This is the second part of the blog I started here. It is not intended to be a standalone piece, though I will endeavor to make it cohesive. Previously, I suggested that I could argue that religion was rational and perhaps necessary in the Middle-Ages.
There are two approaches here. One is focusing on the relative dominance of ideas and how that leads to monotheism. The other is how general spiritual ideas (polytheism or non-theistic religions) can impede scientific advance. If these both hold, then they can be put together to generate a clear path to the Enlightened Age through religion.
One idea is dominant over another if it is more persuasive. Having stronger evidence is how we typically think of an idea being more persuasive, but that need not be the case. There are two things that will impede a simple application of better evidence (aside from the total lack of evidence for either in the case of comparing religions):
- The relative risk of being wrong;
- Our prior assumptions.
Pascal’s Wager is a fantastic example of the first, but in general may think of it as playing it safe. Humans are programmed to avoid danger, which is why we’re still alive. If someone tells you “there’s a tiger over that ridge” you tend to believe them. Even if you want to check it out, you are very cautious.
The second is a form of Bayes’ Rule, where we consider the probability of each new idea not independently, but relatively against the probability of our assumed knowledge (which we give a high probability of being true). Bayes’ Rule can be turned into a method of Bayesian updating that shows why it takes so long to accept new ideas. But I digress.
Putting ourselves back toward the end of the Iron Age, we note that many people are beginning to develop ideas that explain much of the nature world. As more of nature is understood to fit a regular pattern, even without understanding the exact why, the ideas of many gods or spirits acting becomes harder to justify. This is the weakening of the prior assumptions. Then when monotheism is introduced, it actually seems simpler. We can hold onto our ideas of the supernatural without all the mucking around with who does what. Further, by the time monotheism really started taking off, the priests had figured out that “if you don’t follow me, you will burn forever” was a really good motivator.
With the combination of an a-priori assumption that supernatural things exist, and evidence that your current worldview may be inaccurate, we may seek a new framework. At the same time, the risk of eternal torture provides the adverse risk factor that naturally encourages us to trust the information.
However, once we accept the above framework of how ideas are dominated: eventually, science will dominate even the ardent monotheistic religion. The prior assumptions may be strong, but the evidence showing that the supernatural is not needed to explain any of the natural world is nearly endless. At some point, the evidence will dominate. But to get my second point, I need to show that scientific thought and evidence flows more naturally from monotheism than from other forms of mysticism.
The various forms of supernatural beliefs will all tend to generate a final answer to the question of “why”, and, due to the prior assumption of explanation, discourage any form of contrary models of how the world works. But the monotheistic religions actually discourage consideration of minor supernatural beings and simplify the model. This means that many of the superstitious thoughts are discouraged and the door is opened for asking “how”.
Unfortunately for monotheism, it is doomed to fail. Its very introduction into a society, also introduces the freedom from all other superstitions that would impede discovering the next level of how the world works. This leads to scientific thought, which is bound to dominate any form of religious thought… eventually.
As a note, we may still question if monotheism was good for society. Even if I’m right, and monotheism advanced scientific thought sooner than would have occurred otherwise, was it a good thing? If, for example, it takes us another couple hundred years to free ourselves monotheism, perhaps we could ask if society would have been better off waiting to discover the scientific method in a culture that didn’t have the binds of religion holding quite so tightly.