The ascent of knowledge?
If I happen to step into a tennis court, I know that irrespective of who stands at the other end from me that - unless they are totally blind, or incapable of movement - it is almost certain that I will lose. Why? Because one of the talents I lack in abundance is hand-eye coordination.
But if I sit quietly, I do have the ability to “watch” what happens as a tennis ball hits a racquet. In very slow motion. It is not a case of replaying a movie from recollection. It is something that I find fairly simple given knowledge of the physics and the properties of the materials involved.
Imagine, for a moment, watching an event where the mind sees what has happened but is quite unable to find an explanation for it. A simple example, one which still strikes awe in the soul despite its simple scientific explanation, is that of a solar eclipse.
Most of us can replay the scientific explanation of orbits, comparative apparent sizes of objects, and results, in our minds. We can “see” that event because we know and understand what is happening. We know that the cause is the shadow from the moon passing in front of the sun.
But now I want to take that science and knowledge out of the event. I want the reader to imagine his or her reaction to a total solar eclipse as an event with no conceivable explanation.
Adding to that incomprehension is the fact that an eclipse is an infrequent interruption to a daily event. The passage of the sun each day is “normal”; a literal everyday occurrence. In an area the size of Australia there are some 19 eclipses – total and annular – predicted for the 100 years to 2100. If you look to the State of Victoria, there is a “500 year drought” between the early 1900s and 2400s with no total/annular eclipses. Partial eclipses are far more common. In the Northern Territories and Queensland there would be a partial to total eclipse every 10 years or so. So, there is a chance that an individual living in that area might see in his lifetime perhaps three or four partial, and one total/annular eclipse.
From this I deduce that people living in the Northern Territories for example would have a fairly strong tradition centred on solar eclipses. By contrast, it would seem logical that people in Victoria would not have the same “knowledge” or tradition.
Such a “tradition”, a “knowledge”, would logically give rise to two consequences:
• The first is the question “Why does the sun …”
• The second is the response to the event (not the question).
The first of these – the question – is the beginning of scientific enquiry; it is the need to find an explanation for an “unnatural” event.
The second, the fear of that unknown and unexplained event (and such a fear can be quite rational as we all should know) is the beginning of superstition.
The common ground between these two factors is where I believe theistic religion is formed. It develops in both forms; as the explanation of the event, and as the personal protection from the event and its consequences. One can choose either mono- or pan-theistic systems, or any combination in between. From my knowledge, only one fundamental religious system does not fall into this realm and that is Bhuddism and its various derivatives. In that instance though, I believe that we would find the existence of other religions and superstitions in co-existence with Bhuddism as well as regional “blends” of Bhuddism with local beliefs.
The expression of the explanation, the answer to the question, the response to the event also takes many forms.
To the Greeks, there were many gods involved in “natural processes”. There were many myths that tied those gods together and with their respective “responsibilities”. In many ways it was a very simplistic religion; in others it was very complex. It gives me the impression of having developed out of an even more ancient system of beliefs, most probably pan-theistic. I actually like the Greek gods, they have an element of humanity about them, as do the Norse gods. They were a bunch of warring, drinking, womanizing (and “manizing”), loving, squabbling, really ordinary kind of people.
The stories of their gods, the myths that connect them, are in total something of a mirror to the society and at the same time provide the framework for the explanation of events. So, for example, Poseidon and his hatred of the land “explains” all manner of events surrounding the sea, lakes and rivers. A goddess such as Venus/Aphrodite has her place in the society of Olympia and also can “explain” the powerful attraction of a beautiful woman, and the mysteries of reproduction.
How pale and wan is the Judeo/Christian mono-theism by comparison, but also how much more powerful, compelling and lasting. It is also a very “concise” religion. It begins (Genesis) with a creation myth that is not only very short (what, a matter of 500 words at most covers everything?), but is also profoundly crafted so that no further “explanation” is required. The answer to any question becomes “Because God made it so…” and the matter is closed.
As an example, compare three different stories of the rainbow. In the Judeo/Christian version it is God’s symbol of His regret for the great flood, and his promise that he would not take such action again. To the Greeks the rainbow is Iris, a messenger of the gods. She travels on the wind, with the storm ahead of her and the sun behind. It is little surprise that she is the daughter of Thaumus (Wonder). As a total contrast is the Maori legend of Uenuku and Hinepukoherangi the mist maiden of the dawn. Uenuku was a warrior who met Hinepukoherangi one morning and they fell deeply in love. After courting and marrying her, Uenuku tried to force her to stay during the day by trickery and as a result killed her. Ranginui (the sky) took pity on the mourning Uenuku and put him in the sky during the day. When mist and rainbow meet at dawn Uenuku and Hine are together again, if only for just that brief moment.
It can be seen that even an event as everyday as a rainbow can give rise to explanations that are at the same time beautiful and profound.
I drew the pen over the idea earlier, the thought, that the same “question” that gave rise in part to religion was also connected to the genesis of scientific enquiry. It would be very satisfying to be able to point to specific instances and say “There you are. There is the question. There is the myth. There is the scientific answer.”
There is also in this idea, the conflict between religion and science. In Christian civilisation it has broken into open “warfare” on occasions. If one recollects as a case in point, the expulsion of Galileo from the Church of Rome for his scientifically based propositions against the “geo-centric” Church view of the universe. Well, it was actually Galileo’s refusal to recant his ideas that led to the Church’s retaliation.
This conflict of religion vs science I believe stems from the derivation of the one from “not knowing”, the other from “knowing”. To “know”, immediately implies that there is no longer any mystery to be explained. Without that mystery it would seem that religion could no longer exist.
That many of the leading scientists “see the hand of God” in the results of their work does not contradict my view. The “structure” of nature has been found; the reason “why it is so” is still the mystery.
We are fortunate indeed, those of us who live in the “brand” of civilization that allows humankind to explore and follow their curiosity. It is the cumulative knowledge that has been gathered which has led to our ability to see our planet from afar. It is the tree that has fruited in the ability to converse instantaneously from one side of the world to the other. It is the chariot that carries mankind into the future.
For it has not always been so. Indeed there have been times in history when the very “civilizations” that gave birth to ours, and our civilization itself, have strenuously resisted the expansion of knowledge and the curiosity of man. It is not coincidence in my view that this repression of knowledge and enquiry has come from religion, and most particularly from men of religion whose authority would not survive close inspection by widespread literacy and education.
The great miracle of our civilization is not, as one might expect, any one individual discovery.
It is that the persistent effort of many individuals has succeeded in throwing aside the oppression of ignorance. It is of no small significance that the power of the Christian Church over the lives of ordinary men has declined with the level of ignorance.