In his wonderful little book Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, Umberto Eco explores the power of false ideas. In the preface of the book he states concerning the first essay of the collection:
The polemical title is “The Force of Falsity,” and in the lecture I wanted to show how a number of ideas that today we consider false actually changed the world (sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse) and how, in the best instances, false beliefs and discoveries totally without credibility could then lead to the discovery of something true (or at least something we consider true today). In the field of the sciences, this mechanism is known as serendipity. An excellent example of it is given us by Columbus, who – believing he could reach the Indies by sailing westward – actually discovered America, which he had not intended to discover.
He provides the example of Columbus, but for those familiar with the history of science other examples abound. Consider that chemistry grew out of alchemy.
For those familiar with Eco’s fiction, this idea may sound familiar because it is a theme that he explores in The Name of the Rose, a bestseller written about fifteen years before Serendipities. If you are a fan of mystery novels and have not read it, I highly recommend you do so. But, at the risk of one small spoiler one of the main characters arrives at the solution of a mystery by following a completely false pattern (I think that is sufficiently vague).
After reading Serendipities and The Name of the Rose, I have been struck by the concept of serendipity all around. Two other places I have noticed serendipity recently have been in a re-reading of Michael Ruse’s Can a Darwinian be a Christian? and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. In both of these books, an atheist examines his own views to some extent in light of religious belief (which they believe to be false, not I).
Ruse refers to himself as someone who “has probably no more religious belief than Richard Dawkins.” However, in Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, we find many statements such as the following:
If there is any unifying conclusion to this book it is that while the comparison of Darwinism and Christianity may be challenging and difficult, it is also stimulating and fruitful.
In other words, examining how a theological system, which he rejects entirely, could be reconciled with Darwinism is “stimulating and fruitful.” Would to God that we could all (my own Christian community included) be as even-minded as Michael Ruse!
InThe Righteous Mind, Haidt offers some of the most genuine self-critique of modern atheism that I have come across. He summarizes some of the information that you would find in the book in this article. But this conclusion is revealing:
If all religious people lost their faith overnight and abandoned their congregations, I think the net results would probably be bad, at least in America where (in contrast to European nations) our enormous size, short history, great diversity, and high mobility make it harder for us to overcome individualism and feel that we are all part of one community.
Consider “the net result would probably be bad” in contrast to Hitchens’ “how religion poisons everything.” Haidt’s article elicits also a fairly balanced statement from Michael Shermer who conceded higher levels of charitability among religious believers, but also notes research which suggests that societies with higher levels of religiosity have more problems related to societal health (responses are below the article).
So, why don’t more of us take advantage of serendipity and harness the power of (whatever we may believe to be) false ideas for clarifying our own thinking and opening up new avenues for thought? For one, it takes suspending judgment, whereas we often approach the work of someone with whom we disagree with an eye first to showing how they are wrong (i.e., we approach with our confirmation bias). Yet, what we need is, in the words of Mortimer J. Adler, is to be able state the arguments of those with whom we disagree in their own words. This is something that Ruse does in his book as he demonstrates a perfectly adequate understanding of Christian theology. Perhaps if we can follow his example, as well as perhaps the example of the fictional sleuth in the Eco’s The Name of the Rose (I still won’t tell you which one), we will all be the better for it.