Recently the TV series Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, was launched on TV screens around the world. I didn’t watch it (we don’t have pay TV) but the first episode generated some controversy, with critics arguing it got some of its facts badly wrong.
A not so hidden agenda?
At the centre of the controversy was a segment of the show that outlined the life, beliefs and death of an eccentric 16th century Italian intellect, Giordano Bruno. Cosmos, while admitting Bruno’s eccentricities, apparently portrayed him as a martyr for science in the war against superstition and the church.
Neil deGrasse Tyson apparently made this purpose very clear when interviewed for Nettavisen when he said several times: “Without religion, we’d have been 1000 years more developed”. (No, I can’t read Norwegian either, but you can check this using Google Translate.)
Only trouble is, the historians say Cosmos has got its historical facts wrong.
Giordano Bruno – a troubled life
The facts of his life are fairly well known. A priest for many years, his original and sometimes bizarre thoughts got him into trouble several times with church authorities. He left Italy and travelled Europe for years, gaining support and protection from various patrons. He developed some original ideas on cosmology, mnemonics, theology, mathematics and philosophy, and published a number of works which gained him both respect and notoriety, particularly for his views on astrology.
Unfortunately Bruno had a way of alienating friends with abrasive comments. Eventually he returned to Italy, and was eventually put on trial for heresy. The main charges were theological, but his support for the “plurality of worlds” was one of the charges. He was apparently willing to concede some of the theological matters, but not all. After 7 years of being tried by the Inquisition and refusing to fully recant, he was burned at the stake in 1600, aged 52.
Bruno and science
Bruno is associated with the Copernican revolution, but he wasn’t a scientist. He had some original, and sometimes perceptive views on cosmology, but they were mixed up with strange beliefs on astrology and the occult. His views on cosmology were no more ‘heretical’ than those of many other natural philosophers (they weren’t called ‘scientists’ back then) of his day, such as Copernicus, Kepler and Brahe.
The conflict thesis
The ‘conflict thesis’ is the idea that the church, or religion generally, has always opposed science and impeded its progress. It’s often used to justify the view that religion and science are totally incompatible. It was taught by several prominent historians a century or so ago.
However modern historians say it is more wrong than right.
Why historians have rejected the conflict thesis.
The conflict thesis is, in essence, a misrepresentation of history. The church did have an argument with Galileo and did behave badly towards him, but many of the early natural philosophers were clerics supported by the church. Overall, most historians seem to judge that the medieval church assisted science more than opposed it.
Perhaps the best discussion of these issues is in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by eminent historian of science, Ronald Numbers, where various authors show that the conflict thesis is a myth:
The crude concept of the Middle Ages as a millennium of stagnation brought on by Christianity has largely disappeared among scholars familiar with the period
Michael Shank, University of Wisconsin-Madison
one cannot recount the history of modern science without acknowledging the crucial importance of Christianity
Noah Efron, Bar-Ilan University, Israel
What commentators are saying
People have mixed views about Bruno. Some think he was a crackpot, others think he is at least interesting, while others think he was a wayward genius. I think there is a little truth in all those perspectives.
But commentators generally agree on three things about Bruno and Cosmos:
- The church treated Bruno very badly. No-one deserves to die for disagreeing about basically theological matters, and burning at the stake is a particularly barbaric and inhuman way to execute anyone. I believe Jesus’ teachings imply something close to pacifism, and I am opposed to capital punishment in any form. The Catholic Church has apparently expressed regret and made a general apology about some aspects of the Inquisition, but nothing very specific.
- Bruno was not a martyr for science. The conflict thesis is unhistorical and Bruno’s condemnation was only peripherally related to any supposed church opposition to science. Overall, the church was not opposed to science.
- Cosmos misrepresented the episode to make a philosophical point. Ironically, Cosmos is aimed at promoting science and the search for truth, but it used an untruthful version of history to do this. If the program was willing to sacrifice truth for polemic in this case, how can a viewer trust it at other times?
Apparently some commentators who support the Cosmos take on the conflict thesis argued that the program was justified in pointing out the church’s coercive behaviour. But most commentators disagreed, arguing that this was a program about science, not the Catholic Church, and the program was misleading.
- Why Did Cosmos Focus on Giordano Bruno? – a summary of different commentators’ views, by the US National Center for Science Education.
- Cartoons and Fables – How Cosmos Got the Story of Bruno Wrong – blogger Tim O’Neill’s views on mixing polemics with history..
- What ‘Cosmos’ got wrong about Giordano Bruno, the heretic scientist – a slightly more sympathetic view (to both Bruno and Cosmos) from Motherboard.