A New Reformation?

This article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is very insightful, with regards the way informational environment has been changing in face of technology.   The analogy to the Reformation, in particular, is spot on.

If you have been following my posts, you’d have discovered that I am absolutely fascinated by the history and philosophy of science, and the whole process of epistemology in general (I call this a process since, it is essentially a theory of probabilistic–not statistical–learning and unlearning in the abstract.) and have been very critical of the Whiggish interpretation of the history of knowledge, where people consistently get more and more enlightened.  Almost invariably, new ideas that become fashionable in an allegedly enlightened era are grotesquely twisted, overly simplified versions of the original that claim to be capable of doing great and practical things: Mesmer, not Lavoisier, was the ultimate science hero of Enlightenment Europe, if only because the masses, even those who fancy themselves educated and knowledgeable, cannot tell between spurious nonsense and real science–especially since real science is almost always circumstantial, conditional, and uncertain–No scientist actually should “believe” in science.

Science establishment, in other words, is necessarily “conservative.”  It is necessarily skeptical of new ideas and odd phenomenon, although, in principle, not necessarily dismissive.  Cardinal Bellarmine, one of the churchmen presiding over the trial of Galileo but also a learned scientist in his own right and a personal friend of Galileo, in many ways, exemplified the ways of science establishment:  he was willing to accept that Galileo’s argument could make good sense, but that the latter didn’t have much evidence to support his argument to be sufficiently convincing.  This, of course, is echoed by the Catholic Church’s view of witchcraft prior to the Reformation:  weird things happen, but it’s not a big deal.

The trouble, of course, is that the Reformation was not just an isolated event.  It coincided with a great deal of other challenges to the existing body of knowledge, literally from all quarters.  The great era of discovery where Europeans saw distant worlds where the rules of universe that they thought they knew did not apply was unfolding at the same time.  The idea of “progress” was born out of this millieu, along with the realization that the establishment did not know all the answers.  That, for the sake of science, was a good thing.

In this context, it is the establishment intellectuals, both the left and the right, who are acting as the agents of the Counter-Reformation.  Modern day wonks, in a sense, are reprising the role of the Jesuits and the hunt for “fake news” takes on a role not unlike the Inquisition–which, given the anti-Catholic millieu that the modern day Western intellectualism grew out of, strikes me as deliciously ironic.  They are defenders of the intellectual status quo, of the theories that are true because they should be, and we don’t have good explanations for that which we cannot understand–even if we can see them.  To be fair, I’m an admirer of the Jesuit Order and not especially respectful of the Mesmer-like lunacies that grew out of Reformation and other intellectual movements (I’d written about Thomas Muentzer in an earlier post–an actual example from the Reformation Era). But it is also true that Reformation did end the central role played by the Catholic Church as the locus of Western intellectual development, as the Catholic Church no longer offered the foundations of the “theories” that the West would understand the universe.  (One could point to LeMaitre or Mendel as the counterexamples, but they were churchmen by job, and their “science” had nothing to do with the Church.  Indeed, LeMaitre was very insistent that Church has nothing to do with the science–God is not a theory, he said, while all of science is a theory, he might have added.)

We have discovered, proverbially, a whole new continent whose ways we are finding unfathomable:  Trump and other weirdness, like LePen, Brexit, and others.  The old conflicts, like the crusades at the time of the Reformation, may still be continuing–the conflict between the establishment liberals and conservatives, may still continue.  After all, even as the Reformation was unfolding, the Catholic Europe was still fighting against the Muslims, now in the form of the Ottoman Turks across a geographical scope much broader than before:  the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and even the Indian Ocean.  Yet, these were side shows to the greater sweep of European history in retrospect, except in some parts of Europe.  The old political conflicts may not exactly be irrelevant just yet, but making sense of the new discoveries, so to speak, will supersede them in importance doubtless.

Will this be more liberating, or will this be more disruptive, I wonder.  The effects of the Reformation were mixed:  Luther and Henry VIII, among others, were themselves deeply conservative and did not care to disrupt the existing order of things too much.  Leibnitz and Newton, despite being from Protestant parts of Europe, did not cut themselves off from the Catholic parts of Europe.  Catholic theology was reformed as much as that of the Protestants’ precisely because the Catholic churchmen did not refuse to address the theological and intellectual challenges that the Protestant thinkers were raising.  If the wonks today do not insist too much on burning Protestants instead of listening to their arguments, this might lead to interesting developments.  But the Thirty Years’ War, for all the progress in the aftermath thereof, was  a destructive, deadly conflict.  This is likely where we are headed in not too distant future.  May the conflict be only proverbial, fought only in words, and not actual.



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