Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Spirit of Reason

A thought-provoking excerpt from the Lowy Institute lecture delivered by Lord Robert May in November 2007. Lord May is a past chief adviser to the UK government and head of the UK Office of Science and Technology. He is the immediate past president of the Royal Society. The full transcript, "Australia in the World – Relations Among Nations on a Finite
Planet", is available at The Lowy Institute website, as well as the audio.

Once we move out of the mists of prehistory, we find stories of dreamtime, creation myths, ceremonies and initiation rites, spirits and gods, with a unifying theme that all seek simultaneously to help explain the external world and also to provide a “stabilisation matrix” for a cohesive society. There are, moreover, some striking and unexplained similarities in belief systems and rituals from different times and places. Conscience, a simple word for a complex concept which helps foster behaviour in accord with society’s professed norms, has been memorably defi ned by H. L. Mencken as “the inner voice which warns us that somebody might be looking”. And how helpful it is if that somebody is an all-seeing, all-knowing, supernatural entity.

Common to these conjectured “stabilising forces” in essentially all earlier societies are hierarchical structures, serving and interpreting the divine being or pantheon, along with unquestioning respect for authority. In such systems, faith trumps evidence. I think I was eight years old when I first encountered, and was disturbed by, the biblical injunction, relating to the doubting St Thomas: “blessed is he that seeth not, yet believeth”. But if indeed this is broadly the explanation for how cooperative behaviour has evolved and been maintained in human society, it could be Bad News. Because though such authoritarian systems seem to be good at preserving social coherence and an orderly society, they are, by the same token, not good at adapting to change. Diamond’s book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive”, provides striking examples.35 Emerging in Western Europe in the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment cut against these values, offering a questioning, fact-based, experimental, analytic approach to understanding the world and humankind’s place in it. By so doing, it created today’s world. The emerging and still accelerating understanding of physical, and more recently biological, systems has resulted in longer, healthier lives, liberated by energy subsidies and informed by easily accessible information about anything and everything. But, as we have seen, these well-intended actions have also produced adverse unintended consequences. Many people and institutions have always found such questioning, attended by unavoidable uncertainties, less comfortable than the authoritarian certitudes of dogma or revelation.

I think this helps explain why fundamentalist forces are again on the march, West and East. Surveying this phenomenon, Debora MacKenzie has suggested that – in remarkably similar ways across countries and cultures – many people are scandalised by “pluralism and tolerance of other faiths, non-traditional gender roles and sexual behaviour, reliance on human reason rather than divine revelation, and democracy, which grants power to people rather than God.” She adds that in the US evangelical Christians have successfully fostered a belief that science is anti-religious, and that a balance must be restored, citing a survey which found 37% of Americans (many of them not evangelicals) wanted Creationism taught in schools. Fundamentalist sects of Islam offer a complex but ultimately similar threat to science according to Sardar, Ruthven, Masood and others, who note that a rise in literalist religious thinking in the Islamic world in recent decades has seriously damaged science and free enquiry there, seeing the Koran as the font of all knowledge. From this viewpoint, what we are seeing is not Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, but rather a revival of an older clash between dogmatic, faith-based belief systems and the open-minded, experimental, questioning spirit of the Enlightenment.

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