One of my favorite things to do is to learn about how people know things. That is why I am interested in both science, religion, and the occasional times that the two bump into each other.
One of my favorite books on this subject is The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science by Peter Harrison. In his book, Harrison shows that before the scientific method became widely used, the general consensus was that people who lived long lives were blessed by God, people who lived short lives were cursed, and there was very little anybody could do to change all this. Today, people are much more likely to think of death in relation to purely physical factors. They depend on medicine alone to heal.
Brilliant minds throughout history have noticed a relationship between longevity and knowledge although the explanations for this relationship have changed. Classical Christian philosophers started in the beginning from the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Back then, health and wisdom were originally God-given gifts presented to Adam and Eve in much larger quantities than we possess now. According to genealogies in the book of Genesis, Adam died after 930 years on Earth and his son, Seth died at 912. Noah’s Grandfather, Methuselah is the oldest person recorded, living to be 969 years old. Originally, people explained these old ages by citing Adam’s encyclopedic knowledge of medicine. The legend of Seth claimed the existence of an ‘oil of mercy’ capable of relieving suffering and curing any sickness. Two separate writings, Apocalypse of Moses and Vita Adae et Evae both record the story of Seth setting out on a quest for this ‘Oil of Mercy’. Those two writings also tell a story about Eve calling Seth and all of his sixty siblings (if you live that long, you have a lot of kids) to her on her deathbed. She instructs them to record everything that they have ‘heard or seen’ their parents say or do so that they would be preserved through time. These tablets would probably have contained medical knowledge, which philosophers in the Middle Ages reasoned was the cause of the old ages. Over time, some of this information would be lost, and this was believed to be the reason that lifespans began to decrease. This reasoning shows longevity primarily being the effect of knowledge.
But this epistemology eventually lost favor in the West. If the longevity of the patriarchs was not a result of their knowledge, then a different source of longevity had to be theorized. To close this gap, it was commonly theorized that the world was just a healthier, fresher place before the deluge dramatically polluted these Natural fountains of Youth. Seventeenth century English clergyman, George Hakewill, speculated that before the Flood, food was ‘more wholesome and nutritive, and the Plants more medicinall’. Overall weather conditions were said to have been more hospitable before the rains started. (This is also something that I remember one of my Sunday School teachers at Church mention when I asked him this question.) Nehemiah Grew (commonly called the “Father of plant anatomy”) followed similar lines of logic when he claimed that the long lives of the first humans were a result of a temperate climate and a simple diet. These quotes all demonstrate the prevailing view during the lifetimes of Bacon, Luther, and Descartes: that longevity was a gift from God, and there was very little we could do to impact our own life spans.
With few exceptions, people throughout time have agreed that a long life is good. Descartes claimed in his Discourse on the Method that the maintenance of health is “the chief good and the foundation of all the other goods in this life”. Physician Philip Barrrough, the author of Methode of Phisicke (1583) said that the chief ‘secret of nature’ was the means to lengthen life. Francis Bacon also agreed with this point of view. Peter Harrison says, “For Francis Bacon, the prolongation of life was a major preoccupation, and he often wrote as if it were the ultimate goal.” (Page 169)
Despite their different Christian backgrounds, Martin Luther (Protestantism), Francis Bacon (raised Calvinist and then converted to Anglicanism), and René Descartes (Catholicism) all three men took it for granted that longevity caused knowledge. This viewpoint is mentioned fleetingly in Harrison’s book because of how uncontroversial it was during the time that these men were living:
“Before Noah’s flood the world was highly learned, by reason men lived a long time, and so attained great experience and wisdom.
–Luther, Table Talk, CLX” (p.65)
“Bacon suggests that among the chief impediments to learning are ‘shortness of life, ill conjunction of labours, [and] ill tradition of knowledge over from hand to hand’.”
–Harrison, Page 168
“Descartes also regarded ‘brevity of life’ as an obstacle to the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.”
–Harrison, Page 168
Harrison focuses specifically on one of the many possible mechanisms for this phenomenon: the potential loss of knowledge because of poor communication between people. Knowledge gained by one person does not automatically diffuse to all humans, and when people die, the knowledge that they did not communicate to others also dies with them. The story of the Tower of Babel was a commonly cited Biblical example of how excesses in human knowledge were prevented by keeping people from being able to freely share all of their knowledge.
But why should we care? The main reason is because this shift in cause and effect reasoning perfectly mirrors the transition of epistemological (relating to theories of knowledge) emphasis between supernatural origins of knowledge and natural origins of knowledge in the seventeenth century. This is a transition between human knowledge being acquired through Godly revelation or through the scientific method. If knowledge were primarily a function of longevity, it would follow that a person would have more divine experiences if a lifetime were longer, and the increase of knowledge would be out of that person’s control. However, if longevity were partly a function of knowledge (with everyone agreeing that longevity is desirable), then humanity’s pursuit of knowledge would also be widely encouraged. This encouragement of humanity’s ability to increase their own knowledge, without the requirement of direct divine intervention has been a factor in the recent explosion of scientific knowledge.
I think Francis Bacon, Martin Luther and René Descartes are great because they thought ahead of their times. They were living in a period which told them that very little could be done to increase their life spans. Their culture told them that knowledge could only be a gift from God, and that enlightenment was out of their control. Despite these currents of popular perception, these three men, (especially Francis Bacon) worked to prove that through hard work and experimentalism, good outcomes (like the extension of life) could be achieved. Once they demonstrated the benefits of their epistemology, it spread much faster. This dichotomy was confusing to them, but they were motivated by the final outcomes of their research, which involved looking past some internal conflict.
Another application from this is that if a person wants to spread an epistemology, philosophy, or science, then the best thing that person can do is share the benefits of what they achieved through their epistemology. Specifically, I think that people who teach evolution to skeptical audiences should focus less on making many logical arguments and more on talking about the breakthroughs that have occurred because of the theory. I still remember when I heard about how mathematical models of genetic drift were used to start production of flu-shots multiple years in the future. That stuff is awesome!