The Cartoonish View Of History In Cosmos

I really wanted to love Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series. I know it has to be very accessible, but it felt a little too desperate not to lose its audience’s attention. Tyson himself turns out to be best appreciated in small doses. His overly-emphatic style – keep your hands still! – and tone that seems to assume we’re all around 12, lacked all the stoner wonder of Sagan, and felt like a new priest trying to make the Gospels more “relevant”, without realizing their relevance is beyond any age. In the end, I tried to block out the ego of the way-too-intrusive host (Like blocking out the sun) and ignore the silliness. And then we got in the very first episode a truly weird history lesson, made into a cartoon.

David Sessions pans it. The segment previewed above is on the 16th century priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno, which includes deGrasse Tyson intoning that the Roman Catholic Church sought to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs”. Really?

Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild—and occasionally correct—guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions—monarchies, patriarchies, churches—are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.

The real path to our modern selves is much more complicated—so complicated that academic historians still endlessly debate how it happened.

While some scholars treat “the Enlightenment” as if it were a single movement, others argue that it unfolded differently—at different paces, in different styles—in different countries. Some argue that atheism was a central concern, while others think the “age of reason” was driven more by the desire for greater political freedom. Either way, deeply religious Catholic scholars contributed to many of the great discoveries of natural science, and even the foundations of disciplines like geology. Very few of the heroes of the Enlightenment were atheists, and even the scientific luminaries of the period fell for various forms of “occultism,” from alchemy to spirit-conjuring. Many were elitists who, despite their opposition to tyranny, remained contemptuous of the masses. The veneration of reason did not lead neatly or automatically to moderate democratic politics; in some cases, like the Terror of the French Revolution, it resulted in bloody brutality not much different from the sort visited on religious heretics like Bruno a few centuries before.

My memory of the original is shaky, but Artur Rosman digs up this passage from Walker Percy’s mock self-help book, Lost in the Cosmos. Sagan’s may have been as wince-inducing as Tyson’s version – and for the same reasons:

[A]s Whitehead pointed out, it is no coincidence that science sprang, not from Ionian metaphysics, not from the Brahmin-Buddhist-Taoist East, not from the Egyptian-Mayan astrological South, but from the heart of the Christian West, that although Galileo fell out with the Church, he would hardly have taken so much trouble studying Jupiter and dropping objects from towers if the reality and value and order of things had not first been conferred by belief in the Incarnation.

Yet one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring Nebula.

Indeed, more often than not, I found myself on Sagan’s side, especially in his admiration for science and the scientific method, which is what he says it is — a noble, elegant, and self-correcting method of attaining a kind of truth — and when he attacks the current superstitions, astrology, UFO’s, parapsychology, and such, which seem to engage the Western mind now more than ever — more perhaps than either science or Christianity.

What is to be deplored is not Sagan’s sophomoric scientism — which I think better than its counterpart, a sophomoric theism which attributes the wonders of the Cosmos to a God who created it like a child with a cookie cutter — no, what is deplorable is that these serious issues involving God and the nature of man should be co-opted by the present disputants, a popularizer like Sagan and fundamentalists who believe God created the world six-thousand years ago. It’s enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name. Really, it is a case of an ancient and still honorable argument going to pot. Even arguments in a college dormitory are, or were, conducted at a higher level.

Previous Dish on Cosmos here, here, and here.