Posts Tagged ‘Bruno’

Cosmology and science

Let me offer two examples of the confusion of science and cosmology.

The Berenstein bears

Although I was never a fan of the Berenstein Bears, we did have at least one or two books in the house, and I remember coming across quite an odd little piece. The young bears were going on a nature walk or something, and one of them asked the fundamental question: what is nature? The answer was something like: “Nature is everything that is, or was, or ever will be.”

That’s not science, not natural science; it’s cosmology. Neither nature walks nor the natural sciences cover everything; specifically, they don’t cover the manner in which we come to make statements about all of existence throughout all of time like Papa Bear. We not only make such statements, but we believe that they are meaningful and true; again, these beliefs do not come from the realm of the natural sciences, for they cannot be verified in the quantitative, observational manner that is the hallmark of the natural sciences. Rather, they are rightly discussed from the combined perspective of common sense on the one hand and logic on the other. This combination is the leading edge of philosophy. These questions can, that is, be approached by reason, and by reasoning from evidence to conclusions, but the whole discussion is not part of the natural sciences.

In philosophy, the rules of evidence include things that cannot be measured. Philosophy works on things that are clear to us in our intellectual lives, but they cannot always be observed in the outward sense. Saying that “nature,” as in, “what you study on a nature walk,” is everything that is or was or will be is a sly reference to the prayer that praises God who is, who was in the beginning, and who ever shall be. Papa Bear is hereby suggesting that a good scientist is either a pantheist (thinking the whole cosmology is God) or an atheist who thinks there is no God, since nature is everything.

We can call him Papa Sagan, for he is taking this line from that old (20th century) pagan.

Call him what you may, this is not a correct definition of nature as the topic of the natural sciences. It is a statement of cosmology masquerading as a definition of science.

Giordano Bruno

You will have heard of Copernicus, and that he wrote a book explaining his reasons for thinking that the sun must be at the center of the cosmos. At the time he wrote it, the Church was trying to figure out the motions of the heavens so as to be able to calculate the actual date of the first day of spring and thereby plan her Easter celebration in relation to that day. Copernicus studied and wrote at the request of one pope, and his model of the universe (submitted 40 years later to a different pope) was of no concern at that time and he was not particularly criticized except in Lutheran circles where the literal reading of the Bible was a demand of doctrine.

For scientists of the day, the hardest thing about the Copernican model was the recognition that if Copernicus was right, the universe must be enormously much larger than they had thought. Saturn, for example, must be 700,000 miles away. It was simply unbelievable! (Actually, it’s more like 700 million miles away, but never mind that.)

Well, there was an Italian, named Jordano Bruno, who read Copernicus and became quite excited about the new map of the heavens. He understood the enlargement and quickly got comfortable with it. He understood and accepted the idea that the sun might be a star like other stars. So far, so good. Also, he had a prodigious memory, and he went around showing off his memory and teaching his memory tricks. Teaching the tricks was both interesting and important because some people thought he must be practicing sorcery to remember so much. Sharing his tricks helped prevent that story from becoming too dangerous.

Nevertheless, Bruno was definitely a smarty pants, deeply persuaded that his superior intelligence could not fail him. He reasoned, therefore, with no hesitation, that all the innumerable stars were other suns:

  1. in an infinite series,
  2. each with other earths,
  3. each earth with other peoples,
  4. each people with its own redeemer son of God, its own Christ
  5. and therefore the intelligent man should give up not only the celestial centrality of the sun, but also the cosmic uniqueness and centrality of Jesus Christ.

It was natural that such a string of reasoning should occur to someone, but none of the five listed steps was a necessary conclusion from the evidence, and in fact each step was erroneous, the first three being now demonstrably erroneous, and the others therefore having no reason to follow, either then or now.

What happens with a man like Bruno is that some people take his part because, in certain ways, he’s the smartest man around – or seems to be; of course you want to bet on the smart guy. Other people back away and mumble that “smarts isn’t everything,” whereupon they are considered stupid; maybe they are, maybe not; maybe they feel, correctly but without being able to express it, that he is thinking a little too fast for the size of his thoughts. There are only relatively few men who clearly see that not one of these five steps is actually demanded by logic or reason; only a few can explain why some of them must fall by the wayside.

In fact, reasons to reject Bruno’s conclusions quickly surfaced, not only in theology but in other fields of thought.

But my point is that this was a confusion of science and cosmology.

Now, just to close this topic: it is fairly well-known that Bruno was burned at stake for his opinions. His modern-day advocates claim that he was burned for being a Copernican, and he might have said so himself, but as you can see, the truth is a little larger. He was a heretic, as Copernicus was not.

Many people also know that Cardinal Robert Bellarmine stayed up with Bruno the entire night before the burning trying to dissuade Bruno from his opinions, for Bellarmine was deeply troubled about the whole business. Bruno boasted that Bellarmine was more upset about his burning than he was. In that, Bruno may have been right. It is a fact that, for the next quarter-century and not because he had nothing else to do, Bellarmine personally made sure the Galileo was protected. Galileo was not brought before the inquisition until after Bellamine died, and even at that point, the measures Bellarmine had taken probably saved Galileo’s life.

That said, let us return to the question: how much credence should we give to science? Perhaps we are asking: how much credence should we give to what some scientists call the inevitable cosmological consequences of science?

And the answer to that is: maybe some, but maybe none at all. The information we find in the natural sciences does have a cosmological echo and sometimes also consequence. But scientists are not always qualified to recognize those consequences. Sometimes they are not sufficiently restrained about drawing conclusions in a field they really don’t know.


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Giordano Bruno

Bruno, who lived just past the turn of the 16th century, had no difficulty dismissing the crystal sphere. He asserted, correctly, that all the stars were suns, and went on that all those other suns doubtless had planets, that the planets must have inhabitants, that life was commonplace in the universe, and that the universe was infinite. Every proposition but the first has been proved erroneous.

Furthermore, he continued, you don’t need Jesus in that kind of universe, because if you did, he’d have to be incarnate everywhere, one after another, and that would be full-time and silly. Or else we’d be the only people he visited out of billions of inhabited planets, (an infinite number when you think about it) and that was certainly far-fetched. Has no other planet sinned? So divine Jesus visiting us was a self-centered fiction.

Easily a heresy, right?

You will always hear that Giordano Bruno was burned at stake for being a Copernican. This is not so; lots of people were Copernicans but Bruno was also a heretic, and while I am not in favor of burning heretics, I do like to be clear about this: Copernicanism was under no official censure whatsoever (except by Lutherans) at the time Bruno decided to reject Jesus and the Incarnation, and his Copernicanism was not why he was burned. Get that straight.

Anyway, in the midst of Bruno’s many bad ideas, and as an apparent proof of the infinity of the universe (which is finite) Bruno posed a riddle, which was not, to my knowledge, effectively answered until Einstein addressed it. He said:

Suppose the universe is not infinite.

Very well, suppose I go out to the edge of the universe and shoot an arrow into the void. Where will it go?

If it goes into the void, then the universe must also reach into the void, and you are not at the edge of the universe after all; try again.

You don’t think it’s going to get stuck on the bowstring, do you?

Therefore the universe must be infinite.

Until this riddle was answered, the concept of an infinite universe kept cropping up.

Christiaan Huygens

One of Bruno’s most important contemporaries was Christiaan Huygens, an intrepid mathematician who thought of a way to estimate the distance of the stars. Since there was no measurable parallax, the thinking that they were fixed onto a crystal sphere had remained more or less intact since Copernicus, but obviously people questioned it – not only his contemporary Bruno, but many others.

So he posed this question: If a particular star were as bright as the sun, how far away would it have to be to look so dim?  I don’t know the number he came up with, but it was very big – big enough to explain the impossibility of parallax – but his contemporaries were not able to accept that such distances were real.

So the idea languished, but it did not die; it just went more or less on hold.

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What Is Space?

One of the most difficult questions that arises in the study of cosmology is the meaning of the simple word “space,” and particularly the meaning of a limited space. After all, there are no fences out there in the universe. If someone says that the universe is finite, suppose I imagine myself standing at the outer edge and tossing a ball upwards. Where will it go? Will the universe obligingly expand to receive it?

Or was the universe really bigger after all? In other words, I wasn’t really standing on the edge. So maybe the edge is farther out. I will go stand there and throw my ball. Now what? Will the universe expand to receive my ball? Or was this really not the edge after all. Shall I stand a little higher for my experiment?

Whenever you come to this sort of infinite regression, it means that you have to go at the problem another way. You can see that a finite universe is hard to imagine. It’s easy enough to say that the universe is finite, but is it possible to imagine it so? More importantly, is it possible for it to truly be so?

Well, let’s go back to that ball for a moment. You do realize, of course, that the ball can’t go out infinitely, because gravity will bring it back. Can this fact, which is part of our daily experience, help us to imagine a finite universe?

I think it can, and we have Einstein to help us. He said that space is the network of all possible paths of motion. Think about that for a while. All possible – not merely all imaginary – paths of motion – lines along which motion really can take place.

“All possible paths” does not include a path in which a physical object travels an unlimited distance away from a gravitational center — because that path is not possible. The imagination includes such paths, but physics does not — and the universe is physical, not imaginary. Even the path of light bends in response to gravity, so even light standing at the imaginary edge of the universe could not go out endlessly into the void; it would be pulled back.

Thus, in one simple sentence, Einstein opened up the possibility of imagining a finite universe. Instead of seeing the objects in the universe immersed in empty centers of every imaginable motion, we see them connected by numerous little lines that define the paths that really are possible. Space is that specific network; it’s not just a blank. It can seem like a blank because the network is so dense, but it’s not.

I was reminded of this recently, when I read an article about Giordano Bruno, an Italian heretic-philosopher (he was not a scientist) who lived between Copernicus and Galileo and envisioned an infinite universe filled with an infinite number of sunny solar systems. In such an infinite universe, our solar system must seem trivial and our privilege of the Incarnation a mere fiction of human pride. So Bruno said.

The infidels love Bruno and always claim he was burned at stake for being a Copernican, but his ideas went far beyond the Copernican heliocentrism.  They were not trivial at all! I don’t aadvocate burning people at stake, but I do observe that there are heretics, men whose ideas are false and hurtful. Bruno was one such.

But here is my point: Bruno’s argument in favor of an infinite universe was precisely the one I just mentioned. If you have a finite universe and go to the edge and shoot an arrow, where, he asked, will it go?

There are many reasons for thinking the universe must be finite; I’ll be sharing a few in the coming weeks. But for now, think of Einstein’s definition of space. It’s really very simple. Sometimes answers come from the most unexpected places.

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