In the first part of my reflections on the recent Fox-National Geographic reboot of Carl Sagan’s famous series, Cosmos, I focused on some of the scientific problems in the first episode. Those, however, were far from the only problems with the show. Far more numerous, and frankly, far more gratuitous were the historical problems. Again, the storytelling by Tyson was compelling enough that the whole thing felt like a feast for the eyes and even the mind. But with a bit more light shed on things, the feast turns out to be plastic. Plastic is pretty remarkable stuff, but consuming it will prove both unsatisfying and, ultimately, deadly.
The historical problems began in earnest about midway through the first episode. Here Tyson began to tell how the noble commitment to follow the empirical evidence wherever it leads that guides our modern priests…er…scientists in their endeavors was not always the case. And, since every good story needs a villain, the antagonist was ushered to the front of the stage. Several hundreds of years ago, we were told, people were not free to follow the evidence like they are today. All inquiries about the nature of the world had to fit the mold set in place by the thought police of the day: the…bum, bum, bummmmm…CHURCH!
Yes, Cosmos fans, the villainous Church in its Middle Ages period was actively working to keep genuine advancements in human understanding about the nature of the universe from reaching the general populace. The particular understanding about the workings of the universe that was in view here was the discovery in the Middle Ages that the earth is not at the center of the universe. You see, as the story goes, for many hundreds of years the Church taught that the earth is at the center of the universe and all the rest (including, specifically, the sun) revolves around it. The reason they taught this, again, as the story goes, is that the Church believed people were at the pinnacle of creation and as such, were rightly viewed as the center of the universe. But, when men like Copernicus and Galileo began to make stunning empirical observations suggesting that the reverse was true, the Thought Police…er…Church dispatched the Gestapo…er…Inquisition to find these courageous, empirically-driven, dissenters, round them up, and lock them away. We are special, even if the universe itself denies it.
Of particular focus for Tyson storytelling, was a priest who resided historically between the scientific giants of Copernicus and Galileo named Giordano Bruno. Bruno, we are told, had these visions of an infinite universe in which the earth was a mere pinprick revolving around the sun. It was for his courageous attempts to share this vision—which, though scientifically accurate was not based on empirical observations but instead a lucky guess—that the vicious forces of the Inquisition tortured and ultimately put him to death. This was just another sad chapter in the history of the Church working to stifle the advance of science. Thanks be to…well…the scientists I guess…that these efforts proved finally futile allowing the historical train rumbling toward the modern world to role on unhindered.
Again, this all sounds so compelling. Even the animation helped make a convincing case. Yet this feast designed to satisfy our senses is entirely plastic. Plastic can be made to look convincingly real, but this doesn’t change the fact that it’s still plastic.
Let’s start with the chief storyline. Giordano Bruno was in fact put to death by the Inquisition. That’s true. Furthermore, it’s a tragedy. The Inquisition represents a dark part of the Church’s past about which we should be honest, but which historical distortions have made to appear entirely more sinister than it actually was.
Here’s what’s not true: Giordano Bruno was not put to death because he preached that the universe is infinite and that the earth revolves around the sun. He was put to death because he was a heretic. He began actively preaching a unitarian, pantheistic worldview. He was wearing the badge of the Church while teaching things diametrically opposed to the official teachings of the Church. Killing him was not the right way to handle the matter, but the Church was right to move to stop his blaspheme.
The show also hit the Church for having geocentrism as an official doctrine. That’s true. The Church taught geocentrism for a long time; longer in fact than it should have once the counter evidence began to mount.
Here’s what not true: The geocentrism of the Church did not stem from the fact that it believed people were far more special than the utterly insignificant blips in a vast universe that Tyson and company would have us believe we are. Instead, just the opposite is true. The Church’s geocentrism held that the further away from the earth you got in the universe the closer you were to God. People on earth were a mere step above Hell which was thought to be at the exact center. It shied away from the shift to heliocentrism not because of fear of a scientifically-accurate demotion, but rather for fear of a sin-inducing promotion. The Church didn’t want people to think of themselves more highly than they ought. I should also add that scientifically-minded, doctrinally-faithful leaders wanted to make sure that a shift of this magnitude was backed by sound, correct science, much unlike the data Galileo arrogantly pushed to be adopted.
The broader point here, though, which I will explore in more detail in part three, is that not only is there no conflict between the Church and “science,” but there never has been. Modern science exists because of Christianity, not in spite of it. The clash here is one of worldviews, not data. And the truth is that only one worldview has the necessary philosophical capital to make exploring and accurately describing the world a worthwhile endeavor. More on that in the third and final part.