Day 61: Monday
Good morning Zak,
Remember this post from before Christmas?
I wish I could bring you back something that would summarize what Milano means to me… There’s just something in the air here that I wish I could share with you. Cigarette smoke, smog, and then something else.
What I ended up getting you was coffee and conversation. Here in Italy, coffee is what you Americans call “espresso.” In retrospect maybe I should have gotten a different gift, since the coffee-drinking habit might kill us some day. On the bright side, it may also help us live longer…
“What is truth?” -Pontus Pilate c. 32 A.D.
The public too often disposes of facts and evidence in favor of conspiracy theories and other unfounded nonsense. In a post-truth society, science and fact are sometimes replaced by gut-feeling, superstition… and mystery.
Every year in ancient Greece there used to be this famous religious rite known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Maybe you’ve heard of it. This was an initiation ceremony for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. As any good history student can tell you, participants in this ceremony were required to… well…
We have no idea what they did. It’s called the Eleusinian Mysteries not the Eleusinian Tell-Everyones. Initiates to the cult were required to keep its practices a secret, and they remain a secret to this day.
It’s easy to understand why people were attracted to this sort of thing—it’s about connection. I mean, secrets can be a lot of fun. They can bring people closer together. As a case and point, take our blog’s secret peer review process for unusual uses of spoons. It’s nice to be a part of a small community that shares certain exclusive knowledge—even if that knowledge is of no real consequence.
The scientific community is like that. It has its secrets I mean. Only scientists really understand why we believe humans evolved from fishes, or how the entire universe once fit into a mass the size of a golf ball. As a layperson, I don’t really have access to all the data and methods that lead to those conclusions. But Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and other public pundits insist that I adopt these beliefs and the ideologies that accompany them as an article of faith. Faith in a method and process that I do not see.
Speaking of faith, it might be worth pointing out that the modern English word “pundit” comes from the Sanskrit paṇḍita—a Hindu pandit is a priest or wise-person.
The gradual dogmatization of science has begun to cause us problems. Whenever philosophical opinion gets presented as scientific fact, it undermines faith in the objectivity of the field as a whole. Needless to say, this is starting to have very negative consequences…
But the biggest problem with the cult of science has nothing to do with politics. In my view, the main issue is much more personal—it’s about connection. Unlike traditional cult mysteries, the secrets of science don’t bring people together; if anything they do the opposite. The founders of the new religion have failed to consider some very fundamental questions: where are the faithful supposed to gather? what rituals will they perform together?
“And if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, […] but have not selfless love, I am nothing.”
Those are not rhetorical questions; they represent the main syndrome of our society. If we solve the connection crisis, if we figure out how to have meaningful human contact in the Age of Information, a lot of the symptoms we’re experiencing will start to go away.