A Quick Story of Rationalism, Empiricism, and Balance

Rob Tisinai

February 20th, 2011

You may know of Galileo’s battles with the Catholic Church over the earth’s movement around the sun. Recently, though, I learned of the Church’s reaction to his discovery (using a telescope) of four moons around Jupiter.

He published his findings in a treatise called The Sidereal Messenger. Here’s how it was received:

In a very different spirit did the Aristotelians receive the Sidereal Messenger of Galileo. The principal professor of philosophy at Padua resisted Galileo’s repeated and urgent entreaties to look at the moon and planets through his telescope; and he even labored to convince the Grand Duke that the satellites of Jupiter could not possibly exist.

[The professor said:] “There are seven windows given to animals in the domicile of the head, through which the air is admitted to the tabernacle of the body, to enlighten, to warm, and to nourish it. What are these parts of the microcosmos? Two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth. So in the heavens, as in a macrocosmos, there are two favorable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury undecided and indifferent. From this and many other similarities in nature, such as the seven metals, etc. which it were tedious to enumerate, we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven. Moreover, these satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can exercise no influence on the earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist. Besides, the Jews and other ancient nations, as well as modern European, have adopted the division of the week into seven days, and have named them after the seven planets. Now, if we increase the number of the planets, this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.”

The philosophy professor thought he had a great argument, even one based in empirical fact:

  • There are seven holes in the head.
  • There are seven days in the week.
  • There are seven metals known from the ancient world.
  • Seven is clearly a number precious to the Lord.
  • Ergo, there must be seven bodies in the heavens (not counting the outer stars fixed in place in the sphere surrounding the earth).

Padua’s philosophy professor was an extreme rationalist. Despite his appeal to a few carefully-selected facts, once he built his argument he refused to check it against reality. In fact, for him, if this fancy “telescope” revealed contrary evidence, then Galileo must be a trickster or a liar.

As for the “Aristotelians” mentioned, the author isn’t using the term the way I have (Aristotle has inspired many writers, and in many ways). No, these Aristotelians are the Scholastics, medieval natural law philosophers committed to demonstrating the truth of Church doctrine through the use of reason. They are quite literally Robert George’s intellectual forbears.

I bring this up because it’s a great example of how dangerous extreme rationalism can be. I think we see a milder (but equally sloppy) version of it in George’s work, when he starts with a known conclusion (i.e., Church doctrine is correct) and attempts to reason his way toward it, disregarding how well the outcome matches reality.

By the way, a few readers have pointed out the dangers of going the opposite way and embracing extreme empiricism instead. That’s worth remembering. Galileo is also known for his research into falling bodies and the nature of acceleration. He worked out basic principles by combining geometric principles with ingenious measurement techniques (which included using his pulse to count time in the absence of a stopwatch, and using a steady stream of water flowing into a vase, using the volume of water to compare intervals). It’s tough to walk the path between rationalism and empiricism. Robert George and the professor from Padua illustrate what happens when you go too far to one side.

The Galilean moons. Aren't they beautiful?

Richard Rush

February 20th, 2011

Maybe this is a good time to ask a question: Why didn’t humans achieve the current level of knowledge and development 300 years ago, or 1,000 or more years ago? Why didn’t Galileo have electrical appliances, antibiotics, anesthesia, vaccines, MRIs, air travel, and the internet?

Surely there are a number of reasons, including political factors, and the fact that there were a lot less people (you need lots of busy bees to do lots of things). But I see one other huge reason:

I think one of the major forces that has retarded human learning and development is religion. If you live your life believing that a god created everything and continues to control everything that happens, and if you are dominated by church doctrine, then you are not going to be devoting much time looking for natural or scientific explanations.

When we realize that millions of people today in the United States seem to believe that science is evil, we can begin to imagine the magnitude of forces that bore down centuries ago.


February 20th, 2011

Interestingly, George thinks of his moral thought as _aligned_ with Thomist-Aristoteleanism. In particular:


Throbert McGee

February 21st, 2011

Quoth the Paduan professor:

“Now, if we increase the number of the planets, this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.”

I think the word “beautiful” is utterly key to understanding natural-law thinkers — in many cases, they’re reacting aesthetically to the tidiness of their own theorizification:

“Isn’t it just breathtakingly miraculous how Man complements Woman, in much the same way as Day complements Night, and the Land complements the Sea, and the Sun complements the Moon, and Peanut Butter complements Jelly, and Jesus Christ complements the Church Universal? And can’t you see that Man/Man or Woman/Woman sexual relationships would ruin the perfection and harmony of the system?”

Lyn Calerdine

February 22nd, 2011

Does the same apply to certain modern theories – say string theory (or its derivatives, M-theory, etc.) They appear to examples of extreme rationality, yet, so far, divorced from emperical reality.

Rob Tisinai

February 22nd, 2011

Lyn, I am utterly unequipped to write about advance physics. I did find this, though, for what it’s worth.


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