Appendix, On Aping Aristotle:
Modern-day Simplicios

On Aping Aristotle: Modern-day Simplicios

Glen M. Cooper

The anthropologist Thomas Murphy has recently been called the “Mormon
Galileo,” and the controversy that his DNA “research” has spawned
has been labeled a “Galileo event.” The implication is, of course,
that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and its member scientists)
are just as benighted and corrupt as it is commonly thought the Roman Catholic
Church was in Galileo’s day—especially as manifest in its suppression
of Galileo and its (largely successful) campaign to squelch free intellectual
inquiry in Catholic lands. (Critics of the Church of Jesus Christ go one step
further, by accusing the church of knowingly concealing potentially self-destructive
information about its history, scripture, or origin stories.)

The above comparison not only shows a noteworthy ignorance of the facts, but is
risible in the extreme. As a historian of science, I would dismiss the whole business
but for the fact that there is a relatively unknown similarity between the “Galileo
affair” and the “Murphy affair” that deserves discussion. For,
in addition to Galileo and the institutional church, there was yet another group,
strident and obnoxious, involved in the Galileo affair, the group that was responsible
for inciting the trouble and pursuing it to its conclusion. Comparing the role
of this group in those epoch-defining events to their analogue in the present
situation is where the real lesson of the Murphy affair may be found.

It is a common misconception among those who understand little about science or
religion or their histories that there is an inherent conflict between science
and religion and that clashes of the Galileo or Murphy type are inevitable. Galileo
did not believe that to be so, and neither does (for example) Pope John Paul II,
who has spoken more than anyone I know for the cause of accord between science
and religion. And I sincerely doubt that many of the informed church officials
involved in the Galileo affair thought so. The church was not backward or benighted,
but it was a large bureaucracy, with many interests that had to be reconciled.
The work of Stillman Drake brought to my attention the following new twist, revealing,
in his words, “a very important aspect of the entire Galileo affair that
has been generally neglected” but that “runs like a red thread through
the whole sad story from beginning to end.”1 I highly recommend to Murphy’s
partisans, or anyone else who sincerely desires to know what really happened to
Galileo, that they read Drake’s scholarship.2

During the lifetime of Galileo, there were many new scientific ideas and discoveries,
some of which, such as the Copernican theory, threatened the traditional theological
understanding of the world. Intelligent men, both inside and outside the church
hierarchy, were aware that the new discoveries conflicted with traditional understanding
of passages of holy writ. But, as in other enormous institutions, change in the
church of Rome often happens exasperatingly slowly. Acutely aware of the threat,
in 1615 Galileo himself wrote a letter to church officials outlining how to reconcile
the new findings of science with the scriptures. He urged the church to take no
official position regarding the Copernican theory. To bolster his argument, Galileo
cited Augustine’s sage advice against making an astronomical doctrine an
article of Catholic belief since heretics who know science well could use such
knowledge to cast doubt on genuine religious doctrines. In fact, as Drake argues,
the actual purpose of Galileo’s fateful trip to Rome in 1615 to meet with
Cardinal Bellarmine—traditionally thought to be for the purpose of battling
for the cause of truth—was to persuade the church not to take an official
position regarding any scientific issue. Yet by the next year the church was committed
to just such a position. On the surface, both Galileo and the theologians were
in agreement about how truth is to be sought: by “sense experience and necessary
demonstration”—that is, by experiment and reasoned argumentation.

There was, however, a group of intellectuals—the academic philosophers—whose
influence was disproportionate to their size or actual understanding of the relevant
issues. These men substituted “doctrines from Aristotle” for “sense
experience” in the above formula, and they followed a kind of a priori,
prescriptive science by which they sought to prove what they already believed
rather than to learn anything new about the way the world works.

As an example of the pernicious influence of this group, Drake asks us to consider
a court breakfast at the ducal palace in Tuscany that occurred in 1613 while Galileo
was away. The ruling Medicis had invited leading thinkers of their realm to discuss
informally the major intellectual issues of the time. Cosimo Boscaglia, a professor
of philosophy at the University of Pisa, denounced Galileo in front of his Medicean
employers, accusing him of holding and teaching heretical ideas about the motion
of the earth. The Grand Duchess Christina, alarmed that she might be patronizing
a heretic, asked Benedetto Castelli, a theologian and former student of Galileo,
to defend his teacher. Castelli did so and reported the matter to Galileo, who
promptly wrote to the Grand Duchess a now-famous letter explaining his position
on science and scripture3—apparently to her satisfaction.

Drake notes the irony: a professor of philosophy pronounces on the religious orthodoxy
of a scientific proposition, something that he almost certainly did not understand—few
people at the time understood the mathematical astronomy of Copernicus—while
a theologian, who having studied with Galileo we must assume did understand, speaks
on its behalf. Boscaglia’s ungentlemanly conduct (it was considered poor
manners back then to say bad things about someone to his employer) was not an
impulsive remark, but the poisonous fruit of a long-nourished enmity toward Galileo.
For throughout his career Galileo had offended many traditionalists. He was fond
of ridiculing the foolish beliefs of the leading intellectuals and publicly humiliating
them in debates over everyday physical phenomena, such as why objects float on
water—subjects far removed from celestial physics.

In fact, in the previous year a “league” of Florentine and Pisan philosophers
had been formed against Galileo. This cabal hatched a plan to thwart him in every
way possible, and its members sought a priest who would denounce him and his followers
as heretics. Such a priest was eventually found, and the notorious chain of events
began to unfold. In the subsequent trials and humiliation of Galileo, these professors
were only too willing to provide the church with incriminating evidence against
Galileo. Galileo satirized these professors of an ossified tradition in his great
Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, by putting their doctrines in
the mouth of the interlocutor Simplicio (“Mr. Simpleton”).4

In the Murphy affair, the role played by the philosophers is taken by the self-styled
intellectuals, the critics of the church and the Book of Mormon. Murphy’s
intellectual partisans provide what they take to be damning “evidence”
against the Church of Jesus Christ, just like their spiritual forebears had done
to Galileo. Yet, as in the former case, the charges reveal a fundamental (and
embarrassing) lack of understanding about the real issues. This vocal group is
responsible for agitating the situation and for providing a controversy-hungry
media with material. These “intellectuals” create conflict where there
is none, at least none of the grandiose kind they imagine. Just as with the Simplicios
of Galileo’s day, this group reveals its ignorance of both the relevant
scientific and religious issues. For such tyros, anything that sounds the least
bit “scientific” carries authority—never mind that Murphy has
used others’ scientific data in an unscientific fashion and that he is attacking
a belief about the Book of Mormon—the global settlement hypothesis—and
not what the Book of Mormon says about itself.

The Church of Jesus Christ wisely takes no official stand on controversial scientific
issues, except where these bear upon moral issues such as abortion and the family.
And it seems that being an adherent of the faith is no hindrance to scientific
endeavors. On the contrary, Latter-day Saints have produced scientists—some
of whom have achieved international recognition—out of proportion to their
numbers. The church has many respected scientists who are content to live with
a degree of intellectual uncertainty regarding apparent conflicts between science
and religion. In fact, practicing scientists are in an excellent position to know
where the gaps in our knowledge are—where physics ends and metaphysics begins.

Yet, as ever, it is the “intellectuals” who stir the pot, whose ravings
harm those who know even less than they do. Philosophers in all ages, whether
academically certified or merely self-styled, have tried to legislate how others
think, though they usually lack firsthand expertise in the fields they seek to
colonize intellectually. Philosophy is a tool and not an end in itself. Such arrogance
spelled trouble for Socrates and led the aristocratic ivory-tower philosopher
Plato to denounce what would eventually develop into the university system (I
refer, of course, to the Sophists), offering instead his otherworldly who-knows-what.
On the other hand, Aristotle, who in reality was the founder of scientific inquiry,
would have been horrified had he known that his writings would one day be used
as an excuse to avoid fresh investigations along with the new knowledge they might

After all this, the Galileo affair was not even about science versus religion;
it was, rather, about one kind of science versus another kind of science—namely,
philosophical versus experimental science. The Murphy affair is not about science
versus religion either; rather, it is about pseudoscience versus a caricatured
religious text. If nothing else, it shows how much influence modern-day Simplicios
can have in the media.


  1. Stillman Drake, “Galileo and the Church,” Rivista di Studi Italiani
    1/1 (1983): 82-97. This quotation is from p. 155 of the reprint edition:
    Stillman Drake, Essays on Galileo and the History and Philosophy of Science
    (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 1:153-66.
  2. Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography (Chicago: University
    of Chicago Press, 1978); Galileo against the Philosophers (Los Angeles: Zeitlin
    & Ver Brugge, 1976); and Galileo (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980). In addition,
    the following work by Giorgio de Santillana should be read: The Crime of Galileo
    (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).
  3. Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in
    Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, trans. Stillman Drake (New York: Doubleday,
    1957), 145-216.
  4. Galileo Galilei, Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, trans. Stillman Drake (New York: Modern Library, 2001).