Debate exposes doubt

Two things happened at the same time this afternoon.

41szyxcnlwl_aa240_.jpg1) I appear to have won a million pounds (yet again) in an online promo I never entered. These good people are all so kind in emailing me and asking me for my bank details. Who says humanity’s going downhill…

2) I have finally finished Ideas – A History from fire to Freud.

The book has been sitting there staring at me everyday, telling me to get my ass in gear and finally get it finished. Your reading habits get soft with modern novels and anatomy textbooks. I struggle a tad more with non-fiction like history and Harry Potter.

I take the occasional mad notion to “improve my mind” or some nonsense like that and try reading erudite books written by dead people (though written when they were alive, not actually written by dead people. Though that would be kind of cool). Generally I find I actually quite enjoy it. Sometimes I just enjoy the imagined kudos of reading books by dead Russians and dead alcoholic poets.

But back to the history of ideas. A book so ambitious will obviously fall foul of a temptation to see an overarching picture in the history of human thought. We love trends and progress too much, we see it everywhere. CS Lewis called this Historicism: “the historicist tries to get from historical premises conclusions which are more than historical; conclusions metaphysical or theological or atheological…”

The trend is always of course towards progress. And a very loaded sense of the word. The idea that the longer humanity keeps going, then the further forward that we make it. That every new idea is an improvement of the old. This owes a lot to Darwin and evolutionism (not evolution in the biological sense)

[Brief aside. I’m trying to avoid the whole evolution debate, as it all gets a bit infantile in online debates as people try to outwit each other and make fools of each other and it’s more about pride and and wit and arrogance and being seen to win the “argument” than it is about the issues of the debate. These things are much better discussed in a pub or cafe with actual human beings involved. One thing I can conclude from the theory of biological evolution if that if it fits then we’ve definitely stopped evolving. As soon as our brains got big enough to start protecting the weak, and indeed find “artificial” (creating fire, tools, eating meat, standing up) means to preserve the self (preserving of course, a faulty genetic lineage) then the whole natural selection process went out the window. If evolution is man kinds great salvation then the moment our brains outgrew our reproductive organs (though the female of the species says that maybe that never happened…) then we effectively committed evolutionary suicide.]

The simple premise that humanity, society, the whole shebang is getting better. That as time passes at the rate of sixty seconds a minute, so humanities change is uni-directional.

Along with it goes “chronological snobbery” (another Lewisism). The idea that anything new or modern must be better than what came before. To be introspective about ourselves as Christians – there’s an element of that when it comes to the church. How many find themselves leaving the established church for a contemporary, even “emergent” movement? And how many of these moves are strongly influenced by chronological snobbery, the fact that it’s cool and fashionable? This is not a judgment on the theology, practice or thought of modern evangelicalism – in fact that’s precisely the point, that people are more influenced by what’s new and cool than the substance of things.

In retrospect the church was a bad example. I find myself wanting to define every term, knowing that I misrepresent them all as I type. Sigh.

The other idea of historicism is the ludicrous notion that the canon of history is complete. In Christianity I’m pretty sure we believe the canon of scripture is closed – correct me if I’m a heretic, or burn me at the stake, whichever’s easier… Therefore we can now stand some 2000 years later and pass comment on the overall picture contained within.

If you do this with history then you kind of make a bit of a tit of yourself. Like writing a review of the sixth sense 10 minutes before the end. “This was a crap film, where not very much happened…” Obviously hugely different than if you stayed for the last 10 minutes. “This was a crap film, where not very much happened and it turns out your man was dead the whole time…” You get what I mean.

It also brings up what I find to be the most ludicrous notion of all. That now, that early 21st century thought has finally got it. This is the answer. Yes of course all that nonsense about the world being flat was wrong, and all that carry on with apples falling out of trees is badly misguided, and yes I know we taught you that stuff is made up of protons, electrons and neutrons but now we think there’s a few other things going on. Trust me, I’ve got it right this time.

Assumption (quick aside, can any one tell me the difference between assumption and presumption? I could look it up, but I’m a very lazy man. And no jokes about making an ass of u and me…) is a big thing. All those algebraic equations worked on the principle that “if x=4 elephants…”. Indeed scientific principle is dependent on the hypothesis – hopefully proved.

If you drop a brick off a bridge a 100 times and it falls at the same speed every time then it simply tells you that when you dropped that brick 100 times off a bridge it dropped at a certain speed. It does not tell you that it will drop at a certain speed. That takes assumption.

We now know (famous last words…) that if we drop that brick off a bridge on another planet (never mind a black hole…) that it’s gonna fall different.

We talk with such confidence that we actually know what’s going on (Christians are very guilty of this too, though we do have that old, divinely inspired word of the ultimate being and belief in the supernatural to fall back on. A kind of metaphysical joker to play) in the universe. It takes a pretty massive assumption to believe (oo err, careful now) that.

The world used to be flat, both the scientific institutions and the church denied that for quite a while (the church longer than the scientists). The history of science is full of people getting it wrong and looking like idiots. We look back at quaint and infantile scientific theorems and mock. Though we read only the classic “history as told by the victors”.

History is dependent on source. History could be defined as everything that’s ever happened ever. Then the “history” that we’re working from is nothing but a millionth of a fraction of what’s actually happened ever. We have only what was recorded (by the victors again…). And even then why do we presume that the “history” we have is what was recorded. How much has been lost, burned, or never recorded (neither Incas nor Mayans – two culturally advanced peoples – kept written records). How much of our most important archaeological data lies underneath an Iraqi marsh or a Damascus office block (even though we think cities were a pretty late development…).

Now I don’t mean to be all down and history or science, I love both, I even tentatively say I believe in both but I hope I have the sense and possibly even the humility to say that we’re not quite there yet.

As regards to something I actually have some experience in – the more I do medicine, the more it becomes clear that we haven’t a notion what’s going on in the human body. Yes, we give drugs and yes they seem to work, and we have lots of plausible theories as to why they work, but in reality we have no idea what they’re doing at a cellular or biochemical level. This is most clear when we come to the brain. We’re only at the tip of the ice berg with that one.

We used to remove the frontal lobes of people brains to make them better. We now know (we think) that that was a bad idea. We’re still electrocuting some people with severe depression or mania (and it still works sometimes).

We used to not wash our hands between delivering babies (it seems that some of us still don’t…) and couldn’t understand why they got fevers.

We used to drill holes in peoples heads after head injuries – the Egyptians did it to release demons, we do it for lack of knowing anything better to save badly battered brains. Occasionally it works. In 10 years time we may well be doing decompressive craniectomies on guys with head injuries and putting the top of their skulls in deep freezers for six months and then attaching them back on again.

Maybe we’ll just go back to the leeches?

Back to the book.

In his conclusion Peter Watson demonstrated that we seem to have made excellent progress with regards to understanding both nature and our universe and (a slightly optimistic) notion that we’ve progressed in our humanity and how we treat each other. Though I imagine it’s only white people like me who could write that. However he concludes that “man’s study of himself is the biggest intellectual failure in history”.

[He considers the idea of the soul a much more significant idea than the idea of GOD, who apparently died with the Renaissance. I must tell him that next time I’m talking to him, always enjoys a laugh so he does…]

He finishes off with an exhortation to abandon mankind’s search to understand himself through introspection and instead look “at our role and place as animals”. That leaves little room for art, music, literature, joy, pain or beauty and certainly none for the pursuit of truth. Mankind has barked up a lot of wrong trees no doubt but just because progress is kind of hard to define doesn’t mean we need to give up on it.

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2 Responses to “Debate exposes doubt”


  1. 1 voxo November 30, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Excellent. Excellent. You might also enjoy the following if you don’t already know it:

    http://www.realist.org/files/misc/Lewis_Evolutionary_Hymn.pdf

    Classic stuff.

  2. 2 Nelly And I November 30, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    ta very much for the link. good stuff too.


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