Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Guest Post: Lightning & Disease: A Primitive Thought System Overturned

For most of human history, life has been a struggle – a struggle against predators, against disease, against natural disasters, and against our fellow human beings as we find ourselves all thrown together on a single planet, vying for limited resources.  In the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life for the many has been “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Foremost among our ongoing challenges, however, and rising above all the others, is the struggle against our own ignorance.  Like newborn infants, naked and helpless, humans have been thrust into this world without the benefit of any instruction book to show us the way.  It is only through patience and ingenuity (and a fair amount of dumb luck) that we have managed to rise above our brute animal nature to occasionally achieve something resembling peace and civility.  Obviously, we still have a long way to go, but if we as a species hope to continue our stumbling progress towards a happier, healthier future, we must acknowledge the various pitfalls and dead ends we’ve encountered along the route, starting with those of the distant past.

To the ancients, one of the most terrifying and inexplicable forces that they would encounter on a regular basis came in the form of blinding shafts of energy hurling down from the sky above, killing and setting fires indiscriminately –  a phenomenon we now call lightning.  Having no ready basis upon which to form a rational explanation for it, they instead let their imaginations run wild and so attributed its power to a mighty, invisible sky king.  This makes a certain amount of sense; after all, if you’d watched your buddy get killed by an enemy’s arrow, the cause was clear as day.  To get hit by a flaming arrow shot from a cloud would therefore seem to be the result of having angered some sort of cosmic archer.

The near-universality of this sentiment is striking.  In addition to having a “mother earth goddess” representing fertility and abundance (personified as Gaia by the ancient Greeks, Ishtar by the Babylonians, Pachamama by those in the New World, and so on), nearly every ancient society had some conception of a mighty “lord of the sky.”  In the proto-Indo-European language spoken by the ancestors of nearly everyone now inhabiting Europe, the Middle East, and northern India, this god was called Dyeus Pitr – literally “Sky Father.”  This etymology is still present in the names of numerous mythological figures and objects of religious worship, ranging from the Roman god Jupiter (a corruption of the Greek Zeus pater) to the Germanic high god, Tiwaz (the root of “Tuesday”), and persisting all the way to the present in the French and Spanish words for “God” (Dieu and Dios respectively).  It is from Dyeus that we derive the words “deity” and “divine,” as well as theos, as in “theology” or “theist.”

Luckily for posterity, despite its ubiquity across time and cultures, not everyone from the past was stuck in this simplistic, supernatural mindset.  One of the earliest records of a more scientific understanding of lightning can be found in the writings of Lucretius, a Roman living in the first century BCE.  As a devout Epicurean and therefore, a philosophical materialist, he was convinced that lightning was caused solely by the interactions of atoms, and he openly mocked those who hid behind superstitious explanations.  In his own words:

Here then is a plain and intelligible account of the fiery thunderbolt and how it does what it does.  It is a fruitless task to unroll the Tuscan scrolls, seeking some revelation of the god’s hidden purpose.  That is no way to study from which quarter the darting fire has come or into which other it has passed…

Of course, with the onset of the Dark Ages and Church hostility towards all things scientific, his knowledge was largely forgotten until the arrival of the Enlightenment and Benjamin Franklin’s famous (and insanely risky) experiment with the kite and the key.  Ironically, even in Franklin’s time, his bold feat and its practical result – the widespread installation of lightning rods on tall buildings around the country – was denounced by leading clerics for being presumptuously irreverent towards God Almighty and an infringement upon his divine power.

Today, we’ve come to realize that lightning is a purely natural phenomenon – a discharge of static electricity caused by the interaction of ions in the atmosphere (an explanation remarkably similar to that proposed by Lucretius over two thousand years ago).  That’s not to say that we yet fully understand all aspects of how lightning is formed, but we at least have a solid grasp over how it’s not formed; namely, by angry anthropomorphic deities hiding in storm clouds.

Despite this modern understanding however, the irrational fear of lightning, called astraphobia (from the Sanskrit word for “weapon” in reference to the lightning bolts wielded by the Indian sky god, Indra), is still the third most prevalent phobia in the U.S., exceeded only by the fear of heights and of course, fear of “Sky Father” himself.  As the Bible repeatedly reminds us; “thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the LORD your God” – a god who reveals himself as “thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud” as he “talked with you from heaven.” (Leviticus 25:17, Exodus 19:16 and 20:22)

Less dramatic than celestial fireworks but far more devastating to humanity is disease.  Diseases have plagued life on Earth for almost as long as life has existed, at least since the first appearance of multicellular organisms just over two billion years ago.  Evidence of our past brushes with epidemics can still be found in the form of vestigial segments of virus genetic code embedded within our DNA, and disease remains the number one cause of death for humans overall.

As was the case with lightning, the ancients were utterly dumbfounded as to the cause of disease.  Remember, the concept of preventing infection by applying antiseptic to wounds and before surgery was only developed about a hundred and fifty years ago; antibiotics weren’t available as medicine until shortly before the Second World War; and the science of nutrition is still in its infancy, as evidenced by America’s worsening obesity crisis.

In almost every culture on the planet, the search for an explanation of the cause of illness eventually led to the idea that diseases were the result of interference by evil spirits.  This isn’t actually as ridiculous as it may sound, especially considering that the modern germ theory of disease similarly relies on the existence of malicious entities invisible to the naked eye.  The basic idea of spirits is rooted in a sort of folk biology.  For ancient people, having noticed that the most obvious difference between a living creature and an inanimate object is the fact that living things breathe, it was a short mental leap to equating breath with a mysterious “essence of life.”  You see this in many myths about our origins, where some god fashions a figure out of wood or clay and then breathes into, thus imbuing it with the life force or spirit.

Further clues to the psychology underlying such beliefs can be found by studying the evolution of language.  The word “spirit,” for example, comes from the Latin word for “breath,” as is still apparent in the word “respiration.”  By extension, it was believed that someone who had been filled with the Holy Spirit was “inspired,” while to aim for greatness is to “aspire;” and when you die, you’re said to have “expired.”  In this same vein, it’s interesting to note that in its original Greek and Aramaic, the Bible never explicitly mentions the words “spirit,” “ghost,” or “soul” in the way most people are used to seeing them.  Instead, it uses various words for “breath” or “wind” which are then rendered more poetically when translated into Latin and again into English (a fact which can lead to quite a different interpretation of scriptural meaning than that taught in Sunday school).

This concept of airy, immaterial life forces is thus deeply rooted in human culture.  In many ancient societies, it found expression as animism, an early form of religious belief in which every object in one’s surroundings is thought to be possessed of its own spirit, thereby lending sacredness to every rock and stream, every tree and every gust of wind.  For adherents of such notions, it was generally believed that some of these spirits were kind and benevolent and should be honored with shrines and offerings to obtain their blessing, while others were cruel and malevolent and had to be placated or held at bay with chants, charms, potions, and rituals.

Applying this idea to illness, it was believed by many primitive people that all disease, whether mental or physical, was the direct result of such evil spirits inhabiting the body.  Among European cultures, this gave rise to the practice of exorcisms and persecution of “witches.”  To this day, when we say “God bless you” after a sneeze it’s linked to the widespread medieval belief that sneezing momentarily exposes your soul to invasion by lurking demons.  In other places, such beliefs provided justification for the practices of tribal shamans which, contrary to skeptical expectations, can at times actually be highly effective for treating certain ailments due to the power of the placebo effect as famously documented by ethnographer Franz Boas in the case of the Kwakiutl shaman, Quesalid.

As for most diseases caused by microbes or by the body’s own cells however, except for plant based treatments (some of which modern medicine is only now beginning to rediscover) as well as certain Ayurvedic and acupuncture techniques that have been successfully practiced in the East for millennia, the vast majority of remedies early people employed were utterly futile and left them helpless against the onslaught of disease-causing pathogens.  Not only were such methods as prayer and dancing, the wearing of totems, or the reciting of magic spells completely useless, but often times they could be outright deadly if used in place of more effective treatments.  To this day in parts of Africa, there are sects who have rejected Western medicine as evil, and so refuse vaccination (greatly hindering efforts to eradicate diseases like measles and polio) while others believe the only way to cure AIDS is to rape a young virgin.  Foolishness, it would seem, is the most widespread and stubborn of all human afflictions.  Which brings us back to our own present situation.

As citizens of technologically advanced societies living in the modern age, we have many things to be both proud of and thankful for.  We’re able to reap the benefits of countless discoveries and numerous technical innovations which directly contribute to our comfort and wellbeing.  That said, we also have many serious challenges remaining, some of which put our very survival at risk.  By far the best method we’ve ever devised for solving such challenges is science.  And yet, infuriatingly, the biggest impediment to its advancement is not the inherent complexity of nature but rather the vestiges of the same primitive misconceptions that brought us spirits and Sky Father, still weighing us down in the form of dogmatic, faith-based religion.

The Bible was written in a time when people believed the Earth was flat and the sun revolved around it.  They believed that natural disasters were signs of God’s wrath and that diseases were the result of demonic possession.  We see this demonstrated again and again such as when, on Joshua’s command, “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day,” (Joshua 10:13) or when the Devil brought Jesus “up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world,” (Matthew 4:8) or when Jesus was brought “many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick.” (Matthew 8:16)  The list goes on and on.

Every one of these beliefs has now been demonstrated to be patently untrue and hopelessly misguided.  Science has led us out of the abyss of ignorance and into the light.  But as long as people keep turning to outdated texts brimming with absurdities for their guidance on important issues; as long as they continue to disparage the incredible phenomenon known as consciousness by conflating it with magical, invisible agents inhabiting their bodies through what they call “spirituality,” we will remain as powerless against the challenges we face as the ancients were while offering burnt sacrifices upon the altar.

Every hypocrite who denies evolution, yet clamors for stronger antibiotics when their infection won’t heal because the bacteria have evolved to become resistant; everyone who opposes the teaching of science and critical thinking skills yet is happy to watch TV, talk on their cell phone, use the Internet, or fly in an airplane needs to seriously reexamine their worldview.  It’s not fair to discount science and yet gorge on its fruits.  It’s not fair to despise its methodology yet demand it solve all our problems when irrational methods fail (as they so often do).

Instead of wallowing in inherited ignorance, let us embrace the power of our incredible minds and work together to continue moving forward toward the bright horizon of possibility.  Let’s leave fearful superstition where it belongs – a relic of the distant past that we can read about in history books and be proud to have moved beyond!

Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA.  He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought.  Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess

Originally published as:
Lightning & Disease: A Primitive Thought System Overturned” on July 17, 2012 by Disinformation >