On the Suppression of Knowledge

This week a New York Times headline reads “Scientists Fear Trump Will Dismiss Climate Change Report.” The article includes a link to the 693 page report, and can be found here:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/07/climate/document-Draft-of-the-Climate-Science-Special-Report.html

The suppression of climate change information has partly to do with politics, partly to do with economics, and partly to do with religion. But there’s nothing new about the impulse to suppress.

The Hebrew prophet Amos, who died in 745 BCE, famously said, “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). Tradition has it that Amos was stoned in the street by a mob incited by a temple priest. Clearly, the temple priest was in no mood for liberal politics to intrude upon his religion.

The philosopher Protagoras, who died in 411 BCE, said, “As for the gods, I do not know whether they exist or not. Life is too short for such difficult enquiries.” For saying this, Protagoras was run out of town. He died as a consequence of his attempt to flee. The powers-that-were in Athens clearly didn’t want philosophical skepticism intruding upon their theocracy.

Hypatia, who died in 415 CE, was stoned to death in Alexandria with tiles torn from a church floor. Though her murder is often attributed to her paganism and her gender, her offense was also her ideas. Hypatia said, “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies.” This sentiment did not sit well with the bishops of the church.

Unfortunately, history teaches that ideas can be suppressed, and for a long time. Perhaps the most egregious example of this in the Western world is the idea of non-duality. Democritus was born in the 400s BCE in what is now Bulgaria. He wrote, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”

That one little statement reveals more about how reality actually is than much—if not most—of Plato and Aristotle combined. Yet early Christians burned the work of Democritus: not a scrap exists today. These particular words of Democritus, and a very few others, exist because they were quoted in texts that did survive, usually texts attempting to refute Democritus and his good idea.

*Note that Democritus’ theory does not say that the gods don’t exist, merely that they don’t exist where people have often thought they exist, in the supernatural or super-material realm.

In contrast, early Christians preserved the works of Plato and Aristotle because they considered them “righteous pagans.” Both philosophers taught the duality of mind and body, body and soul. The Christianity of the time depended upon duality.

If followed to its logical conclusion, Democritus’ “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion” leads to roughly the understanding of reality that science holds today: Reality is granular. We see what we see because we are the size we are. We don’t see other scales very well. We are fooled into thinking there must be something more than the tiny, indivisible grains and the spaces between them that make up our reality.

Surely, many people say, Plato and Aristotle must have been right—there must be a consciousness with a plan for this big, glorious thing called reality.

And that’s where the “opinion” comes in. “No, there’s clearly a purpose,” said Plato, Aristotle, the early Christians, the Puritans, the Taliban, many Texas politicians, and on and on. “There must be a purpose, and we know what it is.”

They are all barking up the wrong trees, but those of a censorial bent will continue in their efforts to shut up, blow up, burn, terrorize, and hood-wink those who see truth as something other than what these and many like them see.

“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” A few people did follow this line of thinking—Epicurus the philosopher, Lucretius the poet, and some of the Stoics.

Lucretius, who died in 55 BCE, wrote this in his great poem “On the Nature of Things”:

You must admit that whatever appears sentient

is nevertheless composed of insentient atoms.

Any phenomena you observe will not contradict this,

but will, rather, lead you by the hand, compelling you

to accept that the animate is born of the insentient.

Yet, for the most part, inhabitants of the Western world had to wait to realize this until the teachings of the Daoists and Buddhists began to sink in and science gained enough freedom to tell its truth. Ah, yes. Ideas come and go, just like the strongmen who push and pull them.

Today it’s climate change. And . . . And. Contrary to popular belief, good ideas can indeed be suppressed. History tells us so. The tiles on the church floors, the stones in the street, exile and shunning—repression, suppression—it’s a constant in human history.

Western Duality has led to the mess we are in today concerning many things, including our environment. Suppression of non-dual thinking and suppression of climate change information are part of the same ball of wax.

It may be that we humans have already and irretrievably made the most fundamental error a species can make—failing to adapt in a timely manner to our changing environment. If so, the cockroaches that survive us can certainly say it was our own darn fault.

Or maybe a sufficient number of people will seek out the truth . . . FullSizeRender 4

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On the Suppression of Knowledge

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