Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Unorthodox thought and the ability to find refuge

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That diversity/freedom/tolerance of opinion is import to scientific and e.g. societal progress is hardly surprising—nor that the current trends towards the establishment of “official truths”, blanket* academic rejection of non-PC thought and limits on academic freedom** for its proponents, whatnot, are very dangerous.

*Because it is non-PC and irrespective of the state of evidence, arguments, etc. If a rejection took place on scientific grounds, it would be different.

**Limits on academic freedom are not in order, even when science points against an idea/theory/field/whatnot. This partly because early impressions can deceive, e.g. in that an implausible-seeming theory can be validated at a future time (as is fairly common); partly because once restrictions are allowed where they might seem acceptable, they can spread to areas where they are not acceptable. (Cf. e.g. opinion corridors and their current influence on politics and media.)

Compared to large stretches of Western history, this could involve a fatal change:

I am toying with the idea that the relative success of Western society between some point in the late middle ages and the 20th century was partially based on the ability of unorthodox thinkers or thought to escape oppression or to find an otherwise more nurturing environment. Comparing e.g. Europe and China, Europe had (a) a greater number of distinct groups with their own autonomous territory (e.g. the Italian, French, German, and Swedish areas), and (b) a much greater number of independent states (including the many German and Italian ones). This was not only a source of potentially greater diversity, of potentially a greater number of cultural and scientific centers, of potentially more literary traditions, whatnot,* but it also had the side-effect that someone with too unpopular ideas in one country or city could move on to the next, someone who woke the hostility of one ruler might make friends with another, etc. If all else failed, there was always the escape overseas, as with some unpopular religious groups. Of course, even if the individual thinker did not manage to escape, some of his books and ideas might still be available in other parts of Europe—Galileo might have been silenced, but his ideas lived on. In less dire cases, someone who failed to find sponsorship for an idea (or e.g. his art) in the one city might have better luck in another.

*On the down-side, also a risk e.g. of ideas traveling slower or never leaving the area of their origin.

A notable example is the Catholic–Protestant split: If the German emperor (or the Pope) had had the power and authority to just forbid Protestant thought, Catholicism would have remained dominant and without major competition, while the Protestant ideas might have lived on only in small and powerless under-ground movements. As is, many German rulers individually sided with the Protestant movement, there was a very major and prolonged turmoil, and both Germany and Western Europe ended up split roughly 50–50. Indeed, e.g. Sweden and England sided with the Protestant cause mostly because their respective king wanted to strengthen his own position vis-à-vis the Pope and the Church.

In contrast, Christianity once became the dominant religion in the Roman empire simply through having a Christian emperor. (And appears to later have aggressively lobbied the respective rulers when it moved into new territories.) Other attempts to reform the Christian faith or to split* from the Catholic church on a more local level might have had some temporary success, only to fail in the longer run, because there was no refuge available (as with e.g. the English Lollards).

*The East–West Schism had a very different character and very different circumstances.

Similarly, much of the great Greek progress took place in an environment of city states.

This idea is speculation, I have not gone through the (considerable) leg-work to see whether it checks out more in detail, and I have not even spent as much time mulling it over as most other topics. But: When we look at current developments, where scientists run an increasing risk of being globally condemned for having the “wrong” opinions or even researching the “wrong” topics, I feel forced to mention the possibility. What if even seemingly totalitarian, intolerant, whatnot societies still allowed progress through such escapes, while the modern, allegedly democratic, diversified, enlightened*, whatnot society will fail horribly? (This especially when combined with e.g. the strong current trends of anti- and pseudo-intellectualism in the softer sciences, an increased focus on feelings and subjectivity over facts and objectivity in public discourse, etc.)

*What passes for enlightenment today is often the exact opposite, the holding of a set of (often poorly supported) opinions and a pride in condemning everyone not sufficiently orthodox.

As an aside, the repeated use of religious examples above is not coincidental: not only are those among the most obvious—there is also a strong parallel in attitude with the current PC crowds. This includes many occurrences of a quasi-religious conviction of being right, belief without or even contrary to evidence, a wish to indoctrinate others “for their own good”, extreme condemnation of the “heretics”, and similar. Indeed, from what I have read about Galileo in the past, his treatment might originally have been met with more factual arguments and a fairer treatment than many heretics against the PC “truths”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 21, 2019 at 4:34 pm

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