Cosmos, Giordano Bruno, and Getting it Right

I wanted to like the reboot of Cosmos. Really, I did.

Despite the patronizing materialism that kept cropping up in the old show, Carl Sagan covered some great subjects and excited the minds of a generation. Some of his most famous lines can still send a chill down my back. And today, at a time when cosmology is changing so rapidly that all astronomy textbooks more than a decade old are hopelessly out of date, when we are unlocking the secrets of the genome, finding the functions in the junk DNA, and hunting down the Higgs boson, there is no lack of material.

So here are my first impressions. The graphics are spectacular—someone has paid for top-drawer CGI, and the filming and production are excellent. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is stepping into an enormous pair of shoes, but he is an experienced presenter with clear diction, good range, and even a sense of humor; his work on NOVA set him up nicely for this show. The musical score is very well done, actually supporting the narrative without becoming overpowering. The purely descriptive parts of the science are fine, and even those of us who were sad to see Pluto lose its status as a planet could enjoy the trip to the edge of our solar system and beyond.

And then, there is the history of science. Or rather, there isn’t. There is some kind of imaginative story that has borrowed some names from the history of science and then struck off on a new track of its own.

Take this bit, from about 16 minutes in – and you’ll have to forgive any errors in my transcription: “Back in 1599, everyone knew the sun, planets and stars were just lights in the sky, revolved around the earth, and that we were the center of a little universe, a universe made for us.”

Stop the tape.

The Aristotelian cosmos was huge. Ptolemy, in the first book of his Almagest, says that the stars are so far away that in comparison to their distance, the earth may as well be considered to be a mere geometrical point. And then he proved it (as well as anything of that sort may be proved) by geometrical arguments. The Aristotelian conception of the universe had us at the bottom – not the privileged place this narrative suggests. Nor was the Ptolemaic system the only one on offer. By 1599, there were plenty of Copernicans around, and they took the point of view that the size of the earth’s orbit was negligible by comparison with the distance to the stars. (No parallax and all that.)

The notion that the universe was made just for us sits awkwardly with Christian theology, which says in no uncertain terms that there are orders of created beings older and higher than man. One didn’t have to take the word of Scripture for this idea; Dante had made it vivid and explicit nearly three centuries before the point at which Cosmos picks up the narrative.

Okay, start the tape again.

“There was only one man on the whole planet who envisioned an infinitely grander cosmos.”

“Infinitely” here is, of course, a figure of speech, and it would be captious to complain that even our modern universe is not strictly infinite. But with all due allowance being made … only one man? Okay, so Copernicus and Rheticus were dead by 1599, and Henry More hadn’t been born yet. But how about Copernicans like Maestlin and Kepler who were working actively at that time? How about Galileo, who was already a Copernican long before he wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems? Or even a maverick like Tycho Brahe?

But no. They had to pick Giordano Bruno, who was infinitely (may I use that word too?) inferior to Galileo or Kepler as a scientist, chiefly because – unlike Galileo and Kepler – he was burned at the stake in 1600. And then they had to pretend that he was martyred for his Copernicanism, a problem that was brought on by his reading “forbidden books.”

Let’s put this in perspective. Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, published in 1543, was not placed on the Index Prohibitorum until March of 1616. So whatever the “forbidden books” were that Bruno was supposedly reading, De Rev. wasn’t one of them, and Copernicanism wasn’t forbidden at that time. (I confess to having a fleeting fantasy that Bruno invented the Delorean, slipped forward into the summer of 1616, and read Copernicus’s tome – disguised with a brown paper wrapper – before nipping back into the 16th century in time to be burned, thus adding the invention of time travel to his other mythical scientific achievements.)

But it turns out they don’t have Copernicus’s book in mind. Instead, they tell us that one of them was Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. This is half right: Bruno did read Lucretius. But in an admittedly quick search last evening, I was unable to turn up any evidence that De Rerum Natura was ever on the Index. The compilers of the Index were too busy banning contemporary books, much as a zealous fundamentalist might ban Dawkins but neglect to prohibit Porphyry. (If the sole goal was to keep articulate treatises promoting atheism out of the hands of the common folk, perhaps Lucretius’s book should have been banned – assuming, of course, that you’re into that banning thing. But that is a different topic.)

And Bruno wasn’t in trouble for his Copernicanism. He was in trouble chiefly for such forward-looking astronomical views as his denial that Jesus was divine, that Mary was a virgin, or that God was triune. We can all agree – I hope – that burning someone at the stake for his beliefs is wrong. (If you don’t agree, please find somewhere else to comment.) But Bruno’s scientific beliefs did not play a significant role in his trial, and we absolutely did not need for the first episode of the first season of the new Cosmos to perpetuate the mythology that they did. I don’t want to be unkind, but the people who write the script need to ask themselves a simple question: Why should we take seriously their speculations about the distant future or the remote past if they can’t be bothered to get it right regarding things in our relatively recent history that we know about?

Oh well. At least the “Appearances in fiction” category on Bruno’s Wikipedia page can now be enlarged.


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Tim McGrew

Dr. Timothy McGrew is Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. He specializes in theory of knowledge, logic, probability theory, and the history and philosophy of science. He has published in numerous journals including Mind, The Monist, Analysis, Erkenntnis, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Philosophia Christi. His recent publications include the article on “Evidence” in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology (Routledge, 2010), co-authorship of The Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology (Blackwell, 2009), co-authorship (with Lydia McGrew) of the article on "The Argument from Miracles" in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009), and the article on "Miracles" for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011). He is the project director of the Library of Historical Apologetics, which can be found on Facebook.

  • Johnny-Dee

    “There is no doubt that the ideas expressed in Bruno’s writings were unorthodox. The remarkable things about his trial are that he showed such constancy in defending his ideas and that it took his inquisitors so long to find him guilty of heresy. But although theories of multiple universes are once again popular with cosmologists today, it is a mistake to think of Bruno as a martyr to science. His speculations were based not on observation or experiment but built on occult traditions and a priori philosophizing. He was condemned not because he supported the Copernican system, but because he practised magic and denied the divinity of Christ.”
    Anthony Kenny, _The Rise of Modern Philosophy_ (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 22.

  • Craig A. Boyd

    Thank you!

  • D Bnonn Tennant

    Tim, great commentary as always. One thing did strike me as odd, though:

    The notion that the universe was made just for us sits awkwardly with Christian theology, which says in no uncertain terms that there are orders of created beings older and higher than man.

    Of course I agree with you that there are created beings older and higher than man (the bene elohim and the malakim). But doesn’t the Bible indicate that those created beings are not physical, and indeed existed prior to the physical creation (Job 38:7)?

    The thrust of Genesis 1 and 2 seems very much to be that God created the universe for man. Even if you don’t hold to a calendar day view (I don’t know if you do or not), the narrative “points upwards” to the creation of man. Man is the pinnacle of the physical creation. God lays the groundwork with the cosmos, the earth, the plants and animals, and then he gets to the point and creates Adam.

    By the same token, man has dominion over creation. He is God’s “vice-regent” in the physical realm. Indeed, isn’t that the point of the curses in Genesis 3? One of those already-created heavenly beings tries to trick man into making God kill him? Seems like the obvious reason for that is the heavenly being figured he ought to be in charge, and tried to stage a coup. That’s very strongly implied in the curse he receives: becoming lower than all the animals, in ironic contrast to what he was aiming for.

    There’s also the fact (perhaps slightly more on topic) that, to my understanding, cosmological models which take the earth as the center of the universe solve a lot of the problems with the standard model, which takes the universe to be without a center. So that seems to weigh in favor of earth having a favored position in the cosmos as well.

    Now, none of that proves that the cosmos was made “just for us”. But it is certainly consistent with that thesis. To think that doesn’t seem awkward at all.


    • Steve Wilkinson

      As mentioned below, I’d take a look at Dr. Danielson’s work, especially his little article, “Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot” which can be downloaded from his site:

      The main point is in this myth of dethroning humanity, which Danielson lists the implications and gives many examples from folks like Sagan, Hawking, etc.

      But, more directly to your point, I don’t think Job 38 causes any issues with an old-earth perspective. While the heavenly creatures might not be physical, as we are, one could imagine (and in fact, expect) them being created along with the universe. They could precede humanity by billions of years on such a view, if they didn’t have the physical requirements of humans. (Or, I suppose on a young-earth view, God could have made other preceding creations which are external to our universe, but able to interact in some manner.)

      But, the point I think Tim was going for, and Danielson lays out, is that the Copernican revolution didn’t demote humanity, but actually elevated humanity, at least in terms of specialness.

  • Cheesus Riced

    Bruno got the idea of infinite space from Lucretius, but he also read Nicolas of Cusa, who related the concept to an infinite God. Bruno’s originality lay elsewhere. He was indisputably the first person to grasp that the Sun is a star and the stars are other suns with their own planets. That is arguably the greatest idea in the history of astronomy. Before Bruno, none of the other Copernicans ever imagined it.

    While Kepler rejected an infinite universe, he was a good enough scientist to recognize that Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope lent support to some of Bruno’s ideas. Writing to Galileo in 1610, Kepler was impressed by the observation that stars seen through the telescope still sparkled, in contrast to the circular appearance of planets. He asked: “What other conclusion shall we draw from this difference, Galileo, than that the fixed stars generate their light from within, whereas the planets, being opaque, are illuminated from without; that is, to use Bruno’s terms, the former are suns, the latter, moons, or earths?”

    Galileo never once mentioned Bruno’s name. Of course in the land of the Inquisition he had good reason. But in his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (the book that got him into deep trouble), he discretely accepted Bruno’s greatest idea, writing that the fixed stars are other suns.

    It does not matter in the least where correct scientific ideas come from. Once out there, they can be tested. The important thing is not to suppress ideas. Freedom of thought is the life blood of science. That’s why Bruno’s story is important.

  • tildeb

    A terrific post, Tim and I thank you for putting Bruno in his historical context.

    My quibble is with regards to understanding why Bruno was highlighted in the new series. My understanding is that the show wanted to address where the rock of authority – the Church for Western civilization as we know it today – met the immovable force of how the cosmos seems to operate.

    Bruno’s treatment at the hands of this authority really can be used as a kind of watershed moment in history where we can better understand just how important is determining what gets to arbitrate claims made about the cosmos: religious belief (and the various authorities who represent its temporal expressions) or the cosmos itself?

    Aristotelian natural philosophy imposed a metaphysical model on the cosmos based on a presumed nature contained in objects and agencies for motion that the Church took on board for its own; Copernicus imposed a mathematical model on it based on accepting this metaphysics expressed as God’s use of perfect spheres and submitted it for Vatican approval only on his deathbed, and the rest of the cosmological crew at this time actively sought the same kind of approval and licensing from the Church leaders for their publications and yielded to this authority. In other words, authority over what models to approve about how the cosmos operated was the bailiwick of priests; Bruno was killed for refusing to obey this authority, and so this sentence of death is a handy spot for a series on science to point to and say only here do we begin to see people inquiring into how the cosmos operates allow the cosmos and not priestly authority to arbitrate our claims made about it.

    In this light, introducing Bruno (and in spite of questionable assertions made about him and his ideas as a person) was understandable because we begin to find more and more historical evidence of a move away from religious authority by these intrepid explorers and a shift more towards the cosmos itself to adjudicate the claims and conclusions and explanations these explorers made about it.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      Except that this seems a form of anachronism in that yes, the priests and church were heavily tied to the governance of the people at that time. It would be like, later on, looking back and blaming science for Bush or Obama’s failed policies on various topics in which science were involved.

      I think we’re largely agreed that too close a mix between government and religion isn’t necessarily a healthy thing. And yet this modern conception of what ‘separation’ looks like, i.e.: secularism, is just as insane.

      But, the big problem is this idea of church meets science, when in fact science largely (at least a worldview and formulation which made it actually work) developed out of the church. Was there resistance to change? Sure, just like there is today… consider evolution or global warming! Whether either are true or false, there are major political forces resisting change to the popular views. After neo-Darwinianism falls, will you be willing for science to take a shot like above and for it to be used to encourage driving science out and religion back in?

  • Steve Wilkinson

    Thanks for the great article Tim! As I mentioned in my article on the recent camel-bone incident, isn’t it a bit hard to imagine this as a matter of ignorance, rather than agenda? I mean, many of us apologists are finding these flaws in our spare-time, when people being paid to research and write (or create documentaries or films) on this stuff somehow get it wrong.

    I also wanted to mention that anyone interested in further study on these topics should check out the work of my friend, Dennis Danielson. As far as I know, he’s probably done the most work on the history of cosmology that I’m aware of.

    And, he’s also a top Milton scholar. If you happen to be able to be in Vancouver this summer, he’s teaching a class on all of this at Regent College.