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Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

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Cheryl points out that a conflict between reason and religion is not the issue in all cultures, and of course she’s right.   You’ll notice I said nothing about the cultures of Asia, where issues tend to revolve around concepts of tradition and authority rather than revelation and the interpretation of revelation.  But revelation and the interpretation of revelation was the primary issue for the three cultures involved, so much so that, in choosing sides,  Judaism largely folded intself into a larger Western culture, and is there still.

But I do think that the issue should be framed not as a conflict between reason and religion, but as an issue of interpretation of revealed texts and ideas–if you have physical evidence that X is true, and your particular scripture says that Y is true instead (or seems to),  how do you resolve that conflict?

The whole framing of this problem as a war between “reason” and “religion” is inaccurate, because certain kinds of religion depend heavily on reason–Thomas Aquainas was a lot of things, but he was not an irrational and superstitious man.

John says that the difference between cultures that develop science and those that don’t is “openess (or lack of it) to change,” but I don’t think that that’s entirely accurate either. All cultures are open to change to one degree or another.  I think the real determinant is the basis on which change is seen to be imperative.

So, yes, I do think that there is a set of ideas the existence of which as the framing ideas of a culture ensures that a scientific revolution is inevitable, although it make take a long time coming. 

Those ideas are:

1) it is a good, legitimate and moral thing to apply human reasoning to the study of the world and of man in the world

2) in any conflict between material evidence and some other claimed form of authority or truth, it is the material evidence that must be heeded

3) in any conflict between the individual human mind and the will of the state, the people, the religious authorities, you name it, it is entirely possible that the individual is right and all the others are wrong AND it is the only moral and admirable course for the individual to hold to what he believes is true even if he’s the only one who believes it

4) that the principle in (3) is true EVEN IF the individual is wrong–what’s called, in Roman Catholicism, “the principle of the primacy of conscience.”

Given those four ideas embedded in the narrative of your civilization, and you WILL develop science.  You practically can’t help yourself.

Those are, as well, the ideas embedded in the Humanities, which is why I say I’d rather lose the sciences than the Humanities. 

I don’t mean that every thinker in the history of Western thoughts since the Greeks has upheld those principles, they haven’t.   And your ordinary general run of people often get enormously annoyed with them.  Various kinds of authority often hate them.

But the overall march of the Humanities since they first arose in  Greece in the fourth or fifth century BC has been the narrative, played out in countless books and essays and plays and poems and lives, of those four principles.

What we need is not some overall lecture course saying “here’s the things we find that we believe to be true–Capitalism is good and Cmommunism is bad (or vice versa). ”

What we need is the example, example after example, of individual men and women proposing new ideas and defending them against opposition and criticism, sometimes winning, sometimes losing.  We need to see them do it over and over and over again, because it’s the process that’s important.

It’s a truism in science that all knowledge is tentative–that we must always be open to the possibility that what we know today will turn out, tomorrow, to be wrong.  Apply that principle to the Humanities, however, and  people get very uncomfortable–if the Humanities represented real knowledge, shouldn’t they come to some conclusions, shouldn’t they settle their arguments and say that one thing is right and the other is wrong, absolutely, finally?

Robert once complained to me that the history of philosophy oftens seems to be an argument between  Aristotle and Plato that just goes on and on and never stops. 

But Aristotle and Plato don’t argue over whether the state is something that’s come down to us from ancestors and should be accepted as is, or whether it’s something ordained by  God that we must receive and not question.

Both Aristotle and Plato believe that the state is something men do, and that they can and should do it deliberately, by thinking out what would make government good and then constructing those institutions deliberately. 

Like two guys who are arguing over whether to build a road or a nuclear power plant, they both accept the principles of enginering.  They’re just arguing over what they should do about them. Consider the difference between both these men and a man who wants to build both–but by building a temple to the gods and offering them a few sacrificial virgins.

One more note, to close:  I think that the constant assumption that Islamic society was “advanced” in the Middle Ages and then deteriorated is about half true.

First, most of the Islamic thinkers who concerned themselves with “Greek learning” lived in what is now Spain, that is, well away from the major centers of Islamic power.  It’s by no means clear that those centers were ever “advanced” in the sense we’re using that word.

Second, the old canard that the West had to have the works of Aristotle and Plato and their brethern returned to them by Islamic scholars is, simply, false. 

Many copies of those works existed in remote monasteries across the West right through the four hundred years of social collapse that followed the end of the Roman Empire.

More importantly, however, the copies of those works that came from the East did not come from Islamic scholars, but from Byzantine ones, Greek Christians who had been preserving them in churches, monasteries and hidden libraries from a Muslim government that destroyed them whenever it found them and whenever it could.  

When these Greek Christians fled West to escape religious persecution, they brought with them as many manucripts as they could carry, and those manuscripts became the basis for the incredible intellectual ferment of the Middle Ages.

This is, I think, another one of those instances where some people decide that anything the West does is wrong, and therefore other people must really have done whatever it is that we seem to have.

And that sentence should be shot, but I need more tea.

Written by janeh

June 19th, 2009 at 8:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Necessary and Sufficient Conditions'

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  1. :So, yes, I do think that there is a set of ideas the existence of which as the framing ideas of a culture ensures that a scientific revolution is inevitable, although it make take a long time coming.”

    The clause “a long time coming” raises a problem. Aristotle really couldn’t have developed an accurate physics. He had no way to measure pressure or temperature or time. And his arithmetic was limited by a clumsy number system, a lack of zero, and no concept of negative numbers.

    Linking Galileo and Aristotle together as part of Western Civilization is rather stretching the idea of civilization.


    19 Jun 09 at 8:51 pm

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