Saturday, October 15, 2011

I believe it because it is absurd

Climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber is threatened with a noose while giving a lecture. (link to the video).  Are scientists our new enemies, the target of a new crusade? 

At the beginning of the third century A.D., Tertullianus, champion of Christianity against Paganism, gave us a startling revelation of the breakdown between the old and the new cultural vision. He wrote something that we remember today as, "Credo quia absurdum" that is, "I believe it because it is absurd." These are not exactly Tertullian's words, but this sentence nicely summarizes his thought. Tertullian was using absurdity as a weapon against the old paradigm. He was an apostate, a revolutionary, a subversive.

Rethinking about those ancient times, it is impressive to note how similar they are to the paradigm breakdown of our times which is often expressed in terms of what we call "conspiracy theories". Up to no long ago, the breakdown against the old cultural vision was expressed in complex and structured ideological forms: communism or socialism for instance. But what we are seeing now is nothing structured or complex. It is simply  the denial of everything that could give the impression of being "scientifically demonstrated". From chemtrails to climategate, we see the spreading of an attitude based on the concept that "if it is science, then it is a hoax." If Tertullian were alive today, his search for the creative absurdity would be expresses,  perhaps, maintaining that the planes flying above us are spreading terrible poisons over the atmosphere or that the idea of that human produced CO2 is warming the planet is an elaborate hoax designed to frighten us.

It is weird; sure. But for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist. That is true also for conspiracy theories, now and in old times. At the time of Tertullian, the material prosperity of Rome and of the Romans was often seen as the result of the favor of the Pagan Gods. When this prosperity disappeared, it was a shock: the old Gods didn't favor Rome any more. The result was a movement of ideas that saw the ancient gods as "evil," just as those people who kept worshiping them. We remember the story of the pagan philosopher, Hypatia, killed and dismembered by an angry mob. That happened a couple of centuries after Tertullian, when the break between the new and the old paradigm was not any more the domain of isolated subversives; it had become a wave of rage - a true tsunami.

Today, we find symptoms of exactly this kind of breakdown; of a tsunami of rage mounting in our society. Think of our prosperity: we tend to attribute it not to Pagan Gods but to our technological prowess. We worship the ability of scientists to create new and better machinery. We tell each other that any and every problem can be solved by scientists inventing a clever way out. Not enough oil? Let's drill deeper, invent better biofuels, create nuclear fusion in a bottle. Not enough food? Let's invent new fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, new pesticides. Pollution? Let's have new and better filters for car exhausts and incinerator smokestacks. Cancer? Soon we'll have the magic pill that cures it.

But now something different is happening, something unheard before. The scientists are telling us that there are no quick fixes for problems such as resource depletion and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That the more we grow, the more the problem gets serious. That we risk wiping out humankind from the planet by doing exactly the same things that we have been so proud of being able to do, so far. That we need to change our ways before it is too late.

It is the complete breakdown of the old paradigm. For most of us, it is totally disorienting to hear that we did everything wrong, and to hear it told by very people, the scientists, who had shown us how to do what we have been doing. That can only be seen as a betrayal and there is no wonder that the rage mounts against those treacherous, unfaithful, evil scientists. Such stories as the "Climategate" are signs of this rage. It is a terrible rage, something that cannot be explained except by the loss of a common frame of thought. It is a society that is losing the master-pupil relation. That is, losing wisdom, sapience, auctoritas.

When people lose wisdom, the easiest way out appears to them to find an enemy, Our new enemies seem to be the scientists. We haven't seen yet climatologists being lynched by angry mobs, as it happened to Hypatia long ago - but we seem to be getting close to something like that.  The rage of those people whom we call "conspiracy theorists" is still at the formless stage of denial of everything, but it may well develop in forms that we might describe as some sort of a new crusade where, this time, the enemies are the scientists. It would not be the first time that scientists become the target of political movements, from the times of McCarthyism in the US to the "Cultural Revolution" in China. Those movements eventually subsided, but maybe we haven't seen the anti-science rage appearing in full force, yet.

The transformation of the Roman Society from paganism to Christianity took centuries and involved all sorts of violent struggles until it settled into a new paradigm and a new sapience. A thousand years after Tertullian, the world saw that flowering of thought that we call scholastic philosophy; which involved rediscovering the old sapience and merging it with the new. We are seeing today the start of a new cycle and, in time, we will have to rediscover a new sapience and a new auctoritas. What we see today obscurely, as in a mirror, then we'll see face to face.

(thanks to Ludovico Pernazza for pointing out a mistake in this text; now corrected)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)