| |Remember this detail of Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) in The School of Athens fresco by Raphael? Aristotle is gesturing to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while Plato is gesturing to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms. Rinse, wait 1000 years, and repeat. (picture credit Wikipedia) | |
What is it about philosophers that makes them think there is a world of perfection somewhere out there hanging free from this one? Is it in the nature of those who think hard about the world to lose themselves in their reveries and drift loose to a place where they can dream that they have no ties to the material realm? Or do their difficulties and frustrations with things as they are somehow nurture them to develop these idealist longings? The answer is a bit of both of course, with the "nature x nurture" model explaining both the origin of personalities distributed along a spectrum of being biased towards thought or action, as well as explaining how random environments help exaggerate or blunt those tendencies toward a successful adaptive fit. Explained thusly, it's no wonder we keep seeing these patterns repeated—of thinkers drifting off, only to be tugged back to reality by a clear-eyed empiricist. We first saw this in the perfect forms of Plato
, which he thought existed out there somewhere in the ether and were the prior generators of all things in the world. But those forms were dismissed by Aristotle
, perhaps the first great scientist, who preferred to start with what he saw and simply explain the world from there.
Two weeks ago, I took a look at Avicenna
—the first great philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age
. He lived in the far eastern edge of the caliphate in modern day Uzbekistan and used arguments about infinite regressions and floating men to infer that there must be an essence that precedes the existence of the world. But just as Aristotle rebuffed Plato
in Ancient Greece, an Islamic scholar came along to rebuff Avicenna with a more natural existentialist explanation of what we see. Unfortunately, it took 200 years for this second bright light of this Islamic period to arise, and he did so on the opposite end of the empire some 4500 miles away in Cordoba Spain. This Islamic Aristotelian was Averroes.
If you remember from my profile of Aristotle
, we only have 31 of his approximately 200 treatises, and the writing that survives, "makes heavy use of unexplained technical terminology, and his sentence structure can at times prove frustrating...haphazardly organized, if organized at all…(which) helps explain why students who turn to Aristotle after first being introduced to the prose in Plato's dialogues often find the experience frustrating.
" One of the reasons Aristotle survives at all is because of the translations and summaries that Averroes undertook for these works. Reporting how he was inspired to write his famous commentaries, Averroes
said, "Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl summoned me one day and told me that he had heard the Commander of the Faithful complaining about the disjointedness of Aristotle's mode of expression and the resultant obscurity of his intentions. He said that if someone took on these books who could summarize them and clarify their aims after first thoroughly understanding them himself, people would have an easier time comprehending them. 'If you have the energy,' Ibn Tufayl told me, 'you do it. I'm confident you can, because I know what a good mind and devoted character you have, and how dedicated you are to the art.'"
Important work, these summaries of philosophers too lost in their obtuse thoughts for their own good… Speaking of which, here's how I viewed the contributions of Averroes
in my own analysis of the survival of the fittest philosophers
----------------------------------------------------------------------------Averroes (1126-1198 CE) was a Muslim polymath, a master of Aristotelian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Maliki law and jurisprudence, logic, psychology, politics, Arabic music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.SurvivesIn ontology, Averroes rejects the view advanced by Avicenna that existence is merely accidental. Avicenna held that “essence is ontologically prior to existence.” The accidental, i.e. attributes that are not essential, are additional contingent characteristics. A hat may be red, it may be old, and (for Avicenna) it may exist. Averroes, following Aristotle, holds that individual existing substances are primary. One may separate them mentally; however, ontologically speaking, existence and essence are one.
Yes. More existentialism in history.Averroes’ most important original philosophical work was The Incoherence of Incoherence, in which he defended Aristotelian philosophy. Other works were the Fasl al-Maqal, which argued for the legality of philosophical investigation under Islamic law. Averroes, following Plato, accepted the principle of women’s equality. He thought they should be educated and allowed to serve in the military; the best among them might be tomorrow’s philosophers or rulers. Averroes had no discernible influence on Islamic philosophic thought until modern times though.
What a shame for such a large swath of humanity.Needs to AdaptArab philosophers did not have access to Aristotle's Politics. Averroes commented on Plato's Republic, arguing that the state there described was the same as the original constitution of the Arabs. Averroes, following Plato’s paternalistic model, advances an authoritarian ideal. Absolute monarchy led by a philosopher-king creates a virtuous society. This requires extensive use of coercion, although persuasion is preferred and possible if the young are properly raised.
Kings, even philosopher-kings, are an untenable inconsistency in a cooperative society. Representative government is required to strengthen social bonds since that is philosophically consistent with the ideal society’s principles. Force may be required to ensure that cheaters do not win, and cooperation increases when punishment from the group is allowed, but no one should be coerced to do the right thing. Raising the young properly would go a long way toward creating this kind of society.Gone ExtinctAccording to Averroes, there is no conflict between religion and philosophy; they are different ways of reaching the same truth. He believed in the eternity of the universe. He also held that the soul is divided into two parts, one individual and one divine; while the individual soul is not eternal, all humans at the basic level share one and the same divine soul. Averroes has two kinds of Knowledge of Truth. The first being his knowledge of truth of religion being based in faith and thus could not be tested, nor did it require training to understand. The second knowledge of truth is philosophy, which was reserved for an elite few who had the intellectual capacity to undertake its study.
The beliefs he held show just how incompatible religion is with philosophy. The universe is not eternal - we can now roughly date it. There are no souls separate from existence. And no one should take religious views blindly. Philosophy, evolutionary philosophy anyway, finds justification for laws and morality that are useful for everyone, not just an intellectual elite.
Influenced by the empirical worldview of Aristotle, Averroes' thoughts could have been a great influence on the direction of the Islamic world. Unfortunately, that empire was about to crumble and have little time for well thought out progress. There is "little agreement on the precise causes" of the decline of the golden age of Islam
, but in addition to invasions by Mongols and crusaders that brought the destruction of libraries and madrasahs, it has also been suggested that political mismanagement and the stifling of ijtihad
(independent reasoning) in the 12th century in favor of institutionalised taqleed
(imitation) thinking played a part. The destruction of Baghdad in 1258 by Hulagu Khan (Genghis Khan's grandson and Kublai Khan's brother) is traditionally seen as the approximate end of the Golden Age—a mere 60 years after the death of Averroes. Just as the fall of the Roman Empire stalled scientific explorations and progress by the Aristotelian disciples of that age, any further explorations the Islamic world may have made were halted by yet another disastrous political upheaval.
Fortunately, Averroes' thoughts took hold in a Europe that was ready to listen to Aristotle and the wisdom of ancient greece again after several centuries of stagnation. Averroes was "the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe" and his detailed commentaries on Aristotle earned him the title of "The Commentator" in Europe. Latin translations of Averroes' work led the way to the popularisation of Aristotle and were responsible for the development of scholasticism in medieval Europe, which we saw the beginnings of last week with Anselm
and will continue a bit further next week with our penultimate religious scholar. Stay tuned!
The Canterbury cathedral didn't quite look like this when Anselm
was its archbishop from 1093 to 1109. The gothic update visible today didn't happen until after Thomas Becket's murder there in 1170 made the place wealthy with pilgrims who travelled there to honour the martyr. Still, Canterbury was the seat of English Christendom, which, fresh after the Norman conquest, meant that it had broad influence over the British isle and northwestern France. Anselm had risen to this prestigious position from the unlikely source of a small village in the Italian Alps halfway between Lyon and Milan. He did so on the back of the philosophical writings he undertook while studying and working in a Benedictine abbey in Le Bec-Hellouin near Rouen. I wish I could land such a plum gig based on my philosophical writings. What could he have written that would bring him such fame and power presiding over an institution like this?
was famous for the Proslogian
, written in 1077-1078. As he tells us in the preface of that work, Anselm wanted to find, "a single argument that needed nothing but itself alone for proof, that would by itself be enough to show that God really exists; that he is the supreme good, who depends on nothing else, but on whom all things depend for their being and for their well-being
." That “single argument” is the one that appears in chapter 2 of the Proslogion,
and the one that today we call the ontological argument (so named by Kant—the medievals simply called it Anselm's Argument). Versions of this argument have been defended and criticized by a succession of philosophers from Anselm's time straight through to the present day. Heck, even Stephen Colbert mentioned it in his google talk
in 2012. Correctly understood, Anselm's argument can be summarized as follows:
1. That than which nothing greater can be thought, can be thought.
2. If that than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought, it exists in reality.
3. That than which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality.
That's it. Anselm, according to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, thought that "once we have formed this idea of that than which nothing greater can be thought, then we can see that such a being has features that cannot belong to a possible but non-existent object. In other words, hypothesis (2) is true. For example, a being that is capable of non-existence is less great than a being that exists necessarily. If that than which nothing greater can be thought does not exist, it is obviously capable of non-existence; and if it is capable of non-existence, then even if it were to exist, it would not be that than which nothing greater can be thought after all. So if that than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought — that is, if it is a possible being — it actually exists.
Philosophers have of course poked many different holes in this argument for a millennium. Try it for yourself. It's fun! But the one I want to focus on here is the leap Anselm makes between the ideas of the mind and the reality of the universe. A new reader sent me this comment this week: "One of the fundamental questions I ask and have been asked by my philosophy-minded colleagues is the relationship between matter and non-matter and how we (as matter) would ever be able to learn about non-matter?
" I'm still working on understanding what this particular reader has in mind when he talks about non-matter, but generally the realm of thoughts and qualities are considered non-matter by idealists
. The redness of a sunset, the taste of a wine, the "bat-ness" of being a bat
. But recent neurological investigations into our use of metaphors helps explain how we make the leap from facts and observations about the concrete material world to the realm of our ideas about that material world. Here is an excerpt from a fantastic article entitled Metaphors Are Us
by Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, to help explain what I'm talking about.
"We’re not so special after all. But there are still ways that humans appear to stand alone. One of those is hugely important: the human capacity to think symbolically. Metaphors, similes, parables, figures of speech—they exert enormous power over us. We kill for symbols, die for them. In recent years scientists from leading universities, including UCLA, University College London, and Yale, have made remarkable insights into the neurobiology of symbols. A major finding from their work is that the brain is not very good at distinguishing between the metaphorical and literal. In fact, as scientists have shown us, symbols and metaphors, and the morality they engender, are the product of clunky processes in our brains. Symbols serve as a simplifying stand-in for something complex. (A rectangle of cloth with stars and stripes represents all of American history and values.) And this is very useful. Symbolic language brought huge evolutionary advantages. This can be seen even in the baby steps of symbolism of other species. When vervet monkeys, for instance, spot a predator, they don’t just generically scream. They use distinct vocalizations, different “proto-words,” where one means, “Aiiiiii!, predator on the ground, run up the tree,” and the other means, “Aiiiiii!, predator in the air, run down the tree.” Language pries apart a message from its meaning, and as our hominid ancestors kept getting better at this separation, great individual and social advantages accrued. We became capable of representing emotions in the past and possible emotions in the future, as well as things that have nothing to do with emotion. How did our brains evolve to mediate this complexity? In an awkward way. The best way to shine a light on this unwieldy process is through metaphors for two feelings critical to survival: pain and disgust.
Consider the following: you stub your toe. Pain receptors there send messages to the spine and on up to the brain, where various regions kick into action. This is the meat-and-potatoes of pain processing, found in every mammal. But there are fancier, more recently evolved parts of the brain in the frontal cortex that assess the meaning of the pain. Maybe it’s bad news: your stubbed toe signals the start of some unlikely disease. Or maybe it’s good news: you’re going to get your firewalker diploma because the hot coals made your toes throb. Much of this assessing occurs in a frontal cortical region called the anterior cingulate. This structure is heavily involved in “error detection,” noting discrepancies between what is anticipated and what occurs. And pain from out of nowhere surely represents a discrepancy between the pain-free setting that you anticipate versus the painful reality. Now let’s go a little deeper, based on work by Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA. While lying in a brain scanner, you play a game of virtual catch, where you and two people in another room toss a cyberball around on a computer screen. (In reality, there aren’t two other people, only a computer program.) In the control condition, you’re informed mid-play that there’s a computer glitch and you’re temporarily off-line. You watch the virtual ball get tossed between those two people. Now in the experimental setting, you’re playing with the other two and suddenly they start ignoring you and only toss the ball between them. Hey, how come they don’t want to play with me anymore?
Junior high all over again. And the brain scanner shows that the neurons in your anterior cingulate activate. In other words, rejection hurts. “Well, yeah,” you might say. “But that’s not like stubbing your toe.” It is to your anterior cingulate. Both abstract social and literal pain impact the same cingulate neurones. We take things a step further with work by Tania Singer and Chris Frith at University College London. While in a brain scanner, you’re administered a mild shock, delivered through electrodes on your fingers. All the usual brain regions activate, including the anterior cingulate. Now you watch your beloved get shocked in the same way. The brain regions that ask, “Is it my finger or toe that hurts?” remain silent. It’s not their problem. But your anterior cingulate activates, and as far as it’s concerned, “feeling someone’s pain” isn’t just a figure of speech. You seem to feel the pain too. As evolution continued to tinker, it did something remarkable with humans. It duct-taped (metaphorically, of course) the anterior cingulate’s role in giving context to pain into a profound capacity for empathy. We’re not the only species with an anterior cingulate, but studies show the human anterior cingulate is more complex than in other species, with more connections to abstract, associational parts of the cortex, regions that can call your attention to the pains of the world, rather than the pain in your big toe. And we feel someone else’s pain like no other species. We extend it over distance to help a refugee child on another continent. We extend it over time, feeling the terror of what are now mere human remains at Pompeii.
Consider another domain where our brains’ shaky management of symbols adds tremendous power to a unique human quality: morality. You’re in a brain scanner and because of the scientist’s weirdly persuasive request, you bite into some rotten food. Something rancid and fetid and skanky. This activates another part of the frontal cortex, the insula, which, among other functions, processes gustatory and olfactory disgust. It sends neuronal signals to face muscles that reflexively spit out that bite, and to your stomach muscles that make you puke. All mammals have an insula that processes gustatory disgust. After all, no animal wants to consume poison.But we are the only animal where that process serves something more abstract. Think about eating something disgusting. Think about a mouthful of centipedes, chewing and swallowing them as they struggle, wiping off the little legs that you’ve drooled onto your lips. Whammo goes the insula, leaping into action, sending out its usual messages of disgust. Now think about something awful you once did, something deeply shameful. The insula activates. It has been co-opted into processing that human invention: moral disgust. Remarkably, the way our brains use symbols to discern disgust and morality also contributes to political ideology. Work by scientists such as Kevin Smith of the University of Nebraska reveals that on the average conservatives have a lower threshold for visceral disgust than do liberals. Look at pictures of excrement or open sores undulating with maggots, and if your insula goes atypically berserk, chances are that you’re a conservative—but only about social issues, say, gay marriage, if you’re heterosexual. And if your insula just takes those maggots in stride, chances are you’re a liberal. Our wobbly, symbol-dependent brains are molded by personal ideology and culture, shaping our perceptions, emotions, and convictions. Many cultures inculcate their members into acquiring symbols that repel, doing so by strengthening specific neural pathways from the cortex to the insula, pathways that you’d never find in another species. Depending on who you are, those pathways could be activated by the sight of a swastika or of two men kissing. Or perhaps by the thoughts of an abortion, or of a 10-year-old Yemeni girl forced to marry an old man. Our stomachs lurch, and we feel the visceral certainty of what is wrong. And we belong. The same brain apparatus is behind symbols that move us to our most empathic, inclusive, and embracing.
The article goes a little off track from the point I'm making, as Sapolsky explains the physical locations of metaphor for two emotional phenomena, but the point still stands: our physical brain (specifically the anterior cingulate and the insula regions in Sapolsky's examples) is able to lump attributes together into groups and then name those groups. This use of symbols and metaphors and where they reside in the brain helps to explain the bridge that dualists think exists over a chasm between two discrete realms, when in fact the bridge is just another metaphor our physical brains have constructed to help make sense of the material world we are trying to live, survive, and thrive in. This is the explanation from evolutionary philosophy of why the ontological argument has no merit. The symbolical and metaphorical pictures in our mind are just physical brain states. They have no bearing or implication on what actually exists in the cold uncaring universe around us that we have so recently evolved within. Anselm's insistence makes no sense that just because we can think of "that than which nothing greater can be thought," it must follow that that thing must exist. Why would it? We can't produce other figments of our imagination.
Let's cut this short now and look at what I had to say about Anselm
in my analysis of the survival of the fittest philosophers
--------------------------------------------------------------------------Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) was the founder of scholasticism and is famous in the West as the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God.SurvivesNot so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, scholasticism places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference, and to resolve contradictions. Scholastic thought is also known for rigorous conceptual analysis and the careful drawing of distinctions. It originated as an outgrowth of, and a departure from, Christian monastic schools.
Anselm may not have used it properly or well, but this rebirth of logic eventually led to the Reformation, scientific method, and the downfall of mystic revelation.Needs to AdaptGone ExtinctAnselm reasoned that if "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" existed only in the intellect, it would not be "that than which nothing greater can be conceived," since it can be thought to exist in reality, which is greater. It follows, according to Anselm, that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" must exist in reality. This was criticized on the grounds that humans cannot pass from intellect to reality.
There are many things that humans can conceive of that do not exist in reality. A perfect circle for example.Anselm also stated, “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” He held that faith precedes reason, but that reason can expand upon faith.
Thus formally accepting false premises and confirmation bias into the institution of religion.
Almost home now. I can hardly wait to continue this use of scholastic reasoning to plow through two more mediocre medieval philosophers before we get to the good stuff. Onwards!
What would you say if you had the knowledge of this entire empire at your disposal in 1000 CE?
Last week, I looked at the soundness of Muhammad's
teachings and found them severely lacking. What cannot be argued, however, is that they were effective. After his death in 632, proceeding leaders of the Islamic faith spread the word of their prophet and were unafraid to use the method of jihad to "struggle in the way of Allah
" and build larger and larger caliphates
, expanding first throughout the Arabian Peninsula, then along the Persian Gulf as well as the Mediterranean, Red, and Caspian Seas, before stretching out all the way from Portugal to India. While the collapse of Rome left Europe groping in the dark ages, this new empire to the south enjoyed several hundred years known as Islam's Golden Age
during which time the extensive texts of the Greco-Roman, Persian, and Indian civilisations were encountered, translated into arabic, and studied extensively. The spread of this knowledge was aided tremendously by the concurrent spread of the invention of paper
. While the Chinese had been using paper since they invented it in 105 CE, it did not move to the West until the defeat of the Chinese in the Battle of Talas
in 751CE in present day Kyrgyzstan at the border between these two major empires. In the Muslim world, with a "new, easier writing system and the introduction of paper, information was democratized to the extent that, probably for the first time in history, it became possible to make a living from simply writing and selling books." (I wish that were easier today!) The whole of the Middle East along the silk road came to provide a thriving atmosphere for scholarly and cultural development. Into this world, in 980 CE, near the centre of present day Uzbekistan, in the city of Bukhara (which rivalled Baghdad as a cultural capital of the Islamic world), the great Avicenna
was born—the most famous philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age.
Avicenna's father was a respected Islamic scholar and he had his son very carefully educated at Bukhara where "his independent thought was served by an extraordinary intelligence and memory, which allowed him to overtake his teachers at the age of fourteen. As he said in his autobiography, there was nothing that he had not learned when he reached eighteen" (which is a bit modern in its teenage know-it-all-ness, isn't it). Fortunately, Avicenna didn't stop learning at 18 and went on to create an extensive body of work. He wrote almost 450 works on a wide
The great city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Birthplace of Avicenna.
range of subjects, of which around 240 have survived. Of particular note, 150 of his surviving works concentrate on philosophy and 40 of them concentrate on medicine. From these, the best quote I found from him was undoubtedly this one:An ignorant doctor is the aide-de-camp of death.
Unfortunately, so is an ignorant philosopher, as we have seen repeatedly throughout this series in my examination of the Survival of the Fittest Philosophers
was less destructive than most medieval philosophers
, and although that's not saying much, let's see exactly what he had to say.
----------------------------------------------------------------Avicenna (980-1037 CE) was a Persian polymath who wrote almost 450 treatises on a wide range of subjects. His corpus includes writing on philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, mathematics, physics, as well as poetry. He is regarded as the most famous and influential polymath of the Islamic Golden Age in which the translations of Greco-Roman, Persian, and Indian texts were studied extensively.SurvivesHis 14-volume Canon of Medicine was a standard medical text in Europe and the Islamic world until the 18th century. The book is known for its description of contagious diseases and sexually transmitted diseases, quarantine to limit the spread of infectious diseases, and testing of medicines.
Some nice contributions to the long lineage of medical science.Needs to AdaptAvicenna inquired into the question of being (metaphysics), in which he distinguished between essence and existence. He argued that the fact of existence cannot be inferred from or accounted for by the essence of existing things, and that form and matter by themselves cannot interact and originate the movement of the universe or the progressive actualization of existing things. Existence must, therefore, be due to an agent-cause that necessitates, imparts, gives, or adds existence to an essence.
It is still not known what caused the origin of the universe or why matter exists at all. However, it is well known how form and matter interacted to create the progressive actualization of existing things—this is evolution. The infinite regression of the agent-cause argument (who created the first agent?) leads only to the same questions. It does not lead to an all-seeing god.Gone ExtinctAvicenna wrote his famous "Floating Man" thought experiment to demonstrate human self-awareness and the substantiality and immateriality of the soul. He told readers to imagine themselves created all at once while suspended in the air, isolated from all sensations, which includes no sensory contact with even their own bodies. He argued that, in this scenario, one would still have self-consciousness. The first knowledge of the flying person would be “I am,” affirming his or her essence. That essence could not be the body, obviously, as the flying person has no sensation. Avicenna thus concluded that the idea of the self is not logically dependent on any physical thing, and that the soul should not be seen in relative terms. The body is unnecessary; the soul is an immaterial substance.
But bodies cannot just appear all at once suspended in air and isolated from all sensations. The argument is false right from the start. Our bodies are grounded in reality and there are no souls.
Not a particularly big contribution to the progress of philosophy, but we are indebted to Avicenna for his role in keeping inquiry alive during the dark ages. It won't be surprising in a few weeks to see the Islamic Golden Age come to an end though, moving on through one more bright light before the torch is passed to a revived Western Europe. Unfortunately, we haven't reached the light at the end of this dark tunnel just yet.
An ancient intricately carved doorway, falling apart at the edges, leading only into darkness. An apt metaphor for the poor nations housed under the crushing worldview of Islam
In 2004, Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh
worked with the Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali
(one of the original New Atheists meant to be part of the horsemen of the non-apocalypse
), and together they produced the film Submission
, which criticized the treatment of women in Islam. The title of the film is a literal translation of the word Islam (although in a religious context it means "voluntary submission to God") and on 2 November 2004, that submission was brutally enforced when Van Gogh was assassinated by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim for the views expressed in the film. The murderer "initially fired several bullets at Van Gogh as he bicycled to work. Wounded, Van Gogh ran to the other side of the road and fell to the ground. According to eyewitnesses, Van Gogh's last words were: 'Mercy, mercy! We can talk about it, can't we?' The murderer then walked up to Van Gogh, who was still lying down, and calmly shot him several more times at close range. He cut Van Gogh’s throat, and tried to decapitate him with a large knife, after which he stabbed the knife deep into Van Gogh's chest. He then attached a note to the body with a smaller knife" that contained more death threats and polemics against Jews and the West. Terrorist acts such as these make me reticent to discuss the philosophy of Muhammad
—the founder of Islam—but much like my analysis of Jesus of Nazareth
, it must be done because of the huge influence he has had over the moral beliefs of billions of people over many centuries. Unfortunately, direct quotes such as these:Even as the fingers of the two hands are equal, so are human beings equal to one another. No one has any right, nor any preference to claim over another. You are brothers.All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly.
have been widely ignored by extremist elements of the religion who have continued to distort and misunderstand much of Mahammad's more benign teachings. But what after all where the actual words of Muhammad? And how do we understand them in the light of modern knowledge? How does he stack up in an analysis of the survival of the fittest philosophers
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Muhammad (570-632 CE) was the founder of the religion of Islam. Discontented with life in Mecca, he retreated to a cave in the surrounding mountains for meditation and reflection. According to Islamic beliefs it was here, at age 40, in the month of Ramadan, where he received his first revelation from God. The revelations, which Muhammad reported receiving until his death, form the verses of the Quran, regarded by Muslims as the “Word of God” and around which the religion is based. Muslims consider him the restorer of an uncorrupted original monotheistic faith of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.SurvivesNeeds to AdaptGone ExtinctThe Quran presents five pillars as a framework for worship and a sign of commitment to the faith. They are (1) the shahada (creed professing monotheism and accepting Muhammad as God’s messenger), (2) daily prayers, (3) fasting during Ramadan, (4) almsgiving, and (5) the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.
Almsgiving is of course useful for a cooperative species trying to maintain diversity and coherence. In a universe without a god though, forcing the acceptance of one man’s unproven beliefs is harmful to society. Plus, once divine revelation is accepted, who is to say any one revelation is better than another. This creates the opportunity for perpetual uncompromising conflict. Prayers are a drag on efficiency and encourage faith where effort would be better. Intentionally weakening the body through fasting helps one to learn to deal with bodily pain, but spending one month a year in this weakened state is taking it too far. Requiring your followers to visit your birthplace is extremely vain and clearly intended just to boost your religion and the livelihood of your local followers (though they will gladly encourage the practice, giving a self-reinforcing circularity to the rule). In Shia Islam, there are ten practices that Shia Muslims must perform, called the Ancillaries of the Faith. (1) Salat (ritual prayer five times a day); (2) fasting during Ramadan; (3) almsgiving; (4) an annual taxation of one-fifth of all gain paid to Imams or poor descendants of Muhammad’s Ahl al-Bayt family; (5) pilgrimage to Mecca; (6) Jihad - a religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad; (7) do the necessary good in life; (8) forbid what is evil; (9) expressing love towards Muhammad's family, Ahl al-Bayt; (10) disassociation with those who oppose God and those who caused harm to Muhammad or his family.
Allowing for the usefulness of almsgiving, doing good, and forbidding evil, the rest of the ancillaries are solely focused on the perpetuation of the religion but are in fact very damaging to the human species. Spending hours every day in prayer is monumentally wasteful. Fasting one month a year is too much time spent in a weakened state. Giving hard-earned money to the charlatans who created and run this organization is perpetuating fraud. Declaring war on unbelievers creates an unbridgeable rift in humanity that is a direct threat to the survival of the species.In line with the prohibition against creating images of sentient living beings, which is particularly strictly observed with respect to God and the Prophet, Islamic religious art is focused on the word.
Images are an important way to record and transmit knowledge. No form of learning must ever be banned. Ignorant species go extinct.The Sharia (literally "the path leading to the watering place") is Islamic law formed by traditional Islamic scholarship, which most Muslim groups adhere to. In Islam, Sharia is the expression of the divine will, and constitutes a system of duties that are incumbent upon a Muslim by virtue of his religious belief.
No laws or governments should ever be based on divine will or people who purport to know a divine will. No such thing has ever been proven to exist and acceptance of even one divine will by any small group opens humanity up to competing divine wills and unbridgeable gaps.
Let's move on quietly. Sometimes the best way to convince others is to simply survive and thrive by following your own philosophy.
When I was in college, I took a Medieval Philosophy
course that was taught twice a week for 90 minutes by a 6'4" reed thin Jewish man who wore a yarmulke on his bald head ringed with grey hair. He had a profoundly deep and resonant bass voice that years later would remind me of Christopher Lee performing the role of Saruman the white wizard. Somewhat predictably, the class only had three other students in it and I swear it always freezing cold outside but oppressively hot and stuffy in the room as the four of us sat in a line of desks in front of the professor while he lectured at us in a soothing monotone. To my great embarrassment, I think I fell asleep in just about every class. I remember trying to fight it, I remember struggling with head nods for what seemed like hours, only to decide it was best if I just gave in and closed my eyes for 5 minutes so I could refresh and pick back up on the lecture. I remember shielding my eyes by putting my forehead in my hand and looking intently down at at my notes as if I was trying to work something incredibly difficult out of them. I'd stay "focused" like this for a few minutes while I'm quite certain the professor knew exactly what was happening, but he considerately continued on without a change in his pitch that might otherwise disturb me. I got a B- in the course.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I know this stuff can be dull. I'm committed to surveying the entirety of philosophical thought though so I will do my best to push through a few famous names here while making it as interesting as I can—hence the gratuitous sleeping puppy picture and the embarrassing anecdote to start this series. Also, as Augustine of Hippo
said:Patience is the companion of wisdom.
So we must endure these dark times and learn to:Love the sinner and hate the sin.
For even though:One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: "I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon." For He willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians.
(and doesn't that
say a lot about Christian thought), we must do what we can and hope for the best, for:Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.
Ok, let's not remain here too long. It's time to stop dancing on the head of a pin with angels
and time to get to the analysis of what Augustine
actually professed. What's that you say?What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
Ok, seriously now, it's time to move on. Even if Augustine
didn't know that time
is "a dimension in which events can be ordered from the past through the present into the future, and also the measure of durations of events and the intervals between them. … Time is part of the fundamental structure of the universe - a dimension independent of events, in which events occur in sequence."
----------------------------------------------------------------Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), also known as St. Augustine, was a Latin philosopher and theologian from Roman Africa. He is considered the first medieval man and the last classical man and his writings were very influential in the development of Western Christianity.SurvivesNeeds to AdaptAugustine believed that God exists outside of time in the "eternal present," that time only exists within the created universe because only in space is time discernible through motion and change. Even the agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell was impressed by this. He wrote, "a very admirable relativistic theory of time. ... It contains a better and clearer statement than Kant’s of the subjective theory of time - a theory which, since Kant, has been widely accepted among philosophers.”
Physics states that time is woven into the fabric of space within the universe. We have found no evidence of god within this universe, which is fine with Augustine. But we have also found no evidence of god existing outside of the universe either. We should abandon belief in that existence altogether.Augustine took the view that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason.
With no evidence for any gods, our reason is highly unlikely to be a gift from one. Reason would seem to arise naturally during evolution as a solution to the need to understand and control our emotions and actions for the better survival of the species over the long term. But Augustine was right that scientifically discovered knowledge should trump mystical revelation.Gone ExtinctOne of Augustine’s most famous quotes comes from his prayer in Confessions - “make me chaste...but not yet.” Augustine held that a major result of original sin was disobedience of the flesh to the spirit as a punishment of their disobedience to God. The view that not only the human soul, but also the senses, were influenced by the fall of Adam and Eve, was prevalent in Augustine's time.
In fact, short-term-focused urges of the flesh are simply remnants from our evolutionary history. They worked in the super-competitive environments of the past, but not as well as the long-term focused behaviors that we later learned and taught ourselves through cultural reinforcement. Unfortunately, evolution is blind and we are left holding our vestigial emotions. Sometimes literally.Augustine taught that redemption was not in this world. When the Western Roman Empire was starting to disintegrate, Augustine developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God (in a book of the same name), distinct from the material Earthly City.
While the long-term view is a good one, using a time and a place that does not exist as an incentive for good behavior is a house built on sand that has many bad side effects and inevitably will collapse.
Hey hey! A joke about self-pleasure in the middle of analysing a monk's philosophy. Well that certainly was fun. But don't worry. Next week things will take a serious turn , the controversial topic of Muhammad.
Want a piece of the $20,000 I'm trying to win?
Three years after publishing The Moral Landscape
, Sam Harris got so frustrated with the attacks that had been levied against the main argument of his book that he offered to award $2,000 to the person who could write (in less than 1,000 words) the best challenge to his central claim, with a total of $20,000 on offer if that essay succeeded in changing his mind. For those of you who haven't already checked this out, the full rules for the contest are described on his website
. So what is the main argument in his book that entrants need to challenge? Officially, it is this:"Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life."
I won't bore you with all the details of the book and the range of criticism it has received from theologians, scientists, and philosophers, but here is a draft copy of my entry to this challenge. If you help me make changes to my argument and it ends up winning, then I will gladly share the prize and credit with you. Think you can help? The deadline for entry is Sunday February 9th, so get back to me before then with any thoughts or suggestions about my 1,000 word essay. Here it is:
Your argument is right, in that the well-being of conscious creatures is a necessary job for morality, but it is not sufficient to say that is all it must do. This is why no one has yet disproven your argument, but (partly) why you still attract such disagreement. In this essay, I intend to show you what makes a sufficient purpose for morality, and by doing so change your mind and answer some of your critics.
The crux of your main tenet is that: “morality... depends on the... fact that [conscious] minds can experience various forms of well-being.” This is only one reduction in terminology away from being completely circular. Since morality is defined as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior,” morality and ethics are, in other words, simply “rules for acting well.” Substituting this definition of morality into your main statement, you get the fact that: "acting well... depends on the... experience of well-being. This is tautologically correct, but it’s uninteresting without anchoring the subjective adjective well to some objective fact. Without that anchor, the circular definition spins in place with nothing to grip, and the relativists and nihilists are free to point out that you are simply constructing a floating argument based on socially agreed upon definitions. The anchor we’ve been looking for though has been staring us all in the face for 150 years.
In one of my previous jobs in management consulting, I was a Special Advisor to the Director of the U.S. Secret Service and was tasked with helping him revise the performance metrics for his agency. Essentially, the main measurement that Congress used to evaluate the performance of the Secret Service was whether or not the president was alive. This was a binary, yes or no, easy to measure outcome of all the work the Secret Service does, but it told us nothing about whether the agency was getting better or worse at achieving this outcome. Was the president well-protected or getting closer to becoming unprotected? No one could say. The best practice for solving this type of problem in complex organizations is something called a balanced scorecard, where you measure performance across the entire value chain of the organization and look for problems in the system. You choose what measurements to take on the way from inputs, through internal processes, to outputs, and finally outcomes, and then you define targets in each area that will lead you to reach your desired (or congressionally mandated) outcomes. In this example, having a well-protected president was necessary, but it was only a subjective output of the agency. In The Moral Landscape, the well-being of conscious creatures is similarly just an output in the system—in this case, the system of life that is regulated by the internal processes of our moral rules. Using another example you like to cite, health is merely a subjective output in the system of medicine. However, the objective reason we know the Secret Service has not failed is because the president has not died. The objective reason we know the doctor has not failed is because the patient has not died. The objective reason we know our morality has not failed is because our species has not gone extinct. These are the objective outcomes that anchor the subjective evaluation of the rest of the processes. Russell Blackford was right to be looking for a metric to validate your claim; you were just pointing him in the wrong direction to find it. You ask in your book if the worst possible misery for everyone is not the worst possible outcome for a universe, but a universe devoid of life, devoid of any hope for well-being, is an even worse outcome.
Let me pause here to explain that I am not advocating the naturalistic fallacy of a eugenicist or the naïve adaptivism of a relativistic anthropologist. There is a difference between existing and surviving. It appears to us, for example, that sharks are surviving because they have been around for millions of years. Endangered pandas, on the other hand, are likely (though sadly) just existing at this moment in time. Based on what we know from evolutionary studies, some species endure and some species wink in and out of existence based on some rather clear properties: adaptability, diversity, redundancy, robustness, habitat stability, etc. Further, we humans are thriving in our survival because of the progress that comes from cooperation, which, as you note, come from: “kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression, fairness, justice, compassion”, etc. Actions of these types would all be categorized as internal processes in the balanced scorecard method I outlined above—necessary, but also not sufficient to describe the successful performance of our species in this universe.
In the future, evolutionary studies could guide a science of morality towards understanding which actions meet the objective root-cause goal of survival. At present, we already know from scientific investigations into the consilient fields of biology that these actions take place over fantastically long timelines and are enmeshed in incredibly intricate webs of support, so we would be extremely arrogant to think we may ever know the full consequences of our behaviors. Morally tricky areas are tricky precisely because of this kind of epistemic opacity. Using a non-tricky point to prove the existence of the rule though, I believe you are right to say that it is obvious the Taliban is not leading a moral society, but this is because they are not leading a society that is progressing towards survival. (How would they deal with the asteroid strike that is likely to come one day?) That is the objective reason, discovered by science, that their morality is not as good as, say, Denmark’s. The well-being of conscious creatures is a necessary subjective output along the way, but the long-term survival of life over evolutionary timelines is the peak objective outcome that sufficiently describes the moral landscape.
Jesus with his followers while the earth sits empty below. (photo credit)
of Nazareth wasn't exactly a philosopher in the strictest sense of the word, and I don't want to get into the supernatural claims of his religious followers (I think it's clear where I stand on those
), but he had much to say about morality that has influenced billions of people for two millennia so his words must be carefully considered. Sadly, much of it does not hold up to the scrutiny of logic and reason. First though: a parable, since this was Jesus' preferred method of communicating his ideas.
On one occasion, a very loud host on Fox News asked a theological expert, "This latest scientific research is tampering with the will of God. What does the bible have to say about this?"
The theological expert responded in a rising volume, "The liberal left don't want to hear this, but they are clearly risking damnation and the fires of hell for our world by ignoring the sacred words of God handed down to us from the prophets. Now that is a global warming I think we ought to really be afraid of."
A secular atheist had been offered up to the show as a punching bag for the audience. Rather than face the non-sequiters of his attackers, he asked a simple question. "If your orthodox policies led to everlasting heaven for your followers, but their lack of inclusive, cooperative progress led to the extinction of the species and the loss of untold billions of future beings, would god be happy with that?"
The theological expert replied with great certainty, "God works in mysterious ways and we must serve him no matter what the price is as the cost for entry into his kingdom of love."
The secular atheist told him, "Then go and do likewise with your flock."
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------Jesus of Nazareth (7-2 BCE - 30-36 CE) is the central figure of Christianity and regarded as an important prophet of God in Islam. Most Christian denominations venerate him as God the Son incarnated. Most contemporary scholars of the historical Jesus consider him to have been an independent, charismatic founder of a Jewish restoration movement, anticipating a future apocalypse. Other prominent scholars, however, contend that Jesus' "Kingdom of God" meant radical personal and social transformation instead of a future apocalypse.SurvivesParable of the Good Samaritan.
No matter the nationality, help those who need it.Parable of the Sower.
Environments do need to be considered when teaching.Parable of the Mustard Seed.
Sometimes the tiniest idea can blossom into a large movement.Parable of the Leaven.
A single element can affect the rest of an entire group.Parable of the Talents.
Effort should be rewarded.
Slothfulness should be punished.Needs to AdaptParable of the Friend at Night.
Asking for help is ok.
Free riders must be thrown off.Parable of the Strong Man.
Since justice is a public good, government must own force.Parable of the Barren Fig Tree.
Repetition is necessary.
Sometimes for more than four years.Parables of Counting of the Cost.
Planning is good, but trial and error is sometimes necessary.Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
Forgiveness is good. Be prepared to play tit for tat.Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Aid to the poor is good. Rooting for hell is fruitless.Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.
Humility over boasting, but speak up sometimes.Parable of the Wedding Feast.
More humility over boasting, but don’t be trampled.Parable of the Faithful Servant.
Great ability requires great effort, but waiting for god is a waste.Parable of the Ten Virgins.
Preparedness for life is a virtue, but not for a visit from a god.Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
Charity is its own reward, not an avoidance of hell.Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
It is good to focus on our own improvement.
Others must be judged in a cooperative society though, and they must be judged according to the standards of what will help life survive in the long term.Gone ExtinctChristians traditionally believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, performed miracles, founded the Church, died sacrificially to achieve atonement, rose from the dead, and ascended into a heaven from which he will return.
These supernatural elements of the myth of Christ were all similarly attributed to various other pagan gods in Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Sumerian, and Persian history.
They stem from the need to justify the divine right of kings to rule over their people, but they have never been substantiated.
No supernatural elements ever have.Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer in his Sermon on the Mount: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
There is no god.
There is no heaven.
Our daily bread must come from effort, not from divine provenance.
Blind forgiveness does not equate with the tit for tat strategy - the most successful strategy for creating a cooperative society.
And temptation will occur - we must experience it to master it.The eight beatitudes during the Sermon on the Mount are stated as, Blessed are: the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
(Consolation for the lower class, but no humans should live in poor spirit.
Especially since no afterlife is awaiting them.); they that mourn: for they shall be comforted
(Emotions of sadness over loss are natural teachers to avoid loss. Wallowing in mourning is a waste of the life that remains.); the meek: for they shall inherit the earth
(More consolation for the exploited class.
We must be bold with our lives to be happy at the end of it because there is nothing else.); they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled
(Righteousness - adhering to moral principles - would be a worthy goal if the principles were better aimed towards life instead of life after death.); the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy
(If everyone is adhering to the tit for tat strategy, this is true, but we must be prepared to punish cheaters or the system will be undermined.); the pure in heart: for they shall see God
(No they won’t, for there is no god.); the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God
(I thought everyone was a child of god.
Regardless, peacemakers do play an important function in society.); they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
(Use of a falsehood for the creation of martyrs with unshakeable beliefs.
As we know, this can be dangerous.
Better to advocate logical argument because truth will always win in the end.). The four woes that follow these are stated as, Woe unto you: that are rich! for ye have received your consolation
(More consolation for the exploited class.
Wealth to a certain level enables freedom and happiness.
Beyond that, it is not to be avoided, just used wisely.); that are full now! for ye shall hunger
(Consolation for the hungry, when in fact satiety gives us energy required to make long-term decisions.); that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep
(Play is required to learn, to reduce stress, to promote cooperation, to reenergize, etc.
It should not be stigmatized.); when all men shall speak well of you! for in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets.
(Good lives should be celebrated by all.
Who is the real false prophet?) The beatitudes turn out to be rather ugly when their relationship to the survival of the species is closely examined.Parable of the Growing Seed.
Fruit does not just come after no labor.
Every day must be filled.Parable of the Two Debtors.
Forgiveness of greater sins is not greater.
Follow tit for tat.Parable of the Rich Fool.
We must work and save as if we will live forever.
Then we are happy.Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders.
Straw men do not make a bad argument stronger.Parable of the Weeds.
Ideas are not like grasses.
Bad ones can be rooted out right away.Parable of the New Wine into Old Wineskins.
Knowledge is accumulative.
It rarely replaces.Parable of the Pearl.
Life requires adaptability and robustness, not monoculture fragility.Parable of the Hidden Treasure.
Same theme as the pearl.
Same problem of fragility.Parable of Drawing in the Net.
There will be no final judgment day.
We must not wait for it.Parable of the Lost Sheep.
Marketing ploy to capture the fallen, knowing we all fall sometime.Parable of the Lost Coin.
Same brand strategy as the sheep.
Tells us nothing about life.Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Vile version of the commercial.
Actively rewards wantonness.Parable of the Unjust Steward.
Awful justification of theft from the rich for personal safety.Parable of the Master and the Servant.
Recruiting the good by making them feel bad.Parable of the Unjust Judge.
There is no one to pray to.
Repetition is only more wasteful.Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.
Recruitment ploy creates moral hazard and injustice.Parable of the Two Sons.
Praising sinners for accepting a religion aimed at capturing them.Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen.
A cult leader inciting violence against the ruling class.Parable of the Great Banquet.
Mass invitation, expelling one to make the remainder feel special.Parable of the Budding Fig Tree.
Pointing out that change will happen NOW.
2,000 years ago.Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.
No one should be cast out and trodden asunder.
Humans are not salt - they can regain their savor for life when they understand what life truly means.Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel instead of on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so, let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
This is merely requesting advertising for a product that doesn’t exist.I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
Sadly, this is not true for the billions who have taken comfort in his easy answers and false promises of later rewards.
His teachings prey on the weak spot of mankind and would lead to its death and destruction.
This marks the end of my review of Ancient Philosophy
. With the rise of Christianity and the fall of Rome, the word of thought next plunged into a period of Medieval Philosophy
for the next 1,000 years.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------Medieval philosophies were mostly concerned with proving the existence of God. The medieval worldview was rational, ordered, and synthetic. It survived until the acids of war, plague, poverty, and social discord began to eat away its underlying presupposition – that the world rested on the being of God. This is probably what kept medieval times known as the Dark Ages – a reliance on God to explain things instead of science.
Thus holding humanity back for a thousand years of stagnation and condemning millions to lives of suffering in the name of mysticism.
Bear with me as I examine the most famous thinkers from these dark times to make sure something important does not get lost in the cracks of history. Fortunately, the bright beam of enlightenment begins to shine at the end of this tunnel, so let's walk happily toward that light.
The Lady of the North laying back at Northumberlandia and staring forever into the deep blue sky, appearing for all the world to have achieved an "imperturbable state of mind" — a modern example of what a skeptic initially stood for.
This week, I'm wrapping up my tour of the philosophies of Ancient Greece with a look at the type of unfortunate reaction that often arises against quests for knowledge. In this section of my Evolutionary Philosophy
, I started my examination of the Survival of the Fittest Philosophers
by looking at the Pre-Socratics
, before continuing through the triumvirate of Socrates
, and Aristotle
, and then taking a tour of the schools of Epicureanism
. Finally now, we turn to the school of thought that arose to cast doubt on all of these important foundations of philosophy--Skepticism
.And no man knows distinctly anything, And no man ever will.Who knows but that this life is really death, and whether death is not what men call life?The mountains, too, at a distance appear airy masses and smooth, but seen near at hand, they are rough. If appearances are deceitful, then they do not deserve any confidence when they assert what appears to them to be true.
These are quotes from the founder of skepticism
, Pyrrho of Elis
, who badly mistook the ideas of doubt, uncertainty, and probability, and used them to deny "any confidence" in what appears to be true. As described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosophical skepticism
: "attempts to render doubtful every member of a class of propositions that we think (we can evaluate). The grounds for either withholding assent to the claim that we can have (a particular piece of) knowledge or denying that we can have (that particular piece of) knowledge are such that there is no possible way to either answer them...because the same doubt applies to each and every member of the (argument). Thus, philosophic doubt or philosophical skepticism, as opposed to ordinary incredulity, does not, in principle, come to an end. Or so the philosophic skeptic will claim!"
In plain language, the philosophical skeptic will claim that neither can we say, "this is an apple," nor "we cannot know if this is an apple" because we cannot know if we know anything or do not know anything. Clearly, this is a nonsense stance that gets us nowhere, and it has been suitably skewered through the ages by more clear-headed thinkers.I do not think it possible to get anywhere if we start from skepticism. We must start from a broad acceptance of whatever seems to be knowledge and is not rejected for some specific reason.
--Bertrand RussellA doubt without an end is not even a doubt.
This reminds me of a quote from E.O. Wilson's Consilience
about postmodernists. Those schools may be 2,300 years apart, but to me the sentiment applies here since the Ancient Greeks invented modern philosophy and it therefore makes some sense to consider the skeptics the first postmodernists. Here is Wilson's quote:"There have always been two kinds of original thinkers, those who upon viewing disorder try to create order, and those who upon encountering order try to protest it by creating disorder. The tension between the two is what drives learning forward. It lifts us upward through a zigzagging trajectory of progress. And in the Darwinian contest of ideas, order always wins, because - simply - that is the way the real world works. Nevertheless, here is a salute to the postmodernists. They say to the rest of us: Maybe, just maybe, you are wrong. Their ideas are like sparks from fireworks explosions that travel away in all directions, devoid of any following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light on unexpected subjects. That is one reason to think well of postmodernism, even as it menaces rational thought. Another is the relief it affords those who have chosen not to encumber themselves with a scientific education. Another is the small industry it has created within philosophy and literary studies. Still another, the one that counts the most, is the unyielding critique of traditional scholarship it provides. We will always need postmodernists or their rebellious equivalents. For what better way to strengthen organized knowledge than continually to defend it from hostile forces?"
Indeed. Let's strengthen our knowledge by quickly examining this ancient school of philosophy in light of what we know today.
-------------------------------------------------------------------Skepticism (3rd Century BCE) originated in ancient Greek philosophy with Pyrrho of Elis who traveled and studied as far as India and propounded the adoption of practical skepticism. The idea of this school of philosophy was to produce in the student a state of aversion to arbitrary arguments filled with inconsequential babble. Its search for happiness also continued the practicality of Stoicism and Epicureanism.SurvivesNeeds to AdaptStoicism and Epicureanism made the search for pure truth subordinate to the attainment of practical virtue and happiness. Skepticism denied that pure truth was even possible to discover. It disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined.
In a large and changing universe, pure truths may indeed be impossible to know, however practical virtues and happiness will come from the search for them.
Sense and reason are adequate for this search because the universe is natural and rational.
We are a product of this universe so we can surely know it.Gone ExtinctSkeptics inferred the necessity of total suspension of judgment on things and were proponents that we can attain release from all bondage to theories and achieve an imperturbable state of mind, which is the foundation of true happiness.
True happiness comes from living, which requires a lot of theories and the best use of current knowledge for good judgment.
A total suspension of judgment and an imperturbable state of mind leads to ignorance and eventual extinction in the long run.
It also leaves us bored and stressed in the short term.
Nothing really survives, although today skepticism has evolved past this starting point to embrace caution and reason. From the most prominent carrier of this banner, Skeptic magazine
, comes this re-definition:"Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed: 'All I know is that I know nothing.' But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. When we say we are 'skeptical,' we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe."
The problem with this rebranding of skepticism is that it is now merely restating tenets that are already enshrined in the scientific method. The issue may have become confused because of the slow drift of definitions of the word skeptic to now mean in ordinary language someone who demands proof, but that's no reason to adopt such a confusing term as the masthead of a movement. And the head of the magazine, science writer Michael Shermer
, appears to ignore this fact so he can carve out a brand for himself that sounds more specific than being a mere science writer would entail. In the end, however, this just ends up being a clue to a general disrespect for the field of philosophy. While I loudly applaud Shermer's and Skeptic's scientific rigour in debunking pseudoscience over the years, Shermer has recently strayed into the science vs. philosophy debate with an unfortunate take on a science of morality
where he makes the following statements:
"First, morality is derived from the Latin
moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others. So I begin with a Principle of Moral Good: Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud). Given this moral principle, the central question is this: On what foundation should we ground our moral decisions? How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent—the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckolded. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior. Here we see that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test. This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle: To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first."
This is very weak. Morals
are rules that tell us how we ought to act. Period. They are not only concerned with actions towards another person. Is it moral to kick a puppy, overfish an ocean, or dump waste in a forest? Could you ask any of these life forms for their consent? What about an infant? Or an insane person? Or a terrorist? Shermer's principles do not hold up to any scrutiny. Perhaps he should stick to the business of just being a nay-saying skeptic after all, and we should remain skeptical of anyone who would adopt that term to describe their thinking. Knowing the history of the word now, we surely should.
Stoic calm. To be filled with an inner light while the world around us erodes away. Isn't that a philosophy we'd all like to possess? Sure...but it doesn't come easy. In his Meditations
, Marcus Aurelius discussed several practices he used to cultivate this desired state of mind. For example:"Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together."
As the Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy describes it, "when considering the doctrines of the Stoics
, it is important to remember that they think of philosophy not as an interesting pastime or even a particular body of knowledge, but as a way of life. They define philosophy as a kind of practice or exercise in the expertise concerning what is beneficial. Once we come to know what we and the world around us are really like, and especially the nature of value, we will be utterly transformed." For a Stoic
, philosophy isn't just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life involving constant practice and training, including such topics as "logic, Socratic dialog and self-dialog, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation), and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder."
Tough stuff. It fills me with admiration to know that despite the arduousness of this regimen, stoicism became the dominant philosophy among the educated elite in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire for a period of nearly 800 years. Unfortunately, such personal enlightenment among the ruling class didn't lead them to the political reforms necessary to liberate the slaves and underclasses of that society who found no consolation or justice in such an accepting view of their downtrodden lives. They, as we will soon see, turned instead to Christianity with its promises of reward in an afterlife governed by a forgiving god who loves us despite our sins in this world—a much easier pill to swallow.
For more on Stoicism
, and its survival among the fittest philosophies
, here are some quotes from its most famous practitioners before I examine the body of Stoic thought in general.
From Epictetus:Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire.Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.
From Marcus Aurelius:Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself.If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this.Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands.
From Seneca the Younger:The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live.Virtue is nothing else than right reason.
-----------------------------------------------------------Stoicism (3rd Century BCE) was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium. Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire. Stoic doctrine was a popular and durable philosophy until the closing of all philosophy schools in 529 AD by order of the emperor Justinian I, who perceived their pagan character as at odds with the Christian faith. (Setting humanity back for the next 1,000 years.)SurvivesAll true being is corporeal.
There are no supernatural incorporeal elements to our existence.The word stoic has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from passion by following reason. The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by resolute practice and asceticism that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline. Physics embraces the doctrines as to the nature and organization of the universe, and ethics draws from them its conclusions for practical life. Philosophy is the science of the principles on which the moral life ought to be founded.
Had the Stoics had more scientific knowledge, they would have arrived at the right conclusions.A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism: all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly love and readily help one another. This sentiment echoes that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said, "I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world."
And racism, nationalism, and religious belief systems keep us in separate tribes.Needs to AdaptThe agreement of human action with the law of nature, of the human will with the divine will, or life according to nature, is virtue, the chief good and highest end in life.
There is no divine will, but we must obey the laws of nature and learn to survive to reach our highest possibilities.The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of "moral and intellectual perfection," would not suffer such emotions.
We are all evolved from the same emotional animals.
We will always suffer the tension of short-term individually focused emotions raging against our long-term societal interests.
It is true though that a sage can learn to control their emotions through reason and stop them from wreaking destruction.The Stoics introduced little that was new. They sought instead to give a practical application to the dogmas that they took ready-made from previous systems.
The practical application of wisdom is a true virtue of philosophy, but previous systems have not been good enough to follow.
New ideas still need to be introduced.
I believe these come from the understanding of life inside an evolutionary system.All knowledge originates in the real impressions of the senses, which the soul, being a blank slate at birth, receives in the form of presentations, which when confirmed by repetitions, are developed by the understanding into concepts.
Knowledge does come from our senses and understanding after repetition, but our genes prime us to perceive the world in certain ways.
We are not blank slates at birth.Later Stoics, such as Seneca and Epictetus, emphasized that because "virtue is sufficient for happiness," a sage was immune to misfortune. This belief is similar to the meaning of the phrase “stoic calm."
Because the universe is changing and we are in a competition to survive, nothing is immune to misfortune.
A sage will accept this, however, and handle it well.Gone ExtinctStoicism held a pantheistic belief where God is never fully transcendent but always immanent. Stoicism equates God with the totality of the universe. Stoicism, unlike Christianity, does not posit a beginning or end to the universe.
No god is manifested in this universe.
It is run as if created by a blind watchmaker.
We can now trace back to a beginning of this universe, although we do not know what came before it.
When I watch others attempt to sail through life blissfully, relying on religious beliefs to fill their sails during calm periods of geniality, only to gnash their teeth and wail in doubt during inexplicable times of misfortune, I sometimes struggle to contain loud exhortations for a simpler explanation—that the world is harsh and only we can comfort ourselves and one another—but then I remind myself of Marcus Aurelius and calmly endure. May his and other Stoic practices continue to soothe your life after this reminder of their capacities. Peace.
In early 2003, I traveled to Ukraine to be a Peace Corps volunteer for the next two years. It was an amazing experience, opening my eyes to countless new things in terms of foods, cultures, beliefs, customs, arts, history, languages, architecture, etc. About 9 months into my service though, missing life in the U.S., missing my own family's huge Thanksgiving tradition (we always have 50-80 relatives in a large church hall), a large group of volunteers decided to have our own Thanksgiving in a small 2-bedroom apartment in the western city of Lviv. About 45 people, all earning $200 per month, paid to travel on uncomfortable overnight train rides to cross a country the size of Texas just to get to this party. The food was so-so (there were just some things you couldn't get in Ukraine), many people had to use paper plates and plastic utensils, I think everyone ate off their laps because there was no room to set up a table, and we all sat on radiators, the edge of a bureau, a window sill, or even just the floor. It was fantastic. It was…Epicurean
.He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing.Self-sufficiency is the greatest of all wealth.Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.
These are the words of Epicurus
, a greek philosopher commonly associated with his view that "pleasure is the greatest good." Like much of history and philosophy, like much of all communication in fact, the actual intent of this idea gets lost in translation though because we don't always take the time to learn the definitions that others are using. Especially, as in cases like this, when they use more subjective words like pleasure or good. This is probably why philosophers often prefer to use obscure greek phrases like eudaimonia
for happiness or welfare, ataraxia for
peace and freedom from fear, or aponia for
the absence of pain. We use these words to snap others out of their preconceived notions in the hopes that they will open their minds and engage in true dialogue to seek mutual understanding. At least, that's a generous view of why some people employ obscurantism in their writing.
In that spirit, I was reminded of two other foreign words when I was reviewing the philosophy of Epicureanism
for this week's post. The first, came from an article about the Danish concept of hygge
(sounds sort of like HYU-gah)
. Roughly, it means "coziness," "togetherness," and "well-being." "It's like a feeling, and it's big at Christmastime. The candles, the food, being with your family." I love naming this concept to help us own it, seek it out, and strive for it. Clearly Epicurus, with his emphasis on the importance of friendship, would approve. Once we're with those friends though, it's important to stay on the right side of the haimish line
with them. I came across this concept in a New York Times op-ed from David Brooks in 2011. In that essay, Brooks describes an African vacation he took with his family where he stayed at two different types of camps. "The simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables. The more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel. I know only one word to describe what the simpler camps had and the more luxurious camps lacked: haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality. It occurred to me that when we moved from a simple camp to a more luxurious camp, we crossed an invisible Haimish Line. The simpler camps had it, the more comfortable ones did not.
" This is such a beautiful description of the importance of philosophical contentment in life. Back to some quotes from Epicurus on this:It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.
Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
These are great words to glean from Epicurus, which is one of the reasons why he is still worth studying. For a look at his larger works in the context of modernity though, here's what I had to say about his survival among the fittest philosophers
-------------------------------------------------------------------------Epicureanism (3rd Century BCE) is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus. Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism.SurvivesEpicurus was an atomic materialist. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention.
Ok, so far.Needs to AdaptEpicurus believed that pleasure is the greatest good. But the way to attain pleasure was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. This led one to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from hedonism as it is commonly understood.
Life, not pleasure, is the sole intrinsic good.
The observation that “this life is all there is” is correct.
The conclusion that “we ought to just enjoy it then” ignores the fact that progress is required in order to hold on to life.
Fortunately, after billions of years of evolution, we do derive pleasure from applying ourselves to this effort.
A fuller understanding of pleasure is required to consider this belief system.
The simplicity with which it is represented is often dangerous.In practical questions, the feelings of pleasure and pain are the tests. Pleasures of sense however are subordinate to the pleasures of the mind so the renunciation of pleasure or the endurance of pain is often a means to a greater pleasure. The cardinal virtue then is prudence, which is shown by true insight in calculating the consequences of our actions as regards pleasure or pain.
Prudence is a chief virtue, but pain and pleasure are not the ultimate tests.
Life or death is the ultimate test.
If the environment changed so that pain was required to survive, we would suffer this pain.
We already do.Gone ExtinctEpicureanism admitted abstruse learning only when it serves the ends of practical wisdom; hence logic is subservient to physics, which in turn is subservient to ethics.
It has hard to say ahead of time what learning is abstruse or not.
It may all lead to knowledge that is crucially connected to our long-term survival.
In a vast interconnected web, no form of learning is absolutely subservient to another.Epicureanism emphasized the neutrality of the gods, that they do not interfere with human lives. It states that gods, matter, and souls are all made up of atoms. Souls are made from atoms, and gods possess souls, but their souls adhere to their bodies without escaping. Humans have the same kind of souls, but the forces binding human atoms together do not hold the soul forever.
Nonsense theories before science uncovered what atoms and bodies actually are.
Not much survives intact from 2300 years ago, but perhaps that's to be expected. However, a great lesson can still be taken from this school of thought about what is truly important to lead an "epicurean" life, and why the definition behind that word—as behind all words—is vitally important too.