Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Spirits in the Time of Cholera

Does anyone wonder why fantastic stories like spirit-possession, giants roaming the earth, dragons, corpses rising from the dead, and various other phantasmagoria aren't widely disseminated and believed in today's world?

Is it really any wonder that all of these types of stories WERE widely disseminated and believed in a pre-historic (in an organized, methodological sense), pre-scientific time?

A team of medical scientists have just published the first serious epidemiological study on spirit possession - and its link to mental and physical illness - in post-civil war Mozambique.

It has been the epistemological and metaphysical heritage of humanity to explain natural and personal forces of nature in terms of "spirits." All sorts of supernatural beings have been postulated to explain the apparently inexplicable. The operative word here is obviously "apparently." It is my opinion that the greatest achievement of humanity has been the development of the scientific method. What used to be inexplicable has been explained - sometimes at the expense of common sense or intuition (e.g., heliocentrism, evolution via natural selection).

Broadly speaking, science is a "systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories."

Now, as one who maintains a naturalistic world-view (barring enough convincing evidence otherwise), I also maintain that the scientific method evolved along with humanity and is, of course, prone to error. As Nietzsche says in The Gay Science:

"Over immense periods of time the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species: those who hit upon or inherited these had better luck in their struggle for themselves and their progeny. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited, until they became almost part of the species, include the following: that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in itself. It is only very late that such propositions were denied and doubted; it was only very late that truth emerged - as the weakest form of knowledge."

Elsewhere Nietzsche comments on the origin of logic, which is a staple of the scientific method:

"How did logic come into existence in man's head? Certainly out of illogic, whose realm originally must have been immense. Innumerable beings who made inferences in a way different from ours perished..."

All this being said, almost everyone today agrees that "error" has been phenomenally reduced throughout the history of humanity. We not only have well-understood and demonstrable explanations for those things that made enormous emotional impacts on early humans (e.g., natural forces like thunder, lightning, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.), but also for things that the vast majority of us have neither a need nor desire to understand (e.g., quantum physics, etc.).

As a side note, I have to say thank goodness for the Greeks, at least the pre-socratic thinkers like Anaximander who "made bold inquiries; he questioned the myths, the knowledge of the old, the heavens, and even the gods themselves. He was wholly rational in his approach and his quest was to derive natural explanations for phenomena that previously had been ascribed to the agency of supernatural powers...His account of meteorology constitutes a most innovative proposition. Though only partially correct, it is the first recorded attempt of a scientific explanation of the weather in the history of mankind."

Tribal humans around the world today, still living in a pre-scientific, pre-historical milieu, are still given to supernatural explanations for the events and forces that impact their daily lives. But modern civilization, for the most part, has dispensed with these erroneous but understandable delusions. Most of modern civilization doesn't readily believe stories like a woman turning into a pillar of salt, or a man being swallowed whole by a whale and coming out alive, or a primitive wooden ship filled with two of every "kind" of animal - including, presumably, the dinosaurs - surviving a global, several-month-long deluge.

If only Jews, Christians and Muslims could incorporate a rigorous intellectual conscience into their world-views; then humanity could breathe a little easier, sleep a little more soundly, and feel, along with Nietzsche, that "at long last the horizon appears free to us again...at long last our ships may venture out again...all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again..."