Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Cognitive dissonance


In a post last week, I described Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise (1670) this way:
There are no miracles, he wrote, nor divine providence. No immortality of souls. The Bible is not the word of God but a work of human literature. Religion has nothing to do with theology or sectarian dogma. Religious authorities have no place in government. Tolerance for diversity, freethinking, and democracy should be the foundations of a modern state.
These are all positions I came to before I read Spinoza or knew anything about him other than his name. In saying this, I am not claiming to be as clever as Spinoza, or belittling his achievement. By the time I came along, Spinozan ideas had been leavening human thought for three centuries. The remarkable thing is not that I should adopt his ideas, but that so few people do.

Spinoza, after all, was just working out the theological and political implications of the Scientific Revolution, which by the 1670s was already a runaway success. Galileo had edged in the same direction in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. The argument goes like this: The scientific enterprise, to be successful, assumes the universal applicability of natural laws; there is no non-anecdotal empirical evidence for miracles; if there are no miracles, the foundations of sectarian religions crumble; if polity is not founded on miraculously revealed truths, then tolerance for diversity and democracy follow.

Or at least that's approximately the path followed by Spinoza and Hobbes in the 17th century, and folks like me three centuries later.

But it's a lonely path. Most people don't particularly care to think about why science works, only that it does. Or at least that it works well enough to provide us with antibiotics, jet liners and iPhones. Beyond that, we'll hang onto the ancient sectarian myths that bind us into chosen clans and promise eternal life.

How else to explain the blockbuster status of the movie Noah now in the cinemas. Nothing wrong with the movie; if Charlton Heston can part the Red Sea, Russell Crowe can hustle in the animals two-by-two. What is astonishing is that sixty percent of Americans take the utterly unscientific story literally, even as they eagerly embrace the technological and medical fruits of the scientific way of knowing,