Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Religion is mental horror vacui

horror vacui
Nature does not fear empty space. So why should we fear empty space in our knowledge? I think that mental fear of vacuum is as unjustified as fear of vacuum is unreal in the physical world. Last week I have shown why I see gaps in knowledge not as a weakness but a strength of science. In contrast, religious people seem to suffer from a mental fear of vacuum. That is, all gaps in knowledge must be filled at any price.

Horror of vacuum, horror vacui in Latin, has first been postulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He thought that nature had a horror of empty space. Empty space thus would try to suck matter in. This theory has been held for more than a millennium until Torricelli detected air pressure in the seventeenth century. Today we know that most part of the Universe is empty space. Nature, had it feelings, would be quite happy with it.

In mind, horror vacui may have two different meanings: Fear of gaps in knowledge or inner emptiness caused by a missing sense of life. Religion may fill gaps of both kind. The second kind has been the idea behind a film by Rosa von Praunheim.

Horror vacui - the film (1984)

The title of this film is derived from the inner emptiness of its characters, misleading them into the clutches of a sect. Its guru is Madame C, teacher of a cult called Optimal Optimism. Many fall for her, politicians as well as housewives, even children. Two of the protagonists are students and a painter. Rumours spread about terror in the inner circles of the sect. The film ends with a raid. The police rushes into the house and finds all sect members dead after a mass suicide.

With this film, Rosa von Praunheim, a German gay activist, has won the Independent/Experimental Film and Video Award 1985 in Los Angeles.

Praunheim's film plot is a very special and bizarre case, but I think the idea is fundamental. I think that every religion is an attempt to overcome a mental horror vacui.

Mental horror vacui as essential condition of religion

Lino Sanchez, author of the freethought site christianism.com, has compiled a vast collection of quotes to support this view. He concludes:
"All the Gods of Homo sapiens (erectus, et al.?), including the famous Gods of the Greeks, the reported 1200 deities of the Romans, the Gods and God of the Jews and Christians, Jesus Christ, other myths, folklore (Bibles, etc.), have been and are, 'stuffing' for mental horror vacui."

What about philosophy and science?

Of course, not only religion but also certain schools of thought in philosophy and science seem to be powered by mental horror vacui. Qualia is a good example of a concept that serves no other purpose than filling a vaccum in the understanding of the world. The monads of Leibniz, three hundred years ago, are another example of philosophical horror vacui.

Isn't science with its eagerness to explain everything not just another example of mental horror vacui? Is it different from religion in this respect?

I think it is different. Whereas religions must fill the mental vacuum at any price, using gods and other stuffing material, science just tries to construct useful theories that grow into the empty space, but never filling it completely. There is always enough empty space left for more and better theories.

Horror of no space left

Just imagine that the dream of total knowledge would have come true: All would be perfectly known, there would be not the least trace of empty mental space. This would also mean the heat death of science. No need to learn new things. Pure horror, if you ask me.

I think that we should be happy with all the mental gaps that offer us opportunities to fill them with new knowledge.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/sebaerazo/2220272677/

1 comment:

jeber said...

Well said and concise.

Science proceeds from evidence to conclusion. Since not every natural process has left evidence, there will be gaps in our knowledge. This does not mean we will stop inquiring.

Ignorance is a curable condition. But it can only be cured by seeking more information, by asking more questions, by acknowledging that our knowledge is incomplete.

Religion proposes the conclusion first then attempts to find evidence to support it. Why bother? Once a conclusion has been reached, and that conclusion is divine, absolute and unquestionable, why engage in the pretense of seeking further knowledge?

The gaps in my knowledge are a challenge, an impetus to learn, question and wonder. What I know is a small field. What I don't know is as vast as a universe. The goal of my life is to explore that universe.

I'm going to link to your blog from Radical Atheist. I enjoy your "voice" and the issues you address.