Saturday, December 31, 2011

What If Everything We Think Is Wrong?

One of the pleasures of being Catholic is enjoying an evil snicker every time another hole is poked in one of our culture’s common preconceptions. This is why I am getting so much pleasure right now from reading Régine Pernoud’s book of essays Those Terrible Middle Ages!, in which the esteemed French historian explains why the period of high Catholic culture, from 500 to 1500 AD, was a lot more than it’s cracked up to be. 

The book was recommended to me by my CL friend and reading muse Suzanne Tanzi, fearless English-language editor of Traces magazine. She passed along the recommendation after I wrote another one of my “Eureka?” posts, in which I brilliantly discover something that has been pretty widely known for some time among well-read Catholics like Suzanne.

In this case, I “discovered” that accepting the common notion of the Renaissance—that it reawakened the world after a long dark and ignorant age—“means treating the first fourteen or fifteen centuries of the Christian era as a total loss, if not a disgrace to humanity. It means throwing out the contributions of Catholic Christianity—until the age when the Reformation and the Enlightenment got us all back on track.”

Pernoud’s mission is to demonstrate that the period between the fall of Rome and the rise of humanism was not all “slaughter, massacres, scenes of violence, famines, epidemics,” In fact, she points out in her foreword that the Middle Ages “witnessed the abolition of slavery, the liberation of women, checks and balances on absolutism, artistic achievements of medieval cathedrals, inventions of the book, the musical scale, and the mechanical clock,” just for starters. Yet, further on she notes, “The Middle Ages still signifies: a period of ignorance, mindlessness, or generalized underdevelopment, even if this was the only period of underdevelopment during which cathedrals were built!”

How can our common knowledge be so very wrong? Pernoud’s clever answer: “An employed academic is … physically incapable of seeing what is not in conformity with the notions his brain exudes.”

I will write another post on Those Terrible Middle Ages! when I have finished reading it, but meanwhile this evening, I enjoyed another pair of snickers over two articles I found on-line.

Wired magazine’s Jonah Lehrer writes about “Trials and Errors: Why Science is Failing Us.” Taking as an example the pharmaceutical industry’s hit-or-miss approach to drug creation, he undermines a fundamental tenet of modern science:

“[The] assumption—that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system—is not limited to the pharmaceutical industry or even to biology. It defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients.”

Meanwhile, in Foreign Affairs, Timothy Snyder takes on one of the big Intellectual Achievements du Jour, Steven Pinker’s thesis that in our culture violence is diminishing. In “War No More: Why the World Has Become More Peaceful,” Snyder summarizes the argument of Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, in the new best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined:

“We recall the twentieth century as an age of unparalleled violence, and we characterize our own epoch as one of terror. But what if our historical moment is in fact defined not by mass killing but by the greatest levels of peace and safety ever attained by human­kind?”

To which I would reply, Fiddlesticks! Earth to Steven: Have you ever watched men watching NFL football, or preadolescent boys playing video games rated M for Mature? Snyder’s argument is more closely reasoned than mine and worth a read. His conclusion is not favorable:

“Pinker is to be praised for asking a crucial question—perhaps the crucial question—of modern history. But as he moves between the premodern world of violence and a postmodern style of discourse, he loses sight of the modern world in which we actually live. What he provides is less an answer to his question than a mode of reasoning that has little to do with the scientific study of the past and much to do with a worldview that happens to be his own.”  

Snicker, snicker.

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