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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Heretics! And the dangerous beginnings of modern science in glorious graphic detail | Deutsche Welle - Science

"If you think scientists have it bad today, spare a thought for the early philosophers - some even got burnt for heresy, argues Steven Nadler, William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Ben Nadler, graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator.

Philosophy Professor Steven Nadler (right) and his son Ben Nadler, an illustrator living in Chicago, are pictured with Ben’s childhood drawing desk at Steven’s home in Madison.
Photo: Bryce Richter, UW-Madison

DW: A major theme, I found, in your book "Heretics!" was thinking differently. It's an illustrated, graphic, history of philosophers and the early scientists and the risks many of them faced because they dared to think differently. And it starts with a very stark image of a philosopher being burnt, having been sentenced to death. It really sets a tone. Why did you choose to start there?  

The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy
By Steven Nadler & Ben Nadler - Princeton University Press

Steven Nadler: We started there because it represents what was at stake for a lot of these thinkers. The notion of danger is very relative - what's dangerous in one century or place might not be so dangerous in the other. And our message is not really that the idea of thinking, or engaging philosophically and scientifically in the 17th Century was dangerous per se. Even the idea that science and philosophy, on the one hand, and religion on the other were diametrically opposed in this period - that, too, is an old myth.

The church, for example, was very supportive of a good deal of scientific research. They only stepped in when the conclusions of that research, or the thinking, clashed with dogmas of the Catholic faith, or seemed inconsistent with what the Bible proclaimed to be true.

I thought it was a good place to start the book to put these thinkers in a religious and historical context. And because the century starts with this very dramatic event of the burning of Giordano Bruno - which was, essentially, for ideas deemed heretical - but it wasn't so much that we wanted to set that as the tone for the book, but rather to show that originality and creativity in philosophy required a certain kind of courage.

It seems a constant battle though between faith and science, seeking to explain natural phenomena through empirical reason or some higher being. And I find parts of that history hard to compute. At one point you recall how Baruch Spinoza said [words to the effect] that "miracles are just natural events for which we have yet to discover the natural cause," and I feel an underlying reliance on faith there, even if it's a faith in nature, and that's confusing.

Well, Spinoza, or even René Descartes, most of these thinkers - whether they were religious or not, and some of them were very religious - saw that putting religious or theological restrictions on philosophy and science … there was a moral price to pay for that, that somehow our well-being, our social and technological progress was dependent upon understanding, knowledge and a kind of wisdom. It's a very old Socratic notion. And placing restrictions on philosophizing by non-rational, or irrational, dogmas of faith puts progress at risk. Descartes and [Gottfried Wilhelm von] Leibniz, and especially [Isaac] Newton, were fairly devout or pious individuals, and they did not intend in any way to undermine religion. They were respectful of theological authority. But at the same time they thought that human well-being depended upon this independent and creative use of our natural faculties. And that meant trying to understand the world wherever that might take them.

Additional resources 
Father-son team brings philosophers to graphic life in ‘Heretics!’  by College of Letters & Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Source: Deutsche Welle