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Materialism’s ‘Cheap-shot Galileo Fallacy’

November 15, 2014

Recently I was reading Complexity: A Guided Tour, by Melanie Mitchell (OUP, 2009). While discussing Galileo as a pioneer of experimental science, she makes the following comment as an aside: ‘(Galileo got in big trouble with the Catholic Church for promoting [heliocentrism] and was eventually forced to publicly renounce it; only in 1992 did the Church officially admit that Galileo had been unfairly persecuted)’ (p.17).

I cannot remember how many times I have read this sort of needless cheap-shot in otherwise-scientific texts. Whenever Materialists (atheists) want to take a shot at Theists, out comes the old ‘the Church persecuted Galileo’ canard—as if this somehow discredits Christianity or theism at large, or the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Much of the time these comments are actually embarrassingly irrelevant to the author’s discussion, as in Mitchell’s case. And, as in Mitchell’s case, much of the time the pejorative implication is left hanging, for the reader simply to guess at. I call this ‘the cheap-shot Galileo fallacy’. Of course the Roman Church’s treatment of Galileo was atrocious. The fallacy, however, is that citing the Roman Church’s treatment of Galileo somehow impugns theism or Christianity in general.

Are such people really so ignorant of scientific history? Are they truly unaware of how often Materialist scientists have mocked, excoriated, harassed, and marginalized peers for theories that would eventually become scientific orthodoxy? I doubt it. Scientists don’t get this far in their careers without knowing significant swaths of the history of science. I cannot help but conclude that those who invoke the Galileo fallacy are operating with an intentionally-selective memory. So here I will point out four well-known cases of Materialist malice, to help inoculate Materialists against selective-memory syndrome. Of course, numerous other examples could be cited.

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) is hailed today as the inventor of the modern atomic theory of matter and the founder of statistical mechanics. Nonetheless, during his lifetime his professional peers, including Ernst Mach, harshly denounced his ideas. Boltzmann eventually committed suicide—in part because he had a history of depression, though many have felt that the malicious treatment he received from his colleagues was a significant contributing factor. Ironically, and sadly, it was soon after his death that his theories were proven valid.

Georg Cantor (1845-1918) was the founder of set theory, now considered the fundamental basis of mathematics. ‘Although Cantor’s work seems obvious to us now, in his lifetime it was considered radical and unacceptable by many of his fellow mathematicians. Cantor suffered tremendously for holding fast to his ideas’ (Noson Yanofsky, The Outer Limits of Reason, The MIT Press, 2013, p.94). Such Materialists as Poincaré, Kronecker, and Wittgenstein heaped scorn on Cantor’s work. He received so much abuse from his peers that he suffered significant bouts of depression for much of his professional life.

J. Harlen Bretz (1882-1981) was a geologist ridiculed and marginalized for decades by his professional peers for his theory of catastrophic flooding, which he first proposed in the 1920s. Yet in 1979, at age 97, the Geological Society of America awarded Betz its highest honor, the Penrose Medal, for his ground-breaking work. (Sorry—I couldn’t resist the lame pun!)

Then there is the notorious case of Dan Schechtman. In the 1980s Schechtman was working with a particular metal alloy, from which he created a pattern of crystals which scientific orthodoxy of the day considered impossible to exist in nature. As it turned out, he had found an entirely new class of solid material, which is now called quasi-crystals. For years, however, colleagues mocked him because, within their set of [false] assumptions, they considered it impossible for such a pattern of crystals to exist. Schechtman was even asked to resign from his research team at The Johns Hopkins University ‘for bringing disgrace on the team’ with his absurd claims. Schechtman has described how Linus Pauling, a giant in late 20th Century science who won two Nobel Prizes, spent a decade ridiculing Schechtman, trying to discredit his work and end his career. Yet in the end Schechtman was proven right: in 2011 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—for his discovery of something that supposedly couldn’t exist! The Nobel Committee stated that Schechtman’s work ‘forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter’. Here is a scientist whose peers ridiculed his ideas and tried to destroy his career—yet went on to receive a Nobel Prize for his work.

In light of such examples (and many more could be cited), criticisms of ‘the Church’ for its treatment of Galileo seem willfully ignorant of history. Indeed, one could make a case that far fewer scientists have suffered rebuke and marginalization by ‘the Christian Church’ than by ‘the Materialist Church’. It is time that Materialists stopped using the strawman figure of Galileo to try to hammer ‘the Church’ and/or theism. Invoking Galileo in this way simply combines a selectively-biased reading of history with fallacious reasoning, producing nothing more than hackneyed and misleading cant. The Roman Church abused Galileo in his day; in our day the Materialist Church has found a new way to abuse him, namely by co-opting him for the Materialist cause — which, as a Theist himself, Galileo would have opposed.

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Vinoth Ramachandra

IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement

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