Monday, March 17, 2014

Tim O'Neill on Bruno

The recent Cosmos had a segment on Giordano Bruno that has caused something of a tempest where history of science intersects popularization of the history of science. Tim O'Neill has a guest post on the subject for Thony Christie (who had given a general overview of the issues here, with links):

If the writers of the series were actually interested in the real history of the origins of scientific thought, there are many people whose stories would have been far more worthy of telling than Bruno – people who actually were proto-scientists. The writers of the show, Stephen Soter and Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, seem to have known enough about Bruno to know they could not present him as a scientist and DeGrasse Tyson’s narration does mention that he was “no scientist” at one point. But they delicately skim over the fact that the guy was, to our way of thinking, a complete mystical loon. In his defence of the criticism the Bruno sequence has since attracted Soter notes that several other early science figures also pursued studies that we find abjectly unscientific, such as Newton’s obsessions with alchemy and apocalyptic calculation. But the difference is that Newton and Kepler pursued those ideas as well as studies that were based on real empirical science, whereas Bruno’s hermetical mysticism, sacred geometry and garbled and largely invented ancient Egyptian religion were all of his studies – he did no actual science at all.

As with pretty much everything O'Neill writes, the whole thing is worth reading. Of course the obstacle to reasoned discussion makes itself known in the first comment on the post:

If there are any irreconcilable differences between the cosmos’ Bruno or the real Bruno, the fact still remains that he was burned for what he professed or believed. He was not burned for any other crime than blasphemy. Your whole article is a wash, you can not deliberately lighten the cruelty of the religiously convicted.

I think it would be news to both Christie and O'Neill that they are deliberately lightening any kind of cruelty! But this is a constant difficulty in historical matters: human beings have a tendency to reason by association, which is often handy as a practical matter, or for initial approximation to be examined by further study, but is also often a good way to slide off into the deep end if it's never held to stronger standards of evidence, and will get you entirely in kooksville if you use it as an excuse for not paying attention to counterarguments. Which is what we have here, since O'Neill explicitly pointed out the problem in his last paragraph (emphasis added):

Of course, anyone who points out that Bruno is a rather ridiculous icon for atheists, given his kooky mystical views and magical practices is usually ignored. And anyone who has the temerity to point out that he was executed for purely religious ideas and not any speculation about multiple worlds or a non-finite cosmos is usually (bizarrely) told they are somehow justifying his horrific execution. As I’ve often noted, for people who call themselves rationalists, many of my fellow atheists can be less than rational. Unfortunately, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, Steven Soter and Seth MacFarlane’s silly Bruno cartoon will definitely not help in that regard.


  1. MrsDarwin12:44 PM

    Well, Seth MacFarlane! There's the first hint that the show would be more about mockery of religion than any kind of intelligent commentary.

  2. branemrys4:16 PM

    Yes, it does seem that if he was out to be taken seriously on this project, he hasn't done himself many favors.

  3. Timotheos10:49 AM

    Giordano Bruno is the scientist's version of Che Guevara; everybody pays him lip service but he actually stands against everything that they hold dear.

  4. branemrys10:58 PM

    I think it's very much a case of looking for someone, anyone, to fit a role they're certain beforehand must be filled.

  5. vishmehr246:30 AM

    Weren't a lot of heretics were for the poverty of the Church?
    That is, didn't the heretics commonly call for the Church to be despoiled?

    In modern terms, weren't they rather like Bolshevik agitators?

  6. branemrys7:33 AM

    There's probably no generalization that could be made on this point. But it's true that heretical groups usually weren't calling merely for a right to express their opinions; what they wanted varied, but more than a few did advocate massive economic and political change, and some worked for it violently. And since it was generally the local government rather than the Church that set the punishments for these kinds of crimes (the Church's task was usually to make sure the trials were done properly), the reason for a lot of the harshness in punishment was that heresy was often thought, at least, to be connected with attempts to overthrow governments and regimes of law, whether civil or ecclesiastical.


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