Ben Carson, The Simple Scientist (2015Oct25)

Sunday, October 25, 2015                                       9:23 AM

Ben Carson seems unusually ignorant for a respected brain surgeon—how can that be? It is a signal victory of fundamentalism that it has the flexibility to accept technical training and scientific rigor within the confines of the purely mechanical—and yet maintains its insistence on magical thinking within selected contexts. The Amish are the exception, as they eschew even geared wheels and electric current—a mystery, yet more sensible in its absolutism than the pick-and-choose fundamentalism of run-of-the-mill bible-thumpers like Ben.

Modern Christians usually accept that current science replaces the ‘factual’ tautology and cosmology of the Bible without doing any great harm to the spiritual content of that Good Book. Orthodox Christian Scientists are the exception, as they eschew the medical science and practices that Ben is so known for. Oddly, the Christian Scientists will drive a car—and the Amish will take medicine—yet it is accepted that both groups worship the same God as the less stringent, more casual believers of mainstream Protestantism.

Catholics have their specialty too, but it lies in the more ethereal realm of ‘morality’—their focus is often on birth-control and gender-bias (and gender ‘purity’, i.e. LGBT hatred). This is a hangover from the days when the Catholic Church made a business out of selling forgiveness—and business was good, while it lasted. But there is always a boomerang effect—young Amish are most tempted by muscle cars; young Christian Scientists are most tempted by medical relief—but Catholics, being focused on sex and gender, are most tempted by sexuality.

Religious ‘specialty features’ become a window into human nature—whatever is most feared becomes that which is most fascinating. Certain ‘tools’ are used to limit this gravitational attraction to the forbidden. The Amish use the wanderjahr, or Rumspringa, as a way of allowing their young adults to experience the wider world—knowing that some will choose to remain in that world, rather than return to the Amish culture. Of those who choose an Amish life, there is also the practice of ‘shunning’, which cuts all ties to any member of the community who breaks faith with their rules. Being such a backward culture, the Amish community requires these cut-offs to prevent their ranks from swelling with rebellious members willing to allow changes into their way of life. Ignoring two centuries of change across the rest of the globe is no easy task.

The Catholics have absolution, which makes it possible to break their rules and still have a place in the community—but they also have excommunication, which is a paradoxical process by which they exempt the worst offenders from absolution, and of acceptance in their community. Forgiveness is their watchword—unless one goes too far, for which is there is no forgiveness—like I said—paradoxical.

Protestants have only propriety—which in its way is even more insidious. A staunch protestant can invent more rules and strictures than other faiths could imagine—and these inventions can become part of the societal conventions of a community. It is almost an art form—deciding which aspects of our lives make us most uncomfortable and using religious vagaries to mark such aspects as evil—and this changes from place to place, based on the local preferences. In this way, one person’s eccentricities can acquire the solidity of scientific fact. It is, in many ways, the most imaginative way of seeing things—but it operates more upon our imagined fears than our imagined hopes.

The most strident criticisms I hear regarding my atheism are those that claim I have nothing—that only a fool would go through life without a God. That makes perfect sense to a believer—but from my point of view we all have nothing—and some of us simply pretend there is something there. I can’t pretend that they aren’t happier in their beliefs—that my life doesn’t have less glory and joy than theirs. Unfortunately, I require more than convenience as a reason to believe—and I require my beliefs to fit in with what I know to be true.

Knowledge, too, is problematical. What I know to be true is a very small fraction of what there is to know. Atheists, even atheist scientists, live in a world of ignorance—we don’t know how the universe was created, we don’t know why humans exist, we don’t know any sure answers to replace religious beliefs. Atheists don’t offer alternative beliefs, we just don’t accept older beliefs out of convention or convenience. We allow for the fact that such an unknowable universe is probably not revealed in ancient myths, even the most modern, monotheistic versions of those myths.

And here the dichotomy of scripture becomes an issue. The scientific ignorance of ancient times is debunked by the advances of science—the older the ‘facts’, the more likely their inaccuracy. Human nature, on the other hand, is well-served by millennia of observation and contemplation—the spiritual aspects of sacred writings have much to offer in terms of how we treat each other and how we view ourselves. Thus the teachings of Moses, of Christ, of Mohammed or Buddha—these words have value to society—but the conflation of this wisdom with the creation myths and other factual ignorance of ancient times makes these scriptures mixed bags of wisdom and nonsense.

This dichotomy is further confused by our preference for the path of least resistance. Jesus tells us to give freely, to be charitable, merciful, and forgiving—but that’s extremely inconvenient. It is so much more satisfying to use dogma to attack others, or use piety to aggrandize ourselves. Jefferson famously created his own personal cut-and-paste bible in which he selected those passages which he felt had the most meaning to his times, and left out that which harkened back to a more primitive age. Dogmatic insistence on the entirety of the Bible creates a false boundary, requiring that we take the good with the bad—and ignoring the fact that the Bible is an evolved text, which has already been changed many times throughout history.

There is much to doubt, and much to question, in the established religions of our times—and so we see many scientists are also atheists, whether that makes them unhappy or not. And a brain surgeon is very much like a scientist, so we expect someone like Ben Carson to question dogmas that are laughably unscientific. Sadly, we must accept that brain surgery, unlike medical research, is a trained skill—a very complex and intellectually demanding skill, but still ultimately a rote process that, while requiring a sharp mind and a steady hand, nonetheless requires no great curiosity or imagination.

Surprisingly, atheism is not a matter of mere intellect—the fundamentalists have many great thinkers amongst them. But as with idiot savants, intellectuals can accomplish great mental challenges without a commensurate breadth of perception or understanding. Ben Carson is a respected brain surgeon—he could just as easily be a rocket scientist—either way, he still would not be guaranteed wisdom—or leadership.

His recent obtuse comments about school-shootings and gay marriage reveal the superficial character of his thought processes—and prove that specialized skill in one area does not equip anyone to succeed at everything. When Donald Trump extolls his business acumen, we can question how that jibes with two bankruptcies, but when Ben Carson says he’s a good brain surgeon, there’s no reason to doubt him. Nevertheless, it is little indication that he is prepared to lead the free world—it is in fact proof that he knows nothing about it, since brain surgery requires no small amount of concentration.

Ben Carson does, however, fit in with the Tea Party’s attitudes about small government, disrupted government, even no government. How apropos that their candidate has no experience in governing. What it does not explain is why Ben Carson would want to be president. I think of such candidates, Trump or Carson, as ‘suicide bomber’ candidates—they just want to get into the White House so they can blow it all to smithereens.

Back in my youth, the hippies decided to drop out of established society because of all its faults and hypocrisy—but they eventually realized that productive change can only be accomplished from within the establishment. The right-wing partisans of the present are going through the same learning process—the only question is how much damage will their shut-downs and obstructionism do to our country before they realize the same thing.

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