Galileo, wrong??

The reverence of modern man for rationalism, logic and empiricism has an impressive tradition, one that includes Plato and St. Augustine. Using logic, nothing seemed impossible in the time of the medieval Scholastics. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles (1259) was considered to have countered all opposing criticisms of the church. The analytical logic of Aristotle, the syllogism and deductive reasoning, served in the Middle Ages as essential tools for the dominance of religion. Though religion was was supplanted by science, or "natural philosophy", the logical methods of both were closely related.

It is hardly surprising that in the hands of empiricists like Galileo, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton, these tools were sharpened and used for dethroning spirituality as the purpose of life. Where rational discourse had for so long been the servant of academics, aristocrats and priests, in the scientific revolution it became the master. Not only was there a revolution against spirituality, there was a parting of the ways, and religion had little subsequent influence on the rise of science. Where religion or politics had once been the platform for the intellectual rigor of men like Plato or Aquinas, in the empirical world order science and scientific method were often indistinguishable, as Isaac Newton's famous prism `experiment' demonstrates. Indeed, he conferred upon his milieu an almost papal degree of presumptuous infallibility when he claimed he did not theorize: "Hypothesis non fingo." With the pioneering natural philosophy (science), of men such as Galileo, Bacon and Descartes, the close relationship between intellectual investigation and the world of religious social culture was severed.

The view among empiricists that spiritual or emotional matters were of little concern had a profound impact. In 1623 Galileo wrote in The Assayer:*

    To excite in us tastes, odors and sounds, I believe that nothing is required in external bodies except shapes, numbers and slow or rapid movements. I think that if ears, tongues and noses were removed, shapes and numbers and motions would remain, but not odors or tastes or sounds. The latter I believe are nothing other than names when separated from living things.

With these words he crystallized the idea that internal, subjective processes were unimportant. Far from being rejected for its absurd oversimplification, the idea took hold that quantifiable factors were the only reality upon which scientific investigation was to focus. Francis Bacon, also active in the early seventeenth century, agreed and proclaimed "the invention of all causes and sciences will be the labor of but a few years." Galileo was wrong however. Physicist Fritjof Capra describes how sugar, composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen has the property of sweetness.**

    strictly speaking, the sweetness is not a property of the chemical bonds. It is a sensory experience that arises when the sugar molecules interact with the chemistry of our taste buds, which in turn causes a set of neurons to fire in a certain way. The experience of sweetness results from that neural activity.


     * Galileo, The Assayer, quoted by Koestler, Arthur, The Sleepwalkers, Penguin, London, 1959, p. 476

    ** Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections, Doubleday, New York, 2002, pp. 41_42.



Here's what Galileo wrote in The Assayer about taste:

"The particles that go down are received by the upper part of the
tongue, becoming mixed with its humidity and penetrating its sub-
stance; thus they produce taste, likable or disagreeable, depending on the kind of contact with the various shapes of the particles, on the greater or smaller number of particles, and on their velocity." (Finocchiaro's translation in The Essential Galileo, p.187)

That doesn't seem to me to be essentially different to what Capra says, though we've obviously been able to give some refinements and modifications to the view in the last four centuries. How do you mean that Galileo was wrong?

Thanks for your interest. Your quote appears to show that Galileo believed the taste experience to be in essence chemical and physical, while Capra explains the neural essence. We can say with some certainty - and hindsight - that science did not have the same means in Galileo's time for quantifying neural activity, as we do now, so I don't say that he was scientifically in error. The title is intended to get one's attention. The text is from Chapter 4 of the book.

I don't think Galileo takes the taste *experience* to be chemical or physical. He says that nothing is required in the *particles* to excite sensation in us except for shape, size, motion, etc. This seems to me cognate with Capra saying that the taste is not in the chemical bonds. As your quote from him states, if our sense organs were taken away, then there would be no tastes or sounds or any other sensory quality, but there would remain the shapes and sizes and other mechanical properties - clearly therefore he doesn't identify the mechanical properties and the sensory qualities. Rather, the sensory qualities are produced *in us* as a result of interaction of the particles with our sensory organs. Galileo indeed doesn't know in detail about neurons, but here is the parallel I see in Galileo and what Capra says about taste (it can be applied to other senses) spelled out:

Galileo: particles with mechanical properties > interact with our tongue > results in sensation of taste

Capra: chemical bonds > interact with taste buds on tongue > stimulate neurons > results in sensation of taste

I don't see a great difference in the conceptual frameworks here. Capra simply knows one more step in the physical causal chain. The problem is still there however - at what point in this physical causal chain is a sensation produced?

Alas I'm not qualified to speculate where the taste experience begins. As to whether Galileo's remarks are cognate with Capra's - it's a good discussion that could go far. Many have explored the themes of empiricism, knowledge and ideas; Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant - and I can't improve on the debate. I think Capra does however modernise and resolve the issues, elegantly and scientifically.
- Thanks again

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