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The Early Modern Revolution in Science and Philosophy

Fictionalism, Probabilism, Fideism, and Catholic ‘Prophetism’
  • Benjamin Nelson
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 3)

Abstract

The early modern revolution in science and philosophy has been arduously studied and discussed for at least two centuries now.1 Contemporary scholars and publicists2 are everywhere continuing, with undiminished vigor, to explore archives3, plumb sources, and to dispute one another’s interpretations.4 Nonetheless, few would claim that the roots and outcomes of the 17th-century ‘breakthrough’ had been reliably established.5 Indeed, many of the central issues are hardly more clear to us than are the circumstances and ideas which explain the breathless ‘take-off’ of our own century.6

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References

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    Santillana (1955), pp. 165-166; cf. Koestler, p. 533, for a very strong endorsement of Urban VIII’s argument in the light of current physical theory. See, however, Santillana, p. 167.Google Scholar
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    For the texts, see Favaro (1907), pp. 61–62. A vast literature has accumulated on the discrepancies between several 1616 actions — notably those of February 25 and February 26 especially as these arise in and qualify our understanding of the 1633 Sentence. The February 26,1616 protocol has, indeed, been declared a forgery by many scholars because of its odd twists and turns. Koestler’s textual discussion of the juridical and theological issues reveal lapses of command and lacks of precision. See the criticisms by Father Brodrick, pp. 366, 376–377 in notes. I hope to discuss the relevant procedural and moral theological questions from fresh points of view in later essays.Google Scholar
  122. 122.
    Favaro, op. city pp. 62–63. Crombie errs in tracing the 1633 Proceedings to this decree alone.Google Scholar
  123. 123.
    Koestler’s references to ‘probability’ in the 1633 Sentence —see below in note — are in manifest contradiction with the argument of Father Inchofer’s official protocol as Qualifier to the Inquisition. Favaro (1907), p. 89, p. 95. Yet Koestler’s errors are easier to overlook than it is to understand Crombie’s highly personal reconstruction of Bellarmine’s life and mind: “A student of astronomy in his youth, it had been Bellar- mine’s unhappy task to frame the decision that led Giordano Bruno to his death at the stake in 1600. Undoubtedly his policy over Galileo was based on a determination never to let that episode be repeated. Over seventy years old, he aimed at administrative peace, and his method of achieving it was to take the alternative way to Galileo’s in order to escape the conflict between astronomy and Scripture. His policy was to weaken the conclusions of natural science and to accept the new astronomy as in no sense established with ‘indubitable certainty’ but only as ‘probable opinion and plausible conjecture’, to accept it only in a form that would leave undisturbed the literal interpretation of Scripture and the Aristotelian cosmology which historical accident had married with it. He shut his eyes to the respects in which the union was less like marriage than living in sin. Yet although primarily administrative in their aim and limited in their application, it cannot be denied that Bellarmine’s arguments succeeded in making a philosophical point against Galileo. Their two philosophies represent a classical polarisation of opposites, an antithesis in the conception of the discoveries and inventions of theoretical science that is at once ancient, persistent, and easily misunderstood” (Crombie, 2 (1959), pp. 207–08). The moral of all this is clear: Scientists and scholars now working in the history of science need to become more careful in their rendering of certain important expressions. If strict fidelity to logic and history is sought, probabilis, probabilitas, probabilismus - and only these words - should be rendered as ‘probable’, ‘probability* or ‘probabilism’. In point of tradition, terms such as verisimilis and notions like ‘hypothesis saving the phenomena* or ‘statistical frequency* are at a great remove from speculative and moral probability, which relate to the technically elaborated dialectics of different shades of probable opinion. (Professor Popper is one of the very few writers on the subject who have recognized the pitfalls of the word verisimilis.) Even exceptionally reliable writers as Rosen and Blake waver now and then on this point. See, e.g., Rosen (1959), p. 25; Blake, p. 32.Google Scholar
  124. 124.
    There were ambiguities in Galileo’s situation when viewed from the standpoint of the highest level of moral theology. It is hard to account for Galileo’s acts after 1616, except on the hypothesis that Galileo and his learned advisors in the clergy thought that there were theological loopholes available to Galileo so long as he adopted the probabilist stance. Cf. the passages cited from Cardinal Caramuel’s Theologia Moralis Fundamentalis in Nelson (1965c). Also, the Anti-Aristarchus of Galileo’s contemporary, Fromond of Louvain, cited in Ward (1865), p. 406. In short, there was no clear-cut doctrine as to whether a view denounced by a Congregation of the Index as opposed to Holy Scripture did or did not preserve any measure of probability of one or another sort. See also, Descartes’ notable and quotable remarks on the issue in his letter to Mersenne of April 1,1634. Tr. in Crombie 2 (1959), pp. 218–219.Google Scholar
  125. 125.
    The Qualifiers closed off Galileo’s routes in two ways:(1) They insisted that he had discussed matters assertively rather than hypothetically; (2j they charged that it was heresy to impute probability to a proposition which had been declared to be contrary to Holy Scriptures. See, e.g., Favaro (1907), pp. 87–96. Koestler misconceives the reference to probability in the sentence of the Inquisitors of 1633. W. G. Ward’s Victorian discussion of the issue of probability is much better informed. See Ward (1865), esp. pp. 412–414, where he discriminates between the meanings of probability in strict theology and in ordinary usage. He also offers interesting sidelights on theo¬logical notions of ‘hypothesis’ and ‘scientifically grounded’. I am not, however, able to accept the details of Ward’s reconstruction (pp. 414-415) of the meaning and intended effect of the 1633 Decree.Google Scholar
  126. 126.
    Cf. translations in Ward (1865) and in Santillana, pp. 306-314.Google Scholar
  127. 127.
    Nelson (1965c).Google Scholar
  128. 128.
    Despite the studies of Van Leeuwen (1963) and Popkin (1960), we are in great need of a critical history of the linked ideas of certitude and certainty. No such study can be done without an exhaustive study of the treatises and polemics on conscience and probability, where the matters of certitude receive their most elaborate analysis. It is not surprising, therefore, to note that Koestler and Crombie almost entirely do little by way of exploring these issues.Google Scholar
  129. 129.
    This fact emerges clearly in a study of the documents of 1633. See, e.g., Favaro, pp. 79–80.Google Scholar
  130. 130.
    Cf. the careful statements of the Qualifiers, esp. those of the Jesuit Melchior Inchofer. Favaro (1907), pp. 89-95. Inchofer explains: “Sed non est hypothosis mathe- matica quae conclusionibus physicis et necessariis stabilitur” (ibid., p. 92).Google Scholar
  131. 131.
    Koestler writes: “This legend and hindsight combined to distort the picture, and gave rise to the erroneous belief that to defend the Copernican hypothesis entailed the risk of ecclesiastical disfavour or persecution. During the first fifty years of Galileo’s lifetime, no such risk existed and the thought did not even occur to Galileo” (op. cit., p. 358; cf. p. 449).Google Scholar
  132. 132.
    Crombie(1950); idem, 2(1958).Google Scholar
  133. 133.
    Rosen (1959), p. 24, n. 68.Google Scholar
  134. 134.
    For modern interpretations of this passage, see Duhem (1908), pp. 585-586; Crombie (1959), 2, pp. 214–216; Koestler (1959), p. 473.Google Scholar
  135. 135.
    See his De divina omnipotentia, discussed in Geyer (1928), pp. 187–188.Google Scholar
  136. 136.
    is Geyer (1928), pp. 186–190, esp. p. 187; Gilson (1930), pp. 37–38; cf. the discussion of Walter of Saint Victor (d. 1180) and his treatise, Against the Four Labyrinths of France, ibid., p. 79.Google Scholar
  137. 137.
    Van Leeuwen (1963); Popkin (1960).Google Scholar
  138. 138.
    For the history of the claims of conscience, the opposition to probabilism, and the quest for certitude and certainty, see the literature cited in Nelson (1965c), especially the works of Kirk and Stewart (1919) in his introduction to his edition of the provincial Letters of Pascal.Google Scholar
  139. 139.
    Our point here is not rendered weaker by referring, as Duhem and his followers regularly do, to Pascal’s queries on Copernicus. I hope one day to study the ideological cross-currents in the polemics against Galileo and Descartes by the French ‘Pascalians’ among the historians and philosophers of science. See, e.g., Duhem (1911) and Picard (1925). The present paper is the discussion of the opposition to these thinkers by Ger-man and other scholars sharing a partiality for Kepler (The Sleepwalkers) against Galileo in this regard. Lest an impression be left that Galileo was, after all, aprobabilist, it remains to be added that Galileo - like Descartes, Pascal, and Newton — had to strike out against the vast storehouse of probable arguments received from the past. See, e.g., Dialogue, Day 2, as cited in Crombie (1950), p. 117. In the final note of this Appendix it is a pleasure to be able to add that in the 1959 revised edition of his valuable book, Crombie offers a fresh review of the influence of the struggle over hypothesis in the life and work of Galileo, Newton, and in the 17th-century science generally. Crombie, 2 (1959), pp. 215–290, 315–333. This discussion carries Crombie well beyond his own 1950 essay, beyond Duhem’s writings of 1905–1914, and for that matter, beyond Koestler, who, as has been pointed out above, strangely never mentions Crombie.Google Scholar
  140. 140.
    See, also, Father Brodrick’s remarks in his latest and most popular study of Galileo (1966).Google Scholar
  141. 141.
    The spirited tone of Father Brodrick’s self-criticisms is struck at the very outset: “The most disconcerting chapter in the old volumes re-read thirty-three years later was that entitled The first Troubles of Galileo’. Myself when young spent many weary months in the Reading Room of the British Museum poring daily over the twenty volumes of Favaro’s Opere di Galileo Galilei, but the labour did not cure my romantic determination to justify Roberto even in the esoteric realms of physical science where I see now rather ruefully that he possessed no competence whatever ” (Brodrick (1961), p. I X ).Google Scholar
  142. 142.
    Ibid., pp. 365–366. Ibid., p. 365 n. 3. 144 Ibid., pp. 365–366.Google Scholar
  143. 143.
    Ibid., p. 365 n. 3.Google Scholar
  144. 144.
    Ibid., pp. 365–366.Google Scholar
  145. 145.
    Ibid., p. 367.Google Scholar
  146. 146.
    Ibid., pp. 364–365.Google Scholar
  147. 147.
    Ibid., p. 365.Google Scholar
  148. 148.
    Ibid p. 365 n. 3–366.Google Scholar
  149. 149.
    Idem (1928), 2, p. 335.Google Scholar
  150. 150.
    Addendum (10 July, Ì967): While this essay was going through the press, I have studied the following relevant writings with profit: the two chapters on Scheiner and Maffeo Barberini in A. Favaro’s series on the ‘Oppositori di Galileo’ published separately at Venice in 1919 and 1921 (cf. Atti del R. 1st. Veneto di sc., lett. ed arti 78, pt. 2a and 80, pt. 2a); W. Risse, Logik der Neuzeit, I (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 1964); H. Blumenberg’s moving introduction to the German transl. of the Siderius nuncius and other selections from Galileo (Frankfurt, Sammlung Insel, 1965); and Mach’s unnoticed Foreword to F. Adler’s German transl. (Leipzig 1912) of Duhem (1905).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company / Dordrecht-Holland 1967

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin Nelson
    • 1
  1. 1.The New School for Social ResearchNew York CityUSA

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