In my first instalment of my series on Gary North’s body of ideas I talked about “the beginning”, the origin of the universe, and how our perception of whether this happened by chance or by conscious creation is fundamental to our worldview and how we act in the world. That believing in creation by chance leads to “power religion” and that believing in conscious, purposeful creation leads to “dominion religion”. And that there is a third, “escapist” religion, those who’d prefer not to decide, but end up following the stronger of the other two. (My answers to your comments on that article are below.) Today, I will write about our varying views of the structure of time and how THAT shapes human thoughts, actions and politics.
After deciding on either chance or purposeful creation, the next fundamental “religious” decision we all make is this: Is there a “beginning and an end” at all, or is our world in some kind of never ending loop? In other words: Is our worldview “linear” or “cyclical”?
A cyclical worldview is a view of a universe oscillating endlessly. It’s easy to see how people originally came to this view. Every day, the sun rises and sets, and at night the stars and the moon seem to follow its path “round” the earth. Soon, longer cycles became apparent: months, seasons, years. The more observant even discovered five additional heavenly bodies that also had their own regular cycles. Seemingly non-cyclical objects like comets and “new stars” (supernovae) were viewed as a disturbance, often as portends of doom and destruction. A cyclical worldview meant: everything is in constant flux, but in essence nothing really changes, ever. At some point, things get repeated.
This was the prevailing world view of antiquity. And it showed.
A cyclical worldview means there is no incentive to do anything that might improve our fortunes. At least institutionally, intergenerationally. Individually we might want to improve our lot as long as we live, but we would have little or no incentive to do anything that has a positive effect beyond our own lives. What goes up, must come down. So why bother? A cyclical worldview leads to a feeling of fatalism that prevents any real progress. OK, temples were built that last to this day, but they did not improve people’s lives. OK, the Romans built aqueducts and roads, but they did this to hold their empire together. There was no entrepreneurial culture to speak of, with the exception maybe of the Phoenicians.
Hero of Alexandria is said to have invented a simple steam turbine, called the aeolipile, in the 1st century AD. It is not known whether it had any practical uses apart from possibly being a movable temple ornament. Not even the ancient Greeks conceived the idea that this device might be the key to saving a lot of labour and raising productivity. It’s very likely that the cyclical worldview is to blame. It can’t have just been the slave labour culture. Slaves weren’t cheap. They had to be fed and housed and clothed. A steam engine could have easily priced many of them out of the market. Or it could at least have allowed non-slave holders to increase their productivity. It didn’t happen.
The one exception with regard to world view in ancient times were the Hebrews. Their God had defeated a human “god-king” (Pharaoh) and had led them out of slavery to the Promised Land. So life without tyranny was possible. Progress was possible. Their God had created the world in a conscious act and called it “good”, and after he had created every living thing, including humans (in his image), he called it “very good”, whereas other cultures and peoples declared the world to be the chance result of some interaction of gods, who themselves were not creators, were part of the world and who often saw humans as a nuisance.
The Hebrews also developed the view of an end time, as can be seen in the book of Daniel. Taken together with the belief in conscious creation the result is a universe with linear time, and limited by time. Daniel contains hints of a final judgment by the creator at the end of all time. A huge incentive to “do good” in the time allotted to you. And to find out what to “do good” actually means. This basis for progress was adopted by Christianity, and then some. Which means that its effect on society increased by magnitudes.
Modern science, not wanting to be seen “believing” in anything (although it does), has come up with a kind of eschatological compromise: Time seems linear, but beginning and end are so far off compared to our puny little short existence, short even as a species, we might as well be in a never ending loop. We’re not going to see any “end times”, some scientists declare with the certitude and devotion of a climate change fanatic. One day, according to them, we’ll be extinct and then the universe will continue, either forever or for another few billions of years, give or take a few million. I agree that, scientifically, this is what things look like. But science can’t relieve us from the prior decision which world view we adhere to: cyclical or linear. Instead of deciding, we attempt to compromise. A sign of “escapist religion”.
For some, even this compromise is not good enough. They go searching for evidence of an oscillating universe (after the coming “big crunch” another “big bang” and off we go again) or of an endless array of parallel universes (a “multiverse”). These taxpayer funded scientific research projects have no chance of creating spin offs that could improve our lives. They are at bottom religious quests to show that “power religion” is the real deal, the only game in town. Which is, at bottom, why they are being financed. They are a fool’s errand. Even a multiverse or oscillating universe can have had a conscious creator. Who could call the curtain at any time.
The crucial question is this: What kind of life are we likely to lead if all we can hope for in our apparently nano-microscopic existence is to live as comfortably as the resources available to us allow and then to die not too painfully? What’s to stop us then from acquiring those resources by all – ALL – means available? What’s to stop us from pillaging the earth’s resources without regard for future generations? What’s to stop us using force and fraud, including erecting and approving a system of fiat money, to get what we want? What is to stop us becoming a war lord society or, if one war lord rises above all others, a god-king society or something in between?
How does our conduct, and our society, change if, instead of a cyclical worldview, we adopted a linear one, one where there is an actual “point” to our lives (quite literally: a point toward which time is leading us)? In his book “Sovereignty and Dominion”, Vol. 1, which is essentially an economic exegesis of Genesis, Gary North quotes historian of science Stanley Jaki, who “contrasted the cyclical views held by the Chinese, Hindus, Greeks, Babylonians, Mayans, and Arabs with the linear view of orthodox Christianity. Why did science develop only within the intellectual framework of the Christian West? ‘Needless to say, many factors—geographical, social, economical, and political—played a part in the stillbirth of the scientific enterprise in the various ancient cultures. The only common factor in all cases seems, however, to be the commitment to the cyclic world view.’” (Page 148, footnote 7)
There are other religious factors that may very well have led to science arising in the Christian West, which as far as I know North does not discuss: The belief in God becoming man meant that it was no longer “below” a thinker to actually test his theories in nature. The split between “pure” thinking and the “dirty” world had been bridged. This duality had been a great obstacle that stood between the Greeks and real science. Another factor was the Christian emphasis on forgiveness, giving rise to a “trial and error” culture conducive not only to science, but to entrepreneurialism as well (which are in fact two sides of the same coin). So Christianity is the crucial factor leading, over time, to the rise of individual freedom and capitalism to a level sufficient for society to escape the Malthusian trap for the first time. It was in Europe, steeped in Christianity for centuries, where it happened. Nowhere else.
What is the relevance of these considerations for the freedom movement today? We are confronted with the choice of a political spectrum between a war lord society (Somalia) and a god-king society (North Korea). Most countries, including the US and the EU, are somewhere in between. The only thing stopping most of them from defaulting into outright war lord or god-king mode is a culture still shaped by a residue of Christianity. But the default modes are a looming and growing presence. They are the result of an adherence to, and belief in, power religion, of worshiping power and belief in man as autonomous actor, either individually or collectively. This belief is dominant today because most people have lost faith in a linear world view and a purposeful creation, of humans as the image of the creator, and the possibility, or rather certitude, of an end of time. If we don’t regain that, our only future choice is likely to be a nasty, brutish and short life under war lords or god-kings.
Answers to comments to previous post:
Paul Marks wrote:
>>As the School Men (the Aristotelian scholastics – rather than the 5th century Greek thinker) were fond of saying “natural law is the law of God – but if God did not exist, natural law would be exactly the same”.<<
I’ve seen that said before, but I have not seen any substantiation of this assertion. Why would natural law be the same without God? The fact that Roman legal thinkers admitted that slavery “was against natural law” is not sufficient I think. Where would natural law come from in a world created by chance?
>>And one does not have to hold to a particular religion to hold that, for example, shortages created by price controls are a bad thing.<<
No, but my point (following North) is that one has to hold a particular religion to hold that shortages etc. are a GOOD thing (and one will therefore pursue the necessary policies with particular zeal, which is required because there’ll be a lot of resistance). E.g. if one believes in a “higher” goal that is “worth it” (Madeleine Albright, Stalin, Pol Pot, the French Revolutionaries, Greens, Nazis etc.). One can hold that if one believes in a chaotic world out of which autonomous man has emerged as the sole authority able to create rational order within it. For that, one has to adhere to what North calls “power religion”. Just saying these things are “bad” is not sufficient to stop anyone in his tracks who actually believes they are GOOD things, or at least in aid of the greater good. Only belief in a religion at least equal in depth and strength will stop these people. “Escapist religion” is less than insufficient, nothing but road kill for power religion. It seems that only “dominion religion” is strong enough to stand up to power religion.