History tends to have a bittersweet taste when probed with hindsight. I was reminded to this uninteresting truism when I was checking a website out which is famous for its New Year questions. At the beginning of each year, Edge.org’s John Brockman asks the brightest people on the planet a question and collects their answers in his site. This year’s question is “What will change everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” and you can read the offered answers here (previous years’ questions’ are here). Responders include some hefty figures; Susan Blackmore is still fighting the good fight for the idea of memes and now temes, David Buss says we will all be exploited, Rodney Brooks ponders on how a life form found on Mars would change us, Richard Dawkins adduces one of his most underrated coinages, namely the tyranny of the discontinuous mind, and forces us, once again, to let go of the idea of essentialism of fixed species and come to terms with the logical conclusions of evolution, Sam Harris thinks mind reading by neuroimaging will reshape our legal and moral systems (whereas I, for one, remain agnostic till I see the other end product of this arms race), Lawrance Krauss makes a good gut-based case that in 50 years time a nuclear weapon will be detonated over a civilian population. Someone even suggests that the proof of the Riemann Hypothesis will change everything. Boy, if only. Well, this question is wee bit too sophisticated for my uninitiated credentials so I let my thoughts to lead my other thoughts astray, and started to wonder something else, how did the concept of ‘change’ changed recently? To sort this out, we shall have to change our current context utterly (note the irony) and embark on a brief journey to pre-Revolutionary Paris.
When David Hume, an 18th century British empiricist, paid a visit to Baron d’Holbach’s (the first self-proclaimed atheist in Europe, with his book The System of Nature) famous salon in Paris in 1762, where the most prestigious gatherings of the time were held with mind-bogglingly esteemed guests like, say, pretty much every contributor of the Encyclopédie which was a significant precursor to the Revolution, he reportedly (reported by Diderot, no less) told d’Holbach that he did not believe in the existence of atheists and had never seen one with his own eyes before (to which d’Holbach replied: “Well, here you see 18 of them at one glance, although to be sure, 3 of them didn’t quite make up their minds”). That denial of their ontological status must have caught the diners off guard (I can dimly see the ‘Are we sure this is the Hume?’ expression on their faces) but indeed the first out-and-out atheist work in Britain, presumed to belong to a Matthew Turner, was published some 20 years after that encounter at the salon and was destined to be a low profile one at that, so there is a good chance that Hume was sincere, if not prudent and seemly, in his observation. This anecdote has also an ironic ring to it because Hume himself came pretty close to being an atheist by professing, mainly via his characters in his dialogues, a vigorous scepticism towards Christianity and assaulted a head on criticism to its many aspects like problem with miracles and flaws in argument from design. His position would clearly be classified as a non-believer in modern context; he rejected the notion of soul, even had some unconventional things to say about ‘the self’, which was thought to be a sign of divine projection, and invoked an uncompromising empiricist approach towards all existence, all being the hallmarks of contemporary atheism. But Britain of the time was not the most ideal place to utter, let alone profess, the ‘A’ word in public. People were still hanged for blasphemy (see Thomas Aikenhead of Edinburgh, like Hume) and for that reason, Hume even refrained from admitting the authorship of his masterpiece, A Treatise of Human Nature, until his death year of 1776.
Everyone could sense that there was something in the clerical air. Philosophical ideas were more than ripe to pose a serious threat to religious institutions, that a fool could see. But the factual understanding of the world around us was yet to be provided by science and its methods. There still was plenty of job for a deity to perform in terms of natural deeds and that gap in our knowledge formed the first and foremost defensive rank of the clergy, and seemed unassailable. In particular, the light that needed to be thrown to the nature of man and its origins, the resolution to ‘that mystery of mysteries’ had to wait for a certain Charles Darwin to drop the bombshell in an otherwise barren1 November 24th of 1859. So, until that day arrived, the members of the established religions were not quite in a conciliatory mindset we see today, and understanbly tried to stand their ground as long as they could. So, for lack of proper epistemological tools to discern facts from myths, the path from fully-fledged theism to mainstream atheism was proving to be a perilous one and it had to be foreshadowed by milder forms of belief. Deism was one keen alternative, where the idea of a deity was preserved but the roles of him were not, other than to set all reality going obviously. Its founding fathers included names like Richard Carlile, G. H. Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh, who are long forgetten but they played essential roles in paving the way to turn the works of more prominent deists like Thomas Paine (an important figure to carry these blissful ideas to then newly formed USA) and Richard Owen, to what can now be sensibly defined as atheism. These ideas, like in post-revolutionary France, were no more intellectual curiosities of upper class elites but were getting due attention from middle and lower classes as well. From that, accompanied with the exponential advances in physical, biological, technological sciences, it wasn’t a far cry for informed people, not just of any one country, but of earth as such, to not feel the need to invoke the god hypothesis for any version of the god of the gaps. The human race, at last, had answers aplenty to the aged old rhetorical question, “how can X happen without a designer?” The answer turned out to be “Look it up on Wikipedia!” (Who knew? At least it’s not 42, eh? The link, along with the vast majority of other links in this post, is also from Wikipedia.)
And here we are today. Even this brief sketch of the state of affairs of previous couple of centuries, which holds more than true for every other single century of our evolutinary past, offers an amazing contrast with our modern perception of the world. Everything happens just too fast. Well, of course, we all know this, and I’m in no position to dissect the social or psychological common denominators of this shared rush of metamorphosis, nonetheless the mere fact that I get to do and see and listen and feel and make others feel and meet and learn and inquire and understand lots of cool things and people and ideas and concepts and hidden truths that Hume wouldn’t even dream of, is more than enough for my purposes. We don’t have to wait countless years to witness the rise and fall of doctrines, trends, nations, ways of thinking. I couldn’t have written or gathered a fraction of this post, and couldn’t offer you a chance to read, were we to live in a previous age. In fact I strongly doubt that I would be anything more than a peasant if the flux of information that today I take for granted wasn’t so readily available to my disposal. Hume may not have seen a single so-and-so in his life (never mind the unimportant fact that his so-and-so happened to be an atheist), but you and I, in avarage pretty mediocre people, are entitled to the chance to see innumerable so-and-sos at one glance. ‘Change’ seems to be the operative word underlying everything that’s happening around us (it even got a presidential nominee elected for pete’s sake). I, for one, can barely stomach the idea that it feels like a gazillion years ago since I, like everyone else, last used ICQ as a means of communication, when it cannot have been farther away than the turn of the century! Makes you wonder, what will be the facebook of, say, 2013? (Hume would be so proud of me if he knew that I wasted my cognitive and technological resources in facebook, wouldn’t he?)
1 This isn’t my claim, it’s the unintended claim of the president of one of the leading scientific institutions of Darwin’s time, Linnean Society (named after the great taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus) and marks a marvelous miscalculation on his part. The story is very telling (in more than one way) and calls for a digression.
An underappreciated fact about the origins of modern biology is that, Darwin was actually the co-discoverer of the idea of evolution by natural selection. Another Englishman, Alfred Russell Wallace, independently came up with almost identical ideas that of Darwin’s while working in Malay Archipelago (and never mind the ambiguity provided by Wikipedia when it tells you that Wallace was a Brit. He was born in a town which now belongs to Wales but was formerly an English town and he was raised in England. He was English, not that it matters). At that point (1858) Darwin was the leading naturalist of Britain and so Wallace sent a short overview of his conclusions to Darwin for evaluation. Upon reading (and judging them to be right) Darwin was devastated to see that his life’s work was not as original as he thought and didn’t know what to do. He was then postponing the publication of his work for 20 years now, for fears of its social and religious implications. His close friends, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker urged Darwin to publish a joint paper with Wallace and they arranged a meeting at the Linnean Society, in July 1st of 1858 (note that Origin of Species would be published more than a year later). Wallace’s letter to Darwin and Darwin’s communications with Hooker and Asa Gray were read at that meeting (which you can read here). It was, in retrospect, perhaps the most important scientific occasion of all humanity. But, at the end of that year (and here comes the miscalculation) the president of the Linnean Society uttered the following unforgettable words:
The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.
Talk about a blasphemy! The guy must be burning in a scientist’s hell for rankest scientific heresy.
By the way, both Darwin and Wallace were true gentlemen and were influenced by the works of same scientists (namely Thomas Malthus, English demographer known for his ‘catastrophe’ and his studies on exponential growth of populations which couldn’t be sustained with inadequate resources (and that idea lies at the heart of natural selection) and previously mentioned Charles Lyell, founder of modern geology, whose works on the correct age of the world gave Darwin and Wallace much elbow room for their slow mechanism of evolution to function properly). The two remained in close correspondence throughout their lives with growing mutual respect. Darwin even gave credit to Wallace in the very first page of The Origin Of Species for his independent discovery, even though he didn’t have to (Darwin’s compilation of data was far more detailed and robust than Wallace’s). Their only (well not quite, see also sexual selection and search for Wallace) cause for disagreement seemed to be over whether natural selection applied to human mind and consciousness too, whetver they evolved via slight modifications from lower configurations just like any other organ or not. Wallace thought it didn’t, Darwin thought it did, and even resented Wallace for lessening the explanatory power of natural selection and told him: ‘you are killing our child’.