Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

Over the past year or so I’ve gotten pretty much hooked on downloading podcasts from iTunes and listening to them on my iPod. My favorite, by far, is The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and the skeptical rogues who host that show have numerous times recommended this book as one of the essential tomes of the skeptical movement. So I was really looking forward to the experience of reading it. But, I’ve got to be honest, I was pretty disappointed with Sagan’s work.

First, let me be fair to Sagan. I’ve listened to 118 episodes of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and that’s just about the best primer anyone could have for the skeptical viewpoint. As a result, reading The Demon-Haunted World was a little bit like listening to someone try to tell you a bunch of stuff you already know. Sagan wrote his book in 1995. At that time, he may very well have been one of the only people making the case he makes in DHW, and that might very well have inspired some of the rogues on SGU. But I came to SGU first, and even though DHW may be the original, I found it hard to like after coming to like the remake so much.

Now, let me be a little critical. The book is poorly constructed. It reads less like a single reasoned and well-articulated proposition and more like a bunch of reasoned and well-articulated essays, all on somewhat inter-related topics, with a series of introductory and concluding paragraphs attached to each by a caring editor in an attempt to string them together into a coherent whole. The essays themselves work well. The book does not.

One of the over-arching themes that Sagan attempts to construct through this series of essays is that basic neurological processes underlie all of our human experiences, and that, without knowledge of the biochemistry involved, cultures throughout time have interpreted certain experiences as supernatural in origin. The SGU guys talk about sleep paralysis on about every other episode, so it was no surprise to me when Sagan used it to explain incubi and succubi in the Middle Ages and alien abductions in modern times. But even more interesting to me than sleep paralysis in explaining the alien abduction phenomenon was something called temporal lobe epilepsy.

We know from early work of the Canadian neurophysiologist Wilder Penfield that electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain elicits full-blown hallucinations. People with temporal lobe epilepsy—involving a cascade of naturally generated electrical impulses in the part of the brain beneath the forehead—experience a range of hallucinations almost indistinguishable from reality: including the presence of one ore more strange beings, anxiety, floating through the air, sexual experiences, and a sense of missing time. There is also what feels like profound insight into the deepest questions and a need to spread the word. A continuum of spontaneous temporal lobe stimulation seems to stretch from people with serious epilepsy to the most average among us. In at least one case reported by another Canadian neuroscientist, Michael Persinger, administration of the antiepileptic drug, carbamazepine, eliminated a woman’s recurring sense of experiencing the standard alien abduction scenario. So such hallucinations, generated spontaneously, or with chemical or experiential assists, may play a role—perhaps a central role—in the UFO accounts.

Sounds to me like there’s a real money-making idea here. A “temporal lobe stimulator” and a few workshops on directed dreaming, and you could set people up with a passtime more engaging than World of Warcraft. And speaking of interesting ideas, try this one on for size:

The development of objective thinking by the Greeks appears to have required a number of specific cultural factors. First was the assembly, where men first learned to persuade one another by means of rational debate. Second was a maritime economy that prevented isolation and parochialism. Third was the existence of a widespread Greek-speaking world around which travelers and scholars could wander. Fourth was the existence of an independent merchant class that could hire its own teachers. Fifth was the Iliad and the Odyssey, literary masterpieces that are themselves the epitome of liberal rational thinking. Sixth was a literary religion not dominated by priests. And seventh was the persistence of these factors for 1,000 years.

That all these factors came together in one great civilization is quite fortuitous; it didn’t happen twice.

Sagan is quoting Alan Cromer here, a physics professor at Northeastern University who, in 1993, wrote something called Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science. Sagan uses it to bolster another one of his arguments that the hostility we see to science by large segments of our soceity is indicative of the apparent fact that science is outside the mainstream of human development. It’s presence among us, thanks only to the ancient Greeks, may be a kind of fluke.

That’s a truly scary thought. But something like it did happen again. Initailly it was something we now call the Renaissance, which was based, in large degree, on a re-discovery of ancient Greece. And the Renaissance—sometimes called the Enlightenment—gave rise to something called the United States of America.

Scientific findings and attitudes were common in those who invented the United States. The supreme authority, outranking any personal opinion, any book, any revelation, was—as the Declaration of Independence puts it—“the laws of nature and of nature’s GOD.” Benjamin Franklin was revered in Europe and America as the founder of the new field of electrical physics. At the Constitutional Convention of 1789 John Adams repeatedly appealed to the analogy of mechanical balance in machines; others to William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. Late in life Adams wrote, “All mankind are chemists from their cradles to their graves… The Material Universe is a chemical experiment.” James Madison used chemcial and biological matephors in The Federalist Papers. The American revolutionaries were creatures of the European Enlightenment which provides an essential background for understanding the origins and purpose of the United States.

“Science and its philosophical corollaries,” wrote the American historian Clinton Rossiter, “were perhaps the most important intellectual force shaping the destiny of eighteenth-century America… Franklin was only one of a number of forward-looking colonists who recognized the kinship of scientific method and democratic procedure. Free inquiry, free exchange of information, optimism, self-criticism, pragmatism, objectivity—all these ingredients of the coming republic were already active in the republic of science that flourished in the eighteenth century.”

This is a refreshing reminder that, despite what some would have us believe, we are not a nation founded on Christian principles, but on scientific ones.

But by far the essay that most especially stands out for me is the one after which the title of the book was taken, The Demon-Haunted World, which explores the historical belief in literal demons, and how that belief has plagued humankind for centuries. A particularly compelling section explores the corrupt, hypocritcal, and downright evil practices of the Catholic Church’s Inquisition.

Innocent commended “Our dear sons Henry Kramer and James Sprenger,” who “have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as Inquisitors of these heretical [de]pravities” If “the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished,” the souls of multitudes face eternal damnation.

The Pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger to write a comprehensive analysis, using the full academic armory of the late fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations of Scripture and of ancient and modern scholars, they prodcued the Malleus Maleficarum, the “Hammer of Witches,”—aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in A Candle in the Dark, condemned it as “villainous Doctrines & Inventions,” “horrible lyes and impossibilities,” serving to hide “their unparalleled cruelty from the ears of the world.” What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes—jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused. This technical manual for torturers also includes methods of punishment tailored to release demons from the victim’s body before the process kills her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope’s encouragement guaranteed, inquisitors began springing up all over Europe.

It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives—down to the per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch’s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes.

The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each “witch” was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted “frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive,” as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials. In a credulous age, the most fantastic testimony was soberly accepted—that tens of thousands of witches had gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France, or that 12,000 of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. The Bible had counseled, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Legions of women were burnt to death. And the most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priests. Innocent himself died in 1492, following unsuccessful attempts to keep him alive by transfusion (which resulted in the deaths of three boys) and by suckling at the breast of a nursing mother, He was mourned by his mistress and their children.

In Britain witch-finders, also called “prickers,” were employed, receiving a handsome bounty for each girl or woman they turned over for execution. They had no incentive to be cautious in their accusations. Typically they looked for “devil’s marks”—scars or birthmakrs or nevi—that when pricked with a pin neither hurt nor bled. A simple sleight of hand often gave the appearance that the pin penetrated deep into the witch’s flesh. When no visible marks were apparent, “invisible marks” sufficed. Upon the gallows, one mid-seventeenth-century pricker “confessed he had been the death of above 200 women in England and Scotland, for the gain of twenty shillings apiece.”

In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defense witnesses were inadmissable. In any case, it was nearly impossible to provide compelling alibis for accused witches: The rules of evidence had a special character. For example, in more than one case a husband attested that his wife was asleep in his arms at the very moment she was accused of frolicking with the devil at a witch’s Sabbath; but the archbishop patiently explained that a demon had taken the place of the wife. The husbands were not to imagine that their powers of perception could exceed Satan’s powers of deception. The beautiful young women were perforce consigned to the flames.

There were strong erotic and misogynistic elements—as might be expected in a sexually repressed, male-dominated society with inquisitors drawn from the class of nominally celibate priests. The trials paid close attention to the quality and quantity of orgasm in the supposed copulations of defendants with demons or the Devil (although Augustine had been certain “we cannot call the Devil a fornicator”), and to the nature of the Devil’s “member” (cold, by all reports). “Devil’s marks” were found “generally on the breasts or private parts” according to Ludovico Sinistrari’s 1700 book. As a result pubic hair was shaved, and the genitalia were carefully inspected by the exclusively male inquisitors. In the immolation of the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the Hangman of Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could view “all the secrets which can or should be in a women.”

The chronicle of those who were consumed by fire in the single German city of Wurzburg in the single year 1598 penetrates the statistics and lets us confront a little of the human reality:

“The steward of the senate, named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailor’s fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Wurtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Liebler’s daughter; Goebel’s child, the most beautiful girl in Wurtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each twelve years old; Stepper’s little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; and old woman; the little son of the town council baliff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr. Schultz; a blind girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach…”

On and on it goes. Some were given special human attention: “The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burnt.” There were 28 public immolations, each with 4 to 6 victims on average, in that small city in a single year. This was a microcosm of what was happeneing all across Europe. No one knows how many were killed altogether—perhaps hundred of thousands, perhaps millions. Those responsible for prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning, and justifying were selfless. Just ask them.

They could not be mistaken. The confessions of witchcraft could not be based on hallucinations, say, or desperate attempts to satisfy the inquisitors and stop the torture. In such a case, explained the witch judge Pierre de Lancre (in his 1612 book, Description of the Inconstancy of Evil Angels,) the Catholic Church would be committing a great crime by burning witches. Those who raise such possibilities are thus attacking the Church and ipso facto committing a mortal sin. Critics of witch-burning were punished and, in some cases, themselves burnt. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God’s work. They were saving souls. They were foiling demons.

It is sometimes inconceivable to me that these things actually happened, that this level of intimidation and fear in the name of lunacy could have resulted in the deaths of so many. As I’ve asked before, sometimes in jest, let me now ask again in all seriousness. When will the Catholic Church be held responsible for its crimes against humanity?

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