Bill Whittle has earned a deserved reputation in the Blogosphere for brilliant essays, but I’ve got to confess that I wasn’t actually all that thrilled with his last piece, “VICTORY“. America did not spring like Athena from the head of Zeus, and to truly understand what makes it exceptional demands an understanding of elements like the Magna Carta, development of the English Common Law, even the 30 Years’ War and its influence on the founders’ thinking about state and religion. To imply that these ideas are somehow unique to America is absurd, though the founders’ specific implementation of them was indeed an important contribution to humanity.
“For our entire history, right up until a hundred years ago, the idea of flying carpets and magic lanterns held people’s imaginations in thrall. Now that we have everyday miracles like jet aircraft and electric lights, all some people want is to return to a time when the belief in magic was common but the everyday blessings of magic – telephones, computers, antibiotics – didn’t exist. Back in the anti-nuclear 80’s lots of folks drove around with SPLIT WOOD NOT ATOMS bumper stickers, and I often asked myself, how much wood have these people actually split? I’ve done an hour in my 20’s and I thought I was going to die.
…Magical thinking is everywhere today, and it is growing. It threatens the foundations of reason, individualism, science and objectivity that have delivered this success so well and for so long. It is dangerous. If we are to continue to thrive and progress, then we need to sharpen some sticks and drive a stake through the heart of this monster, and right quick.”
The posts about conspiracy theories and their cures over on Winds of Change.NET are closely connected to the phenomena Bill describes; to their very core, they too are manifestations of magical thinking. Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon-Haunted World” took on other aspects of this trend with humanity, wit, and understanding. Its message has become more relevant than ever since his death. As I wrote in my Blogcritics.org review:
“…Science, too, has its shortcomings, and Sagan acknowledges them. Nevertheless, his reminders concerning the shortcomings of superstition and unexamined beliefs are both compelling and timely.”
We need a bit of magic in our lives, as even Carl Sagan readily acknowledged. So does Bill. Like wine and good whiskey it’s harmless in moderation, improving health and adding sparkle to our lives. In excess it is not harmless – and it may be time for us to admit that we have a problem. As J. Bronowski points out, the habits of science have shaped our society for the better in ways that run far deeper than the gadgets we use. We need magic, but we need scientific thinking too. As I noted in my review:
“Carl Sagan’s message will not be congenial to many in today’s society. An ethic of superstition and refusal to consider evidence as relevant is growing. Some profit from this state of affairs, and seek to foster it. Many others have absorbed part of that ethic. All the more reason to pick up Sagan’s readable, enjoyable, compellingly-argued, and very human book.”