Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic post 12 (?): Galileo

Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic Post 11 (?) Galileo


To understand how it is that so many secularists and humanists have come to take the view that science and only science can tell us truth, thus trapping themselves in a particularly misleading belief box, we need to start with the founder of modern science, Galileo.  Until the Reformation science was a wholly Catholic enterprise, well it could hardly have been anything else, and its homeland was southern Europe, particularly Italy.  Fibbonacci’s was only one of many distinguished names.  Many people regard Galileo as the first real scientist because instead of relying on the vague metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, he did experiments.  This is a profound misunderstanding.

Galileo Galilei.  He was inspired by Plato

Plato was Galileo’s major inspiration.  We need to understand that Galileo was not a modern person but an Italian Renaissance Christian humanist.  The leading figure of this movement was Marsilio Ficino, and he and his disciples met regularly in a kind of monastery or ashram devoted to beauty in a villa owned by the Medici at Carregi, near Florence.  A votive lamp was kept burning perpetually beneath a bust of Plato.  Plato had taught that the real world is that of abstract ideas, or the ideal forms as he called them. Material things were merely their botched copies. The humanists were enthralled by Plato’s teaching that mathematics, music, beauty and divine inspiration are inseparable.  “Let none enter here who knows not Geometry” was inscribed above the entrance to Plato’s Academy in Athens.  To these the Christian humanists had added the figure of the Biblical Wisdom.  “When he established the heavens, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep…then I was beside him like a master worker and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always”.  Their philosophy was expressed most memorably in Botticelli’s two paintings, the Primavera and The Birth of Venus.


In Primavera the central figure is Venus who is pregnant and beating time.   She is dressed in the traditional garments of the Virgin Mary.  Above her hovers Cupid, messenger of love, with his arrow ready drawn.  Apart from Cupid, there are eight  figures, representing the notes of the musical scale, with the second and seventh facing the other way as the semitones of the octave.  On the right  Zephyr, a wind god, has emerged from the underworld and is raping Chloe, a wood nymph, and from their union springs Flora, goddess of flowers, who is stepping out of the mythology into the world of the spectator.  The picture is completed by Mercury, another wind god, who is pointing with his caduceus towards heaven, thus harmonizing with Zephyr and completing the scale as the eighth note is in harmony with the first.


Botticelli’s Primavera (Spring).  Expresses the Platonic idea that the beauty of nature is the work of a goddess, who is both Venus and the Virgin Mary, both expressions of Wisdom, and both musical and mathematical

In the Birth Venus’s body is again divided into eight parts, and as in Primavera, to record the semitones of the octave, Venus’s knees and neck are bent at the second and seventh station.  Many commentators think her body is also presented as a Fibbonacci sequence, while  Hora is waiting to clothe her in the flowers of spring.  The sea is pictured as a sequence of semi-circles and Venus’s breasts as perfect circles.  The picture is saturated in the Platonic philosophy:  beauty is mathematical and mathematics is beautiful.  It is hard to think of a mental world that is more different from our own.  But it was Galileo’s intellectual background,


The Birth of Venus.  The creation is both beautiful and mathematical.


The dominating influence on Medieval science had been Aristotle.  In Aristotle’s science, there was a distinction between natural and violent movement.  In natural motion things fell back naturally to the centre of the earth.  But humans interfered with that in violent motion, and everything was moved physically by something else.  A ball would naturally fall to the ground, but you can interfere with that by throwing it up into the air.  You pushed the air with your hand which pushed the ball until the momentum your push had given to the air weakens and the ball falls.  But Galileo was inspired by Plato and his reverence for mathematics.  “Plato himself admired the human intellect” he wrote “and believed that it participates in divinity solely because it understands the nature of numbers, and I am inclined to make the same judgment”.  Underlying the world of objects there is a more fundamental world of mathematics.  Mathematics is not a useful kind of descriptive language, it is mathematics, not pushes and air, that actually moves things.  His experiments were designed to show not what is the case but everything that is not the case. Far from causing movement, it is the air that stops movement.  In the famous experiment from the leaning Tower of Pisa (which he probably never did for he had no means of creating a vacuum) he showed that in a vacuum feathers and cannonballs would fall at the same speed.  It is the different effects of the air that makes them fall at different speeds.  In his theory of inertia, he showed that once an object was set moving it would carry on for ever unless it was stopped, usually by air (although it would take Newton who, in the wake of Boyle’s experiments with the air pump, could make a vacuum to confirm it).  Underlying the physical world there is an abstract, eternal, invisible world, itself unmoving, that “participates in divinity”


All this fitted admirably with Catholic doctrine.  According to Catholic teaching God is not outside the world but deep within it, not the manufacturer of the world but the artist who expresses himself in it.  “God is within the world and that innermostly” wrote Aquinas.  God dwells in matter which is, as a consequence, holy.  Matter is moved by mathematical beauty which is therefore the handmaid of God, but in this fallen world it is held up by obstacles.  Galileo did not see himself as destroying the Medieval myth of cosmic harmony but strengthening it by putting it on a scientific basis.  But that was not how the Church saw it.  They had already burnt Giordano Bruno alive in Rome, and Catholic scientists became terrified of the Inquiisition.   The Church killed Catholic science.  Science moved north with devastating consequences.


Photo of Galileo image by shy zhao courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Photo of Primavera by summoning-ifrit courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

photo of The Birth of Venus by Marek & Anna courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons






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