Entering the modern world

Repugnance over the violent wars of the Reformation helped to usher in the modern era. But modern thought and activity would not have been possible without a rich inheritance bestowed by the high and late Middle Ages, the age of European exploration, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.

Chinese technology had traveled west along the Silk Roads until it sparked revolutionary change in Europe. The wheelbarrow, the water wheel, and the magnetic compass all came from China. So did gunpowder. So did printing. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press in Europe, but he merely adapted technology already in use. Even so, the development of printing arguably allowed Martin Luther’s ideas to be transmitted more easily than those of Waldo, Wycliffe, and Huss, making Luther the hero of the Reformation.

Knowledge and wealth flowed into Europe from new trade routes along the coast of Africa and then to Asia, as well as into the Western Hemisphere. Capitalism had already developed from the medieval guilds and leagues and from Renaissance bankers, but trade and colonization opened new avenues of capital investment and profit. Scientific thought began with medieval philosophers. Galileo and Newton could not have been heroes of the early Modern Era without Nicholas of Cusa, Roger Bacon, and Nicholas Copernicus. These ingredients simmered together during the crisis years of the Reformation, yielding a stew of new thoughts and ideas that can only be described as modern.

Modern thought is characterized by confidence in the superiority of reason, belief in the objective assessment of data, expectation of a comprehensive explanation of whatever is being examined, and certainty of inevitable progress. All four of these have been challenged by post-modern thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; post-modern thinkers question reason, doubt that any delivery of information is untainted by subjective opinions, treat most explanations as only partial views of reality, and assess both gains and losses with every change. Modern thinkers credit science and education with the ability to improve the world and solve its problems; post-modern thinkers readily challenge science and education without assuming that they are undoubtedly right and their results will be completely beneficial.

Early modern thinkers called their time the Enlightenment. Historians reluctant to bestow such a value-laden label on those years are shifting to the term Baroque. Already used to describe music from that time (Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and so on) and painting from that time (Rembrandt and Rubens, among others), the term Baroque provides a value-free description of the time period that begins with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and continues to the American Revolution and French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

The first important Baroque philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). To encounter truth, Descartes began by doubting everything. He asked if he could be certain of anything, and proved to be certain of one thing—that someone, by doubting, was thinking. “I think, therefore I exist,” he concluded. But information was reaching his thinking mind; something else must exist outside of his mind. That something must have a source, a First Cause, a God who made its existence possible. Descartes insisted that any God who made the flow of information from an outside world possible must be good; he said it was unthinkable that an evil God would be playing tricks on his perception. (The Matrix movies had not yet been filmed.) Therefore, he could rely on his senses and learn about the world around him. Starting from himself and moving on to God, Descartes found himself living in a reasonable world.

Baroque philosophers generally conceded the existence of God, but they were careful not to define God. In fact, they insisted upon each individual’s right to encounter God and understand God in his or her own way. Reformation warfare soured them upon government-supported religion. As Luther had already been willing to separate Church and State, so the Baroque philosophers wanted the Church and the State to leave each other alone.

Their undefined God is often called the Deist God. Deists believe in a God who created the world and set all its rules; they do not acknowledge a God who interferes with the world and breaks his own rules. Scientists like Newton can study the world and learn the rules of its Creator. Nature always follows the rules of the Creator. His ethical or moral rules are just as important, and people should follow those rules. Among those rules, as listed by John Locke, are human rights: the right to life, to liberty, and to property. Governments exist to protect those rights. Governments cannot bestow them, and governments cannot remove them without good cause. Other Baroque philosophers wrote about a Social Contract in which some rights are surrendered to the government for the sake of society as a whole. But Baroque philosophers, for the most part, emphasized the need to limit governments, to allow them as little power as is necessary. The human individual matters more; governments should not be allowed to stifle the freedom of individual people.

Of course Baroque governments did not fall into line behind Baroque philosophers. The kings and queens of Europe were becoming more powerful than ever before. New wealth from the rest of the world and new technology made it possible to control more people and to battle more enemies. War did not cease with the Peace of Westphalia and the halt to religious wars. Nations now went to war against nations for purely political, economic, and nationalistic reasons. Although they did not receive Roman numerals, the first world wars were fought in this era. Britain and France and Spain and Prussia and Austria and Russia wrestled for dominance on the land and on the sea. English pirates sank Spanish ships and were rewarded by the crown. Louis XIV spent half the national treasury of France on luxury for himself (such as the palace of Versailles) and spent the other half at war with his neighbors. Enlightenment ideas were merely ideas at first; only later would they be tested in new forms of government, first in North America, and then, finally, in Europe.

Even among philosophers and scientists and artists, modern thought and modern methods were not universal across the culture. But the two sides of modern thought will require a separate post. J.

Nobody expects the American Inquisition

Galileo (1564-1642) was celebrated from 1650 to 2000 as a genius who challenged the scientific thinking of his time, using his own observation to correct long-standing mistakes in physics and astronomy. He affirmed the earlier work of Nicholas Copernicus, whose writings indicated that the earth is not stationed at the center of the universe, but instead revolves once a day and travels once a year around the sun. Galileo was challenged by church researchers who quoted a half dozen Bible verses out of context to indicate that the earth is stationary and unmoving. Galileo never said or believed that the Bible is untrue. He simply indicated that the Bible is not a science textbook and that its description of the earth remaining in place is a poetic statement, not a scientific declaration. The real challenge to Galileo’s teaching came from scientists affirming the astronomy of Aristotle and Ptolemy, neither of whom was a Bible scholar (or even a Christian). Galileo became famous for his defiance against the prevailing opinions of his day. He suffered house arrest (but no further punishment) for is stubbornness. During the modern era of western civilization, Galileo was frequently regarded as a hero who risked his safety and reputation to speak the truth, defending genuine science from its detractors.

Galileo can no longer be considered a hero. Postmodern western thought has returned to the insistence that the majority must be right and that the most prominent scientific authorities may and should tell the rest of us which science to believe and which to ignore. No doubt in another generation or less, Galileo’s name will be reduced to one of the apparently nonsense words in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody just like Scaramouch and fandango.

How else can one explain the strange ways science is being defined and practiced at the present time. COVID-19 has not been around long enough for scientists and medical professionals to know whether those who have recovered from the disease maintain resistance to reinfection—all experiments that indicate that natural immunity is acquired from infection and recovery are dismissed as preliminary and uncertain. On the other hand, vaccines developed since awareness of COVID-19 happened are treated as thoroughly tested and totally reliable. Accounts of people contracting COVID after inoculation are dismissed as anecdotal, and at the same time we are assured that those who did get sick after inoculation were not as sick as they would have been had they not received the vaccine. Those who have been vaccinated are free to go maskless, but those not vaccinated must continue to wear their masks—not for any good reason, but merely because some scientific experts say so.

In fact, it seems that our medical officials—those who make proclamations telling us how to live our lives—suffer from the same problem as the legendary man who borrowed his neighbor’s bucket and was then sued for returning the bucket in damaged condition. The accused offered a three-part defense: first, he never had the bucket in question; second, it was already damaged when he received it; and third, when he returned it there was nothing wrong with it.

Not only in medicine do we see such contradictory logic. Political science has fallen prey to the same peculiar thinking. We have been told that the Presidential election of 2020 was the fairest and least corrupt election in all of history. Statistical anomalies about the vote count must be ignored. Efforts to study voting patterns from last November are labeled as “bogus.” Americans are not to be suspicious that, given situations resulting from the pandemic, unprecedented voting results came from a few urban areas in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. In each case, community organizers were allowed and encouraged to register voters, assist those voters in applying for absentee ballots, assist the same voters in filling out their ballots, deliver those ballots to be counted, and then oversee the counting of those same ballots. These individuals, on the day that the ballots were counted, even filled in missing information on the absentee ballots that would otherwise have invalidated the ballots. In the precincts where those organizers worked, heavy vote totals favored Candidate Biden, while in all other precincts of the country vote totals resembled those of the 2016 election. Yet we are told that questioning those results is unscientific, undemocratic, anti-American, racist, and otherwise deplorable. Moreover, state legislatures that try to correct the shortcomings that have been perceived in the regulations rushed into law on account of the pandemic are likewise accused of being racist, undemocratic, and otherwise worthy of scorn, insult, and hatred.

And so it goes. I read today that true science proves that gender is a function of the brain, not of the chromosomes or the organs one possesses at birth. Fraudulent studies that affirm global climate change are gently ignored, while studies that reveal that climate change may be part of the planet’s natural cycles, may be exaggerated in the minds of some scientists and their audiences, and may even be beneficial to some environments—all these are dismissed as unscientific and unacceptable in the post-modern world.

I do not use the word “post-modern” as an insult. Many things about modern thinking bother me; many things about post-modern thinking appeal to me. All the same, if post-modern science means trusting a small elite of self-proclaimed authorities, ignoring all the evidence that contradict their claims, then post-modern science is not for me. Give me Galileo and his stubborn adherence to the facts. Genuine facts beat fake science every time. J.