by Rick Lewis
Sometimes we gather a set of articles from which a theme emerges unexpectedly. This is one of those times. We had an article by Mary Midgley on the nature of knowledge, and another on scepticism. We had Daniel Hill’s article arguing that life only has meaning if there is a God, and a couple of articles pressing unorthodox views of the nature of that God. But we also had an article about Spinoza, whose own speculations on that very question led to his expulsion from his community. And this led to the realisation that the sincere search for meaning and for knowledge involves a disregard for received opinion, and that this can make it a lonely occupation. Hence our fro nt cover. The lonely search for meaning is an image of the heretic as she or he sets out on a course diverging from his or her community. So it became clear, finally, that the theme of this issue is heresy.
When we talk of heretics, we immediately think of religion, but in fact heretics can be dissenters from purely secular ideologies. The word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek hairesis, simply meaning ‘choice’. The heretic is one who has chosen to take a different path from the orthodox.
The heretic these days is generally seen as a rather glamourous figure, a freethinking hero deserving of our sympathy. We think of innumerable devout people persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition. We think of Galileo, who narrowly escaped being flambéed in 1633 for astronomical observations which contradicted the opinions of the Church. Our sympathy is with the underdog. It is difficult for us to grasp why our ancestors ever persecuted people over theological differences which often seem obscure. What were they thinking? But while the persecutors (of whatever faith) may just have been idiots, conformists or cynical defenders of the existing power structures, their motives were sometimes more elevated. The orthodox might say of the heretic that he or she has chosen to abandon a community of inquiry, or a community of faith, to selfishly and foolishly pursue a lone course. The choice of the heretic is a choice to disregard the accumulated wisdom of great teachers and thinkers. It is a risky choice, then, and one which may suggest a lack of humility, but surely that affects the individual alone? Why not say like the Romans, that offences to the gods are the concern of the gods, and leave it at that? But what if the individual heretic leads other, more suggestible, people away from the true path, at the peril of their souls? To understand the full force this argument once had, forget religion for a moment – in a secular age we need a secular example. The overwhelming majority of researchers consider that AIDS is caused by the virus called HIV, and AIDS treatments worldwide are based on this assumption. However a few scientists take the view that HIV has nothing to do with AIDS. Recently the South African Government used the views of that minority to justify their decision not to spend money on modern anti-AIDS treatments. The ‘orthodox’ are appalled not merely because they find the research of the ‘heretics’ flawed and their arguments unconvincing, but because the views of the minority may directly result in people needlessly dying of a terrible disease. Is there not an overwhelming humanitarian case for the mainstream scientists (if they had the power) to stifle the voices of the AIDS dissidents, and to punish them if they persisted in propagating their perverse and harmful opinions?
Yet philosophy in particular and progress in general is driven by a combination of heresy and scepticism. And without that freedom of enquiry, the science to fight AIDS couldn’t have come into existence in the first place. So we need heretics after all – there is a lot at stake here (and I don’t just mean Giordano Bruno, who was tied to one by the Inquisition in 1600). After all, Socrates himself was one. One of the charges brought against him at his trial was that he had been ‘introducing new gods’. Surely this is a heresy rap if ever there was one. Confusingly, his accusers hedged their bets by also accusing Socrates of atheism, but either way, they persuaded the Athenian jury to sentence him to death, exactly 2,400 years ago this year. Fortunately, following his amazing reincarnation as a Philosophy Now columnist, he is now able to give us his side of the story, and does so in his regular column in this issue.