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Reading Nature’s Book

Galileo and the Birth of Modern Philosophy

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Fred Ablondi

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) is widely recognized as one of the greatest scientific thinkers in history. Intriguingly, when offered a place in the Medici court in 1610, he requested the title of «Philosopher and Chief Mathematician.» Reading Nature’s Book: Galileo and the Birth of Modern Philosophy is the first book-length study written with undergraduates in mind that examines the philosophical implications (both theoretical and historical) of Galileo’s scientific discoveries, including many matters that were later taken up by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers. This close analysis of Galileo’s philosophical insights demonstrates the prominent place his thought should have in the history of early modern philosophy.
Reading Nature’s Book provides contextual material for college and university students enrolled in modern philosophy courses, introducing them to ideas and concepts that dominated philosophical discussion during the era. Furthermore, students and scholars interested in the history of philosophy of science will also benefit from a decidedly philosophical approach to such a leading scientific figure. Many of the topics explored by Galileo continue to be of philosophical interest today, including scientific methodology and the relation between science and religion.
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Chapter Three: Inertia, Empiricism, and Spots on the Sun

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← 26 | 27 →CHAPTER THREE

Galileo showed that the Sun’s behavior was guided by physical laws—that its puzzles could be unlocked with the aid of ingenious instruments and the power of human reason. His observations pointed the way to centuries of fruitful research in the future.

—STEPHEN P. MARAN and Laurence A. MARSCHALL 2009, P. 49

The dispute with the Aristotelians over the cause of buoyancy was not the only controversy in which Galileo was engaged during the years of 1611 and 1612. Even before the evening at Salviati’s when the discussion of condensation and rarefication arose, Galileo was thinking about sunspots. He had observed them when he was in Padua and had showed them to his good friend in Venice, the priest Paolo Sarpi. (This matter of dating his first observation of the sunspots will become important to Galileo, as we will see.) During his stay with Salviati in 1611, Galileo, when not working on the Discourse, occasionally made additional telescopic observations of the sun and recorded its spots. Then, in March of 1612, Galileo received a surprise: it was not something he saw in the heavens, but something he read in a book.

An author writing under the name of Apelles (later revealed to be a German Jesuit by the name of Christoph Scheiner) had published the results of his ← 27 | 28 →investigations into sunspots, claiming both that they were clusters of small stars* between the earth and the sun,...

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