This is an excerpt (without footnotes) from The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997). Reprinted by permission from the author.
Power and the Invisible World
“Fetch me a fruit of the Banyan tree.”
“Here is one, sir.” “Break it.”
“I have broken it, sir.”
“What do you see?”
“Very tiny seeds, sir.”
“I have broken it, sir.”
“What do you see now?”
“My son,” the father said, “what you do not perceive is the essence, and in that essence the mighty banyan tree exists.
Believe me, my son, in that essence is the self of all that is. That is the True.”
—Chandogya Upanishad, vi, 13
The fundamentalist submits to the authority of his minister. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV bent his knee in the snow to the pope. And we submit to the authority of the doctor. Control is power, says the dictionary, and the dictionary is quite right. But how is the illusion of control turned into power over you and me? Witch doctors, prophets, priests, scientists, and medical doctors gain our confidence by giving us the feeling that they have tapped into an invisible truth, a truth hidden behind the surface world we see. The keepers of the mysteries exude a certainty that through their contact with this invisible world, they are able to solve the problems that to us seem baffling.
As a result, we give these figures almost anything they want. Americans are currently pumping money into the pockets of physicians and their attendants at a rate that is truly astonishing. Expenditure for medical care, to everyone’s dismay, is the fastest growing segment of the American economy. Yet, on one of the simplest measures of overall health—infant mortality—we ranked a dismal twentieth. The babies of those nations that have not indulged in a medical spending spree actually are more likely to stay alive. Said Senator Lawton Chiles of Florida, “If your child was born in Singapore or Hong Kong, it would have a better chance of reaching the age of one than if it was born in the United States.”
Over five hundred years ago, folks offered up the same kind of frantic financial sacrifice to their priests. The result: roughly a third of the land of England was in the hands of the Church until Henry VIII took it away. What’s more, the income of the Church in Henry’s day was 300,000 pounds per year. The revenue of the English government, on the other hand, was a mere 100,000. Outside the Western world, the power of holy men to pull in earthly goods like a supermagnet lasted much longer. Before China’s unconscionable invasion of Tibet in 1950, priests ran the country and controlled an unbelievable percentage of the Himalayan nation’s wealth. In America, television evangelists are resurrecting the priestly phenomenon, sucking in the dollars of believers by the sackful. But how do priests, scientists, and physicians manage to cement their power?
The rise of Isaac Newton in the early 1700s allows us to see one such power structure being crafted. Newton established the absolute authority of science in the minds of Western men by implying that he could see into the very forces of the cosmos. With his mathematical theories, Newton accomplished something that had eluded all the wise men of his age: he explained the motions of the moon and planets.
Newton’s followers claimed that Sir Isaac had generated a method that would penetrate all of the workings of the universe. When the Newtonian scheme successfully mastered the intricacies of the solar system, it seemed these enthusiasts must be right. In reality, Newton’s system predicted very little about the universe in which men actually lived. It gave no explanation whatsoever for men’s depressions and despairs, for their desires and their greed. It could not predict or control war. It was utterly baffled by the problem of how an inert sphere of matter—an egg—turns seemingly by itself into a chick. Yet enthusiasts in the Age of Reason felt Newton held the keys that would unlock all of life’s mysteries. Newtonian science swept nearly every other form of analysis from respectability. And Newton himself obtained the power to crush his rivals, dictate what was intellectually acceptable and what was not, and even to steal the credit for the discoveries of his fellow natural philosophers.
When men look desperately for masters of control, they do not peck at the limitations of the new savior. They seize the idea of his power with hungry enthusiasm, for the new sorcerer offers the promise of influencing that which seems impossible to influence.
The same trick of using a few insights into the motions of heavenly bodies to imply mastery over all of the known universe vaulted previous generations of savants to positions of incredible power. Babylonian astronomers, three thousand years before Newton, became power brokers by predicting the seasons and producing a viable calendar. So did the Chinese emperors who made sure that the computations of their own calendar were kept top secret since those calculations were the key to their hold over the state.
In Central America, Mayan and Aztec priests also held massive power by virtue of astronomical virtuosity. These priests were housed in elaborately architected city centers while the peasants who raised the crops they ate resided in hovels in the countryside. Tribute of all kinds flowed to the divine intercessors: food, clothing, and gold. Furthermore, these middlemen for the gods could dictate life and death. The holy men ordered the armies of the Aztec empire to scour distant lands in search of captives. Then the priests sacrificed the prisoners of war by the tens of thousands to satisfy their invisible gods. On occasion, the Aztec clerics would cut open the chests and tear out the hearts of as many as five thousand humans in a single day.
The key to the power of the Aztec priests was similar to that which made Newton the king of science. These Central American men of wisdom made careful astronomical observations and worked out a system for predicting heavenly events. Because the priests could foretell a few celestial occurrences, the citizens around them concluded that priestly power didn’t stop there. Surely, the priesthood must have found a way to peer into the invisible machinery that dominates life and death, illness, misfortune, and the luck of the triumphant.
Newton, the Aztec priests, the medieval pope, and the modern doctor all gained power through a simple device—the impression that they held the levers with which man could manipulate an invisible world.
Our cultures, in fact, are our collective fantasies about the worlds we cannot see. They are tapestries of memes. If you were a Sioux a hundred years ago, you believed that there were spirits who manifested themselves in eagles and clouds. If you’re a modern westerner, you know all of this is bunkum. If you’re a traditional New Guinean, you believe that ancestors hover around your hut ruling the family’s affairs like puppet-masters pulling the strings of health, wealth, and happiness. If you’re a Christian, you feel that aside from an occasional ghost haunting a house in Amityville, the ancestors have all had the good grace to depart shortly after they died. On the other hand, if you’re a Christian, you believe that a man who breathed his last on a cross two thousand years ago was the son of a vast and immortal being hovering somewhere above the visible sky, and that someday this long-departed soul will return to earth and usher in an entirely new order of things. If you’re a Buddhist, you know with absolute certainty that this is a figment of the Christian’s imagination.
Many of us moderns are convinced that we are above believing in unseen forces that quietly shape our destiny. But are we? Not quite. Our beliefs in invisible powers mold our behavior as surely as the certainty that an ancestor’s spirit hovering in the corner of his hut influences the habits of the traditional New Guinean. You’ve seen coughing and sneezing, but have you ever seen a germ? Only the caretakers of our invisible world have spotted them—the scientists. Yet many of your sanitary decisions may well be based on the fear of these microorganisms, minimonsters of which you’ve never caught a glimpse. You probably avoid cholesterol, but have you ever had a peek at it? For those who don’t use a microscope, it’s as ethereal a force as the cloud-riding spirits of the Native Americans.
With poor guidance, we stumble our way through the invisible, sometimes blundering badly. We accept most child-rearing theories, for example, with no evidence. The Sioux are horrified that we hold up a newborn baby and spank it. They believe the baby should be cradled tenderly and given love. Victorians thought that by holding a baby you spoiled it. The same notion persisted in America through the first half of this century. In 1928, J. B. Watson, the leading American psychologist of his time, repeated the concept emphatically in a book that became the child-rearing bible of the next twenty years:
There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it…. In conclusion, won’t you then remember when you are tempted to pet your child that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wrench your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.
Watson pontificated that mother love was a force that inserted itself into the invisible machinery of a child’s psyche, destroying him as surely as an avenging ghost. You and I would not be able to see this psychic damage until it was too late, but Watson could peer directly into the unseen world of the human mind. After all, he was a psychologist.
Research indicates that Watson’s advice was just short of criminal. Anthropological studies of the !Kung of the Kalahari show that children whose mothers pet them constantly often turn into far more self-confident adults than the coldly raised progeny of civilized Londoners.
Why did parents follow experts like Watson into what was apparently a pit of error? Why are they today following specialists who say that you must deal with your child’s misbehavior only by reasoning with him or that you must encourage a child to vent all his hostile feelings? Because raising our young is another area in which we are wrestling with invisible forces. In fact, we do not know what spoils a baby. We often do not know why he is crying at this very minute. We certainly don’t know what effect our picking him up today is likely to have twenty years from now. And when we are pathetically attempting to deal with the invisible, when we have the least evidence of reality, that is when we are most vulnerable to the power of the experts.
Excerpted from The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom. Copyright © Howard Bloom, 1997. All rights reserved.
Howard Bloom has been called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein, [and] Freud” by Britain’s Channel4 TV, “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear Magazine, and “The Buckminster Fuller and Arthur C. Clarke of the new millennium” by Buckminster Fuller’s archivist. Bloom is the author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History (“mesmerizing” – The Washington Post), Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (“reassuring and sobering” – The New Yorker), The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (“Impressive, stimulating, and tremendously enjoyable.” James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic), The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates (“Bloom’s argument will rock your world.” Barbara Ehrenreich), How I Accidentally Started the Sixties (“a monumental, epic, glorious literary achievement.” Timothy Leary), and The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Gave You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram – or How Muhammad Invented Jihad (“a terrifying book… the best book I’ve read on Islam,” David Swindle, PJ Media).
Bloom explains that his field is “mass behaviour, from the mass behaviour of quarks to the mass behaviour of human beings.” That specialisation gives him a wide scope. His scientific work has been published in: arxiv.org, the leading pre-print site in advanced theoretical physics and mathematics; PhysicaPlus, another physics journal; Across Species Comparisons and Psychopathology; New Ideas in Psychology; The Journal of Space Philosophy; and in the book series: Research in Biopolitics. In 2005, Bloom lectured an international conference of quantum physicists in Moscow – Quantum Informatics 2006 – on why everything they know about Schrodinger’s Equation is wrong, and the concepts Bloom introduced were later used in a book proposing a new approach to quantum physics, Constructive Physics, by Moscow University’s Yuri Ozhigov.
Bloom’s second book Global Brain was the subject of an Office of the Secretary of Defense symposium in 2010, with participants from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT. Bloom is founder and head of the Space Development Steering Committee, a group that includes astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Edgar Mitchell (the sixth man on the moon), and members from the National Science Foundation and NASA. He has debated one-on-one with senior officials from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Gaza’s Hamas on Iran’s global Arab-language Alalam TV News Network. He has also dissected headline issues on Saudi Arabia’s KSA2-TV and on Iran’s global English language Press-TV. And he has probed the untold story of the Syrian Civil War with Nancy Kissinger.
In addition, Bloom’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Knight-Ridder Financial News Service, the Village Voice, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. He has appeared 199 times for up to five hours on 500 radio stations on the highest-rated overnight talk radio station in North America, Clear Channel’s Coast to Coast AM, discussing everything from the biome in the gut and the evolution of the stars to the mechanism of the Great Recession of 2008 and North Korea’s rocket programme.
Bloom has his own YouTube series, Howard the Humongous, which gets up to 790,000 views per installment. His website, howardbloom.net, has had between four and five million hits. Follow him on Twitter at @HowardxBloom.
The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History
By Howard Bloom
Atlantic Monthly Press (March 13, 1997)
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