Idle Theory From Reason to Faith

alternating idleness

Golden Age

Thinking and reasoning are activities that take time. Solving an equation, or adding up numbers, are not instantaneous events, but instead processes. In adding the numbers 23 and 37, one first adds the three and the seven to give 10. And then one adds the 20 and the 30 to give 50. And then one adds the 10 to the 50, to give a final result of 60.*

Even if one is to calculate this sum using an electronic calculator, one still has to first press '2' and '3' and then '+' and then '3' and '7' and finally '='. Either way, this little bit of reasoning takes time.

And so also with all reasoning: it takes time. Whoever first proved the Theorem of Pythagoras probably thought about it for a long time, groping in the dark, getting it wrong, trying again, until finally the theorem and its proof emerged. One may say with certainty that it did not appear in a sudden flash of understanding.

And where philosophers attempt to construct entire systems of reason, whether mathematical or physical or economic, they require considerable amounts of time in which to construct and elaborate their ideas.

And since, for the most part, their efforts have little or no utility, their ideas have, at best, the nature of amusing toys, constructed in their idle hours. Reasoning, particularly about matters unconnected with the pressing affairs of everyday life, is an idle time activity.

All of our mathematics and physics and chemistry and biology and economics and philosophy is the product of people toying with ideas in their idle time. And therefore it follows that largely idle societies will produce many such thinkers, and that busy societies will produce few such thinkers. In idle times, people have the time to think, to reason, and to construct entire edifices of thought. In busy times, with little time to think and to reason, very few such edifices can be constructed.

So in idle societies reason will flourish. Many ideas will appear, and be argued about, accepted and rejected. Idle societies will produce many mathematicians and scientists and philosophers. Busy societies will produce next to none.

Thanks to our machine slaves, we live at present in an idle age, a golden age. If our shops are full of luxuries, it is because we, as a society, have the idle time to make and use such luxuries. Our scientific knowledge grows almost exponentially, in almost every area of concern. We look forward to an almost perpetual growth in our knowledge and understanding in ever-widening fields.

But if human idleness is not stable at some constant level, and instead varies from age to age, cycling between times when people are largely busy and times when they are largely idle, then we may expect periods of falling idleness. What if contemporary life gradually became less idle, and all had to work harder to survive? What if we found before us not the sunlit uplands of a continuing golden age, but the gathering shadows of a looming dark age of toil and trouble?

Dark Age

As the new dark age gradually deepened, and social idleness fell, there would be less and less time to devote to the playful construction of rational new ideas. There would be less and less time to think. Reason would increasingly come to be replaced by prejudice, impulse, fashion, and dogma. The development of science would gradually slow and stop, simply because nobody much had the time to think any further.

And at the same time that the development of new ideas and theories slowed, people in general would gradually become less capable of reasoning about any matter, quite simply because they did not have the time to do so. Increasingly, decisions would be taken on the spur of the moment, rather than after careful consideration. People would begin to act impulsively rather than with deliberation. Or they would operate on rules of thumb that condensed or replaced reasoning. Or rather than think independently for themselves, they would put their trust in authorities of one sort or other. Rational scepticism would give way to irrational credulity.

Standards of literacy and numeracy, which require years of education to produce, would steadily fall. Less and less art and music and literature - all essentially idle time products - would be produced and consumed. Luxuries and amusements and games would slowly vanish.

And with fewer students either able or willing to learn mathematics and physics and engineering, these once-burgeoning and expanding fields would begin to contract. Instead of knowledge being gained, knowledge would begin to be lost. The accumulated wisdom of centuries of invention and imagination would begin to erode. Books would fall out of print. Paintings and sculptures, once highly valued but now almost valueless, would increasingly become lost or abandoned.

And with idleness falling, and reasoning becoming impossible, dogmatism would gradually appear - a dogmatism that asserted that this or that was true, but without any rational argument to support it. And when one dogmatic conviction collided with another, the dispute would not be resolved through reasoned disputation, but by force. One dogma would suppress another, until only one dogma remained.

Faced with this gathering darkness, the custodians of our cultural heritage would cease to try to increase it further, but instead set out to try to preserve what they could of it. They would begin to ask themselves what were its greatest achievements, which masterworks really needed to be preserved for posterity. The plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Tennyson, the art of Picasso, the literature of Borges, Newton's Principia, Einstein's theory of relativity.

Societies would be formed for the preservation of the heritage of the passing golden age. Their members would swear to make every effort to preserve some knowledge or skill, and to pass on to their children and their children's children that knowledge. They would swear not to edit or rewrite any book, alter any equation, add no gloss, in the attempt to preserve the heritage for posterity.

At the outset, the members of these societies would be highly educated teachers, some with multiple skills. They would teach as much as they could to the younger society members. And these in turn, in their adulthood, would teach new young members. And they would preserve the old writings, the old science, and the old art. In an increasingly barbaric, irrational, and uneducated world, these societies would become authorities.

But as time passed, the knowledge would gradually continue to erode. Some teachers would neglect to teach some part of the old wisdom. Or else condense it and simplify it, leaving out crucial details. And some students would not understand the old wisdom. Or else misunderstand it, and thereby corrupt it. Little by little the old wisdom would become forgotten. Algebra would be taught by teachers who did not understand algebra to students who could neither add nor subtract. Knowledge would increasingly become rote knowledge, the mere parrotting of a teacher's words. Old books that had become damaged would no longer be repaired. The carefully preserved relics of the golden age would gradually be lost - ignored, misplaced, burned, stolen or sold. Ultimately the society would no longer really know what it was trying to preserve, and would instead rely on the advice of some of its most illustrious teachers.

And finally, all that would sustain these societies would be a blind faith that they were preserving an ancient wisdom, a wisdom that would return in a future golden age, when the lost knowledge would be recovered, the secret wisdom revealed again, the dead civilisation rising from its grave to be reborn.

And many of these societies would entirely vanish, for lack of new members to continue the task. Entire fields of knowledge would die out, as the last teacher died. Entire libraries would moulder away.

In this manner, reason would give way to faith. Not a faith that was opposed to reason, but a faith in a lost reason, a faith that looked forward to the restoration of that reason.

And perhaps one day blind faith would be rewarded. One day, as social idleness began to rise again, the old knowledge would be rediscovered, the old reason would be recovered, and dead sciences and arts revitalised.

Here then is one account of the rise of one kind of religious faith. It begins as an attempt to preserve ancient knowledge from being lost in the face of falling idleness and rising irrationality, but as it continues to try to preserve that knowledge, it is always trickling away, always becoming slowly more incomprehensible, and what finally remains of it is preserved only by the blind faith of keepers who no longer have any idea whatsoever what any of it once meant. It is religion as lost rationality.

It explains several features of religions. That they have founding long-dead teachers of wisdom, whose sayings are preserved as sacred. That they allow no deviation from the original teachings. That the interpretation of the teachings is always subject to dispute. That the value of the teachings is a matter of faith rather than reason.

And it offers another way of thinking about religion. One starts off by largely discounting the claims of its current practitioners, on the grounds that they have almost certainly lost track of what Confucius / Buddha / Moses / Jesus / Mohammed really meant. And then one takes mysterious words like "god", and tries replace them with rational ideas like "good", so that the "one god" becomes the "one good". In this way, one hopes to recover a lost rationality.

But, of course, one may never succeed - because this theory of religion maybe entirely erroneous. But it is the approach adopted by Idle Theory.

After all, if religion is to be regarded as itself as natural in origin as any other sort of social phenomenon - economic or political or military - some sort of investigation needs to be made of the rationality underlying it. The easy dismissal of religion as irrational superstition merely betrays a failure to take religion seriously. Religion should be regarded with the same open and detached interest as is directed at any other natural phenomenon.

In many ways, what is being argued here is that there is a rationality to faith. In busy ages, when men have little or no time to think, they necessarily subcontract their thinking to authorities who retain sufficient idle time in which to think.

Historically, the late Roman empire was one in which reason gradually gave way to authority and faith, which suggests that it was a time of falling idleness.

Any 'age of reason' simply corresponds to a time of relatively high idleness, when men rediscover the ability to think for themselves, and begin to question authority.

Historically, the Enlightenment was a period when authority and faith gradually began to give way to reason.

The entire process is entirely rational: faith alternates with reason. Faith in authority is the refuge of people who are too busy to think. Loss of faith is the consequence of people finding time to think again.

The conflict between faith and reason, or between religion and science, is largely spurious. Rationalists who entirely reject religious faith as irrational nonsensical superstition are really only supposing that humanity has always had the ability to think rationally like them, and this ability to think has been suppressed by irrational religious authorities. Such rationalists (e.g. Richard Dawkins) conceive of the struggle between science and religion as a Manichaean struggle between reason and unreason.

But the supposition that humanity has always been able to think, and has always had the time to think, does not bear scrutiny. It is entirely possible, and perhaps even inevitable, that there are long periods of time when the bulk of humanity is simply too busy to think rationally. And it is in such times that religious authorities arise. Religious faiths are not irrational, but are the keepers of past reasoning, the state-of-the-art thinking from previous golden ages of reason. Of course, that state-of-the-art thinking may have been mistaken in the first place, and its keepers may anyway have not taken very good care of it, and rendered it largely incomprehensible and irrational to subsequent eras. But it is really an irrational conceit to suppose that nobody knew anything worth knowing in previous eras, or that the ideas and understandings of former ages were all nonsense, and only the latest bunch of rational thinkers have any real understanding of anything.

Rationalists may find religious faiths irrational, but they should revere them all the same, by seeking to recover the rationality within them. And equally religious authorities ought to revere a renascent rationality that possesses this ability to recover their lost or damaged rationality.

* (As a matter of interest, I timed myself in performing mental arithmetic:

8 x 7: 2 seconds. I happen to have my 12 times tables still pretty firmly lodged in memory, so it's a simple lookup. However, some parts of the tables are getting a bit hazy, and so I usually have to check by comparing with the next multiple up or down. 56.

7 x 36: 18 seconds. This is out of range my times tables, so I have to multiply 6 by 7, and then 30 by 7, and add the two results together. 252.

16 x 51: 42 seconds. This requires multiplying 51 by 10, and 1 by 16, and adding the results together. Possibly a bit too easy, as there are two 1's in this particular multiplication. 816.

23 x 257: 210 seconds. I found this one difficult. Too many numbers to keep in my head. And in the end I came up with an answer of 5971. Which is wrong. The right answer is 5911.

So OK, I'm pretty slow... But using a calculator, you have to first find the calculator. Then you key in the numbers and read the result. And then you have to put the calculator away. Most of the costs of using a calculator go in finding the thing, unless you always keep one in your pocket or on your wrist.)


Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 12 Jan 2006
Last edited: 28 Jan 2006