Updated July 2019
The Incomplete Copernican Revolution in Popular Legend, the Natural Sciences, and in Practical Reason (Morality) by Douglas R McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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The Incomplete Copernican Revolution in Popular Legend, the Natural Sciences, and in Practical Reason (Morality)
Abstract: There are three senses in which the Copernican Revolution of the 16th century is not yet complete today. The first sense is in terms of the popular account about what Copernicus actually accomplished and the reaction on the part of the church in Rome to Copernicus’ writings. The second sense is in terms of the meaning of the revolution for the natural sciences and what it means to do science after Copernicus. The third sense is in terms of practical reason (morality) or the religious consequences of the CR.
The Incomplete Copernican Revolution in Popular Legend
The popular account of the CR maintains that Copernicus displaced the earth from the physical center of the universe and, thereby, challenged what one took to be a cherished cornerstone of Christian theology with respect to God’s providential plan of salvation. Furthermore, the popular account claims that Copernicus’s writings were placed on the index by the Roman Catholic Church after his death. A corollary to the legend is that Galileo was excommunicated and placed under house arrest for his defense of the Copernican model.
As with all legends, there is a kernel of truth to these elements, but the distortions far outweigh the kernel. What is unequivocally true, of course, is that Copernicus forced us to deny our senses and to view our solar system, though he thought it was the universe, with the sun, not the earth, as its physical center. The Harvard Astrophysicist, Owen Gingerich demonstrated that almost everything else in the story is massive distortion.
Copernicus’ writings were censored by Rome, which of course is bad enough, though they were not placed on the Index of forbidden texts –however, the censorship was not of his science! Rather, he was censored wherever he claimed to have proof rather than an hypothesis. At those points of enthusiasm and not in rejection of his mathematics, the church raised its objection. However, Gingerich’s examination of the manuscripts by no means confirms even the semblance of universal censorship. To be sure, the closer the manuscript was to Rome (!), the more likely that it was censored. Outside of Italy, however, the manuscripts were not censored, and Copernicus’ writings were required reading for theologians at least in Spain.
Gingerich reports that the case with Galileo is similar. His mathematics was not rejected, he was never excommunicated, and he was placed under house arrest not for defending the Copernican system but for insubordination and defamation of the Pope. He made the mistake in portraying the Pope, his childhood friend, as the bungling simpleton (“Simplicio”) in his Diologue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Furthermore, Cardinal Baronius, Vatican librarian, not Galileo is the author of the famous aphorism: “The bible does not tell how the heavens go but how to go to heaven.”
In terms of the popular legend, then, the CR is far from complete since this legend is riddled with misconceptions and distortions. Not the least, concentration on the displacement of humanity from the center of physical reality eclipses the crucial sense in which humanity is unequivocally the epistemological and creative “center” of reality.