Sunday, March 16, 2014

COSMOS and Giordano Bruno

In the first episode of COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY, the story of Giordano Bruno is recounted. The portrayal is of him, a rebel and freethinker, in conflict with the oppressive and dogmatic Catholic Church authorities. Bruno espoused not only the Copernican idea of heliocentrism but, also that there were an infinite number of worlds with an infinite number of beings. This would obviously have put him at odds with the religious hegemony of geocentrism and the idea that mankind was a unique creation of God and therefore, alone in the universe. If mankind were just one of many, the incarnation and redemption of Christ would be diminished.

Giordano Bruno was a Dominican friar who had a passion for knowledge. According to the show, he read a book called On the Nature of Things by Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman philosopher. The show claims that the book was banned by the Catholic Church, although this is misleading. The book is not on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum but, the teachings of Lucretius were officially prohibited from being read in schools by the Florentine Synod of 1517. The book had been preserved by Catholic monks who needed copious reading material for their ascetic lifestyle. Certainly, it is possible that the book was outlawed wherever he was at the time. From the book, Bruno was introduced to the notion that the universe was boundless, among other things written about by Lucretius.

Bruno is shown to be genuinely striving for cosmological truth through rational discovery and forward-thinking investigation. Thus, Bruno acts as an early ambassador for science and embodies the spirit of discovery only to be squashed by religious tyrants who cling to antiquated notions. This characterization of Bruno is problematic because Bruno was no pioneer of science. In fact, there were no scientists at the time. While this was a time of scientific discovery and the disciplines of science were burgeoning, the scientific method wouldn't begin to be codified for another 50 years or so. Moreover, even the show's narrator admits that Bruno didn't perform any scientific investigation to reach his conclusions. In the words of the Neil Tyson, Bruno's successful speculation about the plurality of worlds was merely "a lucky guess."

Instead of scientists, people who engaged in scientific thinking and experimentation were called natural philosophers. This indicates that up until the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, there was little to no notion of secularity. There was no bifurcation of science and religion. On the contrary, the two were often thought to go hand in hand. This was true even of the Romans, who exhibited some measure of secularism, when they accused Christians of being "atheists" because the Christians refused to worship the tangible statues of Roman gods. Failure to do so constituted the potential for social disruption.

This episode in history has long been used by certain people as a quintessential example of how theology allegedly disdains intellectual freedom, how religion corrupts society for the sake of power, how it suppresses advancement, how science is merely interested in the truth and how it works for the betterment of life.  On this view, religion should stay a private matter, if it should exist at all, whereas science should enjoy boundless support from everyone. Of course, all of these characterizations are controversial and misleading. Unfortunately, COSMOS wholeheartedly propagated the historical false dichotomy and missed a wonderful opportunity to give a more equitable portrayal.

Ronald Numbers edited Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion which addresses these very types of episodes where science and religion seemingly come into conflict. In this book, there is a chapter devoted specifically to Bruno's story titled "That Giordano Bruno Was the First Martyr of Modern Science" by Jole Shackelford. Shackelford rephrases the situation in that "Again, we see the implicit reasoning: Bruno was an innovative natural philosopher; he was executed by the church for his ideas, which eventually formed a basis for modern science; ergo, the church killed him to limit the free development of scientific ideas."

The fact of Bruno's final trial which is overlooked by the science crusaders is that Bruno was not convicted because of his cosmological belief. In The Pope and the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition, Michael White lists "eight counts of heresy. These included his belief that the transubstantiation of bread into flesh and wine into blood was a falsehood, that the virgin birth was impossible…" Bruno, like Galileo, did not merely pronounce his acceptance of Copernican ideas apart from the larger context of his beliefs. These cosmological beliefs were tethered to other, more theological conclusions that were certainly in contrast with established doctrine. In "The Great Chain of Being," (The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia), William Bynum adds that Bruno was also deemed heretical because of "his interest in magic rather than his devotion to plenitude." Shackelford comments that "Accordingly, Bruno's burning stood as an example of the Inquisition's hostility to philosophical claims that had serious theological implications for core Catholic doctrine as defined by the Council of Trent." As stated earlier, the idea of separation between Church and state was not yet prevalent in Europe. People of those times and before rarely thought of their religious beliefs as being unrelated to their ideas of how society should be run or how discovery should proceed. Thus, it was not unusual for Bruno, or anyone else, to make these kinds of connections between various conclusions into an all-encompassing theology. The problem is that Bruno is portrayed as a dispassionate scientist who was punished by closed minded tyrants. Actually, Bruno was a Christian monk with clearly heretical beliefs. Shackelford  continues, "Bruno had used Copernicus's ideas not in a scientific context but in a specifically religious context, namely, the advocacy of Hermetic religion as a corrective for the woes of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe."

Shackelford also notes that the Church was somewhat justified in their punishment of Bruno. He says "According to Angelo Mercati, who discovered and published the summary document pertaining to Bruno's trial and condemnation by the Roman Inquisition, Bruno's crimes were clearly of a religious nature, no matter what his views of the structure of the physical cosmos." There is no doubt that the Catholic church has erred in many ways, especially during the era of Christendom. Some leaders were overzealous in protecting their interpretation of doctrine that they perceived was in danger from heretical sects like the Reformers. The zeal for power often caused religious leaders to create atrocities such as those of the Inquisition. In many of those cases, conflicts like the one with Bruno or Galileo weren't merely theological. Clergy were often motivated by less than virtuous reasons and in that sense, were not acting in the spirit of Christianity. Therefore, it is unjustifiable to condemn Christian theology or all Christians for the crimes of individuals who are not in acting in accordance with orthodox Christian belief.

The false dichotomy of religion vs reason is just oversimplified. The issue was not merely philosophical freedom and the control of religious teaching. As mentioned before, Galileo's case is often similarly oversimplified by leaving out the fact that, like Bruno, he was challenging the authority of the day by drawing illicit theological conclusions from non-religious observations. The two were unacceptably intertwined in the view of the authorities and in that sense, the Catholic Church had every right to protect their tradition. Shackelford explains that "The Catholic Church did not impose thought control on astronomers, and even Galileo was free to believe what he wanted about the position and mobility of the earth, so long as he did not teach the Copernican hypothesis as a truth on which Holy Scripture had no bearing."

Not including this in the biography of Bruno shows a blatant bias on the part of COSMOS. There is no reason to mischaracterize the situation unless an agenda is at work. Again, the agenda is a science vs religion false dichotomy. In short, religion-bad, science-good. Science and scientists were trying to break free from the imprisonment of religious dogma. The animation of the religious authorities displayed intellectual bigotry and unjustified suppression while Bruno was a humble, honest, enlightened victim who became a warrior for truth in the face of adversity. In reality, Bruno was prone to violent disagreements and was largely intolerant of other people's beliefs.

The show also falls into the common trap of pitting rational forces versus Christian forces in these instances. However, this was a Christian trying to advance certain beliefs. Bruno was not doing so from a secular perspective. Concordantly, the authority of the Catholic Church was not defied by secular forces during the Enlightenment. Christian reformers were responsible for that movement. This is another aspect of the false dichotomy mentioned earlier.

In the Numbers book, several similar myths are dispelled such as the one that Medieval Christianity was decidedly anti intellectual, as the show intimates.

In closing, Shackelford concludes that "We must look beyond the construction of the myth of Giordano Bruno as a moralistic topos in the triumphant struggle between the freedom of scientific inquiry and the shackles of conformity to the dead letter of religious revelation."

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