Then as now, cooperation between researchers is the optimal way to leverage all the skills and knowledge available. It is precisely this cybernetic enhancement of our individual powers that can make the sciences today so much more effective than in Galileo’s time. At least, they are when we do not block productive cooperation by censoring disagreements and excluding the most important objections from the debate.
What are we to make of Galileo Galilei? A scientific hero whose revolutionary ideas were quashed by the institutional authority of the early 17th-century church? A natural philosopher who defended Copernicus’ mathematics and astronomy valiantly but was prone to vanity and arrogance? Or even, as Babette Babich reports that controversial philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend repeatedly asserted of Galileo, a “crook”?
It is important to understand in the first place that to ask this question is not to ask a scientific question – the sciences have absolutely no way of answering a question in this form. True, we could choose to reduce Galileo to his astronomical work and then make an assessment of his heliocentric model based on current data. But this would be grossly unfair to Galileo, for if we do this we’re forced to admit that his model is far from accurate, getting right mainly the placement of the sun at the center of the solar system, as Copernicus had already proposed. Galileo needed Kepler’s insight about elliptical orbits to get close to what we now understand as the cosmology of our solar system – without it, divining between the geocentric and heliocentric models was by no means a slam dunk with the evidence available at that time. Indeed, if we look just after the Galileo affair, we will find the astronomer Giovanni Batista Riccioli in 1651 publishing a list of 126 arguments regarding whether the Earth does in fact move, 49 of them in favor and 77 against.
How then can Galileo be enshrined as a scientific hero of any kind? The question is not a trivial one, and opens the door to extremely important and timely questions about scientific practice that matter even more today than in Galileo’s time. What we cannot legitimately conclude without acting prematurely is that since Galileo supported one fact we accept today as scientifically justified – the Earth moves around the sun – he is automatically a heroic figure. On the contrary, the basis of the heroism being asserted here gains its context from the fact the Galileo opposed institutional authority in his time – which means to truly address such a question today is primarily a historical investigation, and also a philosophical one, since a judgment of heroism is a moral judgment rather than a matter of simple fact.
To answer the question ‘What are we to make of Galileo?’ we must therefore commit to much more than a ‘fact check.’ We must undertake a detailed investigation that is not, in neither form nor content, scientific in nature, for all its deep connections with astronomy. What I wish to do in this discussion, however, is not perform that specific investigation (several books already cover this well) but rather to raise a question about contemporary scientific practice against the backdrop of this ambiguity over whether Galileo is to be seen as a hero or a crook. For the matter of the modes of scientific practice and their tensions with institutional authority are acutely relevant to the crisis of knowledge we face today epitomized by the accusation of ‘fake news.’ And in this regard, we have much more to gain from pondering Galileo than settling the status of a mere astronomical fact.
Three Propositions Concerning Scientific Knowledge
Despite our widespread commitment to scientific discovery, the vast majority of us are quite unprepared for dealing with the complexity of authentic scientific problems. This happens in part because of the faith we possess in the work of the sciences to solve problems. Having witnessed technology utterly transform our planet over the last century we afford to the sciences a tremendous power, one that is not unjustified but which is also highly problematic, in ways that greatly exceed the scope of this particular discussion. Because of our collective faith in scientific research, many of us have come to expect that:
An answer can always be provided by scientific means
A single successful experiment can provide clear answers to our questions
Scientific theories have emerged from such successful experiments
It is no wonder we think like this; we’ve been telling this story since at least the 19th century when an argument between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Whewell gave us the term ‘scientist,’ if not perhaps earlier, say, since Boyle’s vacuum pump offered the tantalizing possibility of resolving questions of truth in the laboratory.
Yet all three propositions above are false.
It is this schizophrenic clash between our faith in scientific methods and the unseen yet immense complexities we thus tend to ignore that lies at the heart of the key question we must ask about contemporary scientific research. Once we step beyond merely believing and begin to understand that the work of the sciences is much more fragile than we tend to expect, we may come to recognize that the institutional power that oppressed Galileo is as much a threat to assembling a true picture today as it was in the 17th century.
Not All Questions Can Be Answered Scientifically
This is perhaps the single greatest misunderstanding about the sciences – not every question can be answered by these methods. This is not even one of those points of caution that is superseded by future advances in technique (“in the future, we can answer this, but not now…”). Rather, we must distinguish between questions suitable for answering by scientific methods, questions suitable for answering by other methods, and questions that do not lend themselves to being answered at all.
I foreshadowed this point with the opening question about Galileo – a quintessential example of a problem requiring a historical investigation. The late Mary Midgley was always keen to point to historical methods as an example of questions that can be answered, but in ways that were not in principle scientific. When we want to establish the facts of a prior event, we must make use of all the available evidence, study all the surviving written accounts, and then use deductive reasoning to draw conclusions (often provisionally). Scientific techniques sometimes contribute to this process – if you find a corpse in a bog, carbon dating will get you a time frame, for instance. But these contributions to any given historical puzzle are typically quite minor. What is paramount is a capacity to bring together all the evidence along with our understanding of human life and culture at the relevant place and time. We deduce historical answers through the methods of the detective. That these include scientific evidence, or that other sciences also use deductive reasoning isn’t enough to allow history to be swallowed up by the sciences. On the contrary, these different methods are distinct – and as such, can learn from each other.
As with the historical aspects of the question of Galileo, so with the moral dimensions of the issue – hero versus crook, after all, is more than a simple question of ‘fact checking.’ It requires an understanding of what we mean by heroism, or what justifies the accusation implied in being a crook. Moral or ethical issues belong to the domain of philosophy, but we should not assume from this that philosophers have authority over them – indeed, there is supposed to be no singular source of institutional authority over such matters today, since we are all (quite unlike those living in Galileo’s time) entitled to make our own moral judgments, another point that Midgley was keen to stress.
Much as we hate to admit it, there are also some questions that simply don’t have definitive answers. The very concept of metaphysics is to mark questions beyond (meta) physics i.e. subjects without certain answers. Traditionally, this topic has revolved around theology, but there are also vast landscapes of untestable postulates in ethics, politics, gender, and more besides. That’s not to say mistakes around these issues don’t cause people to erroneously assume that the sciences can muscle in – it happens all the time. It’s rather unsurprising, since it’s easy to confuse the importance of gathering evidence (where experience in a scientific field is usually essential) with the separate process of evaluating it (where non-scientific competences can have just as much bearing).
The reason we value scientific methods for answering some of the tough questions is precisely because where they can be brought to bear, the methods of the sciences can crack some major mysteries wide open. But ‘some’ is the word that gets overlooked in this regard. The destiny of the sciences is not total knowledge of everything but an ever-adapting set of frameworks for understanding the world around us. It is far from clear that we should assume an end point for the scientific adventure – unless, alas, it is human extinction. Rather, a great deal of what we want the scientific community to investigate are questions that relate to what we happen to be doing now, and these will not hold the same salience in the future. The parallax of stars and their apparent sizes is no longer of interest to contemporary astronomers even though it was of vital importance when comparing the differing predictions made by geocentric or heliocentric cosmologies in Galileo’s day. We misunderstand the nature of knowledge production entirely when we imagine a simple kind of ratcheted progress, new discoveries adding to an ever-growing pile of knowledge. On the contrary, the vast majority of all scientific work is destined for immense and eternal obscurity, since it depends for its significance entirely upon the circumstances of its commission.
It is not because the sciences can answer all questions that we esteem their achievements. Rather, it is because when a topic is amenable to scientific study we have a hope of definite answers that are denied to us in most aspects of life. But this yearning for certainty is both a powerful motivating force and an immense liability when it comes to trusting experiments to answer questions for us…
Singular Experiments Reveal Almost Nothing
We’ve all seen those movies where, after a laborious research montage, the scientist finally has a breakthrough and achieves the MacGuffin the heroes desperately need. This is the heroic legend of scientific research epitomized in The Flaming Lips song, Race For The Prize, and it is just as active in our mythology of Galileo as anywhere else. We love to say that Galileo built a telescope, saw that the Earth revolves around the sun, and discovered the truth. But he didn’t do anything of the kind, and the telescope was not even an appropriate instrument to settle that particular argument. Rather, it was Foucault’s pendulum that was to have the pivotal role – and even that it could not have done were it not for the groundwork laid by Ibn al-Shatir, Copernicus, Galileo, and many more besides.
One of the reasons we have adopted this kind of mythic rendering of scientific work is that our way of telling the stories of famous researchers is to repackage their lives to make them into glorious lone heroes for truth, often and especially against a closed-minded dogmatism attributed to religion or government. Since the early 20th century, Galileo has been the poster child for this. Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 play Life of Galileo may have accelerated the adoption of this narrative, although Brecht’s Galileo says much in the service of its author’s philosophy that would have been vile to Galileo himself. Arguably, his fight with the church authorities was closer to the 17th century equivalent of a nerd flame war (and displaying the same degree of ill-judged social awkwardness as that analogy implies) than anything heroic, although the stakes (pun intended) were certainly far higher.