The pope, Feyerabend and Galileo

Anytime you see a reference to Paul Feyerabend in the news, you can be almost certain that he’s being misinterpreted or taken out of context.

As newspapers have been reporting, the pope canceled a planned inaugural speech for the beginning of term at La Sapienza University, in response to the vehement objections of a group of scientists there. As the news reports would have it, the issue was that the pope (then Cardinal Ratzinger) had defended the heresy trial and conviction of Galileo, quoting philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend that the judgment against Galileo and his heliocentric theory was ‘rational and just’.

In this case (according to seemingly knowledgeable philosophers on the HOPOS mailing list and in the comments of this Leiter Reports post), Ratzinger invoked Feyerabend as one example of anti-rationalist thought, not necessarily as his own view. And the quote, while perhaps literally accurate, is a translation from the Ratzinger’s Italian speech, probably based on the German version of Feyerabend (either Against Method or Farewell to Reason). Feyerabend argued that the church’s position was rational in that the weight of scientific evidence really did favor heliocentrism at the time, and (to quote Barry Stocker’s comment from the Leiter post) ” had the right social intention, viz, to protect people from the machinations of specialists. It wanted to protect people from being corrupted by a narrow ideology that might work in restricted domains but was incapable of sustaining a harmonious life.”

That is, neither Feyerabend nor Ratzinger were suggesting that the judgment was just in the sense of Galileo having been wrong about heliocentrism (or his interpretation of scripture to square with heliocentrism).

But to be fair to the scientists protesting the pope’s speech, their main issue is not Galileo but the Vatican’s positions about the relationship between science and the church. As one professor explained on the CBC’s As It Happens (part 1, about 18 minutes in), it’s the tension between a religious authority and a secular university that’s the real issue; the pope has no place in the secular scholarly activities of the university, he argues.

But Galileo vs. the Church is always a good hook for a story. Don’t expect the misuse of the Galileo Affair, or of Feyerabend, to go away any time soon.