Battle of the “Cosmos,” Round 3

By Corey S. Powell | March 16, 2014 11:35 am

The new Cosmos show is doing an inspirational job bringing the wonders of science to a mass audience. There was one segment of the first episode where I thought the writers went off-track, however. In an earlier post I described my concern about how that episode  depicts philosopher Giordano Bruno and his role in the discovery of the infinite universe. My column prompted a reply from Cosmos co-writer Steven Soter, along with my further thoughts.

The Spaceship of the Imagination voyages out to distant galaxies and into the mysteries of DNA in the new Cosmos. (Credit: Fox)

The Spaceship of the Imagination voyages out to distant galaxies and into the mysteries of DNA in the new Cosmos. (Credit: Fox)

Now, the third and final round: Soter offers some closing commentary on the matter, which appear below.

Inevitably, this dialogue has grown increasingly detailed, focused on the thoughts and actions of men who lived more than 400 years ago. To some readers the whole discussion may seem like nitpicking (a few have said as much in the comments), but I think it is greatly important. It offers a rare opportunity to debate the evolving relationship between science and religion. It is a window into the dramatic ways our conception of the universe has changed in modern times. And I must say, it is a tribute to Soter–and the whole Cosmos project–that he is taking the time to respond and share these ideas with the whole world.

The Case for Bruno, by Steven Soter

Your suggestion that Giordano Bruno was not the first to realize that the stars are suns is mistaken. You cited his predecessor Nicolas of Cusa, who referred in one passage to “the earth, the sun, or another star.” But Cusa did not mean that the sun is another star as we understand the term. Throughout his book, he used the word “star” indifferently to refer to the earth, the moon, the sun and the planets, as was common in his time. He also distinguished them from the “fixed stars” on the surface of the eighth celestial sphere. His pre-Copernican conception of the solar system was antithetical to any notion of the stars as other suns.

You claimed that “Cosmos confusingly presents Bruno’s infinite cosmology as a physical theory of the universe”, because Bruno believed the planets and stars had souls. It is true that Bruno’s worldview was vitalistic and magical. He imagined that the Earth had a soul like the other planets. But he passionately believed in the physical reality of the planets and suns, all made of the same material elements as understood in his time. He wrote:

“. . . every one of those bodies, stars, worlds and eternal lights is composed of that which is named earth, water, air and fire . . . Those in whose composition fire predominates will be called sun, bright in itself. If water predominates, we give the name telluric body, moon or such like which shines by borrowed light . . .” Bruno was the first to recognize this fundamental distinction between stars and planets.

Bruno described a universe of  “innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow . . . In it are an infinity of worlds similar to our own, and of the same kind.” He urged his readers to “dissolve the notion that our earth is unique . . . we may perceive the likeness of our own and of all other stars . . . the substance of the other worlds throughout the ether is even as that of our own world.” Bruno made it as clear as he could, using the rudimentary understanding of matter available in his time, that this was a physical theory of the universe.

You said that Bruno took “a big step backward by interpreting the universe more in theological than mathematical terms.” Bruno was neither a mathematician nor a scientist, and his mind was not modern by any means. But he was without doubt the first to imagine a universe resembling the one we know today.

Again, you claimed that Bruno’s cosmology “was not a correct scientific idea, nor was it even a guess as Cosmos asserts. It was a religious and philosophical statement.” However you characterize Bruno’s cosmology has no bearing on its essential correctness. Can we expect a philosopher living in a world steeped in mysticism, groping in the dark at the dawn of modern science, to see things in modern terms? Scattered among his many pages of metaphysical nonsense are nuggets of pure gold. We should be grateful for them and not expect more.

Finally you claimed that Thomas Digges, “far more than Bruno, built on the tradition of Copernicus and sought to bring more of the universe into the grasp of math and geometry.” Digges made a major contribution by extending the realm of the stars into infinite space, but he then veered back from reality by describing the stars as “the palace of felicity . . . the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy.” He is talking about the traditional theological heaven, not the material universe.

It was Bruno who used the opening made by Copernicus to give us the first glimpse of the modern astrophysical cosmos. And that was no incremental step. It was a giant leap.

Some Closing Reflections, by Corey S. Powell

It is crucial to remember that neither Bruno nor Digges was thinking about the universe in modern terms. This is, I think, one of the most meaningful upshots of this whole conversation. There is a natural tendency to project our current conceptions onto people who lived long ago. That leads to two kinds of errors.

First, we sometimes regard ourselves as inherently smarter than those in the past, simply because we start from a place of greater understanding. Such casual arrogance overlooks the incredible efforts required by people like Bruno, Digges, and thousands–no, millions–of others who have contributed to science and to the great march of human knowledge.

Second, there is a tempting inclination to view the past as a prelude toward an inevitable present. This attitude, which has been known to afflict academics as well, is known as Whig history. I still think Cosmos fell prey to this error, in trying to make Bruno’s universe look too much like our own. Seen in clear-eyed historical context, Bruno’s views still strongly resembled the spiritually ordered Church universe of the time–not to mention the philosophies of his ancient Greek influences, Lucretius and Anaxagoras.

Soter beautifully describes Bruno as “steeped in mysticism, groping in the dark.” In that context, his conception of an infinite universe full of stars and planets was an astonishing leap of insight–but it was still a theological one more than a conceptual one. Conversely, Digges made brave moves to create a cosmological model that blended the idea of a sun-centered solar system with infinite space–but he still regarded the expanse beyond our solar system as the realm of the angels.

In truth, it took both Bruno and Digges (and their many successors) to build–slowly, incrementally, with many stumbles along the way–toward our modern understanding of the universe. My biggest concern is that, in presenting Bruno as a lone hero and a lone martyr, Cosmos missed a fabulous opportunity to convey this communal and cumulative aspect of science.

In taking time to share his thoughts here, though, Soter has filled in many of those missing details. He has also shown a generous commitment to participating in the grand process of exploring the world through science. That is one of the happiest results of this whole exchange.

For more, watch the next episode of Cosmos and then join our Cosmos Rewind Google Hangout on Tuesday, March 18, at 8PM EDT. And follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

  • lump1

    I think that cramming such a broad story into little over 40 minutes will inevitably leave out details. The proviso about Bruno’s mysticism was a sufficient gesture, I think, to the differences in his world view and the modern one. Also, it was quite clearly stated that Bruno just happened to guess right on these matters, and then believe his guesses with dogmatic fervor. None of the exchange here has led me to think that this characterization was unfair.

    What I wonder is why Bruno was specifically chosen to feature so prominently in this episode, given that he really was a religious zealot and not a scientist. It goes against the spirit of the rest of the program. Sagan’s own opening episode featured the compelling story of how the circumference of the Earth was measured in the ancient world, and it included a very easy to follow reconstruction of how it all worked. The process of reasoning, as well as the conclusion itself, was supposed to be a part of the lesson. In Bruno’s case, there was no process of reasoning. There was a hallucinatory experience, or some such thing. And it troubles me that this sort of thing appears in a show that is supposed educate the public about science, because the among the public, the misconception is rife that scientific “genius” is an outcome of mystical insight into reality. For example, most people misconstrue Einstein in just this way. That’s why dumb college freshman hang posters of the aged, nutty-looking Einstein that say “imagination is more important that knowledge.” This, like other misconceptions of science, should be fought – not reinforced – by shows like Cosmos.

    • coreyspowell

      Nicely said. Thank you for that.

    • Lucy Volkova

      Much of what you said here expresses my exact thoughts on the matter (with some extra insights, all of which I appreciate ;). While Steven Soter did a good job addressing many of Corey Powell’s concerns – and helping readers (myself, at least) recognize that this subject is not simple, not black and white – I am still left asking why, of all people, Bruno was chosen as the 20-minute feature in the first episode. I feel that his biographical segment was pandering to emotions, rather than logic. It filled me with disdain for religion, not wonder for science.

      However, contrary to what my previous statements might suggest, I did still very much enjoy this premiere of Cosmos. I am thrilled that these wonderful people are bringing it back to life again, and looking forward to seeing what the show has in store. What a fantastic tribute to Mr. Sagan. :)

    • Don Wheeler

      You bring up some really good points. Science isn’t about mysticism, magic, the supernatural, and belief in something without evidence. I was a little bit disappointed when some of that was mixed in with Cosmos. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed it though! NDT rocks! Looking forward to upcoming episodes.

    • Irene

      “It goes against the spirit of the rest of the program.”
      Programs don’t have spirits.
      They accept your kind at The Christian Science Monitor website. Take your ironic-voodoo there.

  • Travis Burch

    “My biggest concern is that, in presenting Bruno as a lone hero and a lone martyr, Cosmos missed a fabulous opportunity to convey this communal and cumulative aspect of science.”

    I didn’t for a second think Bruno was a lone martyr. That didn’t seem to be the point whatsoever.

    And didn’t the fantastic personal segment about Sagan absolutely make that point? I think ya diggin’, man!

    • coreyspowell

      I see your point but…Bruno is depicted as a poor, solitary wanderer when in fact he was well connected to many colleagues and rich patrons. He is depicted as a visionary, the “one man” who dared to think about the infinite, when in fact he was building on hard work by contemporaries like Digges. And his vision is depicted as a physical theory of the universe, when it was much more a spiritual one.

      All of these were creative decisions, and all of them are misleading. The same basic story could have been told just as quickly, just as entertainingly, but showing Bruno as he really was. My goal in this exchange is to help fill in the pieces of what that story might have looked like.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Roy Dempsey

    I think your nit-picking apart Cosmos’ choice of using Bruno over someone such as Digges was a diservice to the Show, its writers, the spirit of its originatoir Carl Sagan, who was my Science curriculum at Cornell in the 70s, and showed self-centered reasoning and personal contrariness over a truly significant scientific needed point of orientation, or over a philosophical or even metaphysical rationale for the metaphors employed using bruno to illustrate them. Soter explained their point of view beautifully, and you have only managed to sidetrack and put a stain on the start of this excellent series. Using bruno served multiple purposes, including an appeal to non-scientists, mystics and people for whom spirituality is probably very ill-defined but an integral part of their world view, and it connected with this emotional (and less rational side that most humans have). It also made the story seem much more Universal, expansive and empowering (in an intellectual way), and made the viewer associate and relate to the side of Bruno that would be willing to go on a lifelong quest literally for his views and dreams, and even to sacrifice his comforts and even his Life for his beliefs (unlike Copernicus or Galileo, although they certainly suffered severe penalties and constraints for their world views). The average viewer can “relate” to a Bruno, almost as a prophet or clairvoyant soulmate, in a way that Digges would just fall flat completely in comparison to. This is nota textbook being published from an Ivory tower, or even a review type series or article such as might appear in Scientific American or even Discovery mag., it is a masa audience simplistic science series replete with visual and auditory wonders, meant to entice in and enthrall the average person who has little contact with science on a daily basis, unlike you and your very pointy-headed diatribes.

    • coreyspowell

      You think the American public needs “simplistic” explanations. I find that view hugely condescending. I think people are smart enough to handle honest, intellectually and emotionally nuanced narratives. I think good science can also make for good drama.

      That is why I set my standards high for the new Cosmos. That is why Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out errors in movies like Gravity and works so hard to help people understand science as it truly is. Oh well. I guess he’s a self-centered pointy head, too.

      • Andrew Bangsberg

        Have you met America? Of course the general public needs “simplistic” explanations. You must live in a bubble. And it’s not at all fair to compare Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s corrections regarding his field, Astrophysics, as applied to popular films because look how he does it, in the most simplistic way possible. And that’s not what you have done, at all. Does your PHD make Bruno’s history smack dab in the middle of your field? Do you have a PHD?

        • Andrew Bangsberg

          Reminds me of this conversation with Sam Harris and Deepak Chopra which gets good at 4:55, when Dr. Harris points out that Deepak is way outside of his field. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09UmufmfSLc

      • rs-com

        I realise that what I’m about to say is completely anecdotal – but save for this one instance that just happened before my eyes – I was completely in agreement with you.

        I have a friend who is completely and utterly religious. Completely. So much so that when I started playing last weeks Cosmos and he casually passed my way during the intro sequence, he quipped “I think it’s all bullshit. Do you really believe in all this, [My Name]?” which is verbatim.

        I dropped the subject. I work closely with him and I can’t risk causing a rift over this, so I let it slide… until a few hours ago.

        We had just finished watching the 2005 remake of War of the Worlds, got to the final dialogue about God in his infinite wisdom placed tiny creatures on the earth to thwart the aliens. I explained it to him and he liked the idea. This was my segway into the Cosmos episode with this priest. (I had to fast-forward to the moment he was introduced in the episode otherwise I would have lost the pace).

        My friend, who is religious beyond question, continued to watch as the story unfolded. The story then ended and NDT went on to talk about the cosmic caendar and started from the Big Bang until the present. For a while there I was sweating as I figured he had enough. He twitched a few times but saw the entire episode to the end. He then ended with something like “hmmm… interesting!”.

        I know its completely anecdotal and there is no way to really prove to you that this happened. For all you know I could be making this up to try and push some point. I guess the best thing would be for me to just simply lay it out there. From what I saw, this intro to Cosmos, at least for 1 person, became a gateway into the rest of the series.

        With that being said I want to say that I find your criticism of the first episode was pretty fair. Perhaps it could have been tweaked to depict a more realistic notion. In any case, whatever they did seems to do the trick just the way it is. It may not be perfect but it appears to be getting the job done. Maybe in decades to come they would remember your critique and the critiques of others and produce an even better series. Everything can be improved. I was just amazed at how the first episode worked. I saw it and I didn’t really see what it did… until I presented it to someone who shunned science in a big way, and who was fervently religious. It did what I didn’t think was possible with my friend – and for that I take my hat off to the writing team over there.

        • coreyspowell

          That’s a powerful and persuasive story. The “gateway” aspect of the Bruno story is certainly what drew the Cosmos writers to it. I still think they could have achieved the same effect in a more historically honest way, but I do understand the motivation behind the way the Bruno segment was framed.

  • Andrew Bangsberg

    Tonight’s show said that Polar bears evolved white fur, but isn’t their fur clear not white? Will this issue get a blog? :) I’m not serious, but if you were making a list of “facts” to discuss in Cosmos, don’t leave this one out please. (Fantastic to read Soter’s replies, great dialogue you two have going)

  • cireader

    The March 16th show talked down to most viewers. Even if the target audience was meant to be the uninformed non-scientists, it sounded like Tyson was talking to pre-schoolers. It was also full of errors, even more than the first episode. Tyson said that Darwin “discovered the mechanism” of evolution. Darwin only proposed evolution via natural selection in mating; but he had no idea how mating resulted in new traits. The mechanism was discovered by a priest, Fr. Gregor Mendel, who is referred to as the Father of Genetics. How about a little animation of Mendel defining the rules of genetics with pea plants? Was it too much for COSMOS writers to give credit to a churchman? They were certainly quick to condemn churchmen in the Bruno episode. The new COSMOS is shaping up as a propaganda tool meant to inflame a new war between science and religion. Carl Sagan would be ashamed of these tactics.

    • Cogito Ergo Sum

      I think you’re forgetting that Bruno was a Dominican monk. Does he not qualify as a “churchman”? You’re pronouncement is to be expected when the facts surrounding the church’s role as oppressor of “heretical” scientific thought are once again brought to light.

      • cireader

        If the source of your expectations is a belief that I am a churchman, then you
        are mistaken. I simply resent the misuse of scientific credentials to
        misrepresent science as anti-religious. (See *Note below)

        If you are
        convinced that the Bruno story was accurately stated in COSMOS, read a recent
        scholarly history of it in James Hannam’s book “God’s Philosophers”. This book
        was chosen by the British Society for the History of Science as one of 4 best
        books in 2011. The BSHS website has no church affiliation.

        *Note Tim
        O’Neill expresses similar views on the misuse of science at his blog, http://www.strangenotions.com/gods-philosophers/
        where he
        reviews Hannam’s book. He states “In the academic sphere, at least, the
        “Conflict Thesis” of a historical war between science and theology has been long
        since overturned.” So why do COSMOS writers, along with Tyson, perpetuate this
        myth?

        • Cogito Ergo Sum

          Let me try to clarify my response. In response to your assertion that “Cosmos” was happy to “condemn churchmen” in episode 2, I was pointing out that Bruno himself was a monk who believed his revelations helped to glorify God. Yes, the episode pointed out that he was mistreated by his inquisitors and murdered for his “heretical” beliefs, but the writers also portrayed him as having inadvertently hit upon the idea of the sun as one of an infinite number of stars orbited by other worlds. In effect, the show’s writers pointed out that his religious fervor led him to what later would be confirmed as a scientific truth. Was that a condemnation? I think not.

          As for your claim that natural selection is not a mechanism of evolution, most would disagree. http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/IIIENaturalSelection.shtml

          • cireader

            Since you modified your first claim that the church suppressed “scientific thought”, and now say Bruno was condemned for his “beliefs”, you should clarify again by saying “for his religious teachings”. Bruno’s condemation had nothing to do with science; he was not a scientist. So why put the story in COSMOS, if not to inflame a debate like this? The only other possibility is that Steven Soter and scientist Tyson failed to check the historical facts. Why?
            You also changed my words, which do not say that evolution is not a mechanism. Tyson/Soter claimed that Darwin proposed THE mechanism of evolution. I said exactly what your link says. Natural selection is ONE part of evolution. Without the detailed scientific work of the priest Mendel, who discovered genetics, Darwin’s theory was not much use to biologolists. So why would COSMOS ignore the genetic science of the priest? It’s obvious that it would undermine their myth of the “conflict thesis”.

          • Cogito Ergo Sum

            True, I realize Bruno’s conclusions could not be considered science – even as it was known in his day. Why put it in the series? It’s a great story that even goes so far as to demonstrate that religion has brought both contribution to and oppression of scientific knowledge. Why should the series only include stories of “scientists doing science” when, as we all know, human knowledge builds upon the ideas of predecessors, whether they be ancient Greek philosophers or Italian monks?

            My apologies if I was confused by your statement above, which seems to say the true and only mechanism of evolution stemmed from Mendel’s contribution to genetics: “The mechanism was discovered by a priest …”

            “Darwin’s theory was not much use to biologists?” Really? You do realize that Darwin’s ideas are a cornerstone of modern biology, right? To deny this would be intellectually dishonest.

            Why forego Mendel? Simply because no one disputes much of Mendel’s discoveries. There is little controversy. However, one-third of the U.S. population does not believe in Darwinian evolution.

          • rrbb333

            “Why put it in the series? It’s a great story that even goes so far as to demonstrate that religion has brought both contribution to and oppression of scientific knowledge.”
            I would agree whole heartedly with this point if the producers took the same time and effort to highlight the contributions of the Church that they took to emphasis the latter. Who knows, maybe they still will?

          • cireader

            I see a trend in all 3 episodes to continue the “conflict thesis” as the main theme. In the 3rd episode, the writers emphasize that we only get knowledge from science (a philosophical, not a scientific position), and that we are abandoned like babies on the doorstep, with no guidance but our imagination. The purpose of religion is behavioral guidance, not scientific; but if they gave credence to religious guidance, it would undermine their “conflict thesis”. Yes, we can hope for scholarly fairness on this topic in the remaining episodes; but given the evidence so far, I will be quite surprised if they suddenly give credit for the contributions of the church to science. I do not think they are inclined to read scholarly books like Hannam’s that I mentioned above.

  • rrbb333

    “In presenting Bruno as a lone hero and a lone martyr, Cosmos missed a fabulous opportunity to convey this communal and cumulative aspect of science.” –
    A communal and cumulative aspect that in no small part INCLUDED religion. Sadly the producers chose to deepen the divide in a manner that could be interpreted as “mean spirited”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson

      No, science advanced when it excluded magic. See e.g. the astronomy discussed here. If you are claiming that the history of science included religion in the Dark Ages, it is a fact. Everything in DA included religion. That was the problem.

      I don’t think a description of facts can be “mean spirited” unless you are discussing a person. It is the well known and sad special pleading of religion to take strategical offence by intentionally misconstrue criticism of subject for criticism of person. So I tentatively interpret your last claim as a religious one.

      • rrbb333

        Communal and cumulative:

        Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brache, Descartes, Pascal, etc. — were formed in church-sponsored universities where they learned their mathematics, astronomy, and physics.

        Fr. Jean Picard, a priest of the 17th century, who was the first person to determine the size of the earth to a reasonable degree of accuracy.
        Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, a 17th century Jesuit astronomer and the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a free-falling body.
        Fr. George Searle, a Paulist priest of the early 20th century who discovered six galaxies.
        Fr. Francesco Grimaldi, a Jesuit priest who discovered the diffraction of light
        Fr. George Coyne, a contemporary Jesuit priest and astrophysicist.
        Fr. Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk who virtually invented modern genetics
        Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, a 20th century Jesuit priest who wrote extensively on paleontology
        Fr. Georges Lemaître, the formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins.

        Not to mention all of the Christian scientists:
        Francis Collins – mapped the Human genome
        John Polkinghorne – Professor of Mathematical physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979 and an Anglican Priest. Etc. Etc.

        Can we now forever dispense with the idea the science and the Church as at odds? I am guessing that is not going to happen , despite the evidence.

        • Cogito Ergo Sum

          You base your conclusion on the idea that because a person of science happened to be religious, religion must be a friend of science. The facts regarding religious oppression of science are undeniable. Clergy saw science that threatened dogma as heretical, thus Galileo et al. The Church banned many works of scientists during the Renaissance such as Copernicus, Galileo and Blaise Pascal. I’ll grant you that the Catholics are now the least of the scientific world’s worries, but they can not deny their history.

          • rrbb333

            It is not chance that the majority of scientific discovery originated in Christian Europe. Two fundamentally theological assumptions made the modern sciences possible, namely, that the world is not divine — and hence can be experimented upon rather than worshipped — and that the world is imbued with intelligibility — and hence can be understood.

            “Clergy saw science that threatened dogma as heretical, thus Galileo et al.”

            Not quite. Galileo was NOT convicted for his theory. The Church as open to the idea…When Cardinal Bellarmine met with Galileo he said, “While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe…and that the sun goes not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.”

            Galileo had promised not to teach his theory until there was more proof. His promised not to but did anyway. That is why he was convicted.

            What we can’t deny is that the retelling of history, just like the Bruno Story, has a lot to do with painting picture we think we see.

          • Cogito Ergo Sum

            First, I dispute the claim Galileo was not convicted of heresy. From the Church’s 1633 order: “We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.”

            Despite you defenses, an organization that threatened and sentenced a man of science with imprisonment for teaching the truth of the Copernican system should not be considered “open to the idea”? This, not to mention the numerous writings of scientists banned by the Church at one time, including those of Copernicus and Kepler.

          • rrbb333

            It is true that the Council of Trent supported Aristotelian science but only because it seemed the best understanding available at that time. As R.J. Blackwell has pointed out, Galileo was condemned not because the Bible conflicted with observation, but because he differed with the Church over what authority should be used to interpret it (Blackwell, R.J. – Galileo, Bellarmine and the Bible. London: University of Notre Dame, 1991. 120ff )

          • rrbb333

            “Despite your defenses, an organization that threatened and sentenced a man of science with imprisonment for teaching the truth of the Copernican system”
            This statement shows your modern bias. No one at the time of Galileo had proof that his theory was true. It in fact is know to be truth only in hindsight. You imply that the Church sentenced him in the face of “truth”. That is not the case. Many secular Aristotelian scientists opposed is views.

          • Cogito Ergo Sum

            What is staring us in the face here — like a sanctimonious inquisitor — is that regardless of whether Galileo had sufficient proof to support his claims, the Church chose to condemn a man for championing an IDEA. For many decades, clergy systematically pursued a strategy of suppressing intellectual thought they believed contradicted church dogma.

          • rrbb333

            Right, he was condemned for an idea. Not for teaching the truth as you first stated. At a time when the Church, the university, education, politics and social life were all one connected entity (remember religion as a separate sphere of life is a modern construct) teaching an unproven idea was seen through a very different lens than the one we use today. Blackwell’s point regarding Galileo’s conflict with the Church over what authority should be used to interpret his theory would not happen in a million years today. Your assertion that Galileo’s was condemned for teaching his true theory is an blatant example of revisionist history. It should give you pause to hold off any black and white “Church vs. Science” allegations.

          • Cogito Ergo Sum

            You’ve touched on the crux of why religion is anti-science: its unquestionable final authority on what is truth, despite evidence to the contrary. This was the case then and continues to be today. The Church condemned Galileo not because he didn’t possess sufficient truth, but because his claim to truth contradicted holy scripture as interpreted by the magisterium (Aristotelian astronomy did not). That the Church eventually accepted the truth of heliocentrism demonstrates that it will only stubbornly — in the face of irrefutable evidence — occasionally revise its doctrine. I say “occasionally” because of the persistence of anti-science dogma such as immaculate conception and transubstantiation.

          • rrbb333

            “the persistence of anti-science dogma such as immaculate conception and transubstantiation.”

            Ok, so you would believe the Church is “anti science” because it does not have scientific proof for these concepts (why you didn’t choose the concept of “God” is curious but whatever)? This is a ridiculous notation but, here is your dilemma. The concept of truth only coming from scientific proof is “dogma”. Undeniably “dogma”. And ironically, dogma for which there is no scientific proof!! You have actually done what you accuse the Church of doing..being the “unquestionable final authority on what is truth”.

            Your comments lead me to believe that you don’t have a good knowledge of the Church:

            St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century on the creation account in Genesis;

            “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth (science) justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.”

            Catacism of the Catholic Church
            39 In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.

  • Torbjörn Larsson

    Very illuminating discussion, I did not know about the social influences here. (I did know about Newton’s similar problems and how difficult it is to translate his texts to modern understanding.)

    “It offers a rare opportunity to debate the evolving relationship between science and religion.”

    Ah, that is the problem then. There is no evolution to be found (outside of the history), nor any to be expected: science is in the business to make facts out of belief, religion is in the business to make belief out of facts. Apologetics will move no more than the relationship will.

    Far more productive in this context would be to ask if what Bruno did helped advance science, so merit recognition in Cosmos. As I understand it he did.

  • Lisa s-h-g

    I believe that Cosmos is another try to get people, especially younger audiences, seriously interested in Science again. Of course it will have lay man’s terms, simplifications, omissions and maybe even exaggerations. But it’s a wonderful piece of work, and as a Physics teacher, I’m glad it’s there. Just disappointed that it doesn’t air in Greece

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Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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