REINTERPRETING THE PAST: A NEVER ENDING ACTIVITY
Each generation has its own music, art, literature, and other ways of seeing and interpreting the universe. We seek nevertheless universal truths that are fixed and that will serve us a guide through life. For most of humanity it is found in a religion, one of several hundred contradictory religions, some believing in the existence one god, some in many gods, and some in no gods. The difficulty with these religious guidelines is their ease of reinterpretation. Each generation is selective in what it considers important to its own values. “Thou shalt not kill” has a myriad of exceptions for those who justify capital punishment, collateral deaths in bombings, or the vaporization of non-combatant men, women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the past the justified killings included counterfeiting, blasphemy, atheism, pick pocketing, mutiny, and heresies of innumerable kinds. Falling asleep while on sentry duty was punishable by death.
It is not just commandments that we violate and justify; we reinterpret everything, all the time, because each generation has a different universe to live in. Old values are stretched to accommodate new priorities. In the 1940s I listened to radioevangelists condemning the sin of Mammon worship (materialistic wealth). Today televangelists praise the acquisition of wealth and no longer ask their wealthy donors to struggle about squeezing through a needle’s eye. We don’t condemn keeping up with the Joneses; we convince ourselves that we want the best for our children or our families.
Science also reinterprets the past. It does so with a different motivation in mind. It seeks to understand the physical universe of atoms and their activities from the subatomic to the galaxies of the universe including life on earth. Since modern science began with Galileo’s use of the telescope to examine the sun, moon, and planets we have had an unending series of understandings of how the physical laws of the universe work, how molecules are formed from atoms, how heredity works, how infectious diseases arise from germs, and how a fertilized egg eventually becomes an adult being. The applications of science necessarily involve values; and science is often abused by making weapons of mass destruction, by pollution from its by-products, and by inadequate regulation. Here the failings of applied science are no different from the failings of humanity more familiar to the past – bribery, influence peddling, nepotism, cronyism, greed, theft, and betrayal. Whoever harms another person, intentionally or not, justifies that behavior as being done for a higher cause. That higher cause can be religion, patriotism, one’s family, or a political ideology. It is not a question of reason being better or worse than religious faith. What is at fault is our use of higher causes to justify the harms done by our actions.
Science, religion, and the liberal arts have failed us because our capacity for empathy is weak compared to our capacity for self-serving. Freud understood this problem in his Civilization and its Discontents, but his solution, sublimation of the harmful tensions within us by making civilization’s greatest contributions, is not easy to do. Without effective regulation of our motives, we are limited to repeating (and justifying) our mistakes every generation.