Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#14 - Not Man Apart

American Heathen:  aired: 26 May 2012

Please indulge me and allow me to read a portion of the poetry of Robinson Jeffers - a poem not coincidentally titled "Not Man Apart":

Then what is the answer?— Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness.
These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history... for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly.
Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,
the divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that,
or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

If you’ve rejected the mythology of abrahamic religions, then you know that our pre-human distant ancestors were members of just one species among the wide spectrum of animal species sharing this world before humans arrived.  Our ancestors were but one thread within a vast tapestry, connected to other living species (including plants) and to the physical world by links of which they were blissfully unaware, but nevertheless depended on those links.  As our ancestors developed the enhanced brain capacity, upright stance, and opposable thumbs necessary for changing the local environment to suit themselves, they inadvertently began a process of disconnecting themselves from the natural world.  As a species, in continuing that disconnection process, humans evidently acquired a colossal arrogance along the way.  Humans began to see themselves not as participants within that natural world, but as the lords and masters of the world.  Some humans invented an imaginary all-everything deity who created us and, as a sort of post hoc justification for deeds of environmental alteration already committed, is supposed to have given us “dominion” over the earth.  Some of us beleived we had been authorized to do whatever destruction we wished to the natural world, with the deity’s blessing!

With the development of agriculture and a division of labor not possible to mere hunter-gatherers, humans created spiritual leaders among themselves, empowered in our imaginations if not in fact, to intercede with the deity on the people’s behalf when things didn’t go the way someone wanted.  They served as intermediaries to the mythical deity, interpreting its commands and demanding obedience to the deity’s wishes.  In some cases, primitive societies sought supernatural aid during troubled times in such a fashion that they accelerated their own demise, destroying the very environment that sustained them in order to seek favor with their imaginary deities. 

With the emergence of empirical science, our ideas about the processes governing the natural world could be tested against reality.  This was the spark that became the flame of science that we continue to use to light the way to ever-deepening understanding of our world and our place within it.  Science has been the basis for technology that has in turn accelerated the science.  We’ve shaped the world to suit us, but along the way, some have forgotten or ignored the consequences of our environmental modifications.  At the present time, we have exercised our “dominion” over the planet to the extent that unintended consequences are threatening our modern societies.  Western technological society has insulated us so well from the natural world that many of us have abandoned science for the most part and have no clue beyond what the pseudo-pundits in the media tell them.  Scientists are not widely trusted anymore and the lessons of science are being cast away in favor of old myths that have persisted like a case of herpes, resistant to any form of scientific enlightenment, always ready to emerge and wreak havoc again.

Is it possible that as our understanding of the natural world deepens to the point where we finally are beginning to acquire the wisdom that comes from comprehending the complex connections within the natural world, our societies will turn their backs on that emerging wisdom and choose consciously to descend into a new dark age?  Will we allow ourselves to fall back on the false comfort of blissful ignorance and reject free thought in favor of old discredited dogma?  It seems evident that that fate is precisely what some in our society are seeking for us all.

Science has made it clear to some of us that all life is interdependent in ways we are just now beginning to see, however imperfectly.  And we also know that the living world is deeply interconnected with the nonliving, physical world and even the vast depths of the universe about us.  Robinson Jeffers was so right – not man apart, but man a part of that universe.  Do we really want to turn back the clock and re-enter the demon-haunted darkness of religious doctrine, superstition, and myth?  I can only hope not.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.