Counterfactual Thinking: Life After the Not-Burning of the Library in Alexandria

January 3, 2008

I just finished reading the book A Secret of the Universe. The secret, it turns out, is that Jesus Christ didn’t exist as a historical figure.

Of course, I must point out that this book is ‘fiction’ [though most of the information circling around biblical criticism did come from real, reliable scholars], much like the The Da Vinci Code. Though in the same breath, I have to wonder if that really matters. I think that I can more or less completely thank The Da Vinci Code for my eventual shedding of my Roman Catholic beliefs. Well, really more The Templar Reveltations. But the point being, a work of fiction can leave an indelible mark on its reader.

All of that out of the way, what I really want to talk about is an alternate track that history might have taken if early Christians hadn’t been such pyros. Early Christians, especially after they formed a church (what we call today the Roman Catholic Church), were pretty hard core about destroying any bit of knowledge that wasn’t explicitly Christian. That turns out to be really bad news for Western Civilization, especially when the great bulk of its knowledge (scientific, philosophic, and otherwise) came from the ‘pagan’ Greeks.

So you have this really great library in the city of Alexandria, and the Christians burn it to the ground (in one version of the story: as with all things in history, this particular plot twist is up for debate). Though we don’t really know how great the library was because so little of it remains.

But while reading A Secret of the Universe, one of the characters comments that we might have made it to the moon in 1600 if not for the destruction of the library, and other backwards thinking (what we call the “Dark Ages”). For some reason, that thought just kind of hit me hard. I don’t know if I have a period bias, so I think that only people that look, dress, and think like us could possibly get to the moon. But the idea of the first manned space flight to the moon consisting of Leonardo, Donatello, and Rapheal just kind of blew my mind (not to mention that this would have created a whole new franchise for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!).

But as with all counterfactual thinking, nothing really good can come of this. Other than idle fantasizing. The fact still remains that we didn’t make it to the moon in 1600. That’s a ‘sunk cost,’ as the economists would say. But that doesn’t mean we can’t hope to blow past modern impediments to scientific, philosophical, and otherwise human progress. We have the same people standing in the way (yeah, you would think in 1600 years, the Christians would learn already! [not that Christians are the only problem, they just happen to make up the majority of the problem and thus get my attention {and not that all Christians are the problem; just the anti-science, anti-reason ones}]). We can choose to let them ‘burn the library of Alexandria’ again with their anti-science, anti-reason rhetoric. Or we can change their mind. Or we can push ahead and just hope that our superior technology will outdo their superior numbers.

Of course, in the end, none of it really matters. If we made it to the moon in 1600, mankind would still be just where we are today (though we might also be on some other planets at this point!). And if we never make it to some transhumanist utopia, we’ll also be just where we are.

But there’s no harm in dreaming.

Random, completely contemporary report: apparently Obama is in the lead right now in the Iowa primaries. Yay! That means that Hillary isn’t, which means we might actually get a Democrat for president (more importantly, an intelligent Democrat that actually seems to have some sort of positive vision for our country), which means that in a little over a year I might actually be proud of the man (or woman) holding the position as my President. That would be a nice mix up from the past 8 years!

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