Is It Better to Burn at the Stake?

I’m still in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream. I’m far enough along that one of the central questions–maybe the central question–of the book is clear. The question is this: if Galileo had chosen to be martyred rather than to recant his pro-Copernican astronomical observations, would our society today be more pro-science, and less anti-intellectual and superstitious? Is Galileo’s recantation a turning point of history?

It is tough to see how that would work, how Galileo’s being burned at the stake would change the course of history. His astronomical observations were a matter of fact, of direct observation. As high resolution telescopes spread across the land, anyone and everyone could replicate Galileo’s observations of the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. The Church’s forces could not win this argument, not in the long term.

They could, however, beat him down in the short term. They could shut him away, and forbid him from publishing, even if they could not change the truth. and the short term was what they cared about. They cared about discouraging others from shaking up the approved cosmology. Galileo’s enemies didn’t give a toss about the solar system, but they cared about protecting their position.

Challenge of authority is what martyrdom is about, and when the martyr finds the sacrifice necessary, it is to make that point, that they recognize a higher authority. Joan of Arc, Nathan Hale, John Brown–they confronted authority over ideas of religion, political sovereignty, and social justice. These are concepts, less tangible than Venus or Jupiter, and they could not trust time or reality to make the truth as they saw it plain.

Galileo had to know his truth would prevail. He may or may not have said, “Nevertheless, it moves,” but in fact, it–the Earth–does. The problem is that Galileo’s enemies are still with us. Some are in positions of power, and to them, control of “message” is more important than what is right before them. Religious doctrine assists Galileo’s enemies and their descendants. All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with spiritual connection with the First Cause of the Universe, and everything to do with adherence to rules, even when those rules no longer serve any purpose, and have become a hindrance.

An additional problem is that science is different now. In Robinson’s novel, Galileo is brought forward in time, and is exposed to the science of multiple dimensions, quantum mechanics, and so forth, which require observational techniques way beyond the common and simple act of picking up a telescope and pointing it to the sky. This difficulty aids those who would deny physical reality.

What is the difference between a martyr and a victim? Some, like suicide bombers, seek martyrdom. Others we might label martyrs, like Martin Luther King, Jr., do not seek to die, although they may see it as a possible outcome. Still others have no idea how much trouble they are getting themselves into. I believe Galileo fell into this category. He simply did not believe his enemies would want so badly to silence him, that they, or anyone, could see physical reality itself as a threat to their power.

He could not have believed his death would advance the cause of truth, and neither do I.

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