Something has been bothering me for several years. Actually a lot of things have been bothering me, but this “thing,” perhaps more than any other, because this “thing” is generative, a precursor underlying all the rest.
The European Enlightenment took us out of the Dark Ages of superstition and myth. Why is America hell-bent-for-leather headed back?
According to my unabridged Thorndike-Barnhart dictionary, the (a.) definition of “intelligence” is “the ability to learn, and know; understanding; intellect; mind.” By that same source, “intellect” is “the power of knowing; understanding.” Both derive from the Latin, intellectus.
My abridged American Heritage dictionary provides the same definitions, by the way. I’d be interested if anyone has a dictionary that provides widely disparate definitions, like for example: “unable or unwilling to look for solutions or answers using reason and logic.”
The “scientific method,” first promulgate by Isaac Newton as “rules for the study of natural philosophy,” (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Third edition), is a logically reasoned and structured way to get from a question to its answer. It does not promise that the answer will be found, only that the scientific method is the most promising route, and it relies absolutely on the human intellect. It consists on the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation through testing of hypotheses. It may be that the easiest, clear example of the scientific method at work was Edison’s indomitable search for a suitable filament for his incandescent light bulb.
Prior to Newton and the Enlightenment in Europe, the western model had largely been Socratic-Pythagorum-gnostic, that is, a thing was inherently knowable via some interior plumbing of the mind and spirit, as contrasted with the accumulation of observable evidence and the harsh testing of that evidence. It may be that two of the most observable examples how the above are unreliable, at best, is the Church’s claim to infallibility when it condemned Galileo for his amplified support of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory; the earth revolves about the sun, and almost everything George Bush and his administration have claimed since he entered the Oval Office.
An absolute means there are no exceptions whatsoever for whatever is the subject wherein “absolute” might apply. “None” means none, mada, zip, zero. “All” means everything. “Infallible” is an absolute. It cannot mean most of the time, in most circumstances, the one who is esteemed infallible is correct. “Infallible” means the one who is esteemed correct is correct 100% of the time, in every circumstance.
Early on, the Pope, as the direct spiritual descendent of Peter, the head of the Church, was esteemed infallible in all things. Yes! Yes! Yes he was, to all who would now attempt to squirm from the truth. It was that presumption of infallibility that justified the Inquisition and condemnation of a frail old astronomer who posited the astronomical contradiction of the Church.
And, under the scientific method, as with Edison’s pre-success failures, once an assertion has been busted as false, it’s been busted absolutely.
But I wondered, why, in the face of all the evidence that demonstrates how far we have come from the days where myth and superstition — that rats and insects spring from rags, and that bleeding the ill-humors from the afflicted was efficacious, for instance — held sway, have so many Americans, almost of a sudden, retreated to myth and superstition for so many of the answers to their life questions? Why have so many today abandoned a fully free (enlightened) use of the intellect, their intelligence, and fallen backward into religious doctrines, doctrines that lack the first necessary element: observable evidence a tenet or claimed anecdote may be demonstrated as factually premised?
And why this matters so much today is because reference to religion presupposes some religious authority, the key predicate here being “reference,” and the key noun being “authority.” As we have been so tragic a witness to a surfeit of wholly unnecessary, human wrought tragedies, it might be reasonably and logically correct to presume the underlying social subservience to those authorities would be subject to widespread examination. But they are not. Quite the contrary, references to religious doctrine and authority, anecdotally, seem undisturbed.
It is, yet is not the referencing religious doctrine and authority that has made all the calumnies we’ve observed possible. It is a philosophical and/or emotional inclination to sublimate one’s natural inclination to challenge, to question, to wonder why . . . the imagination . . . to an authority — any authority — that is at the heart of the matter.
In 1978, the world wondered what kind of perceived “authority” could lead 913 men, women and children to commit mass suicide in a confected community in Guyana. I have been asking for as long as the Evangelical and vocal conservative so-called Christian elements in the country have been gaining influence, what kind of demeanor can lead anyone to believe anything that is, on its face, rather absurd, rather incredible; “incredible” taken to mean lacking rational credibility? Because, the inclination to believe anything that is absurd or incredible, certainly can, and has, led folks to commit, or enable the commission of, the most heinous atrocities.
For a possible answer — the overarching and rather intractable reference to an authority that has no credible evidence behind it — we have to examine the functions religion performs. Among the number are two.
One concerns social control, behaviors established and maintained behind widespread social sanctions; whether pre-Hammurabi, 1810 – 1750 BC, where the laws governing social behavior were transmitted, one generation to the next, orally, or those since codified in written religious doctrine; the commandments in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for example. Efficiency of control is enhanced proportionally in direct relation as the laws are inculcated in the individual’s conscious as a set of beliefs that are beyond even questioning, most especially as they cannot even be questioned in one’s private thoughts.
Another function enables a believer to presume simplistic answers that may or may not be evidentially apposite to complicated matters at hand. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West, or appears to, and an authority says that it does (the Catholic Church circa 1600 and before), therefore the sun must circle the earth. Yet another function of religion provides its believers some solace in a life filled with confounding events and experiences. Regardless the level of acute emotional or psychological pain suffered and however protracted the misery is endured, “It’s all a part of God’s plan,” and if you truly do believe, and conduct your life accordingly, you will be rewarded with a life in paradise after you die.