Friday, May 29, 2009

Feeding The Priests: Science, Religion and Society

So the NASA proposal on star formation is finished and has been committed to the great unknown of the review process. Now that's done I am reflecting on how cultures throughout history (and prehistory) have kept those charged with "truth-making" in business.

Modern society spends a lot on its scientists and there are lots of us. Some of us work on very practical applications of science designed to make people healthier, more productive and, perhaps, happier. Some of us work on big questions with no practicle applciation. Either way, in many ways science functions as a priesthood in the big mythological sense of bringing the culture a sense of what is true and real in the world and offering some control over that world.

Did other societies have as large as "priestly class" as we have? Whatever the proportion of that class relative to the society as a whole how where their activities funded? How was the culture's "treasure" apportioned to the people who were responsible for dealing with the culture's unseen truths (Gods, spirits, etc). Throughout time there have been shamans, temple priests, monastics and monasteries. Sometimes these were highly organized with great amounts of wealth committed to their development (think the churches of medieval Europe or the mountain monasteries of Buddhist china). How does our activity compare with theirs? The impulsive in both cases has similar imperatives even if the effect is very different.

We have been at this truth game for a long, long time. How is the nuts and bolts of funding the truth-makers similar? How has it changed?


  1. Adam you say "The impulsive in both cases has similar imperatives even if the effect is very different."

    But I am sorry I can't agree the impulses are similar. Truth-making is an attempt to find meaning and Truth-seeking is an expression of innate curiosity that I commented about in your previous post. Truth-making creates a closed, bounded world that contains curiosity and enhances stability. Truth-seeking creates an open-ended world where curiosity can dominate. It is unsettling and potentially unstable.

    Both are powerful imperatives in us which we both need. Which predominates is, I think, a result of environmental accident. East Asia, with its low geographical barriers and high population densities, required more consensual behaviour. This favoured a belief framework that encouraged acceptance and accommodation to the status quo. So Truth-making belief systems dominate there.

    Western Europe was the lucky inheritor of two advantages. First a geographic system that encouraged competition and lower population densities. See Jared Diamond. Second we inherited the interleaving of four valuable belief systems. 1) the Judaic concept of absolutism; absolute order and absolute law. This belief makes scientific pursuits possible. After all, what is the point of trying to uncover scientific laws if they could change unpredictably? 2) the Grecian belief in rationality. This gave us the confidence that our minds could, of themselves, uncover truths. 3) Christianity, this is the origin of our belief in compassionate individuality. This would empower individuals to seek truth. 4) Roman law and organisation. From the Romans we inherited a powerful, almost military, sense of organisation for the common good.

    Now I would maintain that the lucky confluence of geography and belief systems has led to truth-seeking dominating (eventually) over truth-making in Western Europe. And so the scientific endeavour has shot ahead in countries with European roots.

  2. @Adam- In the last comment section you referenced the article your writing on Laws Without Laws- I'd like to throw this thought out to see what happens:

    I can't see any other possibility than Laws without Laws for the simple fact that there is no reason for anything to exist; there is no law that something rather than nothing should exist. (This holds for god as well mind you.)

    Your mentioning of Unger the social philosopher made me think of another aspect of this raised by Rick Warren the author of "The Purpose Driven Life". (Hold on- I'm not equating the two. But millions of people are influenced by this book, when they should be influenced by Unger.)

    I'm bothered by the concept, "purpose driven". To me, the word purpose carries the tones of fitting into a machine- the purpose of this cog is to...etc.; this hits me as a law from law motiff.

    The word endeavor on the other hand carries the idea of inner fire; of a need to express something sensed deeply; something originating from full subjective experience. Endeavor speaks of power to create: purpose speaks of merely fitting in.

    When I witness Evolution, I'm more impressed by its qualities of endeavor than I am by our ability to parse it into mechanisms of various purposes. I think that the idea of law without law is a very apt concept.

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    1. The truths found in religion, science, and society are all means to help you find yourself. The big problem today is that science, religion, and man-made rules have become so highly organized in themselves rather than just a means to an end. Through self-understanding a person can become a part of these rules and regulations without being controlled by them. Thanks a lot.

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