Lovers of Rome will know a square called “Campo de’ Fiori“: Today’s the day to remember it and all that it might symbolise. It’s in the dead centre of town, very quaint buildings with wonderful pastel colours, cobbled stones, a famous fresh fruit and vegetable market; and a scary statue of a hooded monk holding a book.
It’s the only square in Rome that doesn’t have a church: The monk was an intellectual called Giordano Bruno, and this was the place where he was burned at the stake, a victim of the inquisition.
He was also contemporary to Galileo and surprisingly, it was he who suggested that the stars were other suns like our own, not Galileo or Copernicus. Bruno embraced the Copernican system of the solar system and went further to tear down the medieval barriers of astronomy. He opened up the mind to the notion of an infinite universe. In his view, the universe had no centre: not the Sun, nor the Earth. His thinking led him to propose that all of existence must be infinite as well as made of atoms: Notions which had been forgotten since the fall of Roman hegemony. Interestingly, all these ideas came to him through logic and metaphysics, rather than maths and astronomical observation. He was a strong proponent of the scientific method.
The date was 17th February 1600. The trailing end of the Renaissance and ante-chamber to “The Enlightenment”, but not without a set of intellectual battles with evidently material effects:
- Biblical authority: Diverging points of view on Biblical authority and what kind of truth is to be had from it – yes there are various kinds of truth, and Einstein seems to have stretched things even further. Theological interpretations over words such as “...and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it…” (Matthew 16:18). The issue here being that “Peter” in Latin means “Rock”, hence the sentence can be read as explicitly saying that it is Peter, and hence his successor the Pope, who should be the foundation of the Church. Others might have had a more symbolic interpretation.
- ie Power and a desire to maintain the status-quo was at play: “I am the pope, and therefore, you will do as I say!”.
- Scientific method: The clash of learning based on classical thought based largely on logic and pre-established dogma vs. the growing Scientific method based on evidence, supported by the likes of Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Induction and Deduction.
- ie another angle on how to gain greater access to learning; with a ricochet hit on Biblical authority.
Ironically, the Fathers of the Church had gone to great lengths to reconcile the Old and New Testaments with (parts of) Greek Philosophy. Discovery that some of that doctrine like the earth being the centre of the universe and planets revolving around it, caused interpretative issues, if taken at face value.
The control on power, social order, and knowledge were all stirred up in one dangerous soup.
So back in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, the monk-cum-philosopher Giordano, got too close to the edge of the pot and fell into the flames of a very man-made hell. We all know that Galileo made the faux-pas of getting on the wrong side of authorities on the theme of scientific method and motion of the planets, but he steered clear of having anything to do with numero uno. Galileo repented and got away. Giordano didn’t. Both contributed to free thinking and foundational understanding of the universe we live in. Both are deservedly remembered.
Having noted the importance of today (17th Feb) we could stop here, but the ambition of this short essay is to scratch a little further to investigate the see-saw of capital punishment and scientific progress. Perhaps we may learn something of our future?
Invention vs. Divine Inspiration?
A step further in our journey of discovery could be taken by looking at the preceding Biblical phrase to the one already quoted: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven.” hmmm many will have a sense of doubt at this point. But let’s dig…
For sure we have a nice merger of the above stake-burning themes; it suggests learning coming from divine inspiration, rather than human effort (aka the scientific method). But if we remember to focus our interest on Scientific Progress & Invention, put Simon’s specific case to one side, and indeed put aside the idea that inspiration is necessarily Divine; you could play the sentence ambiguously:
- The scientific method based on theory and experiment has brought us much progress and invention. No doubt.
- On the other hand, invention never seems to be the result of someone stumbling on it as a result of an institutionalised path of research. This is a very generic statement, but you can collect intelligence and knowledge as they did in ancient Alexandria or communist Russia and countless other states, without it easily translating into actual results of progress and innovation.
- It’s an ongoing, unresolved, modern political debate: Institutionalised approach <> invention and progress. Never solved.
It’s as if the true inventor sees a peak in the distance, a flash of inspiration, and then methodically works a path towards it, NOT the other way around. It’s not a random ramble, stumbling across an invention, but a definite path with an end-point in mind which no-one has mapped out before!!! Call it pre-cognition, or even Divine inspiration if you will, but something weird is happening before the scientific method actually turns that inspiration into something worthwhile. The scientific method is a powerful tool; it is not the source of invention.
Divine or not in source, at this point the conclusion would be that the key to a future of revelatory scientific discovery lies closer to the message for Simon than that for Peter and the argument contained in those two phrases and the subsequent arguments they lead to is somehow reflective of the eternal see-saw of innovation and learning vs burning people at the stake.
What about the See-Saw of stake burning and innovation throughout time?
That biblical conversation was written down in ancient Roman times. Already then, the issue of invention, new knowledge, and the impact it could have on the establishment were a major concern setting hierarchies and social orders. Irrespective of your religious views or even the Biblical example, it is easy to find other instances. Another curious example is found in a few ancient Roman texts, also including Pliny’s Natural History (NH36.66): “In the reign of Tiberius, it is said, a combination was devised which produced a flexible glass; but the manufactory of the artist was totally destroyed, we are told, in order to prevent the value of copper, silver, and gold, from becoming depreciated.” Suetonius tells a similar story in his “12 Caesars” as do other writers, also telling of how emperor Tiberius assured himself that the information of the invention’s recipe was unknown to anyone else, and then proceeded to have the inventor beheaded. I guess beheading is better than burning at a stake.
So what of today and tomorrow? Is the see-saw of invention and persecution still at play? Surely yes. Even setting aside the world of industrial espionage, hacking and space-age encryption, there are countless stories of regimes muffling the voices of those who might spread unwelcome information and learning. The debate is increasingly strong particularly in times of free-flowing boundary-less information. The reality is likely more disturbing and entering an evolutionary stage with fresh mutations.
The new set of questions seems very mixed up and confusing, perhaps getting difficult to distinguish the “good” from the “bad”:
- There is no doubting that data, analytics and artificial intelligence is able to see your every move and predict your every need before you even know it; opening up the gates to a veritable future of Orwellian control, and yet on the flip side the need to defend ourselves from irrational radicalism seems to lead to a public demand for the authorities to know every move of hitherto non-suspectable 16 year-olds gone awry.
- Question: Will the see-saw reverse so-to-speak? Will the fighters of truth and liberty be fighting a battle, not for the freedom to spread new knowledge, but to contain our personal information?
- What will happen when we instill that uniquely human or indeed Divine “inspiration” which lies at the heart of invention into Artificial Intelligence “engines”? An interview with Gary Kasparov the mighty chess-player might allay our fears: “Type A” artificial intelligence is about brute force of numbers and variables within a confined set of rules; it’s not actually able to think… It will aid us and free us to do greater and better things. But what about “Type B” or C or X for that matter? Steven Hawking might tell us to watch out and fear the future as machines surpass “us”. The jury is still out as to whether AI will be good or bad. Most say good, rather like the Industrial Revolution has had definitely positive aspects for all of us – though we should remember that the Industrial Revolution came with its upheavals and a generation of job displacement which even today would be difficult to deal with. Just like it was difficult to deal with on the 17th February 1600.
- You can’t suddenly convert the taxi, cleaning, bricklaying, shop-attending jobs to “data scientist” degrees (though London cab drivers do seem to have the brain the size of a planet).
- Question: Will there be a day when humans will be burning the AI machines at the proverbial stake, out of that self-same fear of our being displaced?
History has much to teach.