Saturday, May 23, 2009

Angels and Demons: "fact" or science fiction? II

My previous post on Angel and Demons generated some traffic. I see that it is currently the most popular movie in Australia at the box office. I am curious whether the movie contains the following interaction in the novel, between the hero Robert Langdon, a Harvard Professor and expert in symbology, and Maximillian Kohler, a physicist and CERN director:
`Since the beginning of history,' Langdon explained, 'a deep rift has existed between science and religion. Outspoken scientists like Copernicus-'

`Were murdered,' Kohler interjected. `Murdered by the church for revealing scientific truths. Religion has always persecuted science.'
It appears that since the original edition, Copernicus has been replaced with Giordano Bruno, at least in my 2001 Corgi paperback edition. Why the change?

How did Copernicus die? He died following a stroke.
How were his theories received by the Roman Catholic church? What did Copernicus believe about the Bible? Wikipedia has detailed and well-referenced entries on Copernicus and Bruno. Here are extracts from the Copernicus entry:

On 1 November 1536, Archbishop of Capua Nicholas Schönberg wrote a letter to Copernicus from Rome:

Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you... For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe... Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject ...[17]

By then Copernicus' work was nearing its definitive form, and rumors about his theory had reached educated people all over Europe. Despite urgings from many quarters, Copernicus delayed with the publication of his book, perhaps from fear of criticism — a fear delicately expressed in the subsequent Dedication of his masterpiece to Pope Paul III. Scholars disagree on whether Copernicus' concern was limited to physical and philosophical objections from other natural philosophers, or whether he was also concerned about religious objections from theologians.[18]

At original publication, Copernicus' epoch-making book caused only mild controversy, and provoked no fierce sermons about contradicting Holy Scripture. It was only three years later, in 1546, that a Dominican, Giovanni Maria Tolosani, denounced the theory in an appendix to a work defending the absolute truth of Scripture.[32] He also noted that the Master of the Sacred Palace (i.e., the Catholic Church's chief censor), Bartolomeo Spina, a friend and fellow Dominican, had planned to condemn De revolutionibus but had been prevented from doing so by his illness and death.[33]

Arthur Koestler, in his popular book The Sleepwalkers, asserted that Copernicus' book had not been widely read on its first publication.[34] This claim was trenchantly criticised by Edward Rosen,[35] and has been decisively disproved by Owen Gingerich, who examined every surviving copy of the first two editions and found copious marginal notes by their owners throughout many of them. Gingerich published his conclusions in 2004 in The Book Nobody Read.[36]

It has been much debated why it was not until six decades after Spina and Tolosani's attacks on Copernicus's work that the Catholic Church took any official action against it. Proposed reasons have included the personality of Galileo Galilei and the availability of evidence such as telescope observations.

In March 1616, in connection with the Galileo affair, the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be "corrected," on the grounds that the supposedly Pythagorean doctrine[37] that the Earth moves and the Sun doesn't was "false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture."[38]
So, not only was Copernicus not murdered by the church, but it seems some church leaders were actually very receptive to his ideas. And it was only sixty years after his death that the church opposed his work.

On the other hand, Bruno was definitely condemned to death by the church. But, was it for his scientific views? The wikipedia entry on Bruno expands on the subtleties involved:

Some authors have characterized Bruno as a "martyr of science," suggesting parallels with the Galileo affair. They assert that, even though Bruno's theological beliefs were an important factor in his heresy trial, his Copernicanism and cosmological beliefs also played a significant role for the outcome. Others oppose such views, and claim this alleged connection to be exaggerated, or outright false.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When [...] Bruno [...] was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology."[16]

Similarly, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) asserts that "Bruno was not condemned for his defence of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds, but for his theological errors, among which were the following: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc."[17]

However, the webpage of the Vatican Secret Archives discussing the document containing a summary of legal proceedings against him in Rome, suggests a different perspective:

"In the same rooms where Giordano Bruno was questioned, for the same important reasons of the relationship between science and faith, at the dawning of the new astronomy and at the decline of Aristotle’s philosophy, sixteen years later, Cardinal Bellarmino, who then contested Bruno’s heretical theses, summoned Galileo Galilei, who also faced a famous inquisitorial trial, which, luckily for him, ended with a simple abjuration."[18]

I took a fascinating visit to the relevant Vatican Secret Archives webpage and also found the following statement of Bruno:
Firstly, I say that the theories on the movement of the earth and on the immobility of the firmament or sky are by me produced on a reasoned and sure basis, which doesn’t undermine the authority of the Holy Sciptures […]. With regard to the sun, I say that it doesn’t rise or set, nor do we see it rise or set, because, if the earth rotates on his axis, what do we mean by rising and setting[…])
Congratulations, if you read this far! This post took longer than I originally thought because it turned out so much more complicated [and richer] than I anticipated. But, isn't that the way science, history, theology, and life often are!

Dan Brown and Richard Dawkins do not wish to engage with subtleties and shades of gray. For them, it is simple:
Since the beginning of history ...... a deep rift has existed between science and religion. Outspoken scientists .....Were murdered .... by the church for revealing scientific truths. Religion has always persecuted science.

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