Friday, August 25, 2006

Backwards or forwards

If you wanted to divide humankind into two categories, none might be more relevant to the present state of the world than 1) those who look to the authority of the past, and 2) those who put their hope in the future.

In the first category are those who give their conceptual and intellectual allegiance to ancestors, holy books, tradition, or venerable prophets. In the second category are the children of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment.

The idea of progress was pretty much an invention of 17th-century Europe. Not that the intellectual revolution of that time and place was without precedent, but it was the forward-facing colleagues of Francis Bacon who first systematically doubted the authority of the ancients and offered an alternative avenue to truth.

The absoluteness of ancient authority prior to the Scientific Revolution is demonstrated by a statute of the medieval Oxford University, which decreed "that Bachelors and Masters who did not follow Aristotle faithfully were liable to a fine of five shillings for every point of divergence." Galileo, of course, ran up against the same slavish alliegence to the past in the form of Church doctrine

By contrast, Bacon and his contemporaries emphasized the inadequacy of ancient learning, and urged its advancement. Truth was to be measured not by conformity with the past, but by the open-ended inquiry of nature.

In his seminal study of the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, Richard Foster Jones defined the new movement this way: "First was the spirit of adventure, of finding out what lies beyond the closed boundaries of knowledge, of widening the limits of acquired truth, together with the faith that such expansion was possible. Another attitude stressed the need of an unbiased and critical mind and of freedom of thought and expression."

These values became the basis for the Enlightenment's commitment to democracy, secularism, individual rights, universal public education, and free speech. They are the foundation of modern medicine, open markets, and the exponential (and sometimes dangerous) growth of technology.

The clash of civilizations in the world today is not between Islam and the West, but between the spirit of the Scientific Revolution (which has until recently been mostly identified with Western culture), and those East and West who define themselves by the unyielding authority of ancient scriptures and traditions.