By Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Publisher: Doring Kindersley, 400 pages
Call Number : 909 FER
Whenever I come to a blank in a form requesting my religion, I am tempted to write Deism. Unfortunately most people will not understand what it means. I did not know the word existed until I came across it in this book by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (FFA). Well, Deism is the “belief in God not dependent on organized religion”. It originated back in 18th century Europe when Empiricism - the idea that “reality is observable and verifiable by sense-perception” - was emerging as a major trend and Sir Isaac Newton had just made key discoveries in the laws of mechanics. This filled people with confidence that the universe was as predictable as a clock and all knowledge was within grasp. Things did not turn out as expected, but the prevailing rationale was that if man could understand God through science and mathematics, why bother with religion?
FFA is Professor of Global Environmental History at Queen Mary, University of London. His book is basically an introduction to some of the thoughts and ideas that had guided our actions throughout history. Its pages are packed with information and thought-provoking illustrations. There are 7 sections covering ideas from 30,000 BC to the present 21st century. The topics explained include existentialism, pragmatism, godless humanism, scientific racism, anarchism, utilitarianism, romanticism, German, British, Chinese and Japanese superiority, chivalry, universal morality and regulating incest.
Why are ideas important? Well, they exert a tremendous influence on human behaviour as history has witnessed. The idea, for instance, that we could assume the power of our enemies by eating their flesh, encouraged cannibalism. The idea that strife is natural and conflicts are creative resulted in highly competitive yet cheerless societies - like a certain neighbouring state of ours. Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were used by some to justify racism and the extermination of “inferior” races like the Jews. The idea of a land promised by God to the Israelites became an excuse for the barbaric treatment of the Palestinians. Ideas offer possibilities on how things can be improved and yet produce frustration when hindered by other conflicting ideas. Ideas can destabilize when differing schools of thought clash.
The following is a sampling of the gems contained in this remarkably compact collection.
The Idea of Microscopic Life-forms
Many people held the idea (and many still do) that if life had not originated with God, it must have arisen from spontaneous generation. That is until Lorenzo Spallanzani proved that germs killed by heating could not re-appear in a sealed environment. The entire food industry was transformed by this discovery. So could life have appeared on earth – a closed system - without divine intervention?
The Idea of American Exceptionalism
Americans have always believed that their country is unique and blessed by God. The national psyche is exemplified by two beloved fictional characters. First, every American hero has to be an outsider like the Lone Ranger and has “got to do what a man has got to do”, including partaking in a little violence now and then. Second, Americans are inherently good-natured like Donald Duck and, despite constantly getting into all manner of trouble, are ultimately seeking the best for all concerned! FFA: “The same sort of self-righteousness and obedience to impulse makes American policy-makers bomb people from time to time – but always with good intentions.”
The Idea of a Weapon to End War
Did you know that Alfred Nobel, the guy who created those noble Nobel prizes, made his fortune from explosives and arms trafficking? His original intention was to promote the development of super-weapons. He reasoned that the only way to stop wars was to create weapons so terrible that no one would dare to start a fight! Alfred was apparently consumed by guilt after accidentally blowing up his own brother in an experiment!
The Idea of Unpredictability
Scientists have been trying for centuries to unveil the secrets of the Universe. They succeeded spectacularly in some ways, failed miserably in other ways. A good example of the latter is meteorology. No matter how much statistical data computers crunch, tomorrow’s weather cannot be predicted with certainty. The gulf between cause and effect appears to be so great as to be insurmountable. Chaos theory had a humbling effect. FFA: “The exposure of chaos looks like another nail in the coffin of “scientism” – yet more evidence that nature really is uncontrollable by human minds … Science seems to be self-undermined, and the faster its progress, the more questions emerge about its own competence. And the less faith most people have in it.”
This is a very well-written book and one that I recommend to all armchair philosophers.
Reviewed By : Richard Ooi, Projects and Facilities Management