Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Hazards of Scientific Thinking in a Religious Society

This fascinating paper by Alper Bilgili illustrates the challenges faced by those trying to assimilate modern scientific indeas into cultures with a fundamentally faith-based outlook. The paper also gives a good, if rather sketchy, summary of the history leading to the formation of the Turkish republic.

I think that the main point illustrated by analyses such as these is that the modern "scientific" outlook developed in the West during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and subsequently spread to other modern societies, is a uniquely remarkable and fragile feat of psychosocial emgineering. It does not come naturally to human societies, which are invariably invested in mythologies, origin stories, religious orthodoxies and cultural traditions. The principle of discovering truth through purely material investigation is difficult for societies to accept en masse because it clashes with the normal basis of human mental orientation, which is affective and experiential rather than material and analytical. Even in Western societies, after centuries of conditioning in secular scientific ideas, it is easy to sway large parts of the populace toward anti-science attitudes such as climate change denial by appealing to emotion. The challenge is infinitely greater in societies where faith remains a bedrock of identity, and where words such as "secular", "materialist" and "rational" are easily equated with a heretical mindset. And yet, changing minds in precisely such societies is the most urgent need of humanity today.

Of all the things going on in the world of science, the work on elucidating the material basis of mental function is perhaps the most important in this regard. As we understand - and make clear to the non-scientific public - that mental phenomena regarded as transcendental or mystical can be explained and, very importantly, manipulated by purely material means, attitudes may well change - though recent experience with vaccines should inject some caution into this calculation.

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