Monday, October 10, 2005

How to Survive a Natural Disaster and Be Somebody, Part One

Yesterday on his radio program, Michael Medved had on Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who made the provocative (but actually obvious) assertion that people in Judeo-Christian cultures are much more likely to survive natural disasters such as the earthquake a few days ago in Pakistan. For example, several years ago there were earthquakes of identical magnitude in Iran and Paso Robles, California. In Iran, some 30,000 souls perished, whereas in Paso Robles, only two unlucky victims lost their lives.

Lapin's point wasn't that God somehow favors Christian nations and punishes Muslim or pagan ones. Rather, it was that only in the Christian West was there the development of science and advanced technology, and with it, the ability to deal with the ravages of nature--floods, earthquakes, fires, famines, plague, etc. Local officials may have been inept in dealing with Katrina, but one can well imagine how many thousands would have died under the same circumstances in a second or third world (or non-protestant Christian or Jewish) country.

The sociologist Rodney Stark has written a fascinating book that touches on this topic, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch Hunts, and the End of Slavery. He marshalls the most recent scholarship disproving the cliche that Christianity was at odds with science, and shows instead that it was essential for the rise of science.

Put it this way: the scientific revolution occurred just once, in just one civilization--something like 99.98 percent of all scientific inventions and discoveries have occurred in western Christendom. Everywhere else, science either never appeared, or it petered out after some initial advances--for example, in China and the Islamic world. And the reason science could not be sustained in these civilizations is specifically religious.

Judeo-Christian metaphysics facilitated science in several unique ways. Remember, the practice of science is based on a number of a priori assumptions about the world that cannot be proven by science. Rather, they must be taken on faith--indeed, it would not be going too far to say that science is based on a foundation of revelation.

In short, Christianity depicts God as a rational being who created the universe in a rational, predictable, and lawful way that is subject to human comprehension. In other words, science is based on the faith that the world is intelligible, that human beings may unlock its secrets, and that doing so actually brings one closer to God. (Bear in mind that I am attempting to condense 100 pages of detailed evidence and argument into a paltry couple of paragraphs.)

Only does Judeo-Christian metaphysics posit the doctrine of God creating the universe "out of nothing" at a specific point. Images of God in non-Judeo-Christian religions are either too irrational or impersonal to sustain a scientific world view. Rather, they posit either an eternal universe without ultimate purpose or meaning, or an endlessly recurring one that either goes nowhere or is subject to decay.

Although there is profound wisdom in Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics, it really could not sustain science, because it regarded the world as unreal--as maya--and taught that the best way to deal with this was liberation or escape into samadhi or nirvana. This dismissive attitude toward the material world prevented development in India for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks are not really responsible for the rise of science. While they had a lot of speculative theories, they never developed any way to empirically test them. In fact, Plato thought that it would be foolish to try, as the material world was subject to constant change, and truth could only be found by ascending to a timeless realm where the eternal forms abided.

Likewise, Islam cannot really be regarded as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Although science began to develop at the outskirts of Islam, it was eventually stymied because the attempt to formulate natural law and general principles denied Allah's absolute freedom to act in an arbitrary manner on a moment by moment basis. This has led to the stultifying fatalism that pervades the Islamic world, since Allah does what he pleases, and it is blasphemous to try to comprehend his ways.

In part two of this post, I will focus on the remarkable psychological transformation in human beings that was facilitated by the Judeo-Christian tradition and the rise of science: the mysterious and unprecedented development of the modern self in a vertical dimension perpendicular to history. We take this self for granted, but, like science, it developed to its fullest in ony one place and time, and one of the world-historical tasks before us is to generate the conditions that allow this psychological development in other, non-Judeo-Christian cultures.

In reality, geographical space is developmental time: different cultures achieve different levels of psychological development, and get stuck there. There is a historical precedent for success in this area. For example, we succeeded in vaulting the Japanese out of their developmental stagnation in a tribal group-mind, and now we are trying to accomplish the same thing in the Islamic world.

Historically, wars have been fought over territory and resources. Now the human mind is the turf, and the battle is being waged on a vertical dimension in order to "colonize" as many noggins as possible. In other words, our task in the "war on terror" has nothing to do with land, oil, or territory per se, but with the inevitable problems caused by a more primitive mode of psychological development that has access to weapons that, on its own, it could never have developed (because of its primitiveness). This is a war between different levels of psychological development.

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