Galileo on religion and science

Explain Galileo’s attempt to make science and religion compatible, with particular reference to methods of justification. How successful is he? Use Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability to investigate Galileo’s attempt to reconcile the propositions of science and religion.

There will always be a battle between religion and science, it is a truth universally acknowledged. Galileo attempted to make the two compatible by suggesting that the truth can only be sought out if the notion under consideration can be accurately tested and if the opposing view can be founded as false.

Galileo’s goes into depth about the truth of scripture and the sciences, intertwined with the reason of man, in his letter to Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Early on in the letter Galileo, infers from St Augustine that the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach “how heaven goes” rather “how one goes to heaven”. Galileo interprets this as the underlying basis for the “common” people to believe that man should not concern themselves with science and that it is against the Bible, and therefore blasphemous.

Furthermore this misconception is continued, as Galileo believes that the “common” people understand the truth in the Bible is largely to do with one’s salvation and other physical things such as whether the Sun or Earth are mobile, are irrelevant.

From this Galileo leads on to discuss that “physical problems” are able to be solved through “sense-experiences” and reason, as well as the “authority of scriptural passages” highlighting that either are valid to contain the truth.

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Galileo argues that God gifted man with the power of reason and logic, so that they would be able to discover and learn about his creation. God did not “set bounds to human ingenuity” so why should the church impose them, by discrediting and prohibiting some of the greatest work of philosophers and scientists? Galileo had two types of physical propositions: those that are able to be subjected to tests and experiments and those that can only be conjectured about; and these are best left to faith and Holy Scriptures. Galileo did not believe that everything in the universe was known to man, he believed that there were more truths to be discovered. He did not agree that “free-philosophizing” should be shunned, because the Holy Ghost states that “man cannot find out the work that God hath done from beginning even to end”.

Galileo is not satisfied by this and urges others to not side with the common opinion of the scriptures, to the point where it blocks logic and reason, and ultimately truth. He highlights this by using the Sun and the Earth: the debate about the still Sun and the mobile Earth, as many come to believe – “it was most absurd to believe otherwise”. This is because Nicholas Copernicus provided evidence for his claims which were reasonable and logical; that it was “plain as daylight”. Galileo stresses the importance of not bending the word of God to fulfil ones “foolish fancies” i.e. one should guard themselves against deliberately misinterpreting the Holy Scripture to suit their own end. The repetition of this (citing scripture to back up their skewed claims) will lead to the inevitable adoption of this understanding and consequently missing the true mean behind the scriptural passages. This is what Galileo means when he refers to as the “vulgar” and “common” people, sometimes misinterpret the holy writings of the Bible “to fulfil their foolish fancies”.

Because of this Galileo advocates the importance for mankind to step away from information that just concerns salvation and to broaden their horizons; most importantly, to not be afraid of the truth. By this he suggests that Holy Scripture and explanations of physical things have their own place in the world and that man should keep an open mind to explore both, because both are valid sources of the truth. He goes on to say that God did not intend for his Word to be misinterpreted like this and the true meaning to be obscured, and this “sort of abuse” should not “gain countenance and authority”.

However as Galileo stated it is “more pleasant to gain a reputation for wisdom” without experiments and research than it is to pursue science and produce evidence for these physical observations. Galileo is thankful to God because he does not allow the majority of these “common folk” as stated above to have all the authority, some learned people too have authority. Galileo is not speaking blasphemy, he is suggesting there is a place for both Holy doctrine as well as scientific doctrine and he attempts to prove this.

Galileo is concerned with obtaining the truth about the world we live in, whether religion provides an answer or science. This is evident in the letter when he is discussing the “celestial bodies” concerning the work of Copernicus. Galileo believes that it would be wholly unjustified to ban Copernicus’ work after it has been confirmed over the years, he puts it: “in my judgement to be a contravention of the truth” if this were to occur. Basically Galileo believes if something is true, the basis of the truth either, religious or scientific is equally creditable. He further states that if scientific fact is unattainable, it must be a thing of faith and religion; “where human reasoning cannot reach” and there “is no science but only opinion of faith” the truth must be in the Scripture. This is demonstrated in the letter “whether the stars are animate” or “whether or not the heavens are spherical”. Galileo believes that ultimately that the science behind a phenomena will equate to the Scripture that describes it; “the true senses of the Bible” “will most certainly be found to agree with the proven fact”.

He further goes on to admit, that at first the two may seem completely different and closer scrutiny is required. Galileo proves his point further by stating that “two truths can never contradict each other” ultimately, the religious and scientific, must both be compatible for something to be proven true. The matter of Galileo’s success is dependent largely on his era and the audience. Being a follower of God as well as a man of science and a philosopher, Galileo had to come to terms with both his beliefs and what his physical senses and reasoning told him about the world. He achieved this by describing that the facts produced by reasoning will equal the truth held in the Scripture; both religion and science were correct. However, this was conditional: the Holy Scripture should not be misinterpreted and the notion under consideration should be tested through logic. Following this Galileo, believed that the understanding held by an individual of the Holy Scripture, chiefly relied upon how leaned such a person was and their capacity to understand the true meaning of the Scriptural passages.

Primarily Galileo could not disregard the Bible wholly: firstly, as mentioned above he himself believed greatly in God and secondly the people of the time were immersed in the religion from infancy it was to them, “common” knowledge and the truth about the world. Given this Galileo had to find a solution to please both religious beliefs whilst allowing scientific inquiry and philosophising to occur. As he describe the “vulgar” and “common” people may shun his ideas, because they do not accept anything that is not Holy Scripture, and believe Galileo and other scientists and philosophers to be blasphemous. However Galileo attempts to make sense of this by discussing that perhaps they misinterpreted the Bible and consequently the true meaning (which is compatible with science) is lost to them, that it is beyond their capacity to comprehend. It is remarked by Galileo: “people who are unable to understand both the Bible and the sciences far outnumber those who do understand” – perhaps this is Galileo commenting on his own success; that he is only able to reach people if they understand the true meaning of Scripture and are capable of understanding the sciences.

Galileo in his attempt to reconcile the propositions of both religion and science, it is evident that he employed Kuhn’s measures of perpetual incommensurability. The evidence acquired via observation is an insufficient basis for theory comparison, due to the inherent idea that perceptual experience is theory dependant. Basically, one’s ability to develop a theory is based on their previous life experiences; whether it be from actual physical events, emotional or spiritual events. All play a role in the development of a theory, which is formed based on how an individual sees the world and what they conclude about it. This in mind, it can be observed that Galileo’s religious upbringing and his adulthood, greatly influenced his views on religion and science.

Galileo believed that Holy Scripture and the sciences were compatible; it can be inferred from his letter (as previously discussed) that when human reasoning is unable to provide an answer than it must be left to faith. Extrapolating on this one may conclude that Galileo could be suggesting that the true meaning of science was written in the Bible and God gifted humans with the power to reason, to ultimately find out the truth of the world, of creation. It is this notion that people may find it hard to come to terms with because, it was believed that God did not want humans to discover the truth. However, Galileo questioned (as did many others) why then did God bestow reason and logic on humans? This ultimately drives Galileo in his quest to make religion and science compatible. This reflects the perpetual incommensurability of Kuhn; that one’s background will inevitably colour their perception, as demonstrated by Galileo’s attempt to reconcile religious faith and the sciences.

Reference list

All in text citations and all information about this essay were sourced from the following: ATS2867, Thinking about Science Study guide and Readings, Monash University, 1998: 15-30;51-66.

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Galileo on religion and science. (2016, Sep 02). Retrieved from

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