On page 2 of A New Literary History of America (Harvard 2009) is an interesting account of what Christopher Columbus thought he had found when he explored the Venezuelan coast on his third voyage to what would come to be known as America. Columbus, when “he came across four great rivers gushing out into the sea” concluded that he “hadn’t found a new world . . . [but] the oldest one of all”: Eden!
According to Toby Lester, the author of the first essay in this volume:
The idea wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. The Bible placed the Terrestrial Paradise in the distant east, and most medieval maps placed it at the far-eastern edge of Asia. Humanity’s march west through space was also seen as a march west toward the end of time—an apocalyptic notion that medieval theologians had been bandying about for centuries.”
Imagine how Christopher Columbus’s head must have spun to think that he was probably looking into the watery river mouth of Eden, and that he had reached the circular culmination of space and time! God had apparently chosen Christopher Columbus (or so he imagined) to inhabit a very special place in human history, for Columbus seemed to be preparing the way for the End Times:
In his later years, Columbus imagined himself to be playing a starring role in this cosmic drama—a Messianic figure who, by carrying the Christian message across the ocean, was hastening the coming of the End of Days. He was no longer just Colombo or Columbus. He was also Christopher—that is, Christo-ferens, or “Christ bearer.”
Heady stuff to imagine yourself in such dramatic historical terms, but I think this part of Columbus’s life has two cautionary elements in it:
- concerning background knowledge; and
- concerning associative intelligence
First, with regard to background knowledge: What is it that we think we know when we encounter new data? We may wildly misread things if we are not rigorously scrutinizing our presumed background knowledge (the things we think that we already know about the world). In this instance, Columbus had never applied sufficient scrutiny to his assumptions about the Bible. He took it for granted that the Bible contains infallible knowledge about the world’s past and its future, and he thus incorporated these assumptions into what he encountered in the present.
Second: associative intelligence (making connections between things). One of the glories of the human mind is its associative intelligence. It’s what, for example, makes poetry possible. “I measured out my life in coffee spoons” (T.S. Eliot). But what happens when the associative intelligence goes unchecked by empirical reality testing? Well, you start to get connections like these:
- I was born under the sign of Aries the Ram; therefore, I must like to butt heads with others!
- My kid was diagnosed with autism two months after getting her vaccinations; therefore, vaccinations must cause autism!
- I see four rivers entering the sea. Eden has four rivers. This must be Eden!
- God wanted my parents to name me “Christopher” because I am, in these End Times, the “bearer of Christ” to the last nations unexposed to the gospel.
Critical thinking lessons from Columbus’s experience: (1) in the face of new data and novel experiences, check your premises and background assumptions; and (2) exercise your associative intelligence, but also seek evidence for those associations. In the thrill of novel associations, keep your head about you.