tectonics? However, if I had been a bit more aware of history at the time I might have been able to better address the missionary's apparent concern over scientific theories that appear to contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible. Even the strongest fundamentalists of today don't think the sun revolves around the earth. Perhaps if I could have shown them how our views have changed, then I might have created an opening for them to learn a bit of geology.

400 years ago, a world view that had dominated Christianity for more than 1000 years was being threatened. An ongoing threat to the Catholic Church was the Protestant Reformation. Added to that was new technology---the telescope---that made it possible for humans to observe things never before seen. One of the keenest observers was Galileo. Through a simple 20-power telescope that he built himself, he was able to observe the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the rotation of Venus and the Sun about their axiis. Galileo was already familiar with the Copernican model of the solar system, but Copernicus had been wise enough to withhold publishing his results until his death. Galileo not only argued for the Sun-centered model of the solar system, but also argued for a non-literal interpretation of the Bible.

In 1633, at the age of 70, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for heresy. The Inquisition found that1

We say, pronounce, sentence and declare that you, the above-mentioned Galileo because of the things deduced in the trial and confessed by you, have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture; that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.
To be vehemently suspected of heresy was not as bad as it could have been---Galileo was allowed to repent and disavow his work instead of being burnt or imprisoned for life.

Despite Galileo's disavowal of his work, the work lived on and influenced scientists then unborn. However, science in the Catholic countries of France, Spain, and Italy was stymied. It fell to scientists in Protestant countries, such as Isaac Newton in England, to advance the Scientific Revolution. A gap was created between science and faith that has lasted much of the time since. However, in recent years the Catholic Church and science have worked out many of their conflicts.2 Instead, conflicts between church and science have become a homegrown American problem, a result of some Protestant fundamentalists' belief that each word of the Bible must be taken as the literal truth. They have created an entire, alternate story, scientific creationism, to explain scientific data while maintaining their literalism.

I have no desire here to go through "scientific creationism" and show its problems. Others have already done it.3 Instead I want to finish by pointing out a couple of things of importance to American society:

  • Britain rose to its 19th-century dominance of the world through the technology that developed from the Scientific Revolution. Currently we are undergoing a similar revolution, also driven by technology. Scientific research demands openness to conflicting viewpoints, not toe-the-line obedience to authority.
  • Most of the natural resources used in America, especially petroleum and minerals, are found by using principals of evolution and plate tectonics. My undergraduate geology professor once said, "I have no problem with people believing in creationism. But are they willing to abandon their car? Are they willing to accept that they are benefitting by something that they think is evil?"
There is no doubt that science has been used for evil purposes---improved torture methods, genocide, environmental destruction, for example. However, most of us want the benefits of science---better health, improved productivity, a higher standard of living. As a teacher, my goal is that during this semester you will gain insight into the links between science and your life. Then you can make your own choices about what you choose to value. Neither I nor anyone else has the Truth. But education can help you pursue it.


1The quotations in the essay are taken from Faithful Dissenters by Robert McClory (Orbis Books, 2000). Another valuable reference was The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio de Santilla (University of Chicago Press, 1955).

2See, for example, Nonoverlapping Magisteria by Stephen Jay Gould ( Natural History, March, 1997) in which Gould comments on the Pope's acceptance of evolution and its lack of conflict with Church teachings.

3See, for example, the web site or a great PBS series described at