“It is only necessary to make war with five things; with the maladies of the body, the ignorances of the mind, with the passions of the body, with the seditions of the city and the discords of families.” – Pythagoras
Science is not a philosophy or a spiritual path; it’s a way of behaving in the world. It is a way of thinking that encourages logic, reason, information and communication in such a way as to explore the world in wonder and discovery.
It is unfortunate that polarization and nationalism, tribalism if you will, have made “fake news” and “alternative facts” part of our everyday life now. It is a reality with which we must learn how to navigate. It is not only learning to dig through facts and figures, research and media hype, but it is learning that we must, sometimes, unlearn. It begin with the idea of “we must know” is a fallacy. What we must do is begin to swim in our own ignorance and be cognizant of what we do not know.
To be blunt, if we want to fight ignorance, we must start with our own.
We listen every day to people who, by virtue of their self-appointed “knowledge,” without the science or experience to back it up, discard the rigorous work that scientists have done to establish or debunk our knowledge of nature. Chemists, astrophysicists, climatologists, oceanographers, biologists, geneticists, and nutritionists have all been sidelined when their messages did not fit the narrative of corporate interests or media hype. Those that seem to have the most money, most market share, or most “brand” have the last say. We separate the educated as elitists and the corporate interests as “the common man.” Who would have our best interests at heart?
To be very clear, expertise is not the same thing as elitism. A real expert and scientist knows where their knowledge boundaries lie. They know that they know less than they have researched, and are on a quest to explore. They are developing theories and testing them, asking what didn’t work and what did. They know that the fruits of their labors may take years, decades, to bear truth, and most likely lead to more questions.
Elitism, on the other hand, is “…the belief or attitude that individuals who form an elite—a select group of people with an intrinsic quality, high intellect, wealth, special skills, or experience—are more likely to be constructive to society as a whole, and therefore deserve influence or authority greater than that of others.” They are the self-appointed leaders or gurus that have the answers. A scientist may be an elitist, but that is not a reflection on science but on the character of the individual. Or lack thereof.
Having just finished the documentary, “Behind the Curve,” on Netflix, I found it extremely interesting to listen to both sides of the debate on “flat earth theory.” There are those in the Flat Earth community who truly believe what science has let them down, that they have the truth and the science to back it up. What was extremely interesting was to hear the scientist’s remarks about this group of contrary thinkers. There was no condescension or elitism of any of the scientists interviewed. There was no pity or condemnation. It was a true desire to not ignore or sideline the discussion but to engage in it; it was about bringing people together rather than considering it an “us” and “them” situation. This was not about belief and fact; it was about education. Knowledge. Combating ignorance.
Freemasonry has an interesting take on the ideas of nature and science as they are combined with philosophy and a search for Truth. It is one of the few places that it seems both can come together, to discuss and debate with a very open narrative. Science is valued as much as the experiential; physics and metaphysics co-exist in conversation and thought. Nothing is off limits. These conversations, whether in a Lodge meeting or in social gatherings, at study groups or philosophical study centers are the ways we fight ignorance, if we are willing to listen.
I recently attended a study group where the topic was considering whether or not humanity had an influence on climate change. I was dead certain that humans influenced nature’s cycles; how could it not? There are seven billion people in the world, occupying space, consuming resources, and polluting the world around them. It was a belief and I knew it. However, I challenged myself to come with an open mind and not not make a judgment before entering the room. I am not, by training, a climatologist, meteorologist, geologist, or any other kind of -ologist. I know high-school level geology, and freshman college science. Let’s face it, I know nothing. What I did was bring in my own attitude and readings from media and pseudo-science journals, aimed at producing a message swinging one way or another. Being out of school for many years, I also felt the pride of age – I knew something of the world, darn it. I really felt like “know thyself” was part of my vernacular.
I admit to the conversation bringing my opinion around to a more moderate view rather than to a specific “side” of the debate. The presenter discussed scientific findings I had not considered, and geologic facts of which I had absolutely no knowledge. I learned about ice ages, findings in the melting of current glaciers, ice core samples, geologic time scales, and historical facts of global significance. I won’t say that my mind was changed; I will say that I walked out with a broader idea of questioning what I have been told, and learning the truth for myself. I learned that what I had was a belief, not evidence. If I was going to change my ignorance, I needed to do the work. Myself.
This is where, to me, the collision of science and Freemasonry are at their best. Freemasonry is a mystery school – an initiatory rite that brings about the idea that the human being is nature and the best way to understand nature and the mysteries of life and death, is to study nature. How to study nature? Ancient Greek mystery schools according to Blavatsky are “not a unique system but, based on the spiritual structure of the universe,” of which it is important to understand Nature. They are inextricably linked, the Spirit and Nature, perhaps even one in the same. Freemasonry, as a modern descendant of these mystery schools seeks to take the core of nature and spirit, and propel the human into learning that both reside within humanity, and it is the Freemason’s job to not only continue to seek truth but to also seek Truth. It is to always ask questions, from knowing yourself to knowing the world, and doubt everything. It is a respect for the scientific process as much as it is for our own process. We are seven billion experiences and all are equally valid. Else, why are we having them?
For the ancient philosophers, ignorance was the opposite of good. To both Aristotle and Plato, no one does wrong willingly but only out of ignorance. Socrates had his own methods for combating ignorance, and many of these principles can be found in Freemasonic ritual and education. From continuous learning and making a daily advancement in education to providing education rather than criticism, the Freemason becomes a scientist of the world. Freemasons build on Socrates idea that one should “know thyself” in that they are lacking in knowledge, and that we have no idea what is best for others. The center point is the key to balance in all things but especially to combating ignorance. A measured approach, curious yet mindful. Lastly, I think Socrates was most right when he said that ignorance is inevitable. When Socrates said “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance,” what he was saying was that he was not ignorant of all things but that he was aware that he was ignorant of all things. He knew that he would be forever ignorant and it was only through perseverance that he could become “good.”