To Open The Sky
The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
Tools To Open Minds
Let me begin with ignorance. In order to understand how to open minds, it is crucial to separate simple ignorance from closed-mindedness (which might be called compound ignorance).
On any given skill or topic, everyone starts out ignorant. We all have to learn to walk and talk. Later we learn the basic tools of civilization: the proverbial "three R's", along with many other things. Much of this learning is informal, and goes unnoticed. In an absolute sense, we all know much more than we commonly realize. And yet everyone is ignorant about something. Ignorance, by itself, is no reason for shame. I myself am ignorant about a great many things.
However, I am always willing to listen and learn. A closed mind is one that is not willing to do that, for whatever reason. That is the crucial difference. A mind which is simply ignorant does not defend its ignorance. It will accept, at least provisionally, advice and new knowledge. It is open. A mind in the grip of compound or willful ignorance, by contrast, uses a variety of tactics to ward off new knowledge. It has acquired a certain set of facts and beliefs, and it adamantly refuses to change them one iota.
Note that compound ignorance is usually selective. That is, a closed mind is not closed in all areas. For example, it might refuse to accept the evidence for evolution, but be open to the concept of intelligent extraterrestrial life. A completely closed mind is very rare, for the excellent reason that it is very hard to maintain — much like any complicated lie. (Only on Usenet newsgroups can completely closed minds be encountered with any regularity. Usenet is a special case. See The Proper Use of Usenet.)
Yet science constantly undermines intellectual frameworks. That is its job — its Prime Directive, if you will. The scientific method is by definition an open-ended process. While it has improved our understanding of nature tremendously, and will continue to do so, it will never arrive at absolute truth. This tentative nature, this lack of closure, is in fact the greatest strength of the scientific method. Some, however, mistake that strength for weakness.
Uncertainty always runs that risk. Seen in another, it suggests confusion, indecision, even cowardice — a natural invitation to dominate that other. The typical reaction if one feels uncertainty in oneself is that it must be concealed, in order to avoid those undesirable results. Even if felt but not shown, uncertainty can lead to an uncomfortable loss of self-esteem. Uncertainty, whether internal or external, has its down side. It's something everyone deals with, every day. The world is full of problems, and dealing with them can strain anyone's mental resources. We all rely on the comfort of having solid rocks in the stream of life: things which are utterly dependable, facts which are clear and true beyond question. Life, though, has a thousand ways of dealing out unpleasant surprises, knocking us out of our comfort zones. Small wonder, then, that the intellectual framework of our lives becomes so important.
Fortunately, most of us tolerate a measure of uncertainty; we can face doubt, endure contradictory facts, hold conflicting viewpoints, without our mental machinery seizing up even in part. Some, however, cannot. In some souls the feeling of uncertainty is a gnawing discomfort that they cannot abide. Information that would contradict some belief they already hold, even on a relatively abstract level, must be suppressed at any cost. This need drives them to the argument from authority: "It's true because I said so!" — the need to prescribe, rather than describe, the laws of nature. So the thing to remember about closed-mindedness is that it is a defensive position.
This dogmatic tendency to depend on the "argument from authority" arises in organized religion from time to time. In the Seventeenth Century, for example, Pope Urban VIII and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church prescribed that, based on Holy Scripture, the Earth was the center of the universe and Galileo was wrong to believe the Earth moved around the Sun. Today, we have a different prescription; or rather, thanks to our scientific understanding, we rely less on prescription and more on description. In this sense science, and astronomy and its offshoots especially, have trespassed on Heaven — in the process transmuting that concept of the immutable, incorruptible domain of God into just "the heavens" — just another part of our physical realm, a place we can travel to, if we only have the wit and the will.
Nowhere is the effect of this seen more clearly than in the seventeenth-century conflict between Galileo Galilei and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Briefly, this conflict was between the traditional view that Earth was the center of the universe (geocentrism) and Galileo's support for the theory of Nicholas Copernicus that the Sun was the true center point (heliocentrism). Galileo's imprisonment by Pope Urban VIII in 1632 thus became a metaphor for powerful, dogmatic religious authority defending the revealed truth of Scripture and suppressing the discovered truth of science. (There is still dispute on how well this description fits the historical facts. See From Galilee to Galileo.)
Whatever the precise details of Galileo's offense and punishment, there are two central facts.
The Church, of course, had a lot to lose by allowing Galileo's view to prevail. Not only the authority of the Papacy, not only the temporal power and pomp of the Vatican, but the very basis of Catholicism. So it is understandable that its elders should define heresy as any deviation from doctrine, and seek to eradicate it wherever found.
The problem with this is that religion is not science. The heart of religion is eternal, unquestioned faith; the heart of science is provisional, testable knowledge. The worlds of religion and science may border one another, but they do not overlap. A rational human may partake of both worlds, but he cannot rationally apply the methods of one within the other. That is why "Creation Science" is such a monumental joke. It is nothing but a misguided attempt to hijack the methods of science in defense of religion. It is the rhetorical equivalent to a stage magician's sleight of hand: nothing but fancy tricks. For the methods of science cannot be used to buttress religious dogma; any attempt will only succeed in marshalling the trappings of science — twisted terminology, ersatz evidence.
There is an adage that says, "You can't change human nature". Don't you believe it. On both the personal and the species levels, human nature is always changing. This is fortunate; for, were it untrue, we would still be living in caves, wearing bearskins, subsisting on small game that we, as solitary hunters, managed to kill with stone knives.1 True, human nature is complex. True, every individual manifests a unique mixture of its elements. True, many of those elements have persisted for many millennia. But consider this: What is education but the process of changing human nature?
My point is simply that learning changes behavior, and the highest form of learning changes both behavior and beliefs. Voltaire said, "Liberty is the luxury of self-discipline." He would certainly not have made this statement if he had not seen such self-discipline in operation. And how can human nature acquire the ability to discipline itself? By learning, of course.2 Absent such ability to change itself, human nature would have allowed us neither laws, nor scholarship, nor religion, nor science. The multi-level, multi-faceted, multi-national and multi-cultural society we have today, and its large population, would never have come to be.
So let no one tell you again that human nature cannot change. Yet I've just finished describing minds that refuse to change their beliefs. The next question is what factors impede such change, such learning.
A powerful one is the feeling of uncertainty. In some souls it is a gnawing discomfort that drives them to prescribe, rather than describe, the laws of nature. This dogmatic tendency to depend on the "argument from authority" arises in organized religion from time to time. In the Seventeenth Century, for example, Pope Urban VIII and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church prescribed that, based on Holy Scripture, the Earth was the center of the universe and Galileo was wrong to believe the Earth moved around the Sun. Today, we have a different prescription; or rather, thanks to our scientific understanding, we rely less on prescription and more on description. In this sense science, and astronomy and its offshoots especially, have trespassed on Heaven — in the process transmuting that concept of the immutable, incorruptible domain of God into just "the heavens" — just another part of our physical realm, a place we can travel to, if we only have the wit and the will.
Understanding the realm of the sky as a part of physical reality need not diminish either the mystery or the meaning of it. Like the late Poul Anderson, I believe that science adds to the sense of wonder. Having no Ultimate, no final answers, how can it do otherwise? Ultimate answers are and always will be the proper domain of religion. What science can do is expand our horizons; what it cannot do is declare an end to the possibility of expanding them further. A sort of prayer belongs in the scientist's tool kit: Not the religious prayer to a Diety, asking for assurance; rather a secular, provisional prayer asking for marginally better tools, for a somewhat deeper understanding, above all for strength to endure the shifts in world-view that such deeper understanding often brings. Thus the scientist's prayer — or, to use the medieval term, orison — must never be to reach the last horizon, but only to always find a more distant horizon waiting beyond the one last reached.====================
In a famous essay, C. P. Snow wrote of two cultures: science and the humanities. It is characteristic of career scientists that they know a great deal about the humanities — literature, painting and sculpture, classical music as well as history. It is characteristic of those with careers in the humanities that they know very little about science. That does not stop them from expounding on scientific matters. It is the same with many profoundly religious people — very seldom, I hasten to add, with the clergy, the trained theologians — but commonly true among the laity.
So the upshot is that if someone says "There are things Man was not meant to know", it implies either edicts obtained from a Higher Authority than Man, or special understanding of those forbidden facts. In the first case, you can question the validity of the argument from Higher Authority (that is, God). The best way is to remind the arguer that, since (as the Bible tells us) God created Man in his own image, God implicitly blessed Man's use of intellect for scientific discovery. If, on the other hand, the arguer claims special understanding of the facts he wants to deny to others, you can challenge that understanding and also ask how it is that such dangerous knowledge has not harmed him.====================
While I'm on the subject of tools that open minds, consider the one you're using now — the computer. Its principal use today is to facilitate communication. That use has spawned a whole family of careers, that can be grouped under the heading of IT — information technology.
Permit me to indulge myself with a digression into the technical side of IT. I have been and always shall be a hardware guy. I delight in assembling stereo amplifiers and other electronics from kits (and I lament the loss of Heathkit.) I have even designed and built such kits from scratch. The computer on which I put these pages together is one of a continuing series of increasingly powerful systems. Like all my computers except the very first, it was assembled from components individually chosen by me. Bear with me as I tell how I built my Kayak.
1 And we'd have a heck of a time building a mnemonic memory unit under those conditions, wouldn't we?
2 Indeed, so much of a truism is this that I had to struggle to avoid writing "How can human nature learn to discipline itself?" here.