Sunday, September 11, 2005

Retreat from reason

Is there a flight from reason in the United States?

Everywhere we look, science is under attack. In government. In the schools. In the churches.

We are offered faith-based substitutes. The Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels outsells everything else on the shelves. People are more interested in astrology than astronomy. Intelligent design is championed at the highest levels of government. Alternative medicine -- faith healing, homeopathy, energy therapies, New Age healing, and the like -- is more popular than ever. Scripture and revelation are embraced as more reliable sources of knowledge than anything we might learn empirically.

We are entering, it seems, a new Dark Age. For a substantial number of our fellow citizens, it's as if the Enlightenment never happened.

Let me take you back to the Hellenistic city of Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile River in Egypt, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. Alexandria was then the seat of a magnificent flowering of mathematical and scientific thought. The city welcomed all comers -- Eratosthenes from Cyrene, Aristarchus from Samos, Archimedes from Sicily, Apollonius from Rhodes, Hipparchus from Nicaea, Galen from Pergamon, and so on -- the only requirement being an inquisitive mind and a bent for explaining the world in terms that made no reference to the gods.

Geography and astronomy became mathematical sciences. Eratosthenes measured the size of the Earth. Aristarchus deduced the sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon.

These spectacular achievements get no more than passing mention in textbooks of Western Civilization. We learn in school about the Golden Age of Greece and the glory that was Rome, Sophocles and Ovid, the Parthenon and the Pantheon, triremes and aqueducts, but very little of the invention of scientific thinking in the white city at the mouth of the Nile.

Alexandria was built on a ribbon of land between Lake Mareotis and the Mediterranean Sea. It was graced with forums, temples, marketplaces, palaces, a double harbor with a famous lighthouse, quays, warehouses, and, prominently, a museum ("place of the muses"), and the famous library over which Eratosthenes presided. The museum and library were together the equivalent of a great modern university. It was the dream of the first rulers of Alexandria -- the Ptolemys -- that the library would possess a copy of every book in the known world, and within a century hundreds of thousands of scrolls were collected within its walls. By the middle of the first century B.C. Diodorus of Sicily could say that Alexandria was "the first city of the civilized world, certainly far ahead of all the rest in elegance and extent and riches and luxury."

In his book The Greeks and the Irrational, the scholar E. R. Dodds was thinking of the Greek culture of Alexandria when he wrote: "Despite its lack of political freedom, the society of the third century B.C. was in many ways the nearest approach to an 'open' society that the world had yet seen, and nearer than any that would be seen again until modern times."

It was a society confident of its powers. Aristotle had asked his fellow citizens to recognize a divine spark within themselves: the intellect. Men and women who exercise reason can live like gods, he said. For Zeno, the human intellect was not merely akin to God, it is God, a portion of the divine substance. Temples are superfluous, he said; God's true temple is the human intellect.

Of this supreme confidence in rational thought, the Alexandrians created a new empirical, mathematical way of knowing.

But the seeds of irrationality were also there, embedded in popular culture, or perhaps embedded in the human soul. Soon enough, supernaturalism returned. Astrology and magical healing replaced astronomy and medicine. Cults flourished, rationalists were scapegoated, and scientific culture began to decline.

The old dualisms -- mind and matter, God and nature, soul and body -- which the rationalists had striven to overcome, reasserted themselves with fresh vigor. Dodds calls it "the return of the irrational."

He writes: "As the intellectuals withdrew further into a world of their own, the popular mind was left increasingly defenseless. . .and left without guidance, a growing number relapsed with a sigh of relief into the pleasures and comforts of the primitive. . . better the rigid determinism of the astrological Fate than the terrifying burden of daily responsibility."

Harvard historian of science Gerald Holton sees a similarity between Dodds' description of the decline of Greek culture and the resurgence of anti-science in our own time. Once again, astrology, magical healing, and other kinds of superstitious thinking are in ascendancy. Once again, cults flourish and rationalists are scapegoated.

The Greek experience shows that movements to delegitimize science are always present, says Holton, ready to bend civilization their way by the glorification of folk belief, violence, mystification, and the rabid ideologies of ethnic and nationalistic passions. Dodds calls it "the fear of freedom -- the unconscious flight from the heavy burden of individual choice which an open society lays upon its members."

Science can only prosper in a free and open society, in an atmosphere of rational skepticism where traditional patterns of thought are challenged and subjected to critical scrutiny. Science will only flourish when a people have confidence in the power of the human intellect to make sense of the world.

Further Reading

E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.