Astronomy vs Democratic Dogma

The traditional view of dogma, such as the Catholic Church’s eternal mission to stamp out scientific progress that undermines its authority, is one that focuses on monopoly power. If I hold all the answers, all the keys, and all the gates, then I control everything. In Hinduism this was the Brahmins controlling knowledge of the Vedas and protecting its secrets. In economics, this is either fairly gotten IPR monopoly power, or ill-gotten monopoly power because of money, like Microsoft, or political corruption, like Reliance. But the fact that power inevitably decays and corrupts eventually doesn’t change the possibility it was initially fairly won through IPR or high-utility service rendered to a large part of the market. Consider that a heliocentric model was proposed by Aristarchus more than 2000 years ago. The problem astronomers were trying to explain was the observation of a counter-intuitive retrograde orbital motion of planets, ie normally all planets move across the sky in the same direction, except suddenly they seem to move backwards. For 11 days Mars seems to move westward rather than eastward. This is simply an illusion caused by relative motion of us on earth vs those planets. Since we move faster than Mars, we overtake Mars and for a few days it appears as if Mars is moving backwards because we view Mars against an infinitely farther away frame of reference ie the static stars, like a virtual image upon a distant screen and not actual Mars’ absolute position in the sky. Aristarchus deduced this, and required that Earth be a moving planet in a heliocentric model. This wasn’t without its problems, because now we needed to explain why all the stars didn’t shift in the sky while we moved around the sun. The only way this was possible was if these stars were infinitely far away such that parallax error was negligible. That meant this model needed not one but two fundamental assumptions about reality to change, geocentricism as well as the distance of stars and size of the universe. It’s not illogical to be skeptical of such a requirement when other models have fewer assumptions. Plus, these more conservative models don’t cause psychological distress. Either we accept a heliocentric model where stars are infinitely far, leaving us tiny insignificant dots, helplessly adrift, hopelessly alone in a vast infinite universe, or we accept Ptolemy’s admittedly clunky model that puts us at the center of creation, significant, meaningful and big. Given our personal experience of consciousness where we are indeed the center of our own universe, where other people are just 2-dimensional flat projections of our rich inner world, this intuitively seems to us far more correct, true, and also comforting, than the heliocentric model of Aristarchus. So if astronomy were a democracy, there would be no doubt that Ptolemy would have won by a landslide.

Since Aristotle, this becomes true fact, solidified by Ptolemy, for almost 2 millennia. In an uncertain world, we need certain anchors to keep our sanity hinged. Things we can take for granted, which when removed from under us would throw us into existential, religious terror. Like suddenly finding out our world is a simulation. Astronomy was that fact. Then the heliocentric model is proposed. We know the angle of the Church in wanting to preserve its power, as holders of knowledge and truth, the word and mind of God, all of which take a severe beating should they be proven wrong on something so fundamental. But suppose the Church did not exist, and all we had was a voting democracy. Consider the world-view shattering nature of such a revelation. How many people would go insane knowing such a thing as their universe was not the way they thought? In an age where not much changed, something so fundamental changing so fundamentally would be a catastrophic psychic experience.

Man has only instinct, neither dark nor light instinct. So when we say demagogues and religious fascists play up man’s darker instincts, we merely mean they play up his stronger instincts, those instincts that are sufficiently strong that he may be moved by a daimon to violence. The degree of threat, physical or psychological, needs to be very high indeed for us to be driven to violence. So if a demagogue is able to drive us to violence, then we’d do well to accept that the subject of his incitement is resonant with man’s instinct to a degree that other subjects are not. That realization has value, whether or not it is based on lies, exaggeration and emotional manipulation. Ultimately it is a sad fact that we live in a world of many many many…too many many people. Ranked on a scale of psychological resilience, many of these people will be ill-adapted to receiving the news of a heliocentric vast infinite universe, and the consequences for these people are drastic, immediate, and pitiable. Dogmatic institutions like the Church exist, at their purest version when untainted by the inevitable corruption with time, to protect the psychologically weakest members of society, with religion, God, and a merciless opposition to facts and truths that are harmful. Just as scientific dogma exists to protect rationalists who would be absolutely shattered were they to find evidence of supernatural entities.

The only sensible problem in a dogmatic world is one of contagion. Should your dogma make my life worse for me? Is your dogma made weaker by my refusal to accept it? This is why it’s so counter productive to villainize the dogmatic actions of the Medieval Church. We think we’re spreading awareness of the eternal battle between truth and corrupt close-minded dogma, and that is certainly true. But we’re also decontextualizing the softening effect of such actions and rejecting any psychological utility that they had, utility that many of us instinctively connect with even today. Especially today. Given the pace of change and the very real experienced comfort of those few ‘some things never change’ moments. A more enlightened Church might have secretly accepted the word of Giordano Bruno and quietly told him that it was too shocking and subversive to too many people, and that they’d rather he keep his findings restricted to a closed intellectual and academic community, one that has demonstrated its ability to value truth as comforting rather than to value comfort as truthful. Perhaps they realized this too. Galileo, unlike Bruno, wasn’t burned at the stake. Even though he had let the cat out the bag, all they asked was for him to publicly recant. Then his life imprisonment was immediately commuted to a comfortable life of house arrest in Florence, something every millennial backpacker would kill for. Clearly, no serious scientist or intellectual was going to take his recanting seriously, but that trial wasn’t held for their benefit, it was for the pitchfork and torch wielding peasant who could finally sleep without being plagued by night terrors of a satanic takeover in the wake of the Earth being forsaken by God, left to its own devices in some arcane forgotten corner of the Milky Way, proving that all the virtuous earthlings had indeed been beamed up to Aldebaran recently. Atheists, rationalists and liberals have the same blindspot that capitalists, globalists and technocrats do: change is desirable, inevitable and amazing, but it is asymmetric. Innovators and early adopters win, incumbents and laggards lose. A world that doesn’t appreciate a social Darwinist sensibility, one that decries zero-sum games and insists on only participating in transactions where everyone wins, is curiously oblivious to the losers of change. Losers that lie at the heart of phenomena like Trump, Brexit and radical Islam. Not all these blindspots are created equal. Globalists and social liberals are minority voices against a powerful status quo. But rationalists and technocrats are not. The 20th century has made it very clear that the balance of power has shifted from belief, faith and emotion to reason, science and technology. We’ve won (famous last words). Now to treat the other side with contempt rather than understanding, with an attempt at differentiation or alienation rather than an attempt at synthesis is just bullying. Bullying used to be fun, but then us bleeding heart liberals sucked all the fun out of it. More importantly though, it doesn’t work.

A novel insightful exercise to determine the pragmatic difference in intellectual payoff between a novel insight and an obvious fact mistaken for novel insight.

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