Monday, July 30, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            Allow me to set up a straw man and indulge in historical stereotypes for a while.

            Here, in the pre-modern Middle Ages, are all these credulous peasants and unscientific people. They know virtually nothing about the universe. They think the Earth is at the centre of it. Real astronomy is still entangled with the nonsense of astrology. Chemistry hasn’t yet freed itself from alchemy. Medicine relies on the antiquated and untested works of Galen. As for physics, nothing much has happened since Aristotle and Lucretius. Most people are illiterate. They are therefore prey to all manner of superstitions, many fed to them by the Church. Their ignorance has been institutionalised. Unschooled, they do not have the reasoning power to think for themselves and therefore they believe what they are told.

            But – fear not! – help is on the way. First the Renaissance, then the Enlightenment, come along and free the human mind. Real science appears. Universal education joins with science to create the Modern Age. So now we have reasoning people, informed by real science and no longer prey to nonsensical superstitions.
            Let us bid farewell to organised religion while we rejoice in these facts.

            Okay, okay. I’ll stop this nonsense right here.

            It’s great fun setting up a straw man, but usually a dishonest way of arguing. You are, after all, putting words into your opponent’s mouth just so that you can have the fun of tearing them apart.

            My straw man is self-evident nonsense (I should know, because I wrote it).

            In the first place, neatly dividing history into discrete periods, and then making up names for those periods (“the Middle Ages”, “the Renaissance”, “the Enlightenment” etc.), is something that historians do hundreds of years after the event. In the process gross simplifications creep in. As I never tire of telling students, EVERYBODY lives in modern times, because the times we live in we all perceive as modern. And modern times are always complex, contradictory, with various currents and trends running through them. We never experience them as the simplifications in which historians indulge.

            In the second place, while readily acknowledging that science and its specialised branches have developed enormously in the last 600 or 700 years, and there has been more than one “paradigm shift” in the way people see the universe, it is simply untrue to say that there was no scientific discovery and experimentation (and robust philosophic speculation) in those centuries that are now loosely called the “Middle Ages”.

            But there is a still more fundamental reason for my setting up a straw man.

            It is to refute that part of this straw man which I believe really is a widespread, and fallacious, current assumption.

            That’s the part which says that in ancient days, illiterate and uneducated people believed what they were told about the universe, whereas now we have access to advanced scientific information and sophisticated reasoning and therefore people are no longer credulous and superstitious.

            The assumption here is that (a.) people now actually access such information as is available, and understand it; and (b.) human credulity has declined.

            In reply I would ask – what proportion of people in the modern world are academically-trained doctors, physicists, biologists, chemists etc? A certain percentage, of course, but still a small minority when measured against the population as a whole. Therefore, in matters relating to their view of the physical universe, what the great bulk of the population believes, it believes on the authority of the “experts” and takes on trust. For the hypothetical person-in-the-street, to say something is true because “science” says so is no more sophisticated or developed a mode of thinking that to take something on the authority of the Church. If you are going to demean one age with the name superstition, then you would have to apply the same term to the other age.

            Secular superstition, maybe.

            No, I am not by-passing the obvious fact that real modern scientists have much accurate information to tell us, and that what they have to say is doubtless a great advance in describing the physical universe over what was available a millennium ago. I am reflecting on the reception and understanding (or lack of thereof) of such information, and I am noting the element of faith and trust that goes into most people’s conception of what science is.

            From this I decidedly do not draw any Machiavellian (or Nietzschean) lesson about the gullibility of the masses, and the need for some “Prince” (or Superman) to dominate them. But I do note that the mass of us (non-scientists) are in no position to judge when science – the examination of the physical universe – oversteps its bounds and claims to be an explanatory philosophy of everything.

            When this happens, science becomes the real superstition of scientism, which is of course unscientific.

            In writing this, I think of those unscientific readers of  polemical best-sellers by Richard Dawkins et al., who assume that as the man is a scientist he is simply giving scientific information, rather than building philosophic hypotheses based on very dodgy premises (and frequently presuming to comment on matters in which he has no training). Something is not true because a scientist – who is no philosopher and who has a very limited understanding of history – says so.

            On the wider matter of credulity, I could (but won’t) write a few more pages on the post-modernist soup of the “information age” in which all things, without rational discrimination, are believed to be of equal value. If you do not believe in the widespread credulity of the age we live in, think hard about which documentaries, “reality” shows and pieces of sensation lap up the greatest viewership numbers; and how much these things influence the view of the world that people have.

            In four or five hundred years, when historians have made up a name for the age we live in, they will certainly have grounds for discussing the superstitions of our age.

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