Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mind Your Punctuation

Was that semi-colon some kind of flirty wink or just bad punctuation?

While this post will cover material from Feser’s book, you will find in it a break from the metaphysical.  The context is Aristotle’s science – well, science based on our narrow definition of today. 

Aristotle, like his contemporaries and many of his successors viewed that the earth stood at the center of the solar system.  Some have used what is now known as a faulty view as “proof” that Aristotle’s metaphysics are all wrong.  Feser offers that Aristotelian metaphysics don’t rely on his science at all.

As always, Aquinas affords us a clear example.  Far from insisting dogmatically that the Ptolemaic astronomy accepted in his day must be correct, he acknowledged that “the suppositions that these astronomers have invented need not necessarily be true; for perhaps the phenomenon of the stars are explicable on some other plan not yet discovered by man.”

Ptolemy was a second-century philosopher (in the broadest sense) who developed a geocentric view of the solar system; his view was accepted as valid for the better part of 1500 years – to include, therefore, the life of Aquinas.

In 1543, Copernicus published his work, challenging this long-standing view.  He concluded that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the solar system.  Despite this publication, the geocentric view held sway for the time.  Was it due to religion hindering science?  No, not really:

The geocentric system was still held for many years afterwards, as at the time the Copernican system did not offer better predictions than the geocentric system, and it posed problems for both natural philosophy and scripture. The Copernican system was no more accurate than Ptolemy's system, because it still used circular orbits.

The Copernican system offered no better predictions; it was not considered an improvement in the science (narrowly defined).  This brings us to Galileo; Feser goes on to briefly discuss this controversy.  He describes the knowledge that most people have of this incident as a caricature, taken as “evidence of Scholastic intransigence.”

Quite the opposite: Cardinal Bellarmine offered at the time that if there were real proof of Copernicus’s view, the Church would have to acknowledge that the common interpretation of certain biblical passages was mistaken. 

Galileo’s difficulty was not that he advocated Copernicus – he had done so for years with the knowledge and approval of the Church and the warm encouragement of the Pope; his difficulty came because he insisted on treating this view as proven, when it had not been proven.

Indeed, some of Galileo’s own arguments, it is now known, were seriously flawed. [While his conclusions are now known to be correct], the fact remains that it was Galileo, and not the Church, who dogmatically went beyond the evidence then available….

Feser offers that Galileo’s popular image as a martyr for science holds no more validity than the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

OK, OK…Feser is just doing his apologia.  Maybe.

The Inquisition's Semicolon: Punctuation, Translation, and Science in the 1616 Condemnation of the Copernican System (PDF):

This paper presents high-resolution images of the original document of the 24 February 1616 condemnation of the Copernican system, as being “foolish and absurd in philosophy”, by a team of consultants for the Roman Inquisition.  Secondary sources have disagreed as to the punctuation of the document. 

In this Inquisition, Galileo was exonerated (it was only when he persisted that his further troubles began):

Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII and thus alienated him and the Jesuits, who had both supported Galileo up until this point. He was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", and forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Keep in mind: this was a second Inquisition, more than fifteen years after the Inquisition being examined in the subject paper.  The 1616 Inquisition, in which Galileo was exonerated, asked consultants for an examination of the Copernican system.  The Inquisition delivered no formal condemnation, but the Vatican book censors went to work.  Did they strike the name Copernicus from every book, document, or manuscript?  Not exactly:

…[they censored] books that presented the Copernican system as being more than a hypothesis.

Yes, I know it isn’t total free speech, but it was a decision that conformed with the known science of the time.

But more importantly (and to the point of the title of this blog post): What is this issue of punctuation, and how does it play in this controversy?  To start: there are translations, and translations of translations.  “The differences in meaning that result are significant.”  A paraphrase if the Inquisition’s statement was released two decades later; the original was not released until the nineteenth century.

The offending statement:

(1)    The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy,* and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.

Note the asterisk:

At this point, between the word “philosophy” (philosophia) and the phrase “and formally heretical” (et formaliter haereticam), the original text in the Vatican manuscripts (folio 42r) shows a semicolon; Favaro (19: 321) has a comma; and Pagano (1984, p. 99) has no punctuation.

…there seems to be no justification for Pagano’s transcription, which conveys the impression that biblical contradiction is being given as a reason for ascribing both philosophical-scientific falsehood and theological heresy.

Apparently only a handful of sources depict the semicolon; most depict either a comma or no punctuation at all.  Now that the original exists, what is depicted?

These images show that there is punctuation between philosophia and et formaliter haereticam, and it appears to be a comma with a somewhat elongated dot above it. 

To bolster the case, the Inquisition’s consultants made similar statements on other propositions.  In each case, a semicolon clearly separated the philosophical (in a broad sense) conclusion from the religious.  These appear to be two separate conclusions, each standing on its own.

As Finocchiaro points out, the consultants' appraisal of the two Copernican propositions as “foolish and absurd in philosophy” is a philosophical-scientific appraisal.  They are saying the Copernican system is “scientifically untenable”.

Of course, we know today that Copernicus’s conclusion was correct.  Perhaps this is why so many hang their hats on punctuation other than a semicolon.  But Copernicus’s science was faulty:

…recent research has cast more light on the science behind the opposition to the Copernican system. 

The science is presented in the paper.  It was not possible that Copernicus’s science could be valid: the earth’s sun would be dwarfed by the size of the stars if Copernicus’s science was valid.  Many prominent scientists of the time had come to this conclusion. 


How did Copernicans respond?

Copernicans could not argue with the data.  They resorted to justifying the absurdly large stars in their system by appealing to Divine Majesty and Omnipotence: an infinitely powerful God could easily make such giant stars.


…in light of what we now know about opposition to the Copernican system, the consultants' assessment (original punctuation intact) makes more sense.   

And, perhaps, the fact that Galileo insisted on the Copernican system against scientific evidence suggests that it was the Church that insisted on scientific proof and not the “scientists.”


  1. The scientists I know today tend to have egos larger than their talents would justify. But some of those early philosophers had talents to justify even larger egos. It's not really surprising they would marry their theories and defend them to absurd lengths. I'm sure if man made climate change could be supported through scripture, they would do so.

    1. "I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." - Tolstoy

    2. Wow. I can think of a few topics that directly applies to both scientifically and politically.

    3. Great quote ATL. I can think of an example or two that could be applied to me, as well.

  2. "Feser offers that Galileo’s popular image as a martyr for science holds no more validity than the story of George Washington and the cherry tree."

    Will you be adding this one to your BU2B section?