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Some days, you just get up and everything seems to be calculated to annoy me.

It’s actually fall now, something I’ve been avoiding for a really long time.  But yesterday we had to turn our heat on for the first time, and this morning my office–which is in a sunroom, overlooking the back yard–is cold.

But that isn’t really the problem, of course.  The problem is that I signed online, checked my e-mail, and then went (as usual) straight to Arts and Letters Daily, to find a review of Sam Harris’s new book. 

Right there.  In the middle of everything.

And the review starts:

>>>It used to be a given that religion was the source of all important knowledge. Both the “how” of the universe—what it is like, and how it works—and the “why”—why it exists at all, and why human life has a place in it—were to be answered by referring to religious stories and authorities. With the rise of modernity questions of the first sort were removed from religion’s purview: we think of them now as scientific questions, to be answered by empirical investigation.>>>

Now, let me be fair here.  That’s the reviewer talking, a guy named Troy Jollimore.  I can’t blame Sam Harris for that bit of hash.  And you expect the author to be more knowledgable than the reviewer.

But still.

The removal of questions about how the world works because matters of scientific–or proto-scientific–investigation over three hundred years before the birth of Christ.  If you don’t believe me, go look at Aristotle’s On Nature.

Nor did the rise of Christianity suddenly return questions of “natural philosophy” to the purview of theology.   Any look through the surviving literature of the European Middle Ages could tell you as much, as could any perusal of, say, one of Norman Cantor’s histories of the period.

Western “philosophers”–in those days, all intellectual inquiry was called “philosophy,” even if it was what we would call “science” today–did practical experimentation in chemistry and biology.  They collected samples from all around the world as men became to travel through it.

If you want to find a time in European history when the preferred explanation for, say, how frogs give birth or how best to grow wheat in France was “God did it” or “pray,” you have to go back to prehistory, to the time before men and women could write.

In the literate West, science–meaning the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena–starts early, much earlier than the Enlightenment. 

If it hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been an Enlightenment.

I know that nobody believes much in learning about intellectual history these days, and I’m not going to go on another rant about how we should be teaching it started in kindergarten.

And I also know that the myth of the Enlightenment is the founding narrative of a lot of what we do, including most probably the United States.

But do people hear themselves when they spout this kind of stuff?  Do they feel any need whatsoever to make any kind of sense?

Where do they think the Enlightenment came from? 

Do they honestly believe that one day some guy looked up from his Bible, a lightbulb went on over his head, and–eureka!

I’d find it a lot harder to swallow that than I would to swallow the idea that God did it.  God, after all, is supposed to be the creator ex nihilo of all things.  He’s supposed to be good at making something out of nothing.

How Harvey over at the butcher’s shop is supposed to have managed it is another question.

And, now that I think about it, what about alchemy?  Alchemy, like astrology, was assumed in the Middle Ages to be a science.  It was not magic, and it was not theology.  It was an attempt to understand the natural world by natural means.

The problem with both of those things are not that they were mystical or religious, but that they were wrong.

The people of the Middle Ages, the citizens of Greek city states and the Roman Empire, were fully invested in studying the natural world by natural means.   Their means were inadequate, and often wrongheaded, and sometimes–from our more sophisticated point of view–embarrassing.

But they were not religion.


It’s a dismal day, and I have much too much to do.


Written by janeh

October 21st, 2010 at 8:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Persons'

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  1. Yeah, yeah. In the absence of history, there is myth–and mighty comfortable myth, for the most part. But I weep for intellectual history with dry tears. Diplomatic history is equally neglected, while military history was pretty well driven off campus. We pay a price in blood for voters and politicians who understand neither one.

    And it’s only a down payment.


    21 Oct 10 at 7:28 pm

  2. I have studied philosophy and that review convinced me not to buy the book. I strongly suspect he would end up with a version of utilitarianism.

    A study of history would be embarassing for the militant atheists. They would have to admit that the Catholic Church kept literacy and law alive after the fall of Rome. And that Universities started as theoology schools and that the ideas of charity and equality are religious based.


    22 Oct 10 at 12:55 am

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