‘Science’, i.e. the new mathematical physical sciences of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton et al which were to serve as the inspiration and model for all the other sciences, arose during the horrific civil strife of the Reformation during a part of which, the Thirty Years War, a third of the population of Europe died. More disturbing than the killing, ‘and fitnah is more severe than killing’, were the intense intellectual, political and theological disagreements that split Europe totally. The scientists turned away from these issues and concentrated on the motions of the planets and of objects. But those issues have never gone away.
Commerce lay at the root of the Reformation and the earlier Renaissance. The rise of banks such as the Medici caused a crisis for them and for others. Usury was a mortal sin. Troubled by this, Cosimo de Medici asked a cardinal if it was true and what he could do in that case. The cardinal said he had to stop his banking activities and make restoration of everything he had gained to those he had taken it from. Cosimo tried to square the circle. He continued to bank, but he started on the path of philanthropy on a gargantuan scale, arguably, along with others, bringing about the Renaissance. It was a descendant of his who – as pope and utilising the travelling friars on an industrial scale to sell indulgences to raise funds to satisfy his extraordinary appetites – drove Martin Luther to such fury, and the rest, as they say, is history. The scientific and philosophical tradition thrown up by the Renaissance was to regard usury not merely as something defensible but as a positive and something praiseworthy. The scientists, as usual, didn’t think it was their business.
Many Europeans fell into atheism out of disgust at the behaviour of the Protestants and Catholics and out of dismay at the complex arguments of both. Religion had been inextricably connected to politics, i.e. monarchy. Political theorising during the Reformation about the rights and limits of monarchs and the rights of man served to undermine the idea of monarchy at all culminating in the British execution of Charlies I and later the French Revolution, and to bring about the rise of the commercial class whose instrument was parliament. Thus commerce came to dominate politics. And banking continued its inexorable rise to global sovereignty.
To look at any issue today as if it is possible to separate science from politics, religion and commerce is to be the heir to all of this.
Now, at the root of these religious and political events, what was unleashed was tremendous emotion, a great deal of hatred, but also mixes of conflicting emotions: loved ones were transformed into enemies overnight. (By the way, Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ were echoes of this event in Europe.) Science offered a cool, dispassionate and unemotional objectivity, which was its main attraction, even though scientists were to engage in a number of heated controversies then and ever since. Nevertheless, among the many end points that science reached, including Gödel’s work and quantum theory, the most recent was neurophysiology, where Antonio Damasio showed that there is no such thing as a thought without emotion.
Perhaps that goes some way to explaining how discussion of issues such as the pandemic and vaccines can express such dreadful animosity from those who hold different positions.