A theological blog 31 I 19. Galileo’s thought world
It is of great importance to distinguish between the Catholic and Protestant concepts of God. For a Protestant like Payley, God is outside the universe and manufactured the things in it as a watchmaker might make a watch. For Catholics God is deep within the universe and more like an artist than a manufacturer. “God is within the universe and that innermostly” wrote Aquinas. There is for Catholic theology even a doubt whether God ‘made’ the universe at all. Artists often find their creations just come seemingly out of nothing and nowhere. “Love dictates my poems and I write them down” said Dante. The account of creation in Genesis certainly doesn’t sound like somebody making a watch. “Let it be” said God, almost as it were happening on its own and the main spectator, el Presidente, had taken his seat so the show could begin. “God saw that it was good”. Not, “hey just look at what I just made”, but more “just come and look at this I’ve just seen”. You can already see how much better Catholic theology fits in with Darwin than Protestant. Catholic theology has no problem with a world that evolved on its own.
Up until the trial of Galileo science was almost exclusively Catholic and mostly Italian. It moved within a Catholic thought world. The essential Catholic idea is that of a sacrament, which means in the case of the seven sacraments, not that the matter of the sacrament – water in the case of baptism and bread in the case of the eucharist – is an external sign pointing to an invisible grace, as a sign saying ‘Bath ten miles’ just points towards Bath which is invisible, but in some sense contains the grace within itself, as the pigment in a painting or the words in a poem don’t point towards what the painting is about but manifest it. For Catholic theology, all material reaiity is like that. It manifests God who dwells deep within it. This would certainly have been the thought world of Galileo. His experiments were such a new kind of thing and lie so much at the origin of the whole experimental method of science that has been so successful, we tend to think he was a man more like us than the people of his own time. But of course, he wasn’t, he didn’t live in our time but his own. I used to assume, like most people that the whole genius of Galileo was that he turned his back on the Medieval myths of Plato and Aristotle and started doing actual experiments. But when I started looking into it, it was with something of a shock that I realised not only was this not the case but the exact opposite was true. Plato was his whole inspiration, he was an Italian Renaissance neo-Platonist. At the very beginning of the Dialogo he says ‘I know perfectly well that the Pythagoreans had the highest esteem for the science of number and that Plato himself admired the human intellect and believed that it participates in divinity solely because it is able to understand the nature of numbers, and I myself am well inclined to make the same judgment’. Up until Galileo most Medieval sciece had been Aristotelian which meant it was very much ‘go out there and take a look science’, as Aristotle had weighed and measured and dissected creatures on the shores of Ionia. Galileo began modern science not by doing experiments but by realizing that mathematics is the key to understanding nature and he owed that to Plato.