Not making a difference since 2006. Blog motto: Always be sincere whether you mean it or not.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Primitive Religion in a Complex World

George Orwell wrote the following in his As I Please column that appeared December 27, 1946.

"SOMEWHERE or other—I think it is in the preface to Saint Joan—Bernard Shaw remarks that we are more gullible and superstitious today than we were in the Middle Ages, and as an example of modern credulity he cites the widespread belief that the earth is round. The average man, says Shaw, can advance not a single reason for thinking that the earth is round. He merely swallows this theory because there is something about it that appeals to the twentieth-century mentality."

Orwell then went on to prove the point that he himself had no reason to believe the world was round even though he accepted that it was. Of course we who are living now can point to pictures from space and all that, but we have to admit that few of us have made a study of it and are taking it more or less on faith. His closing paragraph sums it up:

"It will be seen that my reasons for thinking that the earth is round are rather precarious ones. Yet this is an exceptionally elementary piece of information. On most other questions I should have to fall back on the expert much earlier, and would be less able to test his pronouncements. And much the greater part of our knowledge is at this level. It does not rest on reasoning or on experiment, but on authority. And how can it be otherwise, when the range of knowledge is so vast that the expert himself is an ignoramous as soon as he strays away from his own speciality? Most people, if asked to prove that the earth is round, would not even bother to produce the rather weak arguments I have outlined above. They would start off by saying that ’everyone knows’ the earth to be round, and if pressed further, would become angry. In a way Shaw is right. This is a credulous age, and the burden of knowledge which we now have to carry is partly responsible."

So what do we do in the modern age? Do we go to the guy with the Harvard Med diploma on the wall or the Brazilian psychic surgeon? And if we go to the Harvard man, what do we think about the pigheadedness of his profession in instances such as the discovery of the real cause of ulcers? They missed it in the New England Journal of Medicine but presented it in the prestigious National Enquirer. O Tempora! O Mores!

So, what is the point. A week ago, I was in a meeting with about twenty people. The women chairing the event is efficient in keeping everyone on track, but is not a meeting nazi so there is occasional digression. At one point in the discussion someone mentioned in a voice laced with contempt that there were still people who did not believe that global warming is real. A chorus of approval erupted from the group except moi. The tone was not without arrogance.

I am always taken aback when this happens. There were no climatologists in the room. One of the attendees, a newspaper editor, might have a broad knowledge of the issues, but no deep scientific grasp. Everyone else had only the opinion of others to rely on. So, in that pool of true believers there was only one agnostic on the subject. Again, c'est moi. Had I mentioned that there was some doubt, I would not have heard a detailed analysis, but probably that any opposition was bought and paid for by "special interests." If I had countered that the denizens of academia and government agencies are no less special interests, the subject would have been changed and heresy noted.

I enjoy the company of these people and work well with them on the subject of the meeting. Choosing my spots, say with my editor friend, I could probably get an admission that it there are two sides and that he accepts that pro warming is happening because he has made a leap of faith in whom to trust, as he has to trust someone. To approach some of the other participants would be sure to bring out an angry response and not much else. It is not a happy thing to admit we are as primitive in our beliefs as our ancestors who trusted the shamans interpretation on the cause of thunder. Thus all the efforts to build up our self esteem are fraudulent and we really don't deserve much.

Is there much we can know or understand? Some things are hard to argue with, like Gresham's law. I can't say that I have a deep understanding of evolution, but it seems so self explanatory that I would be shocked if it were not true. I believe that a fundamentalist would admit its probability if, for sake of argument, he allowed the absence of the deity. There is so much more we can't know.

Normally, it works out well enough. I am doing much better since the shoulder operation I had done by a board certified specialist instead of a faith healer. That Boeing jet takes off and lands without my understanding in any detail the process. I must emphasize, I am not saying global warming is not happening, just that I don't possess sufficient faith in either set of authorities. Still, that so many of my countrymen could be so easily persuaded to want action on a subject they are vastly ignorant of scares me no end as I reflect, what can't we be persuaded of?

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