Tres casos: Galileo, Lavoisier y Duhem

Three cases: Galileo, Lavoisier and Duhem

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Aceprensa, 46/92
Date of publication: 1 April 1992

Everyone has heard of the Galileo case, almost always in a biased way. Few know that Lavoisier, one of the founders of the Chemistry, was guillotined by the French Revolution. Hardly anyone has heard of Pierre Duhem, an important physicist, author of a monumental work on the history and Philosophy of science that shed new light on the positive relations between science and faith.

When talking about science and faith, two words cross many people's minds: civil service examination, and Galileo. Few think of partnership, and none of Duhem. This is a pity.

Galileo died a natural death

Every year I speak several times about Galileo in my classes and lectures. Many listeners probably think that Galileo was burned by the Inquisition. That is why I usually say that Galileo died a natural death at the age of 78. Almost always, when I finish, some people say to me: it's true, I thought Galileo was burned.

This happened to me for the last time last January. A priest who had attended my lecture came to see me. He was indignant, and rightly so. thesis We were in Rome, where he was working on his doctoral degree in Theology, and he asked me: how can a person like me, who has been a Catholic priest for several years, who has studied at a seminar and at a Pontifical University, find out now, at this late date, that Galileo was not killed? And he added: "A few days ago, a colleague of my residency program was visiting the Quirinal Palace, and he told us that the guide, at one point of the visit, pointed to a balcony well visible and said: from that balcony, the Pope made the gesture of putting his finger down, to condemn Galileo to death.

How do you explain all this? I don't know. It is very strange. The truth is that Galileo was born on Tuesday 15 February 1564, and died on Wednesday 8 January 1642, at his home, a villa in Arcetri, near Florence. Viviani, who stayed with him continuously for the last thirty months, says that his health was very poor: he had had severe arthritis since the age of 30, and to this was added "a constant and almost unbearable irritation of the eyelids" and "other ailments that come with such an advanced age, especially when one has been consumed with much study and vigil". He adds that, in spite of everything, he was still full of plans for work, until finally "he was seized by a fever that slowly consumed him and a strong palpitation, so that for two months he became more and more exhausted, and finally, on a Wednesday, which was the 8th of January 1642, at about four in the morning, he died with philosophical and Christian firmness, at the age of seventy-seven years, ten months and twenty days".

Galileo's ghost

In 1633 the famous trial of Galileo took place in Rome. He was not condemned to death, nor did anyone claim to be. No one tortured him, nor beat him, nor laid a finger on him; there was no class physical abuse. He was sentenced to prison which, given his good dispositions, was immediately commuted to house arrest. From the trial until his death, he lived at home. He continued to work intensively, and published his most important work at that time.

Three of the ten high dignitaries of the tribunal refused to sign the sentence. The Pope had nothing officially to do with the tribunal or the sentence. Of course, the trial should not have taken place, and it was regrettable. But Galileo's work went on.

So, it has just been 350 years since Galileo's natural death. I am at agreement with my occasional student de Roma: it seems incredible that, at this point in time, almost everyone, including Catholic priests, are seriously mistaken about important aspects of a case that is continually used to attack the Church and to affirm, as if it were a historical fact, that religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular have always been against scientific progress.

The case of Lavoisier

Who knows anything about Lavoisier's case, which is far more serious than Galileo's?

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was born on 26 August 1743 in Paris. He produced many important scientific works. More than 60 of his papers were published at the Académie des Sciences. He was one of the main protagonists of the scientific revolution that led to the consolidation of the Chemistry, which is why he is often regarded as the father of the modern Chemistry .

His great sin was to work in the collection of taxes. For this reason, he was arrested in 1793. Important people did all they could to save him. Halle is said to have presented to the court all the work that Lavoisier had done, and it is said that the president of the court then famously said: "The Republic does not need wise men". Lavoisier was guillotined on 8 May 1794, when he was 51 years old. Joseph Louis Lagrange, a leading mathematician whose surname is well known to all mathematicians and physicists, said the next day: "It took only an instant to cut off his head; it will be a hundred years before another like it is born".

Obviously, Lavoisier was not guillotined for the faith. And I am not bent on attacking the Revolution, or the Republic, or anyone else. I simply find it extremely strange that there is such a disproportion between what reaches public opinion about the cases of Galileo and Lavoisier.

When I had just written the previous paragraph - I give you my word - a friend of mine, a biology teacher and a good Catholic, came to see me. We discussed what I was writing. He told me that recently a friend of his from another country said to him: "You are a biologist and a Catholic at the same time, how strange! It's the first case I've ever heard of.....

It's a very apt description. It is a little strange, but it is real. Probably for reasons that historians and sociologists could investigate, it has long been thought, in many circles, that science and religion are opposites. The truth is that this is not true. The great pioneers of modern science were Christians. Galileo was always a Catholic. Among scientists of all ages, there is no shortage of convinced Christians. Today, non-believing scientists often acknowledge that their agnosticism has nothing to do with science, and that there is no objective difficulty in being both a good scientist and a good Christian.

Duhem: physicist, philosopher, historian... and Catholic

This brings us to the case of Duhem. He is a very well known, if not always well interpreted, character in the field of science Philosophy , and totally unknown to the public. However, it is worth knowing what he did.

Pierre Duhem was a French physicist of great intellectual stature. He was born in 1861 and died in 1916. The list of his articles and books occupies 17 pages of a good-sized book. He wrote extensively on highly specialised scientific subjects, and also dealt with Philosophy and the history of science. Several of his works are multi-volume books, and one of them has 10 volumes of 500 pages each. He was undoubtedly one of the most important physicists of his time. He was a staunch Catholic, and led a truly exemplary life in all respects.

As far as I know, none of Duhem's works, at least of the most important ones, have been translated into Spanish. There are, however, some translated into other languages; even one of them, "The Physical Theory", was translated into German two years after its appearance, with a very favourable preface by Ernst Mach, another important physicist-philosopher whose ideas were not very Catholic.

Duhem is the pioneer of the historical programs of study about medieval science, topic which is of increasing importance today. This is the aspect I am going to focus on.

The origin of modern science

Duhem was a tireless worker who, despite his great stature, did not become a professor in Paris, perhaps due to ideological obstacles. This allowed him to work a lot on his own. He was interested in the history of science and set about researching the past. To his surprise, he found in the French archives many ancient manuscripts, never published, which shed new light on the birth of modern science.

According to the generally accepted cliché, modern science seemed to have been born in the 17th century practically out of nothing. The Age average would have been an obscurantist age, dominated by theology and the enemy of science. The birth of modern science would have occurred only when free-thinking emancipated itself from the Church and theology. Well, Duhem found a wealth of documentation that disproved this cliché, and published it, annotated, in the 10 large volumes of "The System of the World".

To understand status, it should be borne in mind that printing did not exist until the 16th century. Earlier works, and therefore the works of medieval people, were manuscripts. When the printing press was discovered, many manuscripts were forgotten in the archives. The pioneers of the new science were not concerned to point out their intellectual debts to previous authors, but rather to emphasise the novelty of their works. The Age average was left in the shadows.

Duhem worked directly with many unpublished medieval manuscripts. His work led him to the conviction that the Age average, especially at the University of Paris, but also at Oxford and other intellectual centres, was a time when the concepts that allowed the systematic birth of modern experimental science in the 17th century were gradually developed. Duhem's work opened an enormous research field that has been continued by leading historians from all subject countries and ideologies.

The Christian cultural matrix

Stanley Jaki was born in Hungary in 1924. He settled in the United States in 1951. He holds a doctorate in physics and theology, is a professor at Seton Hall University (New Jersey), and has been invited to lecture at the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Princeton, Sydney and many others. He has published nearly 30 books on the relationship between science, Philosophy and culture. In 1987 he was awarded the award Templeton Prize by Prince Philip of Great Britain in recognition of his publications.

Jaki put a great deal of effort into writing the first comprehensive biography of Pierre Duhem, which was published in 1984 by publishing house Hijhoff in The Hague. He has continued and expanded Duhem's work on the birth of modern science and its relationship to religion.

Jaki states that in the great cultures of antiquity (Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China, etc.), experimental science did not find a favourable ground. Rather, the few attempts at birth ended in successive abortions. A determining factor was that in these cultures nature was represented as subject to capricious divinities, or thought of in a pantheistic way. Jaki examines these problems from a historical point of view and concludes that the birth of modern science was only possible in Christian Europe, when what he calls the "Christian cultural matrix" came into being.

That cultural matrix included the belief in a creator God staff , who has freely created the world. Because creation is free, the world is contingent, and we can only know it if we study it with financial aid from observation and experimentation. Because God is infinitely wise, the world is rational and follows laws; as Christian revelation repeatedly affirms, the world is full of order. Because God created man in his own image and likeness, man participates in the divine intelligence and is capable of knowing the world.

In fact, it is easy to see that the great pioneers of modern science shared these convictions, that they held them because they were Christians and lived within a Christian cultural matrix, and that in some cases they themselves affirmed the importance of these ideas for their scientific work . For example, Kepler made many attempts over the years until he found his famous laws, convinced that they had to exist in a universe created by divine wisdom, and that they had to be agreement with the observational data of Tycho Brahe.

Of course, it is not enough to be a Christian to do science; science is done with mathematics and experiments. But modern science was born and has developed for centuries in a Christian West that has provided it with a suitable matrix.

Science, culture and ideology

I realise that these statements may surprise some people. Duhem's works, those of Jaki and other similar authors, are not usually translated into Spanish. Moreover, for a long time science has been presented as being in a perpetual struggle with religion, although this does not correspond to the facts. The public is given a distorted picture of the Galileo case and of the relationship between science and religion in general.

Duhem expressly warned about the ideological and cultural importance of science and the Philosophy of science in our civilisation. This is increasingly topical. I can't resist giving you some hints, in case you are interested.

Stanley Jaki has recently published a book on Duhem. It is 278 pages long, and includes a selection of Duhem's original texts. It is entitled "Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem", and was published in 1991 by Christendom Press: Christendom College, Front Royal, VA 22630, USA.

In 1990, Ediciones Palabra, Madrid, published "Ciencia, fe y cultura", a series of essays by Stanley Jaki, the first by Jaki to be published on Spanish.

The undersigned has written three easy-to-read books on these subjects. One has just been published by Ediciones Palabra (Madrid), and is entitled "El hombre a la luz de la ciencia" (Man in the light of science). In a couple of months another two will be available, from the same publishing house, entitled "Las fronteras del evolucionismo" (The frontiers of evolutionism) and "Ciencia, razón y fe" (Science, reason and faith). Forgive me for the self-publicity, but receipt frequently receives enquiries about this subject from bibliography. If you are interested in these topics, you will like them: in its early versions, four editions have been produced in a few years. If you have any complaints and write to me, I will be happy to receive them and answer them. I really will. It's about time a few things were cleared up.