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Monday, February 11, 2013

Eppur si muove

There is a good story by Adam Gopnik in the current New Yorker about Galileo--next year marks the 450th anniversary of his birth and there are several new books about him. This got me thinking about Galileo's status as a hero (or martyr) for free expression and about the free-speech ideals in play in his story.

On one hand, Milton mentioned the aging and imprisoned Galileo in Areopagitica (Gopnik says Milton visited Galileo during the latter's house arrest) as an example of the evils of official licensure. We often point to Galileo and his punishment by the Inquisition as Exhibit A in the need for epistemological (or epistemic) humility--that we cannot know what is true, what we hold as true may come to be shown false, and that the authorities should not enforce one version of scientific, political, or other truth. He represents the man proven right by history, thus the paradigmatic example of why government should not have the power to declare facts and ideas wrong.  

On the other hand, as Gopnik describes, some (notably Bertolt Brecht) have taken the position that Galileo was not a hero because he recanted rather than subject himself to torture or death for his beliefs.  Others (including historian Thomas Mayer, who has written two new books about Galileo's trial and the Italian Inquisition) insist that Galileo contributed to his own problems through hubris and pugnacity. He migh have avoided trouble by not taunting Pope Urban VIII or by presenting heliocentrism as a theory, on par with the Church's view, rather than as the one correct position that he himself believed. And several scholars argue that the trial, and its status as an illustration of the worst type of censorship, "is shrouded in myth and misunderstanding."

This leaves several interesting questions. Is Gopnik right that the myth of the trial in fact "seems pretty much right: Galileo wrote a book about the world saying that the earth goes around the sun, and the Church threatened to have him tortured or killed if he didn’t stop saying it, so he stopped saying it"? Or is that too simple? Should we accept a free speech regime that draws distinctions between what can be said generally and what can be advocated for as reflective of the speaker's true beliefs? Can a free-speech regime impose epistemological humility on individual speakers themselves (i.e., if the authorities must be humble as to what they know, must all speakers)?

Finally, is punishment and martyrdom the only way for someone to stand up for their free speech rights? Or does truth advance sufficiently simply because truth (particularly scientific truth) establishes something as reality, no matter that the government may insist the scientist must say about it. As Gopnik puts it, "the scientist can shrug at the torturer and say, Any way you want me to tell it, I will. You’ve got the waterboard. The stars are still there."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 11, 2013 at 09:31 AM in Article Spotlight, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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