The alleged “debate” between the church and Galileo is misunderstood, and not just because many get the facts wrong. Even if the scientist was locked up for saying the earth is not at the center of the universe, his statement was not religiously offensive on the grounds most people would assume.
The attempted narrative is that religion is a crutch, a fig leaf for gaps in our knowledge, and the outcome of either base fear or an evolutionary glitch (like all forbidden beliefs). This being the nature of religion, it therefore strokes our egos and tells us that humanity is central to the universe, necessary, the goal of its creation. That, apparently, is why religion sees (or, less controversially, saw) the earth as the center of the universe. Meanwhile, the light of science, banishing the benighted demons of Carl Sagan’s worst dreams, says that humanity is a purposeless accident in a very strange universe. Galileo was simply initiating the reduction in ego modern man needed.
The irrationality of the human ego, at least, the Rambam would acknowledge. Though he maintains the geocentric Ptolemaic cosmology of his time (a solid four centuries before Galileo) he has no problem discoursing at length on fools who believe the universe was created for man. In fact, he maintains that there is nothing mankind accomplishes that is not accomplished better by others. In general, says the Rambam, we are not needed in the slightest. Just as the purpose of a tree is to be the best tree possible, so too man is directed toward the highest form of man, but why there should be men in general is a question on G-d’s inscrutable will, inscrutable by definition because to be based on reason is to be caused and that is notoriously problematic. Granted, other schools of Jewish thought say that man is important, though with the caveat that he is important specifically because of his lowliness, not because he is close to being the highest of all creations.
Suffice it to say, the argument between religion and science is hardly one of whether man is important or not important on a cosmic scale. We all know that before the cosmic scale we are nothing. The argument is much closer to whether we ought to use the cosmic scale all. In other words, everyone agrees (at least potentially) that man is irrelevant, whether he sits at the center of the Universe or on some rock flying through infinite space. The disagreement is on why he is irrelevant. The Rambam says we are irrelevant because of G-d’s will which is beyond understanding. “Galileo” (as represented in the narrative) says we are irrelevant in light of our vast new knowledge of cosmology.
Look at it this way: In the old philosophy of the schoolmen, G-d (and to them, there is and can be only One, “your G-d” making as much sense to them as “your physics” might to a modern physicist) is not what fills gaps in knowledge but what stands in the spot of the necessary but unknowable, the being who can end the infinite regress of causes but who is himself uncaused and thus unknowable. The universe in its being, motion, form, and telos cannot exist without a beginning (or, in the case of telos, an end); it is ever pointing to something beyond itself. In the materialist scientific understanding, the universe points to nothing but simply is.
The difference may seem academic but it in fact shakes the worldviews to their foundations. When Maimonides says man is nothing, he has coming to a conclusion that fits the stated goal of his pursuit, to understand of the infinite as much as a limited human mind is capable. Eventually he must throw up his hands and say, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from the very fact that I cannot understand why it should be this way; G-d’s unknowable will for an irrelevant creature man truly is unknowable to that irrelevant creature.”
But when the scientist says man is nothing, he says it with the authority of a God. He will demur that he only follows the experimental observations where they lead, but this position is less humble when it is the best anyone can hope to do, even a god, who must exist within the bounds of science like anyone or anything else. When the scientist says man is a speck whirling in the void, he ceases to be a hominid whose lizard brain evolved into sentience and is instead making pronouncements on the cosmos, speaking at the highest level of all reality. There is no point when he must throw up his hands. He says, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from my vantage point on a hill in the milky way galaxy, my biological chemistry evolved for fitness peering at the truth through massive telescopes. The universe’s production of a tiny, irrelevant creature is understood profoundly by said creature.”
Those who thought the earth was at the center of the universe were certain they were incapable of knowing the purpose of the universe. One’s ignorance needs no more explanation than a rock’s; one simply does not have the capacity to grasp G-d. Those, on the other hand, who hold that the earth is one of a billion trillion planets know their precise place in the universe, and this knowledge has no explanation other than that it is.
It is no accident that Maimonides’s passage on man’s irrelevance is written in the context of discussing theodicy and the claim that G-d does more evil than good. That G-d’s ultimate reasons for creating the universe the way it is are an outcome of his unknowable will refocuses man’s attentions away from the nature of the world’s being to what the world ought to be. There is a reason why the revolution in cosmology that places the earth at a random locus in space did not see a consequent revolution in personal humility among scientists or the public generally; the modern study of nature has not yet found its bound and is assumed by many not to have one; we spend much of our time studying forms and processes and assume that an understanding of morality or righteous action will eventually emerge.
Indeed, your average geocentrist thinks that he cannot know why G-d wanted man to be at the center of the universe, and this might make him self-effacing. He does not know why G-d tells him his own actions come first, then familial concerns, than societal ones, but it makes him truly compassionate. He does not know why G-d tells him to respect property and bodies, but he ends up respecting people. He is not quite sure how those who know the earth is a random planet could be caught up in their brilliance, or how those who care for all of society first often find their own righteousness to go by the wayside, or how those who say property is unimportant often end up treading on people, as well…
To him, these are all strange, paradoxical mysteries of a world impossibly made from nothing by an unknowable Creator.
Who is more humble, he who is nothing out of ignorance, or nothing by dint of his own wisdom?