Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cognitive dissonance

Gerald of Wales was a member of a fine old Norman family involved in the 12th-century invasion of Ireland. He was an ecclesiastic and a scholar, the author of many books, among them The History and Topography of Ireland. It is a strange little book, worth reading as much for what it tells us about the mind of an educated person in 12th-century Europe as it does about Ireland.

The first thing that strikes us is the credulity of the author. If he hears a story, he reports it, no matter how outlandish -- from a man who is half an ox to a whirlpool that swallows ships. There is no hint of the modern historian's demand for reliable primary evidence.

Secondly, there is Gerald's taste for the wondrous and apparently miraculous over the commonplace and the ordinary. His book is a compendium of the strange and unusual -- a lion that loved a woman, a fish with three gold teeth. A single reported occurrence of a thing is enough to attract Gerald's interest, as opposed to the modern scientist's exclusive interest in reproducible events.

Thirdly, there is Gerald's apparent desire to portray the indigenous Irish as savage and uncivilized, no doubt to provide a moral underpinning for the Norman invasion.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is because so much of it is still with us. The man who is half an ox shows up today in the tabloid newspapers at the supermarket checkout counter. A taste for the miraculous endures in our insatiable appetite for the paranormal, including the many miracles of supernaturalist religion. And the less said about slanting history to justify conquest the better.

Against all of this, we have a new way of knowing -- the scientific way of knowing -- with a history going back to the Hellenic world, but forged into a powerful instrument in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. The scientific way of knowing is the basis for our modern health, wealth and technology, not to mention the Enlightenment principles that underlie our personal freedoms and equality, but the great majority of us choose to live psychologically in the premodern world of Gerald of Wales. We would rather read about alien abductions and astrology than about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo or protemics. We accept the many miracles of religion -- the resurrection of Jesus, Mohammed's night flight to Jerusalem -- with the same credulity that Gerald affords to the fleas banished from Connacht by Saint Nannan.

Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance: living in two contradictory worlds at the same time. We can't accuse Gerald of cognitive dissonance; he was writing out of the prevailing world view of his day. We, on the other hand, eagerly embrace the fruits of the scientific world view and insist on our Geraldean miracles too.