1600 and All That

It’s rare that we read something that makes us say “ah!” I’m not quite talking about epiphanies, but something very similar. Take the following passage from Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason:

It is a truism to say that people of faith have created almost everything of value in our world, because nearly every person who has ever swung a hammer or trimmed a sail has been a devout member of one or another religious culture. There has been simply no one else to do the job. We can also say that every human achievement prior to the twentieth century was accomplished by men and women who were perfectly ignorant of the molecular basis of life. Does this suggest that a nineteenth-century view of biology would have been worth maintaining? There is no telling what our world would be like had someone great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600.

A kick to the head when I first read that.

Simply put, there is no difference between the Earth today and the Earth when Shakespeare was was writing Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing, or As You Like It (all possibly written around 1600, give or take a few). Granted, we’ve depleted many resources since then, but the no new elements have been created (except a few radioactive ones in the lab).

More tellingly, nothing has changed about the physiology of humans. Our brains haven’t become more efficient; our general intelligence hasn’t really increased; our bodies haven’t become necessarily more adept at anything. Granted, we do live longer and are stronger, but that’s due to improved living conditions, which has been brought about by improved technology — the whole point of this.

But as far as resources and intelligence go, it is, at first blush, difficult to understand why we haven’t had “modern” technology for centuries.

What could have held the human race back? Only the human race itself.

How? Simple: unrelenting, unbending dogma.

Take away all the restrictions of dogma, all the assurances that slaughtering animals will somehow help us after death, all the certainty that initially unexplainable experiences (pestilences, plagues, diseases, seizures, and the like) can only be explained supernaturally, take away the fear that someone’s different thoughts pose an existential threat to us as individuals, and what do you have left? Free inquiry: the liberty to pursue questions to their end no matter how uncomfortable. It is this, above all, that leads to technological development.

Yet there is always a push against it — a reaction from the powers that be, because those powers understand that their authority is based on a presumption of never-changing Truth. Because eternal Truth and new, contrary evidence are in conflict, one or the other must be crushed. Usually it’s the new, contrary evidence.

Progress undermines Truth, and history is replete with examples:

The printing press was invented in fifteenth century, but Bibles in the vernacular were banned many decades afterward. Why?

Someone looked at nature and came up with an explanation for its diversity that differed from that which had been delivered in a book written in pre-scientific times; many people wanted (and still desire) to muzzle the theorist.

A gentleman provided reproducible, mathematical evidence that an earlier gentleman’s suggestion might in fact be correct: the motions of the planets might better be explained by placing the sun at the center of our planet’s rotation instead of the opposite. The gentleman was condemned as a heretic.

And “heresy” is a useful term here, for its Greek root means “choice.” Choice historically has been stifled in the name of salvation and homogeny between what individuals see and what those with metaphysical authority say must be say. In short, dogma, in its many forms, stifles choice, and in turn, stifles curiosity, and in turn, stifles progress. Without people constantly looking over their intellectual shoulders for centuries, we might have achieved a much greater technological development much earlier.

Really, the only thing that stopped us was ourselves. And that is perhaps the most tragic legacy I can imagine delivering to our progeny.

A sobering question is whether or not we’ve rid ourselves of this dogma. The simple answer is, “No.” And why?

Because dogma cannot change. Dogma cannot even admit the possiblity of change. Development — of any kind — depends on the ability and (more importantly, for humanity has the ability) the willigness to change our ideas when new evidence emerges. Dogma prevents this. Dogma says, “What is true is true, for all times.” Dogma instists on its own veracity and because Truth never changes, dogma never changes.

Could we have had the Internet in 1600? Certainly, but we didn’t give ourselves the necessary freedom.

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3 thoughts on “1600 and All That

  1. Thud says:

    I’m sure that the physics were in place for an Internet in 1600, but I’m not sure that — even freed of political constraints — humanity could have progressed that fast. Science is methodical and it often has to wait for industry to catch up before science can take another move forward. Hand-ground lenses can only show you so much. You need a manufacturing industry making lenses for other purposes. The “Connections” series does a pretty good job illustrating this.

    It’s also worth pointing out that dogma does not have to be metaphysical in order to be oppressive. It just has to be oppressive. We have lost much in this country over the last thirty years or so because of the dogmatic attitude people have taken to the free market. The Soviet and Chinese states were(are) more interested in validating economic theory than expanding scientific knowledge, and science has been stunted there.

    It’s also worth pointing out that science was born from an exploration of metaphysics; science could not have existed except it came out of Occultists and then Alchemists attempting to explore the unseen, mystical world (and finding something quite different).

    An atmosphere of free inquiry is necessary, but so is the economic and cultural devotion to scientific knowledge and an appropriately developed industrial base. You can’t blame it all on metaphysics.

  2. gls says:

    Perhaps there was a bit of hyperbole in the date 1600. But I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to say we could have had modern a century earlier.

    Doesn’t the socio-cultural atmosphere have a lot to do with scientific development? If you’re convinced you have all the answers, and the answers are straight from God, then why would you want to look for more “answers”? Additionally, if you have the authority (read: power) to prevent others from seeking the answers and you have this sneaking suspicion that alternative explanations might compromise your authority, isn’t the human inclination to do what’s necessary to hold onto that power? Doesn’t that account for an awful lot of human history — holding onto power?

  3. Thud says:

    If you’re convinced you have all the answers, and the answers are straight from God, then why would you want to look for more “answers”?

    That’s an interesting thought experiment, but I don’t think that mode of thinking has had as much of an effect on human cultural development as you think it does. There’s vast literature of theology, occult studies, and even science done by the very religious.

    There will always be some drag on progress because of dogma and certainty, but neither of those need religion in order to be enabled. Political dogma, economic dogma, philosophical dogma — these all harm progress because the people who adhere most closely to them refuse to accept that there may be other answers. Or even other questions.

    Isn’t the human inclination to do what’s necessary to hold onto that power? Doesn’t that account for an awful lot of human history — holding onto power?

    Yes, it is. And the use of metaphysics to do so is unfortunate, but by no means necessary. Even entirely irreligious communities can be led very far astray by too much faith in their own ideas and not enough time spent listening to others.

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