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Galileo's Defense of a Heliocentric Universe in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615

Updated on December 16, 2013
Copernican Heliocentric Model of the Universe (1543)
Copernican Heliocentric Model of the Universe (1543)

Galileo Confirms the Heliocentric Model

At the time Galileo wrote his letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine - Grand Duchess of Tuscany, there was much debate about the orientation of the Universe. Galileo, following the belief of Nicolaus Copernicus, was a proponent of a heliocentric Universe, meaning that the Sun was fixed in space and that the Earth revolved around it. This was a novel idea during the early 17th century in a time when most believed the Ptolemaic portrayal of a geocentric or Earth-centered Universe. With his newly improved telescope, Galileo had observed things that people before him had not been able to see and thus he came to agree with the earlier assumption of Copernicus. Over time, it came to a point where those scientists who still believed in a geocentric system could no longer refute the evidence that Galileo had presented through observation with his telescope. He said they they took refuge in obstinate silence. However, there were those who set out to discredit Galileo in any way they could. Causing much turmoil between himself and the Catholic church, Galileo was repeatedly harassed by his contemporaries. The letter to the Grand Duchess served as his response to his critics and a defense of his position. It is important to note that Galileo not only sent word to the Duchess Christina but also to others in which his main purpose was to set forth clearly his view of the impropriety of mixing science and religion.

Throughout the letter, Galileo describes the main argument against him as coming from scripture and also seems to reassure the Grand Duchess, a Church affiliate, that his argument and moreover, his science, served to reinforce the Bible. It is easily seen from Galileo's writing that his stance was criticized with material taken mainly from the Christian Bible. This indicates the Christian beliefs that most people had during the time and the reverence that was paid to the Bible. While in this instance it may have been used incorrectly, most people still chose the Bible as their first voice of reason, even to describe things such as the physical world surrounding them. Galileo reported that they used literal translations of scripture to deface his character and ideas. He stated that he was being attacked by those who did not understand the idea of a heliocentric system and who were simply trying to discredit him in any way they could. Not only did they attack his scientific thoughts, they attacked him personally and went as far as calling him a heretic.

Galileo vs. The Inquisition
Galileo vs. The Inquisition

The Relationship Between Science and Religion

Galileo defends himself by saying that it is incorrect for his critics to use the Bible in the way they are using it. Essentially, he says they are using it out of context and he goes on to state that the Bible was not created to describe the heavens, it is for the single purpose of the salvation of souls. Therefore, how could one seek to describe something with a text that had nothing to do with what one was attempting to describe. He continues to say that science should reinforce what the Bible says. People should use their observations of the heavens to help reveal the true meaning that the Holy Spirit gives. According to Galileo, God would not give us senses, reason, or intellect for us to deny them or let them go unused. He seems to hold the Bible in great esteem and is obviously trying to make sure that the Duchess knows that he is by no means discrediting or disagreeing with the Bible - he is discrediting and disagreeing with his critics who are incorrectly using the Bible to attack his character.

The main source of criticism toward Galileo came from those who took the meaning of the Bible literally. It is difficult to tell whether or not this was the case with everyone else: whether they believed in a literal translation of the Bible or they sought to find a deeper meaning from scriptures as a whole. However, it is obvious that the Church and Christianity had a lot of power in Italy and Europe at this time. The letter gives clues about the beliefs and ideas of people during this time: that they had a strong belief in Christianity, but they were also in a time of great debate - not only on the matter of how the Universe was oriented, but also on the progression of science as a whole. The Church had a great deal of power as evident from Galileo's eventual condemnation which took nearly 300 years to be reconciled in which a public apology was made by the Catholic church.

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    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 

      5 years ago from New Zealand

      An interesting hub RCW, voted up. I think people take comfort in religion, which means it is used as a "cure" for unpleasant uncertainties, such as the shape of the solar system. This can lead people to use the Bible for a wider purpose than intended. Also, the profundity of answers ascribed to religion means that it will be the first source used. It will also lead to an ignorance of many other intellectual pursuits, including science, because the individual will become pre-occupied with gods and scripture - if God is always the answer, why learn of anything else? Galileo was an absolute hero for what he had to face.

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