Thursday, June 30, 2011

Old writing, never posted

The L.a. Times--February 27, 2011

An article in today’s edition refers to the dreams of Islamic North Africa creating to a new golden age. It is surprising how few Americans realize that there was a time when the best place to live within the Islamic world. Here you found the best medicine, the finest doctors, the world's premier universities, and the most tolerant society on the planet. It isn't that life was wonderful compared to today's society enjoyed by those of us in the West. But compared to the alternatives available in the world that time, the Islamic world, especially the Arabic world, was a far superior place to live.

Naturally, this fact is well known throughout the Islamic world today. Much of the hatred of the West which expresses itself in terrorism rose out of a belief that this golden age was stolen away by Western imperialism. Certainly it is true that imperialism stripped away much dignity and insulted the honor of the region, but this would hardly have been possible during the golden age. At that time, Europe was in the throes of the dark ages. It was only possible for the west to exploit the Islamic world after that world degenerated scientifically, militarily, and socially.

It seems unlikely that anyone alive when Europe was so weak and the Arabs so strong could possibly have predicted this astonishing reversal of fortune. Europe was what had been, the ruin of the richness and vigor of the Roman Empire. All across North Africa science was flourishing. Education was respected and strongly supported by society. It is natural to ask, "what went wrong?"

If you're interested in a detailed answer I suggest the book entitled, What Went Wrong? By Bernard Lewis. The answers are complex, but the pattern is rather clear. Like China, a great civilization turned inward. An inherent sense of superiority led to a contempt for the ideas found and the rest of the world. Any civilization which forgets that it had to earn its place in the world finds itself believing that its superiority is a natural law, a given, an unalterable fact of reality.

This mistaken conviction leads the deluded society into a state of rigidity. Since we are the best and must be the best there is nothing to be gained by paying attention to the rest of the world. Once a society comes to believe this it ceases to make progress, more importantly, it fails to respect the progress being made by others. Crystallized by its own sense of the inevitability of supremacy, the society ceases to move and advance. However far the rest of the world is behind this society, it now begins to catch up and in time surpasses those who were once in the lead.

It was religious extremism more than anything else, although arrogance cannot be ignored as a contributing factor, which turned the Islamic world to fundamentalism and to a sense of entitlement. Being the favorite of God, there was no need to earn a place at the head of progress. Surely this spot would just be granted.

Contrast this situation with what is currently happening in China. After decades of brutal communist repression, China is once again opening up to the rest of the world. Of course, the last time this happened, China was forced to interact with the world which they had rejected. The situation under Mao was not analogous to either of the cases I've already described above. While it's true that China under his rule was behind a "bamboo curtain", it is also true that he sought to modernize the country. His intentions were focused on science and industry rather than cultural matters, but he did much to make China into a modern nation. When Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control there was speculation around the world as to what would happen to the incredibly wealthy area. With communist ideology lead them to kill the goose that laid the golden egg? If the communists did not ban free enterprise in this area how would they reconcile that action with the collectivist beliefs which they used to justify their domination of the nation?

What happened was quite astonishing. Wealth and financial success simply could not be ignored. China needed the money and the energy of Hong Kong. The golden eggs were too valuable. Unsurprisingly, once this admission was made by the communist party, free enterprise began creeping in and spreading throughout the entire nation. Today we see a China which is undoubtedly more free that has ever been in all its history. Which is not to say that China is a free country, but by comparison to the past it is an age, at least, of hope.

So great that the changes been that the Chinese government is now strongly advocating the teachings of Confucius. Of all the counterrevolutionary ideas despised under Mao Tse Tung, the most pernicious, the most dangerous, were those of the Sage. Yet today, without any outward sign of shame, the Communist Party is doing its best to convince its citizens that the old philosopher had it right after all. It seems impossible to believe, at least for someone like me who grew up with an awareness of such extremes as the Cultural Revolution, but the government of China is now trying to pacify and please its citizens rather than simply force them into submission. I've seen much change in this world. Some of it was predictable, much of it was not. But of all the changes that occurred, the continuing democratization of the world was a change for which I fervently hoped and which I believe will continue for the foreseeable future.

There are dangers inherent in democratization, of course. After all, in a democracy the bad guy may win the election. But I believe that the world is much safer than it was and will continue to become even more so as democracy spreads. I believe the last of the great wars is over. There is simply too much to lose and so little to gain when one applies mass violence to national problems. Look at Germany and Japan today. One could argue that they have created an economic empire which reaches around the globe. Had Tojo and Hitler built their nations economically rather than militarily, that might have attained the same end without the deaths of so many millions. I hope that China has learned this lesson.

Why evolution matters

In his book, The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan expressed his concern that America was facing a resurgence of superstition which he feared would become a flood that would wash away all we have gained through centuries of scientific progress. Today, it has become, for many on the right, an acid test for Republican candidates to declare that they do not believe in evolution. In and of itself, this seems to be simply a religious opinion. If accepted at this level, the question should no more be asked of a candidate than should the question, "Do you believe in the virginity of Mary?"

However, there is a far more serious implication. The issue is not a religious one - it is scientific. What one believes in his private religious world is not important as a test of acceptability, or even eligibility for the presidency. It is only when one's religious beliefs interfere with the effective functioning of the office of the presidency that they become a valid, and indeed, essential test. Sagan's fears are well founded, not only in the intellectual and philosophical realm, but in historical realities.

The Islamic world was for centuries the highest level of civilization to be found on the planet. It was cosmopolitan, tolerant, and highly advanced in every way. Even the inhabitants of Christendom, who so hated the Muslim religion, envied their material accomplishments. Then something changed. The Islamic world began to fall further and further behind the Christian world. The civilized and cultured became the crude and barbaric and vice versa. To this day millions in the Islamic world are convinced that this is a direct result of the Crusades and a continuing western plot to destroy them and their culture.

In his book, What Went Wrong, Bernard Lewis explores the actual causes of this radical change. These causes are, of course, very complex. Nonetheless, one thing remains very clear. It was not external forces which destroyed the Islamic world. The culture, the civilization, the advancements so carefully built were destroyed by internal forces. Furthermore, the destruction was not intentional. On the contrary, the forces of destruction believed they were the forces of preservation. In the name of preserving and even advancing Islamic culture, they took actions which inevitably destroyed it.

Essentially what occurred was that the world of Islam, seeing itself so clearly superior to Europe, concluded that the outside world had nothing to offer it. They forgot that much of their culture was based on the flowering of Greece and the knowledge that those Greeks passed down. They also forgot that upon this Grecian foundation, they themselves had built a beautiful architecture of civilization by keeping open minds, by testing and exploring the world around them, and by looking to the future for inspiration.

What defeated them was not the failed Crusades. It was their own decision, made for a very complex reasons, to turn away from the outside world, from the future, and from science. Believing that they and they alone had true knowledge led them to turn inward, to the past, and to fundamentalist Islam. Once they had made this about face, they did indeed move back to the past. But the past was not the golden age of fundamentalist promise, it was instead the bog of ignorance, superstition, and self destruction. This is not to say that the West did not contribute to this decline, but the Europeans simply took advantage of what the Islamic world was already doing to itself.

As the Islamic world sank into decline, the West entered the Enlightenment. As Islam threw way Greek philosophy and objective science, the West discovered them. What had made the Islamic world great would now do the same for the Europeans.

It has been reported that there is a medical university in Egypt which teaches its students of the human body has more bones that it actually does. Why would skilled physicians teach such a thing? The answer is very simple. The Koran says that it is so, and therefore it must be so. Mere facts cannot compete with the sacred scripture. At the time of Islamic greatness, European theologians are reported to have been arguing about the number of teeth in a horse's mouth. The story says that a foolish young student suggested to his masters that he should simply go out and count the number of teeth in the mouths of the horses that the professors had ridden to the meeting. According to the story, he was severely reprimanded. Obviously merely counting the teeth could not get as accurate answer as debating the meaning of texts both Biblical and Greek. This of course, is an attitude rooted deeply in one element of Grecian philosophy, that of Plato. After all, Plato said " If we are to discuss the cosmos, we must not look at the stars." (quoted from memory)

When the West accepted this attitude, it was the West which was barbaric and backward. When Islam decided to adopt it, they began their decline. When the West turned away from this concept and began to seek objective truth, they began their rise. The relationship is not coincidental. It is fundamental.

Consider the Chinese empire. Decades before Columbus, Zheng He made magnificent exploratory voyages. At this time the Chinese empire was also great, advanced, and civilized. But it was soon to begin a precipitous decline. Deciding to turn inward, his fellow Chinese destroyed the records of the great explorer. After all, what could the outside world possibly offer to the already perfect civilization of the Middle Kingdom? To this day some Chinese still blame Western plots and other outside forces for this decline. What actually happened was that China believed that they and they alone had true knowledge… well, no need to repeat it all. Suffice to say they turned inward, rejected other cultures' knowledge, and decided that their philosophy and religion were truer than true and more factual than fact.

Both these great cultures, the Islamic and the Chinese, declined because they turned away from reality. They decided that reality was in fact an option. Furthermore, it was an option that they could do without. They decided the truth was to be based not on objective, testable, and falsifiable experimentation but on scriptures and beliefs. The results were predictable and entirely self inflicted.

This is why asking a candidate, 'Do you believe in evolution?' Is not, in fact, a religious question. It is another way of asking a far different question, "Do you believe in science?" Or to put this in an historical perspective, it is a way of asking," Do you intend to permit America to continue to be civilized and advanced, or do you wish us to begin a decline into barbarism?"

People may believe, in private, whatever they wish to believe. I do not approve of religious tests to qualify for public office. There are sets of beliefs, however, which so deeply impact the ability to make rational decisions that one must take them into consideration when choosing for whom to vote. To elect a president of the United States who does not believe that science is trustworthy, that facts are facts, and is convinced that reality is optional is to begin the decline of American civilization.