Pharyngula

Sunday Sacrilege: The active hand

The more skilled the slave, the more likely they are to break free. Where faith enlists knowledge to glorify itself, it opens itself to destruction from within.

I was watching an old documentary, and one of my favorites, The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, and one episode, The Grain in the Stone, caught my attention in particular. The whole series is about how humans developed this peculiar method called science, and it does not take the glib way out of starting with Bacon and talking about the usual superficial outline of hypothesis, experiment, and revision that you get in a basic science textbook; instead, Bronowski argues that it is central to the whole of human evolution, that what sets our lineage apart is an ongoing analytical relationship to nature.

For example, in this particular episode the focus is on something that most science textbooks would not regard as part of their purview: the importance of art and architecture in reflecting a fundamentally scientific view of the world around us. The story begins with stone tools and ancient stone cities, creations that are more than just convenient stacks of natural objects, but actually require that the material be probed and manipulated and exploited, and suggests that this is the root of scientific thought.

The notion of discovering an underlying order in matter is Man’s basic concept for exploring nature. The architecture of things reveals a structure below the surface, a hidden grain which, when it’s laid bare, makes it possible to take natural formations apart, and assemble them in new arrangements.

Dismantling and reassembling, testing ideas by their implementation, and furthering our understanding so that we can do something new…that’s not just the world of the scientist, but the world of the architect. Bronowski uses as his example the shift from the pillar-and-beam, to round arch, to the high Gothic arch and flying buttress so exuberantly exploited by the medieval church to build fantastic, open cathedrals; these changes required an understanding of the forces and the strengths in the stone, that even though the architects of those times had no way to actually calculate forces, they had an intuitive understanding of how the materials worked.

It’s a curious element of this program, though, that nowhere is it anti-religious, at no time does Bronowski come out and castigate the follies of faith, but instead he does something far more insidious. He ignores it.

He’s discussing the triumph of 12th century Catholicism in providing money and coordinating regional communities to come together and build these huge edifices that strained the technologies of the day, and religion and the purpose of these cathedrals gets scarcely a mention: the heroes are the craftsmen, the freemasons who used their knowledge and art to constantly push the frontiers of what could be done. This is only fitting. This is what lasts. The Parthenon was built as a temple to Athena, but Athena is nothing but a ghost, an empty symbol of a long-dead religion, and what stands is a monument to the skill of the builder’s hand and the art of the designer’s plan. Catholicism is not dead, but is dying just as surely as the Greek pantheon was fading, and the rotting nucleus of Christian faith is collapsing within a husk of its own construction — husks that are far more glorious and far better representative of human achievement than the noise and nonsense rattling about within them.

The church financed its own decomposition by supporting an expansion of secular abilities. Where it thought it was shackling knowledge and skill in service to itself, it was actually funding a kind of applied research into properties of the material world that would lead in time to the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution. With hindsight, we can see that the Church would have been better able to maintain its stability if it had squashed human aspirations rather than encouraging them (and we can’t deny that the church did play an important role as a central arbiter for the allocation of resources and talent in promoting a medieval expansion of thought), but religion is at the mercy of the people that support it, and if the civilization is flourishing, religion can’t help but exploit it.

But then, aspiring is what we do. It’s how we grow as a species, and it’s antithetical to religious thought. Where religion thrives on stability and stasis, science thrives on the ragged edge of the known and unknown. Whenever we push back the darkness somewhere, we are killing a little piece of god.

But it’s not just science as too often narrowly defined! We aren’t talking about people in lab coats with mysterious instruments, but anyone who explores the world. And in this episode, Bronowski highlights artists, specifically sculptors, people who do understand the hidden grain, and who take apart and rebuild new structures to express an idea. The notion that artists are subversives and heretics is completely unsurprising, but it’s also worth considering that great art is about expressing something real through abstraction, representation, deconstruction, juxtaposition, revelation…a whole host of brilliant tactics for breaking through conventional perception.

Bronowski summarizes a key factor in what he calls the ascent of Man, and one thing to keep in mind here is that he’s not talking about some amazing engineering triumph or complex scientific discovery — he’s standing before a piece of abstract sculpture.

The work can only be grasped by action not by contemplation. The hand is more important than the eye. We are not one of those contemplative civilizations of the Far East or Middle Ages that believe that the world has only to be seen and thought about, and who practiced no science. We are active, and indeed we know that in the evolution of Man it is the hand that drives the subsequent evolution of the brain.

The hand is the cutting edge of the mind. Civilization is not a collection of finished artifacts, it is the elaboration of processes. In the end, The march of Man is the refinement of the hand in action.

A dead civilization is one that has stopped progressing, that ends that dynamism in the stasis of preservation and numbing reverence for the past — when a 2000 year old myth becomes the greatest knowledge worth knowing, we have abandoned the process and begun the contraction into the shells we built while still vital. We must continually break down and rebuild, reduce and reintegrate, disassemble and reassemble to grow. I often hear complaints about “reductionist science” that damn it for breaking the world apart into smaller and smaller units — but those complaints are ill-founded for two reasons. That destruction has always been and always will be a key part of human progress; that contemplation of what is without breaking it to reveal what is within is exactly the failure of the civilizations Bronowski is describing. And further, there is no such thing as purely reductionist science — science always builds again for deeper understanding. Evolutionary theory is a beautiful example of a powerful synthesis driven by insights from reductive analyses. It’s also an idea that is constantly being taken apart from within and rebuilt with new insights — it’s strength is in dynamism, not stasis.

Blasphemers, heretics, and the sacrilegious are the cutting edge of the hand of humankind. Our eyes turn to everything and take it apart, picking at its bones and tracing the sinews and nerves to understand what makes it work, and the everything we critically analyze includes the dogmas of our religious institutions. The most terrible thing we do to religion is to take it seriously — as seriously as we do a piece of flint, a stone arch, or a cathedral — and aim to take it apart, extract the bits that serve us well, and reassemble it into a tool that will serve humanity better. The chaff will be stripped, the nonsense carved out, the comfortable lies burned away, and what will be left will not bear a trace of the revered superstitions, but a framework of human art and utility.