Do important truths begin as heresy?

So far, I haven’t practiced for the writing portion of the GRE at all, even though I have the bank of topics from ETS printed off and right beside my desk. I think it’s time I start to work on that, so I’m going to try picking topics from the list and writing blog posts about them, in the basic form of an essay exam response. I’m not allowing myself to do research while writing them (since, obviously, I won’t be able to do that during the GRE), so here’s hoping I’m not terribly ignorant or misinformed. πŸ˜‰ Here’s the first one…I don’t much like it, but then I rarely do. I hate this kind of writing (I prefer to do about 10 hours of research to 1 hour of writing…to 4 hours of editing*), so don’t be too hard on me. πŸ˜›

* I totally made those numbers up, but they seem like reasonable guesses. Also, fyi, this took me about 20-30 minutes too long. I need to work on that.

Important truths begin as outrageous, or at least uncomfortable, attacks upon the accepted wisdom of the time.

For many centuries, the Ptolemaic model of the universe was the prevailing, accepted “truth.” While his model was complicated, Ptolemy had found a way to explain the observed motions of celestial objects that assured us humans that we were situated at the center of the universe, in a place of prime importance. His model sanctioned religious myths according to which the gods had created mankind in their own image, placing humans at the top of a hierarchy of beings and giving us the lead role in a great cosmic drama. We, they claimed, were more important than everything else in the universe except the gods themselves.

When Copernicus and others suggested that perhaps our world was not, in fact, at the center–that we orbited the Sun rather than the other way around–they were not greeted with enthusiasm. Heliocentrism was at first regarded at best as silly, at worst as dangerous heresy, worthy of harsh punishment. Galileo, when he made it known that his observations corroborated the heliocentric hypothesis, was forced by religious authorities to recant. But the truth that Earth orbits the Sun was a significant step along the way to our current understanding of the universe.

And more than two centuries after Darwin published hisΒ Origin of Species, people spurred by discomfort with the implications of biological evolution are still fighting its presence or prominence in science classrooms. Evolutionary theory, which is by now quite well-established, has led to breakthroughs in agriculture, medicine, and our understanding of the origin of many diseases.

Clearly, some important truths at first cause great discomfort.

It would not be fair, however, to claim that all important truths do so. It is a truth that most human parents love their children, and I suspect that very few would regard this fact as unimportant. Familial love motivates parents to take the best possible care of their children and is a defining feature of the human experience for children and parents both. Further, that parents tend to love their children is a truth so natural to us that we may not even notice it unless we find an exception, and it is the exceptions that we deem outrageous. Further, we would be hard pressed to identify its origin; it is a condition that evolved along with our species.

Unlike the examples from Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, which challenged our understanding of the world, parental love is a crucial part of that understanding. So perhaps it is those views that force us to broaden or radically change our understanding of the world around us that seem at first implausible or discomfiting. And perhaps the fact that they seem so implausible, that they do so greatly change our paradigm, is what makes these truths important.

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2 thoughts on “Do important truths begin as heresy?

  1. I agree with your assessment. Plus, when novel important truths are discovered, if they already fit into the dominant paradigm, who will notice? They will just become an accepted part of the zeitgeist of the times and not a focal point in the way of Copernicus or Darwin.

  2. Exactly! If the novel truth doesn’t challenge the current paradigm, people just say, “Huh! I never thought of that–cool! What else does this affect?” (…Instead of the traditional response to ‘threatening’ discoveries: “What!? You must be crazy or evil or both–stop talking nonsense, you demon-spawn, or I will break your kneecaps.”)

    Thanks for commenting. πŸ™‚

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