Once upon a time in the distant and not so distant past there was a privileged caste of scholarly notables and monastic scribes who oversaw, in written form, the power of knowledge and proper thinking and thrived apart from the less prescient masses below–those who muddled along in thought-free mediocrity, or so those above believed. In the Christian era, religious faith was linked to the City of God and the Catholic Church. In ancient times the anthropomorphic gods of Olympus looked down on mankind and governed our fate.
This dichotomy of intellectual apartheid changed when Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable-type press converted the scrolls of Roman and Greek wisdom to books for the educated bourgeoisie and launched a fifteenth century Renaissance of learning that was not under ecclesiastical control. Thinking was more than ever the property of the individual and not the Church. Ideas sprang up unobstructed and washed across the academic centers of European hegemony. Ancient truths became subject to new scrutiny and the modern era was born.
In our times, the power of knowledge was widely dispersed among students and their paper and pen instructors who ruled academia for decades. Type-written communications, mimeographs, telexes, and monaural electronic devices, not to mention chalk boards, limited the scope of how we learned for some time. Then, digitized systems of information delivery were invented by thinkers of a different twist; silicon chips in down-sized computers appeared on the market and thinking in abstract terms had to be either 0 or 1 in long numerical strings…or not at all. Conceptual thought became more democratized with the advent of the electronic pulse and blip. Now the thought masters of old, who wrote with abandon on lined paper, had met their master, if I may, in the cold world of artificial intelligence or A.I. which is all the cognitive rage these days.
Logic or clear-headed thinking now abounds in every phase of our formal writing: no more vague intuitions or ill-founded suppositions or flights of fancy that prime the pump of creative thought; no humor or delicious irony a la Jonathan Swift or Voltaire. In today’s world, facts, data-rich texts, and algorithms channel the linear flow of words toward approved ends, stripped of ambiguity–just dull clarity and little else.
Since the days of Aristotle and other famous pundits, logic has been a tool for seeking the truth. No fuzziness, emotional overtones, hyperbole or puns are permitted. To think in a logical manner means compressing thought into patterns where there is a right and wrong answer. The Aristotelian syllogism, judiciously applied, must yield a conclusion that cannot be questioned: ergo, Socrates, based on solid evidence, has to be mortal.
The world of modern science reigns supreme and unchallenged according to most media outlets. Syllogisms, spatial ether, the four elements, and the absence of vacuums are myths of ancient origin. Medieval alchemists hoped vainly to extract gold from humble matter; modern chemistry came from their attempts at transmogrification. Copernicus, Galileo, and similarly far-sighted colleagues disavowed the geocentric universe of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the Catholic Church. The foundations of truth were evolving as curious, probing minds expanded their quest for knowledge.
Truth in science can only be temporary, to be displaced when more facts and procedures come to light. In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, great men stand on the shoulders of other geniuses to see farther ahead as they remake the shape of the future. One day, perhaps, based on Stephen Hawking’s parallel universe vision, our truths of the moment will not be valid in yet undiscovered worlds and other dimensions. Inspired by the Greeks, the French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, summed up our dilemma by saying that the universe has no center, no discernible circumference, and floats indeterminately beyond human comprehension. As he famously stated: “The heart has its reasons that reason cannot comprehend.” Knowledge is both fact-based and colored by intuition’s grasp of reality.
Logic is at the heart of scientific truth which lives and breathes in a mathematical schema of data-based reality. However, if so many truths of the distant past are now only partially true (e.g. the physics of Sir Isaac Newton and Aristotle; Rene Descartes’ discredited vortices to explain planetary movement), how do we know what discovery is worth trusting? When asked, scientists just shrug and affirm that technology will make inroads in the days ahead and inventions will clear the way to a world beyond our ken. After all, rocket science and aviation owe their beginnings to Chinese fireworks and the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.
Over the past few centuries, science and other fields of knowledge have splintered into overlapping disciplines which claim complementarity but are, in their own way, subject to reasonable doubt at times. For example, Sigmund Freud’s legacy is little more than a lexicon of terms that were the product of observing troubled Viennese matrons whose sexual repression fueled the core of psycho-analysis.
We freely use his terminology today without traditional scientific corroboration: the sex-laden and conflicted Id, bubbling with dark forces that the conscious mind doesn’t recognize or acknowledge; the ego struggling with its moral and social arbiter, the super ego, that produces dutiful citizens carved out of a Germanic model in the early twentieth century. Freud’s psychology, like that of Adler and Jung, are clever assumptions that hard-core science cannot prove to be factual or capable of being replicated. Do we truly covet our mothers as Oedipus mythically did? Do little girls wish they had their brother’s penises? Is there a Yin or Yang from Far Eastern cosmology that nourishes life’s primal forces, or even an anima and animus that inform the Jungian collective consciousness? Can troubling psychoses be uprooted and erased through talk therapy? Probably not. Pharmacology has replaced this strategy. Rarely challenged assumptions have therefore become scientific “fact” through public acceptance.
In a cultural context, do Chinese children experience the same trauma as Afghan youths during wartime? Is the mind hard-wired to follow the pedagogical stages of Jean Piaget’s philosophy? Similarly can we prove that linguist Noam Chomsky’s “Deep Structure” is an integral part of childhood language acquisition? Are we all alike as humanists assert or does the environment affect our reaction to external stimuli in different ways? Is there an acceptable answer to these ponderous, lofty questions? Probably not, yet we continue to ask why and construct clever ways to resolve thorny issues. Our curiosity as cogent beings is insatiable.
And then there is the question of logic and religiosity that weighs heavily upon Western civilization. Religious fervor, with the exception of Islamic cultures, seems to be declining in more advanced societies. In America, the Church serves as a social institution and is run with corporate precision: above all, it is a focal point for community identity. The desire to expand services and infrastructure is built into their mission: preach the Gospel, recruit the “unchurched,” meet the budget, hire more personnel to be servants of the faith, and whenever possible, launch a building campaign that gives the impression of progress.
Religious inquiry is limited to discussing scriptural excerpts in Bible study groups sponsored by the Church; the essence of faith is rarely questioned in these sessions. Exegesis is avoided in favor of bearing personal witness to Christian tenets. Quoting scripture has an aura of theological truth but is not logic-based because, for all Christians, the Bible is the defining reference work of faith. As the Catholics once said: “Outside the Church there is no salvation.”
Logic and theology are generally at odds with one another. There is the “historical” Jesus that we know very little about. Scholars have concluded that He was most likely a simple peasant-artisan, an itinerant and charismatic preacher who challenged Jewish authority and secular beliefs (chasing the money lenders from the Temple). His populous rebellion against the Roman occupational forces sealed his fate.
The New Testament affirms the divinity of Jesus, the son of God, based solely on the writings and oral history of the apostles and other chroniclers in the decades following His crucifixion. What separates Jesus’ “movement” from other Abrahamic monotheistic religions is the Cross, the symbol of his passion and resurrection or deification. Judaism and Islam reject His role as a divine entity; in their eyes Jesus was no more than a highly respected prophet.
For Biblical historians, the miracles He performed are hard to explain from a scientific perspective. Very few modern scientists accept the providential, almost mystical nature of His life. In the absence of facts, we have little to support our beliefs except faith alone which science calls into question. Faith is the purest form of escaping from the burdens of the material world; it requires the acceptance of an intuitive, personal reality with no measurable contours. Nonetheless, many men and women of science embrace the Christian way of life.
Faith reassures and comforts true believers. Science can only measure and codify the known universe. How does one reconcile these contradictory forces? Without believing in the supernatural, the life and divinity of Jesus are illogical. Therefore, if we apply modern techniques to this issue, Christianity becomes a religion founded on false premises: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are at the core of its philosophy. These ideas of communal peace and compassion are also found in other religions.
What gives Christianity a distinct identity is the concept of the crucifixion and resurrection of an itinerant preacher and carpenter by trade, Jesus of Nazareth. Abraham, Moses, and Mohammed were leaders of their faiths, not divinities in the guise of humans who suffered for others. In theory Jesus died for all men: He is the Messiah incarnate who visited the earth, accomplished His mission, and was recalled to Heaven by our Maker. No other faith has the concept of immaculate conception, evangelization, and universal salvation. Christ is the Redeemer, not the titular head of a religious movement. According to the scriptures, He is a living, internal presence in the converted, not a dignitary who judges. He exalts the common man and promises a better life for the downtrodden. He spoke to the humble and not to the crowned heads of His era.
Sadly, throughout history, the Church has deviated from its first principles of compassion and forgiveness and become a punitive institution that rejected transgressors and continues to do so (through excommunication). Large numbers have died over the centuries in the name of a forgiving Savior. During the Crusades Arabs were pitted against Christian zealots who sought to liberate the Holy Land from pagan dominance. Moreover, heretics threatened the political authority of a Church wedded to the State; these rebellious minds that abjured Christianity were “purified” by fire at the stake as dictated by the Spanish Inquisition (“auto-da-fe”). Numerous horrors were perpetrated to cleanse the Christian world of miscreants. Its intolerance has sparked revolutions that saw religiosity become a form of oppression, more controlling than liberating.
Contrary to the Catholic repudiation of profit as sin (which has now been revoked), Protestantism linked Christian values with financial success and not liturgical piety. In this reformed version of Christianity, God favored the wealthy who were rewarded with a greater status in life. Prosperity and saintly goodness were one and the same. The modern world of materialized faith was born in the late sixteenth century when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Cathedral door to protest indulgences.
The Reformation, divorced from papal authority, gave birth to an economic freedom that reshaped Protestant strongholds in Europe. In addition to other beliefs, the infallibility of the Pope and hagiography were denied to be free of religious restrictions and enjoy life’s many treasures. Matters of faith between Catholics and Protestants brought about civil wars that ravaged European nations and spilled over into their colonial possessions.
Pure logic guides the rational and demonstrable world of science; intuition lies at the heart of religious faith. To believe in divine spirits, one must accept the inconsistency of reason and grant substance and credibility to intuitive truth. Scientists will rework and change the material world with reason and technology; at the same time, the inner self will cry out for religious solace and release. The twenty-first century will give us little hope for global peace in our conflicted, tribal debates. Where will the human species be in the coming years and centuries of strife?
No matter how we react, time will move us forward against our will. Our dueling masters, faith and logic, will determine the nature of what it means to be human: scientifically, there will be sentient clones, cyber engineers crafting even more functional robots to serve our needs, geneticists tweaking the genome to fight disease and correct flaws in our DNA–a new “science” of eugenics? and alternative sources of governance to replace the failed or inadequate systems of the past.
In spite of the manipulation of the species and internal longing for power, there will always be decent folks who think in logical ways but deeply hope for the promise of eternal life and salvation. On the other hand, there will be the fearful ones–burdened with doubt and distrustful of rigid thought patterns–who see life, without faith, as devoid of purpose and meaningless. Will socialism’s future utopia give them relief from their anguish?
Nonetheless, the meaning of life’s infinite mystery will trouble our thoughts and guide our search for reassurance. The quest for spiritual values and scientific truths will define the parameters of tomorrow’s world just as the rebirth of tribalism will ensure continuing territorial conflict. Without science there will be no progress; without faith the human spirit will weaken and religious belief will falter. Our long-term survival depends on striking a viable compromise between the two.