Friday, September 14, 2007

Secular for the moment

The Economist review of A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, includes this paragraph.

In some secularist accounts, he [Taylor] notes, religion is presented as an odd, temporary delusion into which mankind was unfortunate enough to fall for a brief moment. Once science had proved the falsehood of religious statements about the origins of the world, man could “revert” to a more “natural” way of thinking.

Before we get to the 'but', a word about such a view of religion. It is, shall we say, an unhealthy way to see things because it means looking down on those who have preceded us (and who live among and beside us), a huge majority of whom were believers. For my part, I cannot believe that I am more attuned to reality than Dante, Milton, Newton and countless others, or even that this part of their intelligence was merely a peccadillo that can be separated from everything else they did or thought. A view that regards as foolish 95% of the people who have lived and are living just can't be right (especially when the remaining percentage is intent on not reproducing).

The review continues.

Mr Taylor argues that a secular, scientific way of thinking is also a sort of existential choice, a particular moment in human development rather than a “natural” state of affairs.

Now, I'm not really sure what the reviewer, or Taylor, means here. If he (or they) means that science is just another view of the world on a par with any other, then I really must part company with them. Science differs enormously from most (all other?) views of the world in these ways:
1. It is not a set of beliefs; it is a method of acquiring information
2. That method is shareable. It is not bound by one culture, or one view of the world. What X does in America, Y can do in China or Azerbaijan and get the same results.

These two aspects of science differentiate it from belief systems; it's a completely different type of knowledge. It's not the only type of knowledge, but it is unique in its shareability and its demonstrable efficacy in its own field of reference.

Having said that, the view that the "secular, scientific way of thinking" is the only way is indeed a product of our time, I would say. In this way. Thanks to this 'method of seeing', we can see the world as one place bound by a 'single' set of rules; we can, literally and figuratively, look down on the world. Once we go seriously and in numbers out of this small circle into a space that is more vast than any of us can possibly imagine, I predict that religious feeling will once again become 'normal', if for no other reason than the impact of our smallness. 

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Hazar Nesimi said...

The view that great minds of the past can be somehow deprived from their beliefs reminds me of Soviet methods to declare everyone "progressive" a communist party card carrier(Spartacus comes to mind). In some secular eyes Spinoza, of all people, is an atheist. But that is how we understand World, through a prism of whatever frame of reference we live we live in and tend to judge the past the same way. "Religious" see it one light, "secular" in the other. Also what you understand of "Science" is not what generally meant by this term, where this is the Solution and not simply method.

NoolaBeulah said...

Once again, Hazar, we come to the presentation of these things. When we, or whoever, present scientific theories as The Truth, we do everyone a disservice.

It is never The Truth. It is merely the best theory we've got about a particular phenomenon and will eventually be replaced by a better theory, which in turn, etc ...

Science is the knowledge that can be tested (shared). That's a lot, but it is not all.

Hazar Nesimi said...

As a scientist, I agree with you completely. That's what we do create, test and prove or disprove. But that is not how it is presented to others, for in order to convince you have to be forceful in your convictions. Most then beliefe in their own creation unable to detach themselves forever. I am a geologist so I remember how people clang to an outdated theories in face of overwhelming proof.

NoolaBeulah said...

That's why science is so strong: it's a communal effort. Its force of argument will (eventually) rest on demonstration. Individuals are weak, prone to exageration, egotism and convenience. But if you, I or anyone else can test what someone claims, and can publish for all to see, then individual weakness gives way to a collective strength. It's a form of competition that, at a higher level, becomes co-operation.