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Trying Galileo: Breathing New Life into Centuries-old Debates

Would you find Galileo guilty of heresy? Would you put him to death? These are questions that students grappled with in their two-week mock trial for Philosophy 210 class.

Gavel in courtroom trial

At the end of the fall 2021 semester, Philosophy 210 students participated in a mock trial of Galileo Galilei, determining whether he was guilty of heresy for claiming the Earth revolved around the sun. Professor Glen Cooper (History, Philosophy) says, “The mock trial “serves as a great way to introduce students to issues concerning science and religion, the general conception being that the conflict between Galileo and the church was a major clash between scientific truth and religious dogma, or traditional conservative religion versus free thought.” The mock trial of Galileo project was a fun, interactive experience for the students, preparing them well for their final exam, future classes, and further application of the subjects.

“It’s one thing to tell students that the history and the details were not quite black and white and to have them read books and listen to lectures. But it’s quite another to have them reenact it,” Cooper says.

The project involved students taking on a character role and arguing from that character’s perspective (conservative, moderate, or progressive). Some students played Catholic cardinals, while others were professors or members of the Lincean Academy, a scientific society established in Galileo’s time that was intended to promote the advancement of science. All of the historical figures had complex beliefs and reasoning that were supported or challenged by Galileo’s claims. Students studied the historical perspectives, gave presentations, and moderated or participated in class debates.

“The trial of Galileo forced everyone to get out of their own little box of what they were thinking,” says Megumi Wiley (Microbiology ’22). “It wasn’t just like, ‘Okay, I have to memorize these three points for and against Galileo’; everyone was living and breathing this trial.” Wiley’s character, a moderate Catholic cardinal who was later elected Pope, was very pro-censorship, so her proposed solution to Galileo’s heresy was to publish his works but only in Latin. That would limit access to his works so that only those with the right education could actually read it.

Statue of Galileo Galilei

“Everything you did in the project led into the final,” says Rowan Bauer (Information Technology ’24). “It prepared you with a lot of questions about how different historical figures defend both sides.” By actively participating and engaging with the reenactment, students better internalized the concepts. Wiley says, “Because we’re all arguing with each other, we’re all super familiar with the points. So now on the final when we have to argue what the main points are for and against Copernicanism, we're all like, ‘Oh, well, let me tell you what those degenerates from the Lincean Academy said!’”

Each student learned valuable and applicable philosophical concepts from the project that they could apply to their lives and future studies. For Maddie Clark (Exercise Science ’22), the debate taught her to have an open mind. She says, “The biggest takeaway I got is that there is truth on both sides of arguments, and I think that is very true to a lot of things in life.”

Wiley learned to understand the motivations of the debaters: “We had this discussion about why [the trial] matters. It sort of comes down to who controls the narrative. And if you have a specific story you’re trying to tell, especially one that keeps you in power, then you’re very invested in your perspective.”

Bauer learned to examine the details of debates and differing perspectives. In the trial, “there was a lot of uncertainty and other little nuances. In my life when there are issues, it helps me to really take in more than just the first couple levels, to try to understand the deeper parts of them.”

Professor Cooper has administered the mock trial project six times with varied class rulings of punishments for Galileo—some classes condemning and imprisoning Galileo, some letting him off scot-free—but each experience had similar levels of success and positive feedback from the participants. “My students have told me that [the trial] was one of the most memorable educational experiences they've had in college. The zeal and the enthusiasm with which the students have approached my classes is evidence enough for me that it's useful and fills an important role.”

In this semester’s verdict, Galileo was found guilty, though surprisingly, the judge decided not to punish or imprison him for it. You may have gotten away with it this time, Galileo, but we’re watching you!