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Excerpt from Dreams

Well Educated Christian (p. 129)

From chapter "Science"

Sam Harris wrote, “Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is the center of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.”

Because this paragraph contains so many premises that are so central to so much of this culture’s discourse, and so central to this culture’s destructiveness, I’d like to spend some time taking it apart, not only to expose these particular harmful premises, but to model a process of deconstruction we all need to learn in order to disengage ourselves from this culture’s sticky web of harmful thinking patterns.

In this case his first such assertion is this: “Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith.”

Well, first, there’s a good chance that this “well-educated Christian” wouldn’t even be a man. Margery Kempe (who wrote the first English-language autobiography), Catherine of Siena (whose letters are considered some of the great works of early Tuscan literature), and Margareta Ebner (and her extremely thorough classical education) all say hello.

Not only is it by no means certain that a well-educated Christian from the fourteenth century would be a man, it is absurd to suggest that this person “would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith.” Meet Thomas Bradwardine, confessor to Edward III and briefly Archbishop of Canterbury. This particular “total ignoramus” was Chancellor of Merton College, in Oxford, and part of a group who developed and demonstrated the mean speed theorem long before Galileo, who has normally been given credit for it. In his book Tractatus de proportionibus, published in 1328, Thomas Bradwardine anticipated exponential growth (using compound interest as a special case), laying the foundation for the works of Bernoulli and Euler. He also did crucial work on trigonometry, and in the field of logic called insolubles, most particularly on a problem that should be near to Harris’s heart (presuming Harris has one), called the liar’s paradox.

Meet William of Ockham, a Franciscan Friar most famous for formulating Ockham’s razor, which states that an explanation should make as few assumptions as possible.

Meet Nicole Oresme, merely an economist, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, philosopher, psychologist, musicologist, and translator, as well as a counselor to King Charles V of France. Oh, yes, and he was the Bishop of Lisieux, in France. He also prepared the way for calculus, even providing a proof still taught in calculus classes. In music he mathematically described partial tones, or overtones. He wrote on acoustics, musical aesthetics, the physiology of voice and hearing, and the psychology of hearing. And did I mention that he formulated the wave theory of both music and light? He also wrote on the importance of the unconscious to both perception and behavior.

Meet Jean Buridan, a French priest who developed the concept of impetus, which we would recognize as inertia. His intellectual attacks on William of Ockham have been interpreted by some as the genesis of the scientific revolution.

The point is obvious: people are rarely unidimensional. I am no fan of Christianity, but I’ve known Christians—even fundamentalists— who can run circles around me in the areas of physics (despite my degree), chemistry (no great shakes there), geology, international affairs, herbalism, painting, acupuncture, oceanography, wildcrafting, climatology, needlework, hunting, gardening, pottery, history, law, psychology, mycology, astronomy, astrology, basketball, poker, car repair, and so on. I’ve known Christians with extensive knowledge of classical music. I’ve known Christians with extensive knowledge of literature. I’ve known Christians with extensive (firsthand) knowledge of psychoactive substances. All the same can be said for scientists I’ve known (many of whom have also had extensive theological knowledge). All the same can be said for farmers I’ve known. All the same can be said for prisoners I’ve known at a maximum security prison (some of the prisoners were deeply informed opera fans). Where we see the cliché of unidimensionality most often, and perhaps most harmfully, is when it comes to indigenous peoples who are to this day too often derided as ignorant, not having useful knowledge.

It would be absurd—and terrible writing—for me to make a serious blanket statement that philosophers only know philosophy (even when, if you define philosophy by its etymology—a love of wisdom—most philosophers I’ve known or read don’t know shit about philosophy, because they possess very little wisdom, and even less do they allow wisdom to possess them). I mean, pretend I were to write, “Imagine that we could revive a well-educated philosopher of the twentieth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of philosophy. He would surely know nothing, to take an extreme example, about homosexual sadomasochism.” If I were to write something so completely ignorant, the ghost of Michel Foucault would surely rise up to bite me in the ass. And the thing is, he’d probably like it.

This sort of thinking reveals precisely the kind of hypersimplification of complexity that allows scientific philosophers such as Harris and Dawkins (and more broadly, that allows this culture in general) to pretend the world consists of resources and not real beings. What Harris did to make his point—and if he were caricaturing in order to make a comic point we’d obviously be having a different discussion—was to ignore real-life people and replace them with cardboard cutouts, and then to treat these cardboard cutouts as though they were in some way real. This is, as I explored in my book The Culture of Make Believe, the very essence of bigotry, the very essence of objectification.