Hypatia, Reason, and Faith

More than 30 years ago I first heard the story of Hypatia from Carl Sagan. She was one of the last scientists to work in the great Library of Alexandria, a center of science and learning in the ancient world, and a repository for much of the world’s collective works in science and philosophy.  She was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and head of the school of Neo-Platonic philosophy in Alexandria. There, in 415 AD, as the Roman empire disintegrated and Christianity gained power, the classical mind of the antiquity and the medieval mind of Christianity intersected–and a war between scientific rationality and religious fanaticism followed. Christianity would win and civilization would lose; the Dark Ages were born and Hypatia would be one of its first victims.

Sagan’s account of Hypatia’s murder and its implications is extraordinarily moving.

Today the battle between superstition and science, between faith and reason, continues. It is not the religious fundamentalists who are under attack but the scientists–harassed for demonstrating the evidence for everything from climate change to evolution. What does this foretell? Will we return to a medieval world of witchcraft and sorcery? Could we become a society that discourages the young from learning science? Could we return to what Sagan called “the demon-haunted” world? (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.)

Let us hope not. Let us all be guided the twin lights which illuminate the darkness–reason and compassion.

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This column is dedicated to the philosophers and scientists throughout history who have preserved and advanced our knowledge; and to Hypatia and all the oppressed women of the world.

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