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November 16, 2005

Is There a Plan?

Detail: Torcello mosaic
The Last Judgement
(click to enlarge)

The Renaissance had hardly spread its way north from Italy, when a Catholic cleric educated in the Polish university city of Krakow published his revolutionary findings indicating that the planet Earth was part of a cosmic system in which it, along with some of the other most well recognized bodies in the night sky rotated in orbit around the Sun. The theory was profoundly revolutionary because the Church to which all Western Europe belonged had decreed as doctrine over a thousand years earlier an entirely different model for the way the universe functioned. In the system allowed, it was deigned by God's infallible representative on Earth, the Papacy in Rome, that the Earth, and by inference, mankind, its inhabitants, was positioned at the very center of the universe, and that the stars, or heavenly bodies, rotated around us, while down below a place was reserved for all those who sinned against God and his representative on earth, that same Holy Roman Church.

Because Poland was far enough away and Nicolas Copernicus little known outside a small circle of astronomers, the theories published in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1541 caused little stir in the chambers of power. In fact, De Revolutionibus was not officially banned by the Church for 75 years, until the year 1616. By that time the Church's authority was being attacked on a number of fronts. In Rome, itself, the monk Giordano Bruno had to be publicly burned at the stake in 1600 to silence his espousing of views that were derived from Copernicus' work but went even beyond them.

Finally, it was a much better known man, living in Florence at the intellectual center of Italy itself, and famous throughout Europe for his philosophical and scientific findings and the refinements he had made to the telescope --in Galileo Galilei's case, it was a view of the moons of Jupiter he saw through his looking glass-- that caused a festering political crisis in Rome.

As Galileo, who had been formally silenced since before 1616 specifically for his views on the solar system, found himself aging, his patience began to run out. Hoping perhaps that his personal relationship with the new Pope in Rome, Urban VIII, once his sympathetic patron in Florence, might protect him, Galileo decided to publish on some scant assurances, cloaking as a literary satire in a work he called the Dialogue, his forbidden arguments in favor of a non Earth-centric universe. Quite unsubtly, however, he names the churchman defending the accepted Ptolemaic version, Simplicio, or Simpleton.

For his pains to bridge the various sides of the argument, the aging and ill Galileo was summoned to make the journey to Rome where he was first left to cool his heals for several months and finally to be brought back to face the judges of the Inquisition for the second and final time. For publication of his Dialogue, he is sentenced to excommunication and with it, to eternal damnation, unless he publicly renounces before "his betters" his ideas. For the humiliation that terrible act of obedience brought him, he was sentenced to live out his days back in Florence under house arrest.

In an age dominated by nautical exploration that would strategically shape the world to come, the Galileo fiasco was to prove to be a great embarrassment to the Church in its battle to win the hearts and minds of people in the countries along the Catholic Protestant divide. A critical navigation problem of the day was the determination of longitude, a problem that would require a true understanding of the mechanics of solar time. The need for a scientific methodology divorced from theology became a critical element for national prosperity and power.

If Galileo and Copernicus never  felt the need to express doubts in the existence of a divine Presence, they were all too aware of the flaws of those humans who cloaked themselves in the power of divine authority. As far as we know, neither thought there was a need to bridge the gap between the philosophy of matter and the philosophy of divinity  through the use of this newly developing system of scientific methodology based on repeatable proofs. Interestingly, it was one of the greatest and most diligent scientific and mathematical geniuses we know of, Isaac Newton, who it seems, actually tried to prove the existence of God using scientific methodology.  For the pains of nearly 20 years of secret and intense alchemic experimentation, Newton, drove himself into a state of mental breakdown, bringing him close to death.

But for the Enlightenment academics who followed, Newton's studies on alchemy were better left in the closet. It wasn't until several centuries later, in most prosperous and forward Victorian England when Charles Darwin proposed his theories of the origins and species and the dynamic of evolution, that serious public and religious backlash to scientific methodology once again flared. The idea that our species had evolved as part of a long history that led from a primordial mix up through the apes, was too much for many in the public to swallow. If Copernicus had freed them from a medieval straightjacket based on obedience and absolutions doled up by a distant hierarchy, here they preferred what they found in their own mirrors, written in their Bible and painted on church walls and chapels -- that God had created man in his own image. Darwin, it was seen, was not just challenging the religious authorities and the very text of the Bible, itself but the security of mankind's position at the top of the food chain. If evolution could bring us to this point of dominance, could it not just as easily, render us irrelevant?

Like Galileo, the acceptance of Darwin has been a hard pill to swallow for large swaths of the population. Despite all this history, today, in the country that has most prospered from technical and scientific openness, there is a concerted move to confound the spheres of science and theology. The authors of the most credible attempt, challenge Darwin's theory with something they call Intelligent Design. Its proponents seize on several gaps in Darwin's theory, mainly, that DNA, being a common component of even the simplest of life forms, appears to be possibly too complex and elegant to have emerged whole cloth from purely natural phenomenon. They argue, then, that this complexity and elegance is a sure testament of the hand of God in the creation of life process. They replace the dynamic of mutation and survival of the fittest with a celestial blueprint charted by a supreme omniscient architect.

But if intelligent design implies a clockwork universe guided by an invisible hand, as seems to be the argument, there is a much older and bigger problem that then has to be dealt with (Spinoza, anyone?). It sets the stage for the appearance of God's foe, Satan. For, if an omniscient almighty God has put into motion all aspects of the long string of geological and organic changes or mutations that continue to reshape the universe, how do we then deal with the innocent human consequences of serious natural calamities like the recent earthquakes, tsunami and hurricanes that wreak so much sorrow and suffering on vastly different  populations?

At this moment we happen to be looking down the long barrel of a threat as small as a single instance of recombination or mutation. Should it happen, as most experts believe, there will be a slight shift in the tiny clump of protein that makes up the Bird Flu virus H5N1, giving that agent the power to easily pass from human to human, as the influenzas that commonly attack us so efficiently, do. Should this occur, and hundreds of millions of people around the world are stricken and die, shall we have to believe that we are being moved by the great plan or even pawns in a great cosmic struggle between good and evil? Will we be asked to also conclude, as in those medieval times when only "our betters" knew where heaven and hell were located, that we, like the good citizens of Dover Pennsylvania, are being punished for our sins?

At least in medieval times, proven information was not available, people only knew to believe what they were told. Thrown back into ignorance, with the force of a tornado in Kansas, we don't have that excuse today.

Posted by dymaxion at 02:16 PM

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