Friday, July 25, 2008

Longing to Know Versus the Comfort of Ignorance

In 1615 “His Holiness and the Most Eminent Lords, Cardinals of this supreme and universal Inquisition” declared that Galileo had “rendered (himself) vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy” and commanded him “to abjure, curse and detest the said error and heresies in our presence.”
Galileo’s “crimes” were:

1. “Making the proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.”

2. “Making the proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous of faith.”

Wielding the authority of their offices, the Pope and the Lords of the Inquisition decided, in essence, that Galileo had strayed from virtue into vice when he abandoned the scriptures and instead heeded his own observations and calculations. It was at this point that Galileo’s curiosity became “unlawful” as well as “disordered and immoderate.” Of course, it also led him to the truth.

This is no isolated instance. History is stuffed full with example after example of authorities declaring highly creative curiosity “disordered and immoderate” whenever it frightened them or threatened their interests. Consider just the history of medicine. Here are a few of the many vital medical interests that were originally regarded as disordered and immoderate:

• The structure and function of the human body.

• Inoculation.

• Vaccination.

• The germ theory of disease.

• Anesthesia.

In these and hundreds of other instances, Big Brother used the equivalent of Orwell's Thought Police and the Ministry of Truth to try to wipe out unwelcome curiosity.

What would remain should the enemies of curiosity succeed? Ultimately, we would be left with what George Orwell describes as "a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting - three hundred million people all with the same face."

There is an essential tension between a longing to know and the comfort of ignorance. The ignorant intuit that the glue that holds their world together is soluble when immersed in inquiry. So, given half a chance, they act to wipe out that threat by stifling the search and condemning the searcher.

To similar considerations see

No comments: