About 30 years ago there was much talk that geologists ought to observe and not to theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at that rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!
If you were looking for a place to assign blame for nosism — the use of the first-person plural to refer to oneself — you might start with God (“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” etc.) or with papal practice, or with Henry II, who is credited with having introduced the practice of English monarchs referring to themselves in the majestic plural in the 12th century; in the end, none of this is convincing. Without getting into the intricacies of theology and Hebrew grammar, for instance, it’s quite possible that God is a trinitarian, or using an intensifier to boast about His greatness in a way that seems more understandable coming from the creator of space and time than from a middle-tier magazine columnist, while popes and monarchs are not using the plural to refer to themselves alone but to themselves and God and/or the polities for which they speak, which may be arrogant, but displays a different sort of presumptuousness than that of a writer claiming to have divined the thoughts of everyone reading them. Even then, all of this is archaic: God hasn’t said anything in a long time, popes have generally passed over the “we” business since John Paul II, and even British monarchs aren’t all that likely to abuse the royal we.
Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that”, or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.
It is a common saying that thought is free. A man can never be hindered from thinking whatever he chooses so long as he conceals what he thinks. The working of his mind is limited only by the bounds of his experience and the power of his imagination. But this natural liberty of private thinking is of little value. It is unsatisfactory and even painful to the thinker himself, if he is not permitted to communicate his thoughts to others, and it is obviously of no value to his neighbours. Moreover it is extremely difficult to hide thoughts that have any power over the mind. If a man’s thinking leads him to call in question ideas and customs which regulate the behaviour of those about him, to reject beliefs which they hold, to see better ways of life than those they follow, it is almost impossible for him, if he is convinced of the truth of his own reasoning, not to betray by silence, chance words, or general attitude that he is different from them and does not share their opinions. Some have preferred, like Socrates, some would prefer to-day, to face death rather than conceal their thoughts. Thus freedom of thought, in any valuable sense, includes freedom of speech.
The hallmark of the Enlightenment was “free thought,” that is, the pursuit of knowledge by means of unfettered human reason alone. While it’s by no means inevitable that such a pursuit must lead to non-Christian conclusions and while most of the original Enlightenment thinkers were themselves theists, it has been the overwhelming impact of the Enlightenment mentality that Western intellectuals do not consider theological knowledge to be possible. Theology is not a source of genuine knowledge and therefore is not a science (in German, a Wissenschaft). Reason and religion are thus at odds with each other. The deliverances of the physical sciences alone are taken as authoritative guides to our understanding of the world, and the confident assumption is that the picture of the world which emerges from the genuine sciences is a thoroughly naturalistic picture.
I think there’s just been a very basic shift in how we view our responsibility. We used to view our role as building tools for people and saying, “Hey, we’re going to put this power in your hands”. And we think people are basically good, and we think that that can have a net positive effect. Now I just think we understand — both because of the ability for us to develop these things and because of the scale at which we operate — that it’s also our responsibility to make sure that all these tools are used well, not just to put them in people’s hands.