Bruno was not scientific

Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog has been reading Ronald Number’s Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion and is unhappy about the following statement made by Numbers

No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, … the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions. (Emphasis in original)

Jason thinks that this claim is evasive because as he says:

It is absurd to pretend that Bruno’s theological views can be treated as completely separate from his scientific views. That the stated reasons for Bruno’s execution involved his heretical theology does not mean that he was not also killed because of his scientific views. One suspects that for Bruno, as for so many modern thinkers, his science and theology complemented each other, to the point where it is difficult to say which aspect of his thinking was scientific and which part was theological.

Now this is an interesting standpoint that Jason is defending because by his own standards Bruno didn’t have any scientific** views! A strong statement on my part but one that I think is fully justified when one actually examines Bruno’s work. Before doing so, let us first see how Jason defines science and scientific views. In his comments column in a direct answer on his understanding as to what constitutes science Jason writes:

I’m viewing science as an approach to inquiry. It’s (sic) main tenet is that assertions of fact about the natural world should be based on experimentation, evidence gathering, hypothesis testing, and all the other sorts of things scientists do.

You can look long and hard at Bruno’s writings but you will never find anything remotely similar to this. Having claimed this, how come Bruno came to be regarded as a scientific martyr at all? The reason is very simple Bruno was one of only ten people to subscribe to astronomical Copernican heliocentrism in the 16th century. But doesn’t this make him scientific? No, because Bruno’s defence of heliocentrism is purely philosophical he makes no attempt to provide any form of empirical, experimental or in any other way scientific justification for his adoption of this theory. Holding a theory to be true does not make the holder the possessor of a scientific viewpoint. Bruno also excites modern commentators because of his cosmological ideas of an infinite universe uniformly filled with an infinite number of inhabited worlds, interesting speculations but in no way scientific. Bruno’s cosmological speculations are just that, speculations without basis, the only way that one can bring them in connection with the word science is when one calls them science fiction but even this would be stretching a point as they are nearer to science fantasy than science fiction.

This however is not the worst. If one examines Bruno’s world of thought in the context of the emerging science of his age he reveals himself as a woo master. Between 1400 and 1750 the nature of science and scientific enquiry went through a major shift of emphasis from the scholastic Aristotelian* science, which is largely a priori, descriptive, and qualitative to the modern concept of science empirical, quantitative and a posteriori. The quantitative element of this new understanding is provided by mathematics. It is not a coincidence that the same period has been called the golden age of mathematics with the development of logarithms, trigonometry as a discipline in its own right and not part of astronomy, symbolic algebra, analytical geometry and the infinitesimal calculus. These developments have led to the so-called scientific revolution being described as the mathematisation of nature. Where did Bruno stand with regard to this absolutely central aspect of modern science, he categorically rejected it. For Bruno modern mathematics and the attempts to describe nature with it were anathema. Instead he proposed a system of multi-coloured mystical geometrical diagrams to describe nature that bear a strong resemblance to Vedic mandalas.

Jason is right when he describes Bruno as a modern thinker, he was indeed such with regard to theology where his views were way ahead of his time and the Catholic Church’s persecution and murder of Bruno for holding those views can only be condemned in the strongest terms. However to ascribe scientific views to Bruno is misuse of the term scientific as he was not a scientist or a scientific thinker and didn’t have a scientific view.

*Mediaeval Aristotelian science is, as Edward Grant always emphasises, not Aristotle’s science.

**I am well aware that the use of the term science when talking about the early modern period is anachronistic but using it is a useful form of shorthand and save complex explanations. If anyone objects please feel free to vent your spleen in the comments


Filed under Mediaeval Science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

19 responses to “Bruno was not scientific

  1. Careful, now! Most of the mainstream scientific thinking descends in a straight line from the Victorines, who at least constrained their metaphysics to the discipline of keeping one toe at least in realty, by comparison with the academics who were quite happy to be away with the angels dancing on pin-heads! That does not disqualify the comment that virtually all 14th-century thinking was at best allegorical and at worst so thoroughly confused with Greek myth, religious dogma, political posture, populist creed and general dyspepsia as to barely know which end of a rutabaga is up. However, the history of our subject between then and the eighteen hundreds is one of eliminating the dross and nonsense, to a great extent.

    The only thing which surprises me is that d’Ailly was primarily responsible for burning Huss, and that della Mirandola didn’t go the same way. It really does show how Rome could be remarkably selective about its targets.

    • Mike

      Cite who and where speculated on angels dancing on pin heads.

      • The angels on pins story, along with the horses’ teeth story, was invented in the late 19th century. The 14th century, before the Black Death hit, was a period of careful reasoning and no little experimental science. Oresme and others argued against Aristotle in favour of the idea of there being some impetus in moving things, a major advance in physics, for example. Had there been no Black Death, it may have developed into a full blown empirical science.

    • Lovely image of 19th century estate agents!

  2. My trackbacks are still screwed up (so it seems). So here’s the link: Science vs. Religion, again.

    “…In a nice rebuttal to this position, Renaissance Mathematicus has taken Jason to task for casting Bruno as a scientist: “Bruno was not scientific.””

  3. jeb

    I was stimulated by this to have a brief look at Thomas Aikenhead a medical student. Like myself he attended Edinburgh University but I do hope not to follow in his footsteps and become the last person in the U.K to be hung for heresy.

    Ive seen his case mentioned in regard to Newton and others in the past. Just noticed John Locke held a number of papers relating to the case. Seems to be a lot of interesting research on the subject.

    He repented to escape the death sentence in the end. Remarking on the ‘raging spirit of atheism which hath taken such a footing in Brittain, both in practice and profession’

  4. Bruno was one of only ten people to subscribe to astronomical Copernican heliocentrism in the 16th century

    Was the total really that tiny or is this hyperbole? If you mean exactly 10 recorded people, I’d be very curious who you are listing. The claim seems surprising given what I’ve read (certainly the impression I got from both Kuhn’s “The Copernican Revolution” and other works on this topic is that Copernicanism was being taken very seriously by a lot of people by 1600).

    • It depends on how you define Copernicanism. The quote is from Robert Westmann and is totally serious but he only counts those who accept the complete package. There were indeed many others who were interested in various aspects of Copernicus’ work but who mostly rejected his cosmology. I’ll post the list of total Copernicans tomorrow.

      • The main contemporary view regarding Copernicus’ heliocentrism was called “mathematical astronomy” and treated it, and Ptolemy, as computational models for predicting the planets and other ephemerides. Almost nobody thought it was an actual model of the cosmos, at least openly. It had a number of technical problems, not least being the nature of the spheres.

  5. You may be interested in this blog on the middle ages and its thought. The author also discusses how Hypatia was not a martyr to science either.

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  12. Reblogged this on johngribbinscience and commented:
    Worth repeating!

  13. jrkrideau

    If you have not noticed them there are a series of mystery/adventure books out about Bruno by
    S. J. Parris, the nom de plume of Stephanie Merritt. There looks to be five or six of them.

    I stumbled over one in my local library and looked up the author on Amazon.

    Maybe I’ll even get up enough nerve to read one.

  14. Pingback: Cosmos and Giordano Bruno | From Hilbert Space to Dilbert Space, and beyond

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