A Vigil for the Intelligent

Posted: August 6, 2014 in Histories & Auguries

The Arabs brought us Arabic numerals, without which we would not have developed all these wonderful creations in science, business, and technology. The Chinese developed gunpowder, which would irrevocably revolutionize the means of destruction on this planet. Centuries later, German physicists at the University of Gottingen formed the intellectual core of quantum mechanics, which gave us transistor radios, television, computers, and the Internet. So what do all of these cultures have in common?

Each of these milestones came from civilizations that went through periods of dramatic upheaval, at some point or another.  The Islamic Empire of the Arabs crumbled into several nation-states, reverting back to their tribal sensibilities. This feudal mentality persists today, as seen in intermittent conflict in the Middle East. China morphed from Empire to Democracy, then Totalitarianism, all in less than a generation. Germany brought itself to the brink of annihilation after two catastrophic World Wars. Yet Germans managed to recover from their horrific past and evolve into a state of unprecedented prosperity, armed with nothing more than moxie and a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of intellectual capital (with a little help from America and the other Western powers, of course). Even China, after a failed attempt to renounce Capitalism, realized the prudence of allowing free markets to sustain a rapidly-growing economy. In terms of creativity, China still lags behind the US, Japan and Europe. However, it’s only a matter of time before it rediscovers its intellectual potential, without relying on espionage and piracy.

The Arabs have not been as fortunate. Overly reliant on oil for geopolitical influence, Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Middle East have not developed any intellectual or technological breakthroughs since the 16th Century, preferring instead to concentrate knowledge (and power) to a handful of influential elites. There have been no cultural breakthroughs since the destruction of the Turkish polymath Taqi ad-Din’s observatory in 1577. From that point on, extremism triumphed over reason in the Muslim World. Though occasional sparks of brilliance shine, Arabs have contributed little in terms of modern culture. Many have argued, rightly so, that fundamentalist elements have squelched that intellectual curiosity which blossomed at the height of the Islamic Empire’s Golden Age.

Before we as Americans get too smug in our own sense of enlightened entitlement, be warned: It could happen here, too. In fact, it has already begun. We’ve seen our share of hysteria (religious and otherwise). Indeed, Religious freedom has been one of our most cherished Constitutional rights, since the founding of the United States. But what about Scientific freedom? When do we let Reason take over, when Religion fails to provide the answers? Or place limits on religious zeal, when it starts hurting rather than helping society? We’ve made huge strides in health and welfare, that have vastly improved our standard of living. In terms of education, we are probably the most well-informed generation of our time (if not exactly the brightest). However, there is a tendency for anyone in general to take all this knowledge for granted. If we aren’t careful, we as a people will become mentally lazy. We will relegate our powers of logic to mundane cognitive tasks, and instead rely on superstitions, conspiracies, and shady authority figures to steer us towards a dark path. So far, we’ve been lucky that the forces of Reason have been able to hold ignorance and superstition at bay. Carl Sagan said as much in A Demon-Haunted World.

Think it won’t happen here? Think again. After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, superstition and fear ruled supreme.  Hypatia, a pagan mathematician of Alexandria, was murdered by a Christian mob, effectively ending of the Intellectual Era in Ancient World. Not long after, much of the scientific knowledge amassed in the great Library of Alexandria, would be burned and lost forever. Most of Europe entered the Dark Ages. It would be nearly a thousand years before the seeds of the Renaissance and the Age of Reason were sown. Thinkers such as Erasmus, Thomas More, Francis Bacon and others, laid the groundwork that would lead to Galileo and Newton’s scientific breakthroughs. The Muslims had their own equivalents, such as Al-Khwarizmi and Alhazen, both pioneers in math and science. [Ironically, it was the early Muslims who helped preserve some of the lost knowledge of the Ancients.] In the 20th Century, a combination of economic futility, despair — and one could argue, intellectual laziness — led to the rise of Hitler, and threatened to return the World to a new Dark Age. We were fortunate enough to have the numbers on our side to end the madness. If we are to prevent any more such catastrophes, we as an intelligent species much continue to exert — not just exercise — Reason, above all else. We must always remain vigilant. If we continue to preach, to live the virtues of Logic, Knowledge, and Wisdom, then fear and superstition will have no place in this world. Reason will prevail.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases


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