The Nature of Authority

Amit Majmudar
August 25, 2013
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A book describing the afterlife has been on the bestseller lists for some time, a first-person account by a neurosurgeon. It’s one of those books I’ve read reviews of, but haven’t actually read the text of; it sounds loopy and personal, but then all reports about the afterlife are like that, even (especially) Dante’s. The key thing about this book’s appeal seems to be that it was written by a neurosurgeon, a board-certified M.D. If it were written by, say, a hobo, a haberdasher, or a horticulturist, it probably wouldn’t have found a publisher, much less gotten reviewed in national newspapers.

Why do “spiritual” people like it so much when the man of science testifies? This is just one example; one moment you’ll hear them deploy a quote of Einstein’s (“God does not play dice”), in which “God” seems to have been used almost metaphorically (in context, he was talking about the presence of randomness in quantum physics, not Calvinist predestination), or talk about high-concept physics like “action at a distance,” or else draw metaphors between the concept of the immortal soul and the fact that “energy is neither created nor destroyed.” I’m a Hindu, and I’ve read the Big Bang Theory recruited to buttress the myth of Hiranyagarbha, the Golden Egg that broke open to spill forth all the matter in the universe.

Now the natural conclusion we might draw from this—and I myself jumped to it—is that the sciences, enjoying the highest prestige in their long history, have become the true authority. Religions are desperate to corroborate their findings with the true Authority. The man in the saffron shawl, the man in the black cassock all look to the man in the white coat. This is why they appropriate the jargon and discoveries of science, drawing analogies whenever they can: As they once cited scripture, now they cite scientific studies. If poetry had the same authority as science, religious thinkers would be desperate to prove the Bible was a work of poetry, even though it’s in prose. (That would be an easier task than proving its assertions about the physical world.) So: Science is in the ascendant, and the relentless appeal to scientific authority proves the bankruptcy of traditional religions and the undermining of their scriptures. Right?

Right, but that’s not the whole story. We haven’t gone far enough. There is a larger phenomenon at work here, one with long precedent in the history of religion.

In some warrior cultures, the victor would remove and eat the heart of the slain enemy. The enemy’s prowess would enter the victor. It was ascendancy through incorporation.

The cultural cachet and psychological authority of the sciences are impossible to deny. But religions have always been syncretic, incorporating whatever they find authoritative and attractive; this is why Krishna dies of an arrow to the heel, like Achilles, and slays snakes in his cradle, like Hercules; why the story of Christ mirrored that of several killed-and-resurrected fertility gods both in the Near East and Europe, and why “Christmas” falls on the birthday of Mithras; why Mohammed, the Arab, inserted himself into a line of Jewish prophets as (note this well) the last and most authoritative one.

The prestige of the sciences began to rise in Europe right around the time Spinoza created his elaborate, scientific-sounding book of religious philosophy—“proving” God through jargon. This was the first attempt to incorporate the challenge through ingestion, but it has never stopped. Religion’s absorptive, syncretic tendencies are busy appropriating scientific ideas (and twisting them to fit). The jargon of academic historical research, the jargon of theoretical physics—everything, if the past is any indicator, can and will be repurposed.

This is the paradoxical nature of Authority: Its perpetual reference to some superior Authority, whether deity, personification, text, or abstraction—consider the Sun-King who claims divine right, the poet who points to the Muse, the justice who cites the Constitution, and the Marxist who cites Historical Law. Believe what I say because I represent something greater than myself. In this sense, the scientists are no different; they ground their Authority, however, not in any supernatural being, nor in a specific set of words or numbers (both axiom and mathematical result are open to revision or overturning), nor in an abstraction. They base their Authority in a method, scientific method, which is a way of studying and coming to conclusions about physical things. This is why their Authority on physical things is supreme; but it is also why the metaphysical, philosophical claims of “scientism” or “scientific materialism” have failed to carry the human race as winningly. Science has convinced millions of people who have never actually seen the earth from space that the earth goes round the sun and not the other way around. Against a seemingly much simpler assertion to disprove—that there is no God: something that unlike heliocentrism is congruent with sensory evidence—materialists pen their polemics in vain.

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