As another installment of the philosophy and music festival approaches, its director considers this year's themeby Hilary Lawson / May 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
Galileo’s brilliant ideas once terrified those determined to stick to the norm, now they underpin our view of the world.
Buy tickets for Prospect‘s events at this year’s HowTheLightGetsIn
In 1633, chief inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola, appointed by Pope Urban VIII, began the inquisition of physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. On 22nd June of that same year, the Church handed down the following order: “We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the centre of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the centre of the world.”
It took 350 years for the Church to formally acknowledge that it had been mistaken and clear Gallileo of heresy.
History has many such examples of heretics whose beliefs, outrageous at the time, became the truths of the future. Some of the fundamental building blocks of our understanding of the world started off as heresies. From Socrates to Galileo to Darwin, the venerated were once persecuted heretics, their beliefs morally, intellectually, and politically at odds with the thinking of their time.
Our current “truths” follow institutional and tribal authority just as they did in the days of Pope Urban VIII’s inquisition. It is hard to catch sight of this because we are all victims of orthodoxy, and to such an extent that we almost forget it exists. So it seems obvious to us that the universe began with the Big Bang, that morality is a force for good, that democracy is the most desirable political system, that foreign aid is to be applauded and that science can explain the world.
Heresy of course does not have a hold on truth. Any more than convention does on truth. But unchallenged orthodoxy limits our horizons and entraps us in its web, restricting how we think and what we can do.
It is not only popular culture that is in thrall to the orthodoxies of the present. Many of our institutions, our universities, our thinkers and philosophers are also caught in its web. To challenge orthodoxy is to risk reputation and status. It is not only the safety of the herd that keeps us in check. It is also the difficulty of thinking afresh. It is easier and safer to recycle the views of our culture and particular tribe.
It is not easy to find the cracks in the walls of convention but I believe it is the task of philosophy to hunt them out. Not with the goal of imposing a new orthodoxy but with the aim of opening up the intellectual landscape and inspiring alternative ways of viewing the world. That’s why “Heresy, Truth and the Future” is our theme at this year’s HowTheLightGetsIn. So it is that we have leading scientists arguing that the Big Bang is mistaken, cultural theorists arguing that morality is a figleaf for prejudice, historians proposing that democracy may prove a temporary phenomenon, and philosophers saying we should escape the opposition of truth and falsehood itself.
Perhaps in the heyday of modernism, when we believed knowledge was progressing towards a complete account of the world, it looked as if heresy might be eradicated or associated with that which was simply wrong. But there is no end to heresy just as there is no end to imagination and new ideas. Not all heresies prove to be valuable but the idea of heresy is essential to a vibrant culture. I have no doubt that many of the heresies explored at HowTheLightGetsIn will become the truths of the future. But it is now, in their dawn, that they are most intoxicating and brilliant.