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Dreamwork in a Decadent Age

A prophetic quote by L. Sprague de Camp provokes a 2006/10/19 soul-searching by Chris Wayan

Christianity's often been blamed for the fall of Rome, but usually for its supposedly wimpy values--weakening the militaristic patriarchy that (despite its injustices) had defended the Empire against barbaric incursions. But L. Sprague de Camp, in his 1964 book The Ancient Engineers, blames the Late Roman stagnation of technical progress (and maybe even Rome's fall itself) on organized religion, but not the way you'd think. De Camp emphasizes not religion but organized: an engineer himself, he sees religions as technology. To him, dogma is machinery. What's the output? For followers, emotional comfort; for church/cult leaders, power.

"They found that it added to their following and advanced their own power, glory, and wealth to flourish a body of sacred writings wherewith to confound the heathen; to promise lavish rewards and punishments after death, in order to right the injustices of earthly life; to set up a tightly-knit, far-flung, conspiratorial organization; to expound a verbose and seemingly logical body of spiritual doctrine; to impose a fixed code of morals and tabus--some reasonable and some purely arbitrary--on their followers; and most of all, to incite a fanatical hatred of rival groups and a grim determination to win the world to one's own faith.

"All these procedures were inventions, just as much as Heron's toy steam engine. With these techniques, the priests, prophets and magicians could more effectively compete for public attention and support. Credulity they redefined as "faith", and fanaticism as "zeal", while respect for the laws of cause and effect was condemned as "blind materialism."

"The success of a cult depended upon its fidelity to these principles. This success, needless to say, had nothing to do with the objective truth of its doctrines, any more than the success of a modern advertising campaign has to do with the virtues of the cigarette or detergent being sold.

"As a result, the world witnessed a great "return to religion." The new cults grew swiftly. The old Greek and Roman polytheisms, with no central organization, no theology but a mass of childish and inconsistent myths, and no particular doctrine of future life, crumbled before the tide. The worship of Kybele, Mithra, Isis, Yahveh, Serapis, Abraxas, and Christ waxed mighty. The magical cults of the Neopythagoreans, the Neoplatonists, and the Gnostics throve. The pseudo-science of astrology flourished, and hedge-wizards like Simon Magus swarmed.

"The methods listed above had already, before the Christian era, appeared to some extent in Judaism and Zoroastrianism. So it is not surprising that the strongest of the new religions should prove to be Christianity and Mithraism, heretical offshoots of Judaism and Zoroastrianism respectively.

"Of all the mass religions, Christianity made the most effective use of these principles. Possessed of the tightest organization, the most bewildering logic, the most impressive sacred literature, and the most fanatical spirit of any, it captured the Principate while Christians were still a small minority in the Empire. Then, armed with the terrifying doctrines of exclusive salvation, eternal damnation, and the imminent end of the world, and backed by the Emperor's executioners, it soon swept its rivals from the board.

"This, however, happened long after classical science had withered in the sirocco of a resurgent supernaturalism, of which Christianity was but a small part. It withered because few paid any attention to science any more. Who wanted to spend years in pursuit of some obscure natural law, or pay somebody else to do so, when by joining one of the new cults you got drama, passion, mystery, a feeling of superiority to all nonmembers, and a promise of eternal bliss in heaven?

"Supernaturalism could offer these things, since nobody came back from the dead to complain that he had been swindled. Science could not, so science lost out. People who might have become scientists became mystics or theologians instead; it seemed more worth while.

"This is not to say that supernaturalism does no good whatever. Strabon of Amasia, the great geographer of the time of Augustus, knew what he was talking about when he remarked: "The great mass of women and common people cannot be induced by mere force of reason to devote themselves to piety, virtue, and honesty. Superstition must therefore be employed, and even this is insufficient without the aid of the marvelous and the terrible." But supernaturalism is not, on the whole, friendly to science and technology, and there is no use pretending that it is."

It's painfully clear that de Camp is describing our age too. After four centuries of spectacular success in applying new social technologies (the scientific method, the separation of church and state, representative democracy, public sanitation, public education)... we seem to be throwing it all away.

In contemporary America, kids interested in science get mocked for it in school; not only do peers disapprove, teachers are ambivalent, for they're often under pressure not to teach the facts--evolution in particular. But not only Darwin--intellectualism of any kind is not just undervalued; in most schools it's a liability, particularly if you're not white and male (we haven't advanced an inch past Strabon of Amasia's sexism). If you want friends, let alone dates, you better hide your geeky interests. Intellectualism may advance knowledge and benefit the world at large (long-term), but in school the short-term cost is horrendous. If you're skeptical, read the biographical essays in She's Such a Geek. Smart is not sexy any more--especially not for girls.

So a large fraction of our potential geniuses shut down in high school. Or they get shunned, dissed, even beaten up, for being oreos or geek girls or artsy faggots or godless Darwinists. Oh, some persevere, pay the price; but most shut up, give up, and get on with ordinary lives. Our innovators become consumers; at most, hobbyists.

"People who might have become scientists became mystics or theologians instead; it seemed more worth while."

Or at least less painful. I was my school's punching bag. I held out, pursued my interests anyway, at the cost of ostracism. If you've found this little rant, you may have done that too.

But did I follow through? Many of my science teachers would see me today as a sell-out to mysticism. I follow science closely, and yet here I am working as an artist/musician/writer instead of an inventor or researcher--unless you count dream research, and I'd bet de Camp would call that mysticism--the loss of a serious engineer.

And he'd be right. I'd love a technical dayjob: designing ergonomic musical instruments by treating them as interfaces for data retrieval systems ("the music's inside, you just gotta get it out") and studying what patterns have worked best for storing and accessing complex data in general. But though everyone who's seen my weird-looking mockups has admitted they'd work better than traditional ones (and that they'd like one), getting the technical, financial and organizational backing to produce and market truly new instruments is a full-time job. I can do art or science, dreaming or inventing; a society of specialists like ours won't allow both. I know a dozen other severely gifted people capable of socially useful innovation who are in much the same boat--too isolated and marginalized to implement their visions. So good designs languish, remain hobbies and curiosities, just like Heron of Alexandria's toy steam engine (or organs, watermills and windmills). Roman society didn't value innovation; and strange though it sounds after America's inventiveness in the 19th and 20th centuries, today America's as anti-science as late Rome. American schools produce rather few math or science majors; high tech is immigrant-driven.

But I'm troubled by a further sense that I've betrayed science. Or that science betrayed me. After all, I do reject some mainstream science. I don't buy the current theories about sleep and dreaming, and I accept parapsychology and some other fringe science--or junk science. Not that I want to. It's a dilemma for me: what do you do when your data contradicts the accepted paradigms of your day? I don't believe in ESP, I just regularly encounter it: dreams of distant or future events, or other people's dreams, or their private thoughts.

And yet... what were my motives for paying attention to dreams in the first place? Isn't De Camp right that people from the 1960s on have grown impatient with the discipline good science (or disciplined invention) requires? This era's bread and circuses (sports and entertainment, but also many kinds of spirituality) do offer more immediate gratification and comfort than science. It isn't only that geeks get mocked. The distractions are seductive.

The problem, both for scientific skeptics and for other dreamworkers and paranormal experimenters, is that one can't automatically assume that the emotional gratifications of exploring fringe science mean that the facts uncovered are all false. In my case, and I speak for many of the dreamworkers I know, I'm stuck with data that violates the current scientific paradigm. Yet most of the alternative theories out there are just religions in disguise; they repel me for precisely the reasons de Camp lists.

De Camp raises a caveat for all serious researchers in a culturally stagnant era when people naturally seek comfort: if your worldview comforts you, look closer. Did you accept it for that reason? Comfort or truth? Certainly science and mainstream religion clash deeply. But, and this is my point, "comfort or truth?" applies both to mystics and skeptics. Psychic dreams are not restricted to a tiny minority of dreamers, or to "professional" psychics with a motive for fraud. They're quite common, and follow consistent, pan-cultural patterns. If they were merely a De Campian wish-fulfilling cult, a product of our decadence, they wouldn't be found so consistently in cultures worldwide, in all stages of development--or decay.

I mostly restrict myself to data collection--it feels premature, to me, to try to theorize before you've convinced most people to even look at the data. Scientists are quite right to debunk religion and spiritualism as bad theory--it is. But for a skeptic to declare all paranormal experiences to be lies or delusions is a huge, second step, and a deeply divisive one, since it demands that we throw out data because your theory says it must be mistaken. Evolution vs Creationism is a battle between a well-evidenced theory and junk "theory" that's just Christianity in a new suit. But parapsychology, at least, is a battle over data; and its implications are at least as large.

Out of all my strict-materialist friends, only one has had the honesty to say "Chris, I have to assume you're either lying or crazy, because if your predictive dreams are real, all my assumptions about the world would be wrong." I admire her for insulting me. Her stance is openly based on comfort, but she has the integrity to acknowledge the implications of psychic dreams (and also the critical intelligence to realize that other types of ESP, like telepathy or clairvoyance, might be reconcilable with current physics. It's prophecy that sticks in everyone's throat--my own, too.)

What I've generally seen skeptics do is just ignore the whole issue, or to assume that all non-materialists are believers, not experiencers, or experimenters. But skeptics should consider how such patronizing assumptions affect those who've studied ESP firsthand. If you dismiss their data as credulous belief or sloppy method, you just reinforce the claims by both religious nuts and postmodern academics that science is just one more belief system, and alienate all those whose experiences you dismiss. There are plenty of enemies to science, free thought, and free speech without making more! Millions of know-nothings who are proud of it--a mass movement of devout anti-intellectuals eager to enforce their faith in the schools.

But a siege mentality won't help. Even when there really are barbarians at the gates.

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