The Power of Stupidity

The Power of Obscurantism

Giancarlo Livraghi – February 2005

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This is a “difficult” word – and a tricky subject. Over the years, I’ve been asked several times to look into the stupidity of “obscurantism” and “superstition.” They can be seen as two ways of looking at the same problem, but I think it’s better to deal with them separately, in this and in another article.

What do we mean when we discuss “obscurantism” or “enlightenment”? Often it’s as simple as it’s meaningless. Whatever someone believes is “enlightening” while everyone else’s way of thinking is “dark” – wrong, or evil, or both. This can be the tool, or the origin, of all sorts of conflicts, ranging from maybe small, but insidious, misunderstanding to enormous, long-lasting and tragic persecution.

The contrast and the struggle, between the light of knowledge and the darkness of repression, have existed in all stages of human evolution, since the origin of our species. A complex and turbulent conflict that can be defined in many ways, but is basically the same at all times and in all cultures.

The arrogance of Prometheus or the risk of Pandora. The effort of Sisyphus or the threat if the Sphinx. All sorts of different myths and symbols, in every kind of human tradition, that may seem remote or removed, but reflect a reality that is as true today as it has ever been. With a crucial difference: the boundaries of knowledge have expanded so far, and so recently, that we are confused an bewildered.

We seek certainty and we can’t find it. That is now, as it has always been, a treacherous opportunity for whoever wants to gain power and control by saying «don’t worry, let me do the thinking, just do as you are told and believe in what I am telling you.»

An analysis of how these conflicts are rooted in many different cultures would be quite interesting, but obviously it goes far beyond what could be summarized in these short comments. Let’s just say that the problem has always been there and awareness is perceivable in folklore, tradition and “common sense” as well as in the thinking of the best philosophers of all time.

This isn’t about religion (or any other “faith.”) In one way or another, we all believe in something that can’t be throughly verified by fact or experiment. Faith, by its own nature, is beyond discussion or doubt. Every person has a right to believe in whatever he or she finds suitable – even to worship Ras Tafari.

That religion actually exists. It’s called Rastafarian (or “rasta”) in Jamaica. The messiah in that cult is Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie, Negus Neghesti (“king of kings”) emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.
There is also a pseudo-religion called pastafarian, with a spaghetti god. Of course it’s a joke, though it’s carefully constructed to have the appearances of what could be formally defined as a church.

There is a hideous problem when and where some form of organized belief is enforced – by physical violence, including weapons and wars, by persecution of heathens or heretics (as is still happening in many parts of the world) or by less blatantly brutal, but equally fearsome, means. Such as habit, custom, manner, behavior, social standards – and fear.

This isn’t only the case of dogmatic religions or ideologies, that don’t accept any disagreement and aggressively repress dissent or doubt. It isn’t practiced only by ecclesial hierarchies, oppressive sects or restrictive affiliations. There is a thread in all human cultures and at all times, still widespread even where it is less obvious, of “obscure” thought and practice that reduces people into blind obedience and mental slavery, obliterates freedom of thought and doesn’t tolerate criticism.

We could look at this in many different environments, in apparently different ways, but let’s pick one, with which we are more familiar in “western” cultures. The evolution on Europe from the late Middle Age to where we are today. Of course we can’t reduce a complex and turbulent millennium to simplistically defined “dark ages.” But it’s a fact that for several centuries Europe was plunged into an appalling depth of poverty, violence, ignorance and repression, while thinking was imprisoned by dogma and ipse dixit or hidden in the secrets of esoteric fraternities. There was a crucial change that started much earlier than 1492.

Some of the best historians believe that the “modern age” didn’t start with Columbus crossing the Atlantic Ocean, but with the bankruptcy of the Peruzzi and Bardi bank in Florence in 1343, caused by default and refusal of debt by the King of England that marked the end of medieval economy and the strengthening of national states. Other (and earlier) dates can be reasonably chosen, pointing to the fact that change was developing in the thirteenth and fourteenth century and had started in the eleventh and twelfth.

“Vernacular”, non-Latin written literature started in the eleventh century and expanded in the twelfth. At the same time there was the development of universities, as well as a wider re-discovery of classic (Greek and Latin) culture. That was the beginning of the deep change that reached full bloom in the fifteenth century – we know it as“humanism” and it’s appropriately called The Renaissance. An extraordinary development not only in art, science and philosophy, but also in social change and in the practice of organized craftsmanship. (“Arts and crafts” is an interesting definition that is worth re-discovering in the twentyfirst century.)

It’s no coincidence that now we are feeling the need for a “Leonardo attitude” or the “Da Vinci Man.” That wasn’t just the genius of one person. There is a strongly felt, though scarcely fulfilled, need for a re-discovery of a deep blend of art and science, beauty and functionality, technique an philosophy, harmony and knowledge, that wasn’t only the special talent of one “encyclopedic” mind, but the shared culture of the environment in which he lived.

The development of manufacturing industry (though lacking thermal energy) started in the fourteenth century. Then there were new printing technologies (demanded by cultural development as much as they were made possible by technical resources) and oceanic sailing that opened new routes to remote places (for trade and war, conquest and piracy – but also for culture and knowledge.)

And then there was “illuminism”, “the Enlightenment”, that appeared to be the final victory of Reason, liberté egalié fraternité, humanity at last and forever freed from prejudice, ignorance and oppression.

Though this is known as the “French Revolution”, “illuministic” ideas were brewing also in other European countries. And they were formalized, earlier than in any other place, in the rebellious colonies that became the United States of America.

* * *

So where are we now?

After the social conflicts of the nineteenth century (mixed with high hopes of “progress” defeating “obscurantism”) and after the scientific success and political catastrophes of the twentieth – are we getting close to the age of enlightenment? Obviously not, and in several ways it’s getting worse.

We are drowning in superstition. Believing in tricky numbers or lucky charms or unreliable forecasting would be relatively harmless entertainment if we didn’t see so many people hopelessly ruined by gambling. (And that, of couse, includes the stock exchange). Equally absurd criteria are applied in all sorts of other circumstances. (See The Stupidity of Power and The Vicious Circle of Stupidity.)

Believing in astrology could be just another silly game, but it’s taken far too seriously by too many people and, in several supposedly “civilized” countries, it’s grotesquely supported by major media, including mainstream television and several magazines that are supposed to be reliable. We shall get back to this in Stupidity and Supertstition, also looking into the appalling proliferation of soothsayers, wizards, sorcerers, necromancers, prophets, etcetera – and abominable “healers” promising to cure all sorts of diseases.

John Kenneth Gailbraith used to say: «The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.» But some things are predictable, if we look at them in the right perspective. Of course I have no way of knowing in what shape the world economy will be when this will be read in following months and years. But it’s pretty clear that the expanding and contagious disease of speculative maneuvering could have been easily diagnosed twenty years ago, nothing was done to bring it under control, and eventually some of the manipulators were caught in their own trap – but not enough to stop the epidemic. So great is the power of stupidity.

Obscurantism isn’t only in the most obvious superstitions. There are all sorts “beliefs” that have no base in reality. Or maybe they were meaningful when they started, but they no longer make any sense, while we continue with habits though we have forgotten their origin. And to those of tradition new prejudices are being added. Some may be relatively harmless (though they are, in any case, confusing) but several are quite dangerous.

We are horrified by reading of murders and suicides caused by stanic cults or other perverse rituals, but we don’t always realize how many beliefs and delusions can lead to all sorts of persecution, suffering, violence and repression.

The progress of science is bewildering. It’s been less than a century since we discovered that not only the copernican concept is correct beyond any reasonable doubt, but the size of the universe is enormously larger than we had ever been able to imagine. Our attitude, in spite of all evidence, remains ptolemaic. Our point of view, though we know that it isn’t so, sets the Earth as the center and even when we try to understand what is happening on our planet our perceptions are subjective and unbalanced (see perspect.htm problems of perspective.)

There is endless probing into the nature of matter and energy, the structure and origin of life, leading to discoveries and hypotheses that are fascinating, but also unfamiliar and puzzling. Science can not, and must not, try to offer any final and absolute certainty. It must be open to new explorations that can change and revise all theories. That is the beauty and the strength of our quest for knowledge. But it constantly challenges our habits and our assumptions. It’s comfortable to believe, to rest on cozy commonplace. It’s intriguing, but distressing, to learn, to look beyond the edge of our restricted horizon.

John Updike said: «Astronomy is what we have now instead of theology. The terrors are less, but the comforts are nil.» It is so in all developments of science. The expanding explorations are fascinating, but also discomforting. The more we learn, the less se are sure.

It’s a temptation to seek shelter in conventional, reassuring notions and so fall prey to intentional deceits or absurd fantasies.

Fear is often a source of ignorance and stupidity. Because we run away from uncomfortable facts or knowledge. Or because we are deliberately manipulated by power, that often uses fear to scare people into obedience.

We can have doubts about some parts of Darwin’s theory, as it was originally defined, because knowledge has evolved since his first studies one hundred and fifty years ago. But there is obstinate spreading of retrograde beliefs that, in spite of overwhelming evidence, deny the basic concept of evolution. With very worrying cultural, social and political consequences.

We are educated (in those parts of the world where there is a “decent” level of education) to believe that we have overcome racism. But there is a continuing proliferation, with all sorts of disguises, of ways of thinking and behaving that are based on the notion that some sorts of people are “superior” and other “inferior.”

There are, as awful today as they have ever been, situations of genocide, with the extermination of whoever is perceived as “different.” When and where it isn’t organized murder, it’s slavery, persecution, exploitation, famine, disease and inhuman conditions not only in (apparently) remote places, but also in some parts of so-called “advanced” economies and cultures. That isn’t only cruel and horrible. It’s also very stupid.

Witch hunts aren’t extinct. Though we no longer see people burning at the stake, with applauding audiences, in the cities of Europe, and torture is (apparently) prohibited, as a tool for “saving souls” or extorting information, we still see persecution and “demonization” of attitudes or behaviors that are disliked by established power, by a domineering oligarchy or by some aggressive faction that wants to impose its absurd, and often delirious, worldview.

It’s a widespread habit to believe what fits our mental grooves, our prejudice and bias, the conventional attitudes of our environment, or the bizarre manias of the information system in which we are entangled.

And we also tend to not perceive, or to refuse as false or irrelevant, whatever is disturbing because it doesn’t fit the pattern of preconceived banalities or narrow-minded cultural myopia.

Real progress of a single person, an organization or womankind as a whole is based on always doubting apparent certainties, always having an inexhaustible desire to learn, to evolve, to improve. We can learn something new, or understand something better, every day. But are we seeing, and listening, as well as we should? How often can we tell which tiny piece is the key to the solution of a big puzzle?

Scientific progress is extraordinary, but unfortunately it doesn’t help us as much as we may wish, because it’s fragmented into many restricted sectors, unable to find those broader syntheses that could nourish not only an evolution of our knowledge and understanding, but also an enrichment of out daily humanity.

But science, when it’s free, has an advantage. It can never be satisfied with any of its achievements, it can’t rest on it laurels, it must aways explore new horizons and new perspectives ceaselessly reconsidering every hypothesis, theory, method, system or cognitive process.

There is a problem. It’s difficult and complex. There is no sharply defined separation between knowledge and prejudice, light and darkness. There are obscurantisms in the most free and open cultures, as there can be surprising bits of wisdom and depth where we expect to find only ignorance and superstition. There are scientific and philosophical establishments that are supposed to be dedicated to the search of knowledge, while they are entrenched in the arrogant protection of cultural privilege. Or they are conditioned by power interests economic, political or academic.

Enlightenment and obscurantism aren’t neatly divided worlds. We don’t have two opposed and disciplined armies, with uniforms and flags to make it clear who stands for what. They constantly mix in a tortuous, devious, contaminated, turbulent and ever-changing environment, where it’s hard to tell the paths to clarity from the labyrinths of obscurity, the real quest for knowledge from the disguises of prejudice.

There is also a creeping notion that knowledge is not to be shared. It is true, of course, that specialized competence or dangerous tools need to be handled only by people who have the appropriate expertise and responsibility. But that notion is still today, as it was in “primitive” human societies, extended by all sorts of powermongering, with self-appointed elites putting the rest of us to sleep with manipulated and confusing lullabies (or scaring us into obedience).

Are we now in a state of renewed and growing obscurantism? There are many symptoms of that disease. Some are extremely dramatic. Others may seem relatively harmless, but combine into an insidious cocktail of obnubilation that is the feeding ground for dangerous cultural infection.

We could be nostalgic about the times in our history when enlightenment was riding high, promising freedom and knowledge for all, affirming the “inalienable right” of all human beings to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And rightly so. That the path to those ideals isn’t easy or smooth is no good reason to stop trying. But it isn’t as simple as it sounds.

At all times there has been, as there is now, a mixture of light and darkness. There never was such a luminous state of conscience as it may appear in hindsight (when we focus on the brightest ways of thinking, because those can inspire us now, as they did then, to look for a way ahead.)

The lessons of history are always useful, but it isn’t easy to understand the complex and turbulent situation in which we are now. Many things have changed. In some there is real progress – with important results. But if we fall into the delusion of assuming that we are “advanced” and aware we lose the perception of our limitations. Complacency hinders the desire to learn, to discover, to improve.

If we realize how many things in today’s world are obscure, and we try every day to understand something a bit better, we don’t only push back the edge of the expanding power of obscurantism. We also enrich our humanity.

It isn’t easy to find a little spot of light in the darkness, like a far off beacon in the night. But, when it happens, it’s a very pleasant experience.


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