Thursday, October 22, 2009
From Religion to Science and Back Again
I like that a lot of people gravitated towards the portion of the readings about the rise of scientific thought and the subsequent "downfall" of religion. This is a particular area of interest of my own, and I very much liked Hobsbawn's discussion of it.
I think it's strange for us, living in America and being college students, to even conceive of what it was like to be first confronted with scientific thought, in an age when religion (and mostly religious superstition) was all people had, and all they had grown up to really comprehend.
When science (that is, SCIENCE!) first took hold of the minds of human beings, it was pretty hard for most people (even the most intelligent on the planet) to figure out what the hell was going on in the world around them.
In fact, it could easily be argued that Religion was man's first attempt at Science. Religion is, in its barest form, a crude, simplistic attempt to explain why things are the way they are. For most people, even today, it's still the best way to explain everything. Why does it rain? God makes it rain. Why is fire hot? Because God made it that way. Easy.
But when scientific thought started to arise, intelligent people started to get together and saying to each other "OK, so maybe God makes fire hot, but what exactly is fire? Why doesn't fire work in the rain? Why doesn't it work if you put a bucket over it? Are there a bunch of different ways of making fire, and are there things that are the same about all the different ways?"
So people started observing, really observing the world around them, and doing little experiments to see (for example) what were the specific processes involved in making fire. And that's science. It's basically religion, but taking it a step further. But people were so used to just floating through life in little happy clouds of the simple explanation that everything happens because of God, it was scary to them to hear people talking about how they had invented a new kind of fire, a bigger kind of fire, big explosions of fire that looked like God himself might have created the explosions, but he didn't it was just some guy. How are you supposed to deal with something like that? (Hobsbawn talks about this a lot too, the psychological problems people had in reconciling science and religions)
And that's basically the whole point of Philosophy. Philosophy is a discipline that I personally abhor, and the reason I don't like it is a perfect example of how pervasive Scientific Thought is now that it's pretty much become obsolete. I don't struggle with the sorts of problems with realizing the true nature of reality and being human because I've grown up in a modern, scientific society, and I've always accepted that it rains because of the cycle of water vapor, and that fire is a chemical process of the burning of a fuel and oxygen.
All these strides we've made scientifically and socially over the course of civilization was this really gradual buildup of all these small ideas piling on top of each other so modern, civilized societies like America are highly literate and have all this knowledge surrounding everyone so most people in this country never questions what the difference is between Right and Wrong, because they've been taught it over and over since birth, and we don't question that there are planets in the solar system and that the Earth revolves around the sun and that humans are made up of organs and tiny cells and cellular processes, because we've been taught it.
But that's the only difference between us and the people in the year 1900 who were still holding onto these superstitious religious beliefs that God was in control of everything and trying to understand how that fit in with these scary new steam engines and big smoke-spewing factories that were like magic, or something God could do, the only difference between us and those people is the societies we were raised in. We have the EXACT same brains as those people and the EXACT same inclinations to want to believe, with all our might, that there is life after death, that God (or SOMETHING) has a plan for us, that everything is not just random events and chaos and then death.
Humans are incredibly superstitious, and really bad at forming beliefs and hypotheses based on patterns, and if anyone's ever had a really bad day and decreed "I'm Having A Really Bad Day, Everything's Been Going Wrong Today (and more things will probably go wrong for the rest of the day," that's a perfect example of the really shitty way our brains work. We might read psychologists like Freud and think "this guy is a complete idiot, how could he possibly believe half the stupid things he's saying?" but barely a century before Freud the most intelligent people on the planet firmly believed that personality traits of a person can be derived from the shape of the skull.
We think we're so much smarter than our predecessors, but if all of us had been born in 1800, we could be studying the bumps on the skulls of convicted felons looking for similarities right now instead of the history of science.
Posted by Katie Dempsey at 11:55 PM