On the Trouble with Bruno and #Cosmos


Since its debut on Sunday before last, the new Cosmos series has garnered a lot of attention. It has been fun to some degree seeing those that are in denial of many of our more astounding scientific truths try to combat what is shown by Cosmos-host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. A FOX station in Oklahoma, for example, accidentally cut out about 15 seconds of the first episode that spoke of early human ancestors. An accident that is too easy to interpret. Clearer are the responses from folks at Answers in Genesis, who have to hate on the whole of cosmology, geology, and biology.

However, perhaps what has gotten the most flack from creationists and pro-science folks is the representation of the execution of Giordano Bruno for heresy in 1600. In particular, over at the NCSE blog, Peter Hess and Josh Rosenau claimed that the show was promoting the false narrative of the history of science and religion as always or primarily adversarial, how Bruno wasn’t really a scientist, that his cosmological views didn’t really cause him to get burned, and that a more nuanced approach is necessary, among other complaints. Rosenau also links and quotes from other sources that similarly claim how Cosmos screwed up the history of science.

Some of those criticisms are valid and worth mentioning. However, the primary attack on Cosmos‘s accuracy is demonstrably false, that the episode was claiming that Bruno was killed primarily for promoting the Copernican model and that science and religion are at odds. The false narrative that many are attacking is itself a false narrative.

First, was Bruno punished for advocating the Copernican model of the solar system? No, he was not. However, unlike what Motherboard writer, Becky Ferreira, would incline you to think, that was never said by Tyson to have been the reason Bruno was in trouble. Tyson did note that the Copernican model was not liked by some religious authorities of the age, though as I noted, Luther’s comments on that are not considered an accurate representation. Instead, the heresy that Bruno was charged was advocating an infinite universe. He was found guilty of believing in the plurality of worlds and their eternity. This is evenhandedly discussed by Jole Shackelford in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (ed. Ronald Numbers). And this is exactly what was said by Tyson in the show and especially in the animated sequences of the show–Bruno was condemned for advocating other worlds as well as other heretical views. As said by the animated Inquisitor:

You are found guilty of questioning the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Of believing that God’s wrath is not eternal, that everyone will be saved. Of asserting the existence of other worlds.

(You can read a transcript of the show here.)

It is rather amazing that the critics of the show thought that Cosmos was claiming that Bruno was killed for believing in Copernicus. First off, the narrative is introduced after talking about the immensity of the observable universe and the possibility of the infinite multiverse. Moving from the unimaginably big universe to Bruno’s view of the infinite universe is rather obvious narrative flow and would lead the full-knowing watcher to realize that that is the link. Then it talks about how Bruno was inspired by the writings of Lucretius and his philosophical argument for an unbounded universe–a book, mind you that was banned or prohibited by the Florentice synod of 1516, even though plenty still had access to it.

This also leads to another point about how the show has been misrepresented. Bruno’s belief in the infinite universe was showcased as based on the philosophical musings of long-dead Romans and his visionary experience at the age of 30. These are obviously not empirical efforts, though these sorts of philosophical exercises are rather consistent with what was done in the medieval period of natural philosophy (what would become natural science). Cosmos was also very clear that Bruno was not a scientist. As Tyson said,

Bruno was no scientist. His vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it.

So at no point did the show claim that Bruno was killed for advocating the sun-centered solar system, nor that Bruno was a martyred scientist. What was the point? As noted by PZ Myers,  Wesley R. Elsberry, and Jason Rosenhouse, the problem was that Bruno was killed for his unorthodox inquiries. The issue was that his view of the cosmos was not compatible with the views of many religious authorities, especially those with political power. And it is that stifling of free inquiry that makes religious dogma a problem for science. Notice that the episode never said that religion or faith or belief in a god was the problem. Heck, as it quoted from Bruno, “your God is too small!” Claiming that the show was promoting an anti-religious or the science-vs-religion narrative is simply unsupported. Once you take a nuanced viewing. No, if you actually watched it and not invented what it claimed.

But it really seems that this attack on Cosmos is an automated reflex of a response by all that want to promote the idea that science and faith are compatible, either for themselves or at least generally so there doesn’t need to be continued science denial (i.e., evolution and creationism). It is automated because, as seen above, it had so little to do with what was actually said or argued in the documentary.

But to reach the goal of accommodating religious faith, it has to make not only errors in representing Cosmos, but it also misrepresents many other things. For example, Rosenau quotes from Sagan to argue how to make a science program that doesn’t attack religion and how religion is a powerful tool in influencing people. Well, the latter is certainly true, but has Rosenau not actually watched the original Cosmos? The last historical tale from the show is about the brutal murder of Hypatia of Alexandria by the mobs of bishop Cyril. Sagan also talked about how Kepler had so many problems in his life because of the stupidity forced by religious dogmas, how Galileo was threatened with torture because of his heliocentric teachings, and so on. And that was in the 1980s Cosmos! So what Rosenau has done is a rather weak quote mine and ignored how Sagan was a skeptic of religion (among other things), and how the stiffing of science and inquiry leads to the doom of civilization. The very message at the end of the last episode of Sagan’s Cosmos. It seems instead that Tyson, Druyan, Soter and the rest of the modern Cosmos crew actually took Sagan’s message to heart, showcasing another example of inquiry being stifled and preventing new views from being debated and discovering their truth (or falsity).

There is also the inane claim from Thomas MacDonald (repeated by Rosenau) that Bruno had it coming, and he actually made it harder for Galileo and made it so he would be persecuted by the Inquisition. MacDonald shows he doesn’t know how to do research by using the terrible scholarship of Stanley Jaki who claims that modern science is the product of the medieval church; it it weren’t for Christianity, there wouldn’t be science at all. That claim, a popular one among deluded, conservative historians of science by Richard Carrier in The Christian Delusion (ed. John Loftus). And Jaki even claims that if the Inquisition hadn’t killed Bruno, Copernicans would have. Yeah, that is pretty much bullshit. And that Galileo had it harder because of Bruno? That Bruno forced the hand of the Inquisition to root out heresies? This is David Barton-level nonsense.

There is also the attempt to show how science wasn’t being squashed by church authorities of this time because heliocentism was being advocated by others such as Copernicus, Kepler (and his teacher, Maestlin), Brahe. But that is deceptive in a few ways. One is that Copernicus only published his book when he was in his last days; he was on his deathbed when he was looking at the final proofs of his De Revolutionibus. Also, a preface had been added to Copernicus’s original manuscript to say that what was proposed wasn’t an actual description of the solar system but a mathematical contrivance to see if it were more convenient to use–something that Copernicus did not believe, as seem to be the case from reading the actual book. That probably helped keep it safe from being panned for religious reasons immediately. Kepler, Maestlin, and Brahe, on the other hand, were all outside of Catholic territories (something because they were fleeing Catholic monarchs), so they were also away from the forces of the Inquisition. But this is also beside the point of the show that did not say Bruno was persecuted for taking the heliocentric view; it was the infinity of the universe that got him in trouble, and radicals such as Kepler cared not for Bruno’s beliefs in that respect (see Bruno’s entry in Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers). Using poor examples to argue against a point not taken by your opponent is pretty much the epitome of arguing poorly and being delusional.

In some ways, the attack on Cosmos has become a defense of the Inquisition. Some have complained that the animation made the church authorities look frightening and would fill one with dread. So, I guess the show was supposed to make the people that arrested, tortured, and then had killed people for not thinking the way they wanted proper 3-dimensional characters. Are we really supposed to be sympathetic with such sociopaths? Sorry, but making those that did terrible things look terrible seems reasonable. Otherwise we need to complain about all those documentaries that made Hitler seem like the bad guy. In fact, Hess wants us to consider Bruno in a late-16th century context and understand that what happened to him was expected under the legal codes of the time. (In an earlier version of the blog post, he said Bruno “deserved” it.) Well, the point of the story was to show how not do have a society because it kills new ideas and free inquiry. This is a case of “context” being just a construct to avoid the real problem–that a dogmatic institution had to kill in order to maintain control, acting as real thought police. This shouldn’t just be a 21st century more, but a fact of human flourishing and scientific expansion.

Now, it is true that some things were wrong. Taken literally, the claim in Cosmos that “in 1599, everyone knew that the Sun, planets and stars were just lights in the sky that revolved around the Earth” is false; of course, most of the philosophers, not to mention laypersons, of the time were geocentrists, so if taken as hyperbolic then it is the case that this view was held by virtually no one in 1599. The show also down-played the character flaws of Bruno, who was apparently irascible and difficult and in many ways his own worst enemy. He was hardly the doe-eyed Stoic that just wanted you to know his amazing vision. Additionally, he wasn’t a hermit after first being kicked out of the religious order he was first in, as he did find others to support him–support he would loose in part because of his character flaws. It’s also not clear just how influential Bruno was; if he hadn’t been killed, he probably would not have been remembered today. It is fair to say that focusing on Bruno now, leaving out his other, very non-scientific views, and holding him up as a paragon for scientific advancement is to do history in in a very flawed manner. Still, I think Cosmos did very well in presenting the story of Bruno. It’s just amazing how misrepresented it was by the critics that are supposed to be on the side of science.

Are science and religion necessarily at odds with each other? Cosmos certainly didn’t say they were. And I agree that careful, nuanced historical analysis shows that there are many, many cases where the conflict thesis of science and religion is demonstrably false. In fact, I can think of a case where a person’s atheism got in the way: Fred Hoyle, who denied the evidence for the Big Bang because it smacked too much to him of biblical creation. (Funny how so many creationists nonetheless decry the Big Bang Theory.) My own research on the Star of Bethlehem shows that the interaction between science and religion is a mixed bag, culturally contingent, and not clearly delineated. However, Jerry Coyne is right that there are characteristics about most religious beliefs (but not all!) that do create conflict: religious authorities make claims about the world, religious claims often oppose each other as well as scientific results and consensus, and knowing by faith is so philosophically opposed to reason and evidence as done in science.

We all want to defuse the cultural tensions in the world, including those between science and religion. But you can’t defuse it if you deny there even is a bomb. Religious belief either had to change or end, and there is only one way I see how to do that: advocacy for science, free inquiry, empiricism, and skepticism. And that is the true message of Cosmos, past and present.* These are the values that we need in this modern age. Not accommodation of our deep-felt spiritual beliefs; not holding to what we prefer to be true; only being able to have anything open to question and investigation without the boundaries imposed by politics, faith, and especially dogma. If you cannot embrace these things as virtues, then you are not working with me to make the world a better, more scientifically-literate place.

* it was noted on the most recent episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe that the word ‘skeptic’ hasn’t been used in the newest Cosmos as of yet, while it was pronounced in the original. Maybe that will change.

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One thought on “On the Trouble with Bruno and #Cosmos

  1. “[De rerum natura] was banned or prohibited by the Florentice synod of 1516, even though plenty still had access to it.”

    This ban applied only to Florentine schools, so it is not at all surprising that “plenty still had access to it”. There was never a general ban on Lucretius.

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