Science and its social impact is analogous to religion and its social impact.
In a Scientific American report, test subjects (i.e., college students) were asked to morally judge a rape case, but were first given scientific material to read before the case was introduced. Follow-up comments of the students were uniformly condemnatory towards the rape. The researchers deduced that thinking about science is sufficient to promote morality. In fact, the article title is: “Just Thinking about Science Triggers Moral Behavior.”
How “scientific” is such a deduction? Even accounting for mere correlation, the researchers insist that there was an important relation between thinking about science and making moral judgments. Science is viewed as supra-moral or trans-moral by modern opinion when buzz words like “hypothesis” “observation” and “deduction” are used.
A greater moral challenge could easily have been introduced to overthrow the handy conclusion. Instead of a rape case — which the researchers obviously saw as irrefutably as a strong moral topic — what about financial corruption, destruction of aquifers, bombing of civilians, selling of disease-inducing foods?
A more tentative and plausible conclusion might be that public opinion habitually distinguishes scientists’ personal behavior from scientific work.
Don’t analogies exist everywhere? Does widespread scandal change people’s view of their own religious beliefs or those of a church or institution to which they adhere? Does war, aggression, and militarism affect the perception of the moral beliefs of war leaders? Does the personal behavior of musicians, composers, performers, movie actors, professional athletes, not affect how one perceives their art or industry?
In each case, the premise is that we separate the act from the actor, that there is no necessary affiliation between the two. Such is public opinion, and the advice of a pragmatic wisdom. But is it valid?
According to this line of reasoning, if a priest or guru pursues sexual passions, it does not mean that their professed beliefs about god, soul, morals, philosophy, etc. are intrinsically flawed and should have been robust enough to have preserved their integrity (but wasn’t for that one person at that one time). There are too many variables to belief and personality, it can be argued. They fell short of the beliefs, the high standards, the ideal behaviors that they should have professed. They are not emblematic or representative. They are not even necessarily “bad” though the act was “bad.” They are, to continue the argument, the product of their upbringing or mental state. In short, nothing intrinsic has transpired within these people, so that nothing intrinsic should affect our shared beliefs.
This is a difficult line for the solitary to accept. We are all products of our upbringing and mental states. We all struggle with the same social context. And our humility and charity understand the universal fragility of all individuals. The clue and the answer lies in society and our relation to society — society meaning the totality of environment, culture, mores, and civilizational premises.
Every belief system, every tradition, is flawed by degrees, and their adherents, even at the apex of the system, reveal something objectionable. Rather than begin with the social circumstances of a given scandal, the solitary recognizes that society as a whole cannot be a context or environment from which to expect dis-ambiguity, let alone purity. Therefore, the solitary starts with the self.
The solitary pores carefully over the content of the self’s mind and heart, extirpates that which is external and debilitating, or internal and debilitating. Solitaries and hermits understand the world’s temptations and interpret them intrinsically, in terms of “the world,” the totality of human context. Hence the radicality of those who fled for mountain-top, forest, or desert, having witnessed, perhaps more tangibly than others, the enormity of the gap between ideal and self, between professed belief and actual practice.
No principle or belief, however absolutely we may define it in our belief system, is absolute in its power to fully engage the self, to purify the self of all desire and intention and predisposition to shortfall. The hermit, the individual alone, must undertake this work. No reliance on beliefs, principles, or authority can suffice to bring about the consciousness that the solitary pursues.