This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, Episode 3 Transcript
This is the script for Episode Three of This is Not a Conspiracy Theory.
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One of the most popular genres in entertainment is the fantasy genre. And the core feature of fantasy stories is magic, the power to influence events through supernatural means. Magical abilities appeal to our imaginations, so they’re everywhere in pop culture, in movies, TV shows, books, and games.
But there’s more to this fascination than just the realization of appealing fantasies. Magic is part of us, it etched into our neurons over the millennia as we evolved. Magic gave reason to the incomprehensible forces surrounding us, and an opportunity to influence them, through spells, rituals, and incantations. Magical beliefs even predicted the future. The appearance of a comet was often thought to foretell impending disaster.
Beliefs like these couldn’t be proven right, but they also couldn’t be proven wrong. And because they eased our anxieties, we kept on believing. In some way, magic helped us survive.
In the European Middle Ages life was brief and unpredictable. Starvation, war, and plagues were all common. And we had a deep need to ease our fears, we needed reasons for our suffering. For most, the answer was religion, which explained the world and our place in it through stories featuring supernatural events and omnipotent, conscious beings, gods.
Christianity rose to dominate Europe and came into conflict with other magical beliefs. Christians considered magic Satanic, and those believed to practise it, witches, were put on trial. Tens of thousands of women died, most being burned alive.
In this brutal era, the only explanations we had about nature were magical. They fulfilled our emotional needs, but they were fantasies. And yet, it would be in this time and place that an entirely new way to explain nature would emerge. And the triumphs of this method would transform first Western Europe and then the world.
And many, including the founders of the new nation of the United States of America, would be convinced that with this method, even the darkest mysteries could be illuminated.
TITLE CARD: THE MACHINE OF THE UNIVERSE
In the past, ideas had circulated in precious, hand-written texts. But in 1440, books suddenly became relatively cheap, thanks to a remarkable new machine. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press allows pages to be copied in rapid succession. Books, newspapers and pamphlets explode in quantity and spread freely throughout Europe.
At this time, the highest achievements of the human intellect are the ancient texts of the Greeks. Their scientific knowledge is called natural philosophy. After Gutenberg, these works are widely read throughout Europe. Scientific knowledge is towered over by Greek figures like Ptolemy, who had charted the land and the stars, Euclid, who compiled the principles of geometry, and perhaps most of all, Aristotle, who had a sweeping vision of the entirety of nature. Aristotle believed the world was a kind of vast being, with everything on earth and in the stars serving as parts of the whole organism.
But the limits and flaws in Greek knowledge are soon revealed. Sailors are returning from their journeys west with amazing stories. They had charted the unseen southern reaches of the African continent, and most stunningly, accidentally discovered a vast new land across the Atlantic.
The Greeks had no knowledge of these places and their strange wonders. And it wasn’t the great thoughts of philosophers that had exposed this, it was the direct experience of working men.
The philosophers in these seafaring European cities learn a vital lesson. They will base their ideas not on ancient wisdom, but on their own direct experience. And like those who had set sail into the unknown, they too will chart undiscovered realms.
The work of this new generation reaches its peak in the 1600s. New technologies empower them to see what had been imperceptible. The microscope unveils a world of tiny creatures. The telescope reveals the rings of Saturn and the moons around Jupiter. The first mechanical calculators are created, early computers. And Christian Huygens invents the pendulum clock, a timekeeping device of unprecedented accuracy.
Nature itself seems to be an instrument of similar precision and regularity, governed by rational laws. And the means by which it can be understood is mathematics, which is developing increasingly powerful tools.
John Napier’s logarithms reduce the tedium of calculation. Pierre de Fermat introduces new ways to calculate properties of curves. François Viete invents the first fully symbolic algebra. And René Descartes creates analytic geometry, a bridge between the worlds of algebra and geometry.
Galileo Galilei claims nature is "a book written in mathematical characters.” With his new telescope design, Galileo sees definitive proof that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of the cosmos. While Johannes Kepler details the elliptical paths of the planets.
The universe appears to not be like the vast organism the Greeks had thought, but rather, like a machine. Kepler writes that “the machine of the universe is not similar to a divine animated being, but similar to a clock."
In this new age, the intricate mechanics of the clock become the dominant metaphor for the workings of nature. But a deep mystery still lies within this machine they imagine. If the universe is like a clock, what’s the equivalent of the pendulum driving its movement? What force drives the motion of the earth and of the planets?
\1664. A comet signifies approaching catastrophe. Many believe whatever is coming will culminate in the year 1666. “666”: the number of the beast from the Book of Revelation, The Bible’s prophecy of armageddon. And in England there was good reason to think the end was near. The country was at war with Holland, and in London, a massive fire burned for three days, destroying 13,000 houses, while a great plague killed a hundred-thousand people, 15% of the population.
During the plague, the University of Cambridge shuts down, and one of its students, Isaac Newton, flees to the countryside. He begins a period of all-consuming study and contemplation, eating little, sleeping little, immersed in thought. His teachers are his books.
He starts a journal he calls his Waste Book, filling it with notes and questions from his reading. He consumes centuries of mathematics. In about a year he’s mastered the ideas of the seventeenth century, and from there he begins to innovate. He devises a new tool for calculations, calculus, a mathematics for motion. And he begins to conceive of a hidden force behind nature’s motions.
Exhausted after eighteen months of relentless study, he drops mathematics entirely. Isaac Newton is now twenty-four years old, he’s published nothing, and he is the premiere mathematician in the world. And nobody knows it except him.
Almost twenty years later, another scientist, Edmond Halley, encourages Newton to further develop his idea about motion’s hidden force. Newton finally produces a volume entitled The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, a collection of mathematical equations and computation describing the existence of a universal and invisible force, gravity. Everything on earth and in the heavens is guided by its principles, and these principles are rational and mechanical. The universe is indeed like a kind of machine — like a clock — and the force driving it is gravity.
The new natural philosophy, what we’d call science, reaches its apex with this insight into the hidden forces behind motion. And if there remained any doubt of its power, a final demonstration ended it. Edmond Halley applies Newton’s physics to the stellar apparition that had frightened people for centuries. He successfully predicts the arrival of a comet in over fifty years.
The power of the new philosophy had clearly surpassed the ancients. But in fact, it was no longer philosophy. It was a technique rooted in observation and experimentation and powered by mathematics. It was a method.
Study the evidence and search for patterns. From the patterns, principles are revealed — general laws of nature. And finally, an hypothesis can be made — a reasoned attempt to explain how events happen. And with a correct hypothesis, you had a power unknown to the ancients or to religion or to magic. You could make real prophecies. You could predict the future.
TITLE CARD: THE MACHINE OF SOCIETY
The triumphs of Newton and his predecessors were an inspiration in every realm of study. As the scientific method spreads to other fields, the era that will become known as The Enlightenment begins. Since nature is governed by laws, the belief arises that there must be natural laws at work within all realms, including human affairs. Philosophers like David Hume, John Locke and Montesquieu apply the scientific method to society. Perhaps one of them will become the Newton of social science.
But when applied to humanity, the metaphor of the machine has a frightening conclusion. If society is like a machine, then people are its gears and individual actions are simply the result of previous actions. Like the clock’s hand isn’t responsible for ticking, people aren’t responsible for their decisions. There is no free will and no one is morally responsible.
But for the Enlightenment generation, man had to be morally responsible. Man had free will and must make moral choices — this was the foundation of social order.
To solve this conflict, man’s intentions are placed at the center of the machine. Good intentions create good events, bad intentions create bad ones. As the philosopher David Hume writes, “the conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform, as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature.”
Like gravity drives the clockwork of the solar system… like the pendulum drives the machinery of the clock… the hidden force driving the clockwork of human affairs has to be the intentions, the purposes, the motives, of individuals.
So the question is not “how did it happen” but “who did it”?
TITLE CARD: THE ENLIGHTENED ONES
Like medieval Europeans, the America colonists had their own deep fears. For most of their history, it was religion that had eased these anxieties. But by the time of the revolution, America’s leading minds were believers in the scientific method.
The revolutionary movement begins at the pinnacle of the Enlightenment, just after Edmond Halley’s comet prediction comes true. The country’s leaders have read the latest ideas and they think scientific reason can reveal the unifying order beneath scattered and seemingly unrelated events. Like scientists, they study the evidence and search for patterns, they search for principles, they gather evidence to prove their hypothesis.
And the pattern they detect demonstrates an undeniable principle of human society: free countries inevitably fall into tyranny. The world as they see it is dominated by tyrants. And countries like Venice, Sweden and Denmark had even lost their liberty in recent history. America is considered the last island of freedom and must be protected. Or just as Caesar had snatched control of Rome and ended Roman democracy, their freedoms could also be stolen.
The immediate pattern of events within the colonies is ominous and suggests their liberty is in danger. The invasion of bureaucrats, customs officers and English churches, the taking-over of local courts and assemblies, the infringing territory of French and Catholic Québec, the standing army ready to oppress them, and, of course, the taxes.
The patterns of history and current events bring them to their hypothesis: tyranny is imminent.
And common people also envision dark plots, not because of the influence of science, but because of the Bible’s apocalyptic warnings of the coming of the antichrist. The imaginations of everyone from intellectuals to farmers is primed to suspect conspiracy.
The colonies’ leaders present their hypothesis in a literary work. The foundation of their argument is drawn from a disciple of Isaac Newton, John Locke. In Locke’s social contract citizens consent to governance in exchange for the protection of their natural rights.
As proof that Britain is violating this contract, they list many of the events from the pattern they had detected. And these in sum reveal “a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.”
But there is a crucial element missing from the Americans’ argument: actual evidence. They have no proof of a tyrannical conspiracy, only a pattern that they had interpreted as such. And in fact, most of the actions of the British Empire are readily explained by a more mundane hypothesis.
Britain had accumulated a massive debt from the French and Indian War and they were intent on recouping from the colonists. Because they had mostly been left to themselves before this, the British policies were considered invasive. And because the British were an ocean way and knew little of local circumstances, their policies were clumsy, so they were met with hostility. The hostility of the colonists provoked greater hostility from the British, which provoked greater hostility from the colonists, and the level of violence slowly escalated into war.
The origin of all these calamities was the want of money. The Americans had countless legitimate disputes with Britain, and their vision of a democratic new republic was the most inspiring the world had yet seen. But their claim of conspiracy was wrong.
Stripped of mathematics and experimentation, the method that had worked so well for the rest of the natural world failed when applied to society. People proved vastly more complex than planets. The Newton of social science never arrived.
The values of the enlightenment — skepticism, rationality, individualism – become foundational values of modern, western culture. But these values would also merge with our magical and irrational tendencies.
And one of the offspring of this combination was a peculiar and enduring subculture...