Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cosmos: Neil Degrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and the Heretical Friar

Several years ago I had the hope of being a “science writer” (a hope that did, in a sense come to fruition, though perhaps not as monetarily fruitful as I had hoped); thus, a great deal of my time was spent scouring the literature of science. When one is resigned to such a fate as this, any work with any redeeming entertainment value tends to stand out starkly from the rest. Only a few authors really ever stood out as having written things that a person should want to read. Among these was Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He was already well known when I began to read his books, though he had not yet reached the status he seems to have assumed today: High priest of the scientific cult of personality. He was certainly not, as the advertisements for his new (rebooted) series Cosmos, a “science rock star”.

There’s plenty to admire in Tyson’s work and his love of disseminating science, though, I have been startled by noticing in these past few years that Tyson’s words have become almost a form of Gospel among the humanists; his every utterance immediately reuttered by millions; his every attempt to raise up the idol of science and to besmirch the trivialities of religion lauded by those for whom thousands of years of tradition and sincere belief require only 140 characters to be destroyed.

I’ve now finally watched the premier episode of Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (just over a week after it originally aired), though I didn’t have any intention to respond at first; then after I had watched it, I figured I had no choice—unfortunately, my first attempt was entirely too long, so I’ve whittled it down to just a couple of points, which I’ve decided to present as a list, as I’ve been told that my posts might be more palatable if more segregated (and here I thought that I was doing enough by keeping my posts to fewer than 2,000 words—I appear to have overestimated the attention span of the modern reader. In this same spirit, I will include some visual aid along with each or my points).

So, without further do, a list:

1)      Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Perspective

Sagan hosted the original Cosmos as an 18-part series in 1980 (and for this he was granted a fond tribute at the end of this updated program). While it’s been some time since I last saw any of Sagan’s original episodes, I’m certain that, like this update, there would have been elements I agreed with and elements I disagreed with. I (like many people) am most familiar with Sagan from his book Pale Blue Dot, in which, beginning with an image taken from Voyager 1 while nearing the edge of the solar system in 1990 that shows the Earth as nothing more than a tiny, almost invisible speck in a vast sea of stars, proclaimed, almost giddily, that “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” and bemoaned that, “Our posturings, our imaged self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.” That he could get all this from a little picture of a dot begs the question: What was he expecting the Earth to look like from the edge of the solar system?

Now, as for Sagan’s observations on the Earth (which will, I promise, eventually have something to do with the modern iteration of Cosmos): First, he notes that the Earth is very small in relation to the cosmos, and this is undoubtedly true (though in terms of overall sizes, beginning with electrons and moving on to the whole universe, it is worth noting that the Earth is actually well above average), but then he declares  that, somehow, this smallness ought to make us feel less important. Neil Degrasse Tyson minced his words even less then he wrote, in his book Death by Black Hole, “Humans are emotionally fragile, perennially gullible, hopelessly ignorant masters of an insignificantly small speck in the cosmos.” Both Tyson and Sagan make the same fatal mistake: They begin with a scientific observation (smallness) and then deduce something (unimportance and insignificance) that is really not there to be deduced. A thing is not made insignificant simply because it is small, it is made insignificant because it does not matter. There is certainly some irony in eagerness these men (and many atheists) show in claiming that the Earth is insignificant, when it is actually the one thing that is keeping them alive as they write, enabling them to think these things at all. They are like a man caught in a hurricane who suddenly begins bemoaning the fallout shelter that is protecting him.

There is nothing wrong, certainly, with offering a sense of perspective—nothing wrong, certainly, with showing that the universe is truly massive (as the Bible itself makes perfectly clear), but it is a pity to try and conclude that the Earth is at all insignificant, for the evidence (if we really care about the evidence) shows exactly the opposite. The first sign of trouble in this new iteration of Cosmos (and perhaps with the original, as well) is that it takes precisely this task: it fails to recognize that the facts are sufficiently wonderful to make a fascinating documentary, instead feeling it necessary to descend into commentary; most notably, a truly misguided commentary on the subject of my second point:

2)      The Heretical Friar

Why would the premier episode of a show that claims to focus on the scientific understanding of the history of the universe focus so decisively on religious matters? I’m all for honest discussions of religion, but why would Tyson choose to spend so much time (at least twenty minutes of the 45-minute episode) on an exaggerated (and in many ways outright false) account of so-called “persecution”? Why the obsession?

The specific instance (told in fully animated form) Tyson chose to focus on (and I am quite certain that it was Tyson who chose to do so, as he has focused on this story in other books, as well) was the truly tragic account of Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Dominican Friar who was, just as Tyson declared, tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisitors and eventually burned at the stake.

Giordano Bruno, according to Tyson, was the very model of a modern dreamer and freethinker, unbound by the “dogmas” of his religion. To Tyson, Bruno’s only crimes were thinking big thoughts and asking questions. What if the universe were infinite? What if there was just an endless sea of stars like our sun, with a multitude of planets and civilizations?

If Cosmos is to be believed, such thoughts eventually led to Bruno’s death. In another book Tyson wrote: “Bruno had been found guilty of heresy, and then burned at the stake, for suggesting that Earth may not be the only place in the universe that harbors life.” If history is to be believed, however, the story is very different than this, and Tyson is revealed to be either tragically mistaken or purposefully misleading. The fact (easily discovered with even cursory research) is that Bruno’s heresy had almost nothing at all to do with his ideas of the universe (ideas that would be presented again, and on a far more scientific basis, by Galileo just ten years later) and everything to do with far more “traditional” heresies, such as denial of the divinity of Christ, the trinity, the virgin birth, etc. Now, far be it for me to defend the inquisition—it is not remotely my place to defend the indefensible, though one of the strangest and most beautiful aspects of Christianity is that when its adherents fail, its truths are only rendered that much more truthful—but as far as victims of those times go, there was nothing particularly special about the case of Giordano Bruno. 

The church was guilty, therefore, of unjustly persecuting a heretic, but not of persecuting a “scientist”. After all, there was no science in Bruno’s “theory”—as Tyson’s narrative notes after the story reaches its tragic conclusion: “Bruno was no scientist, his vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses, it could have turned out wrong.” He didn’t use math or observations or even theology—Bruno was a dreamer and probably a bit eccentric. He didn’t deserve to die for this, but neither did he deserve to be lauded by scientists. These sorts of “lucky guesses” happen on occasion: Democritus made a lucky guess in the fifth century B.C. and predicted atomic theory without evidence; Newton made a lucky guess in the 17th century and predicted the existence of the photon. Making a lucky guess does not make Giordano Bruno a symbol of science any more than watching the leaves turn colors in the fall makes me a botanist.

It does make sense, of course, that, if Cosmos absolutely had to feature a tragic example of scientific persecution by religion, that Bruno’s case should be chosen, for as a “freethinker” he is easily romanticized in a postmodern world, and as his life ended in flames, boldly refusing to recant his views, the tragedy is real and visceral and easily (even eagerly) draws upon the emotions of the viewer. They could not have used the much more famous instance of Galileo, for his methods were more scientific and less romantic, and his “punishment” of comfortable house arrest does not have nearly the drama of an execution (and, like Bruno, his punishment was not even really for his scientific views, but rather his perceived attitude toward the Pope).

But Bruno is held up as a freethinker; something Tyson certainly would like to think about himself, though, to quote Chesterton: “In the modern world a freethinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions, the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on.”