A love letter to science

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s set of sixty Great Books, a collection of the classics in literature, science, and philosophy, has sat quietly on a special bookshelf in my living room for over two decades now, an attractive accessory to my home. I have even read a few of these volumes during this time.

Recently, as I was lying on my couch resting, I gazed at my Great Books set and pondered the history of western thought and the rise of science, a subject that has preoccupied me over the years, since science and technology have defined the modern era in so many ways. Looking at these books closer I noticed that just four of the sixty volumes were written during the Middle Ages, the period from the fall of Rome until the Renaissance in the 14th Century, a thousand years of depressed intellectual activity.

On the top of the same bookshelf rests Will and Ariel Durant’s amazing history collection, The Story of Civilization. Of the eleven volumes in this set just one volume covers the Middle Ages, The Age of Faith. So, in these two collections of books covering over 2,500 years, 7% and 9% of the volumes, respectively, cover the 1,000 years of the Middle Ages. That 1,000 years comprises 20% of the time span of Western civilization if we start the clock ticking with classical Greece.

Why do these collections devote so little space to this thousand-year period sandwiched between the Greco-Roman period and the dawn of modernity?

The obvious and, it seems, accurate answer is that there simply wasn’t a great deal of noteworthy thinking or writing being done in this time period. Certainly there were some worthy thinkers making real contributions to philosophy, science, architecture, art, and literature — but at a much lower rate than before and after. The notable exception to this conclusion was the development of science and philosophy in the Islamic world from the 9th to the 13th centuries, which then led to the Renaissance in Europe.

This raises the next question: why did so few contributions to the lasting legacy of the Western mind arise during this period?

The answer to this question is less obvious but, in my view, still clearly discernible: the fall of Greco-Roman civilization in much of Europe and the rise of a particularly harsh version of Christianity, eventually supported by the state power of the Byzantine Empire and what remained of the Roman Empire under Constantine and his successors, actively suppressed free thinking and free inquiry in much of the civilized world for literally a thousand years. This suppression stifled creativity and the progress of reason for a millennium.

A new way of thinking

The scientific way of thinking is relatively new on the human scene. For the first two hundred thousand years of our history (approximately how long since we became anatomically human) we didn’t think scientifically. It’s really only in the last four hundred years, since the time of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, that modern science has been around. The Greco-Roman period made many contributions to what eventually became modern science, but the modern notion of mathematical science only found its form with Galileo, Newton, and their scientific co-thinkers who actively built upon the Greek scientific legacy after it was rediscovered by Europeans during the Italian Renaissance.

Even though Islam, as with Christianity, has too often been a force for suppressing scientific thinking and creativity, it is no coincidence that the works of the ancient Greeks Aristotle, Plato and many others were rediscovered in Europe only through Arabic translations from Islamic scholars. The period from the 9th to the 13th centuries was the golden age of Islamic science and the work of Islamic scholars was a major influence in reviving the European mind.

The full story is long, and a short essay must necessarily do some injustice to that full story, but while I’m critical of Christianity and Islam in suppressing science and reason, there have been many religious scholars who were major advocates of reason and intellectual progress.

This essay is a love letter to science because of the power and world-changing potential of the scientific way of thinking. We need a lot more scientific thinking in this modern world of ours. The hallmarks of what I’m calling the scientific way of thinking are as follows:

· Reason is our guide to thinking

· Evidence is the handmaiden to reason and without evidence we cannot be scientific.

· Testing of ideas and theories is the crucial third component and without experiments and constant challenges to ideas more generally there can be no progress in science.

The last bullet is the one that truly distinguishes science from religious ways of viewing the world. Notice that I have framed these criteria very broadly and I don’t mention the role of mathematics in science. Certainly, quantitative and mathematical science was the key contribution of Galileo, Newton and their colleagues.

We wouldn’t have the modern world without the mathematical tools developed by scientists over the last four centuries because they are the key for transforming ideas into tools for prediction and engineering the various technologies that we rely on in our modern lives. But we can benefit greatly, as scientists and non-scientists, from a scientific way of thinking independently of mathematical tools — based on the ingredients described above.

It seems clear to me that one of the major hazards facing us in the world today is the resurgence of a pre-scientific way of thinking that is based on blind faith. These major trends toward irrationality and a pre-scientific way of thinking truly highlight the scientific way of thinking as a rational antidote to the unhealthy rise in faith-based thinking around the world.

Is the Apocalypse nigh?

Pre-scientific thinking is unfortunately still rampant in many areas of life, despite the four hundred years that have elapsed since the advent of modern science. These kinds of major changes in human thought can take a long time to filter through our societies. Nowhere is pre-scientific thinking more damaging than in the area of religious faith, in the belief in the divine infallibility of one’s own particular brand of religion, and, most particularly, in what is known as apocalyptic thinking.

The Apocalypse is the end of the world, in which the forces of light and darkness come together in the last Great Battle to determine who will win this cosmic struggle. This is not just a Christian tradition; it’s also a highly important tradition in Judaism, where it originally came from, and in Islam.

In the U.S., the power of apocalypticism is apparent from the massive sales of the Left Behind series of books. This series of 16 novels (i.e. fiction) has sold over 65 million copies so far and is the subject of four movies. The series begins with the Rapture, which marks the beginning of the Apocalypse, when those who have been true believers are transported to heaven in an instant. The rest of us are left behind on Earth to prove ourselves worthy enough to join those already transported to Heaven.

This is just one example of the cultural popularity of the Christian apocalypse and it’s not difficult to point to many more.

Turning to Islam, it is little known that an apocalyptic ideology motivates the Islamic State and its followers. Abu al-Zarqawi, the late founder of the Islamic State, is on the record with his view that the Great Battle will take place in Dabiq, a small town in Syria near the border with Turkey: “The Hour will not come until the Romans
 land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army of the best people on earth at that time will come from Medina against them.”

Dabiq is also the name of the Islamic State’s English language magazine. William McCants’ book, The ISIS Apocalypse explains the name: “The editors, calling themselves the Dabiq team, explained why they adopted the name: ‘The area will play a historical role in the battles leading up to the conquests of Constantinople, then Rome.’”

Zarqawi’s use of “the Romans” here is a stand-in for the oppressive forces of today — from the perspective of ISIS — the U.S. and its European allies, but the name is a holdover from the era when Islamic forces battled Christian forces in the Byzantine Empire in the early days of Islam. This struggle extended bloodily into the centuries-long era of the Crusades from the 11th to the 15th centuries. As is commonly known, the struggle between Christians and Muslims is a long one, even though both religions claim to be religions of the book and descendants of Abraham.

The apocalyptic vision is not just a story about radical Islamist extremists like ISIS. A 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that fully half of those polled in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa believed that the arrival of the Mahdi, the Muslim Messiah, which is the first sign of the coming apocalypse, will happen within their lifetime,. The survey found that “this expectation is most widespread in Afghanistan (83%), Iraq (72%), Tunisia (67%) and Malaysia (62%).”

Perhaps even more scary, but not surprising given the popularity of apocalyptic materials like the Left Behind series of books described above: a 2013 Pew survey found that almost as many American Christians believe the same thing about the return of Christ and the Christian version of the coming apocalypse.

There is thus an unbroken lineage in apocalyptic thinking from the Jewish people, as described in the Old Testament, through Christianity to Islam.

I am, of course, not equating the horrific barbarity of ISIS with today’s Christians. Not at all. What I am saying, however, is that many Jews, Christians and Muslims share a profoundly anti-scientific worldview centered on the idea of a coming religious apocalypse. Here’s a nice list of failed predictions of the coming apocalypse.

Why love science?

So why do I love science? One very important reason is because we now know that thousands of years have passed since Christ, and many other apocalyptic prophets before and after Christ, foretold the end of the world, and yet the apocalypse continues to not happen. The apocalypse didn’t come in Christ’s lifetime or after he died, despite his prophecies stating as much (many passages in Matthew and Mark quote Jesus saying that it would happen in the near future). Then the year 1,000 AD came and lo and behold the world survived. The year 2000 AD arrived and the world stubbornly persists. The idea of the end of the world as foretold in Jewish, Biblical or Islamic prophesy is fundamentally anti-scientific given what we know about the universe today.

The world was not made by God as a proving ground for our faith, we know now, based on abundant evidence. Rather, our planet is just one of literally hundreds of billions of similar planets in our galaxy alone and our galaxy is just one of about a hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. Our planet is about 4.5 billion years old and it will continue as a planet for many billions of years to come, at least until our sun, a G-type star, is expected to expand into a red giant and may grow large enough to engulf our little planet and eat it up. At the least, it will heat up our planet to the point that no life will survive.

This, then, is the apocalypse that we can reasonably expect. But Earth’s fiery end is not coming for a few billion years and that’s plenty of time to put that particular worry out of our minds for a very long time.

This is a major benefit of the scientific way of thinking: it allows us to use evidence and reason to assess threats and decide which ones are real threats, which ones are more remote threats, and which ones are so unlikely that we can put them out of our minds and go back to playing Angry Birds.

I wrote in a recent column about the threat of terrorism being on a par with the threat of bee stings and lightning strikes, based on the actual harm from terrorists in the U.S. Yes, terrorism is that rare an event that we can and should simply put it out of our minds for the most part. At the very least, we need to prioritize it appropriately as one of many threats and rather low down on the list of actual threats to us, far below the threat of heart disease, cancer, accidents, or missing the latest Game of Thrones episode (wait, they’re replayable anytime, so scratch that).

And we can place the threat of an actual apocalypse from spiritual forces battling over the end of the world even lower than the threat of major harm from terrorism. It’s not going to happen. We know this from over 2,000 years of seeing it not happen, despite many prophecies of doom from those who traffic in fear, ignorance and social control.

In closing, I want to emphasize that I am not personally anti-spirituality at all. I have in previous columns (here, here, here, here and here), in my book, Eco, Ego, Eros, and in an in-progress follow-up book attempted to craft a rational approach to spirituality in the age of information that we live in today. We should work toward finding a reasonable middle ground between our yearning for spiritual meaning and the need for rationality in assessing claims about the external world and our place in that world. These two urges aren’t inevitably in conflict with each other. Finding this reasonable middle ground is, in my view, the major task for the new millennium.

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