HOW NOT TO BE A GOLDFISH.

 

 

If any of us 21st century first world sybarites were to wake up in 13th century Castleton, we would have to be very careful indeed about what we said and how we behaved. Just find out what happened to Frances Bacon - or Galileo when they challenged convention.  Bacon was alive in the 13th century, the period in which Castleton was becoming a viable town, so he is ideal for finding out what the medieval mind was capable of, in the right circumstances.    

 

After spending all of his family fortune on thinking; or at least, in procuring the means by which he could think, he did the next best thing, and entered a monastery.  Bacon was interested in finding a reliable procedure for determining truth, in an age of superstition and magic.  He would have hit it off with Paul Daniels straight away.  His ideas made progress, and we have developed, and then used his scientific method to advance technologically. 

 

People in medieval times believed stories which would not be accepted by a 10 year old today.  More than one church could claim to hold the specific remains of a saint, and yet pilgrims still venerated these dubious remains.  Superstition was woven into everyday events and tales of magic abounded.

 

But this information is beside the point.  Had we popped up in Castleton with a file full of debunking facts and diagrams, it would have made no difference.  It was the belief that was important, not the substance at which it was directed.  In our tidy rational way, we like to attach a label to any improvement that belief might have had.  The placebo effect  sounds nice and technical, though it could be called  the Beryl effect for all the explanation that the label provides. Placebos can work, even if that only means that they change the mood or attitude of a person to an unchanged situation, though just a change in attitude alone can lead to better health.  Interestingly, Roger Bacon also recognised psychosomatic cures, but the word would not then have been used in the dismissive, "not scientific" way it is today.    Science is supposed to set aside belief, though self belief still seems to be allowable, even to the scientific mind, possibly because it might be measured by wealth or status. Any effects that the mind might have on the body are still not wholeheartedly accepted by science, despite the measurable effects of meditation, for example,   

 

Today we inhabit a technological world.  Our machines are operated by the everyday logic that we build into them.  We are so used to doing things in a rational sequence, like driving, that we do not realise what a structured society we inhabit; and all due, indirectly, to the systematic thinking of scientific method.

 

There are limits to the application of this rigour to the complex, verging on chaos, world of real human beings.  If we push rationality too far, it becomes as daft as a panto in June.  Take 200+ mph supercars for example.  They are awesome machines, engineering masterpieces, even  works of art, but a means of transport .....?

 

Medieval people did not have much information to help then discriminate between fact and fantasy, so when Bacon was told a travellers tale about the Basilisk, a creature that was supposed to kill with it's malevolent stare, and was conjured up by a spell, he merely passed it on without comment. Bacon knew about magnetism, and the attraction of the earth to objects had been puzzled over since classical Greek times, so what seemed to be action at a distance might also have explained the basilisk's scary power. There was just not the information available to give a clear picture of reality.

 

Even in our world of instant data, we often have to use our extensive knowledge to take a chance on one of several fuzzy options, like we still do when we vote.  It remains a question of balance between reason and belief.      

 

There is one similarity between medieval society and our own which are hard to spot.  Like goldfish in a bowl, we don’t recognise the medium in which we exist, but cultural taboos are still with us.  In the medieval world it was all too easy to transgress the religious norm and commit heresy.  Religion was accepted, even by Bacon as an absolute, just a part of science.  Now it seems a bit naff if you are openly devout.  In case you are wondering, I am not "religious".

 

About twice a year, that dogged and fervent bunch of well known evangelists appear at my door.  Perhaps they drop from the sky.  I always invite them in, and they stay for up to an hour. They try to justify faith with science, but what is wrong with plain subjected belief, if you are mindful that it comes unstuck when projected out to, and imposed upon the rest of the world.  Medieval people could not have been so aware.  The bible was not available in English, and most of the commoners could not read anyway.  The word was given by the clergy, and in that hugely uncertain world, it was taken as  true and I am not sure that they would have questioned the existence or value of belief at all.      

 

The new orthodoxy is scientism, and we pay homage with our conversational qualifications, and it is now us who are oblivious of our servility.  Scientism may be a tyrannical ruler, but without science and technology we would still be nasty and brutish, and just a tad shorter in stature.  I can hardly wait to see what happens next, but I suspect that it may not be wholly mechanistic or tangible.  See Evolutionaries reference in notes.    

 

Scientists are supposed to be detached observers, just taking notice of what is happening, without making a judgement on whether it is good or bad.  It's a slippery requirement, and I can remember when even a Prof of Biology got quite agitated in a religion and science debate.  We could usefully apply non judgemental observation to what is going on in our own heads, and that is where the trendy practice of mindfulness is creating new perspectives. . It is being taught at a Welsh university, and developed at Oxford.  I think is a sign of continuing advances in perception.

 

There is an interesting and unexpected mention in Brian Clegg's biography of Bacon of Nobel prize winning scientist Prof Brian Josephson's research into the link between mind and matter at Cambridge University.  A good deal of his work is investigation into phenomena like telepathy, etc. in which I have zero interest, but what did grab my attention were his comments on cultural bias.  He is a heretic, and is attacked for his honest experimentation.  Bacon would have been sympathetic. .   

 

There are plenty of books criticising science, and predicting it's end, and they make a very good point about the affordability of discovering less and less at the frontiers.  But when I read about the awesome developments, like nanotechnology, that will transform lives out of recognition, science seems like an exercise in revision and gap filling.  .    

 

So we would feel all adrift in Castleton, a place of gossip and improbable tales.  I think we would find it exasperating and puerile.  We would soon have been talking at cross purposes, the meanings of the 21st century may not have been transferred intact to the 13th.  The Middle Ages unlocked by Polack and Kania says that "it is therefore essential not to assume the Middle ages shared similar world views and concepts to those we have today ".  An example of this that I found revealing is in the book by John Horgan.  He had been struggling to understand an ancient Greek text on motion in nature, when he realised the writer had even considered the change in the colour of the setting sun to be motion.

 

After writing all of the above, I have just discovered a source of information that goes into this in even more detail. It's not just a book, more a course in the workings of the modern mind in comparison to the pre industrial ways of our ancestors.  It is a fascinating, and sometimes difficult read, but it needs a blog to itself.

 

How things have moved on ......

 

CARW 

Count me out for a visit to Castleton, their jails are not very nice.        

 

 

NOTES

 

Roger Bacon: The First Scientist by Brian Clegg.

Kindle edition - the dangers of medieval life are brought home in this biography .

 

The Middle Ages Unlocked by Dr. Gillian Polock and Dr. Katrin Kania. Kindle edition

 

The End of Science by John Horgan Kindle edition - very readable.

 

Brian Josephson's home page is at: www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~bdj10/    - A bit X Files for me.

 

Evolutionaries by Carter Phipps. Kindle edition. The rationally made future will be good, if the vastly larger aspects of existence, outside science, are developed.

 

Two highly optimistic books on nanotechnology are The Engines of Creation and Radical Abundance both by K. Eric Drexler.  Engineers had to be positive about their life work, and Drexler was derided for Engines of Creation.  Anyway, his solution is a bit like buying a socket set to fine tune an orchestra - something creative is needed in addition.  Unless you have a blind belief in technology....

 

CARW.  

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