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Intentions 3 (The Defense, Part 4)

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I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but the middle of my week is a complete,  unholy mess.

But I’m here, and I’m going to philosophy (broadly conceived) and history. 

Or, as I put it elsewhere–the history of events and the history of ideas.

AB declares–as if it proved that there was no point in paying attention to it–that we’ve been debating whether it’s a good idea to kill grandma for generations, and we haven’t come to “an answer” yet.

And, of course, we haven’t. 

Or, to be more accurate, we’ve come to a lot of them.

But this history of ideas is not about answers, but about decisions. 

And the history of events is about the results of those decisions.

It doesn’t really matter if different societies and different times and different places have come to different decisions about whether it’s okay to off grandma when she’s old.

What does matter is what particular decision your time and place has come to, because that decision will have consequences for your life and everybody else’s.  

You can determinedly refuse to know either of the two kinds of history–that’s your choice.  You can’t escape the inevitable–and predictable–consequences of those histories.

AB also complains that a metaphor is not evidence, and I agree, it’s not.

Nonetheless, the metaphor is accurate, and the evidence is everywhere if you want to look for it.

We teach the history of ideas and the history of events because the purpose of the study of moral and ethical philosophy is to investigate the answers other people, people who came before us, came to in asking those questions.  Then we look at the history of events and see if those ideas were implemented, and if they were implemented, what happened because of that.

Is there evidence that the Humanities came first?  Of course.  Look at the history, and you’ll see they came first, long before anybody thought to examine specimens of sea life and try to categorize them, for instance.

We can even find the record of the first people in Western culture who thought of collecting specimens and trying to categorize them–in the school of some guy named Aristotle, who preceeded his foray into taxonomy by first writing a treatis on Natural Philosophy, which is the first work ever recorded suggesting a pragmatic and practical approach, via observation and experimentation, to understanding the phenomena of the ancient world.

The idea came first.  The development of the science came later. 

And, in fact, we have an historical test case for two civilizations who both began pretty much equal in their scientific knowledge, one of which succeeded in building the world’s first (and still only) scientific civilization, the other of which fell back into a dark ages that would make our own look like a light show on New Year’s Eve.

Between 600 and 1300 there were three thinkers and three communities. 

The Muslim was named Ibn R’shd (various spellings–also called Averroes in the west).  The Christian was called Thomas Aquinas.  The Jew was called Maimonides.

Each of them spent some time asking and answering this question:  how should society respond if it turns out that its philosophers (chemists and botanists were “philosophers” in those eras) discovered knowledge that was contrary to sacred scripture?

And–not surprisingly, since all three of these men were students of Aristotle, and the idea that the search for truth must take precedent over everything else, included piety, is an Aristotelian idea–

All three of these men came to the same conclusion:  if there is a conflict, or even just an apparent conflict, between science and scripture, then science must take precedence, and scripture must be reexamined to see how we are reading it incorrectly.

This may sound like a platitude to you know, but it was a fairly significant idea at the time.

There was only one problem.

Jewish society was deeply enmeshed with the Roman, and the (Western) Catholic Church pretty much was Roman, which meant this was an idea that they were already accustomed to, that was part of their very blood and skin and bone. 

It was the Catholic Church that decreed, as a matter of dogma, that men and women could attain all the knowledge necessary for salvation “by reason alone”–by the application of logic and study, with no recourse to revelation. 

It was also the Catholic Church that had been teaching–since Augustine, in the 5th century–that “all truth is one,” and that there can be no real conflict between science and scripture.

And so, in the Middle Ages, when scholars began to come up with some things that seemed to contradict scripture, the Jews and the Catholics came up with exactly the same explanation–obviously they were misreading scripture.   They’d better change their interpretation.  Since it was impossible for God to lie, or to deceive–both were imperfections, and God is perfect–somehow, they must have messed up reading their books. 

The Arab culture out of which Islam came, however, was not Roman, or Greek, and its assumptions about the nature of God, truth, and scripture were very different.

When Ibn R’shd and other scholars began to write books and treatises about how, if there was a conflict between scientific discovery and the Koran, the Koran would have to give way to the science–they were branded apostates and worse.   Over the course of a single century, they were hounded out of the schools and other centers of learning, and no new philosophers rose to replace them. 

And Arab science was over.  It never developed past where it had been in about the year 600–and in mathematics and mechanics, they were considerably ahead of the West.

Everything you do is dependent on the political and social realities of the society you live in.  Most of the people who live in it with you know little about science and care less. 

What they do care about–identity, meaningfulness, purpose–probably sounds pretty stupid to you, but that doesn’t matter.

You need them at least as much as they need you, and more.  All that material stuff is nice, but societies around the world, right up to our own day, have been perfectly happy to throw it all out the window and sink back to the stone age (or something close) if it threatened the things that make life make sense to them.

And those things, by the way, are what the Humanities study.

So that’s why you study history and philosophy.  Everything hangs together.  Nothing is separate.  Science itself not only was but is first philosophy.  At its base are a set of axioms and assumptions that drive everything else.

And the history of events will allow you to investigate how putting some ideas into practice has worked out over time.

But there’s something else the study of philosophy will do for you–it will prevent you from making silly statements about how ethical philosophy is being “subsumed” by psychology.

No, it’s not.   The neuron and brain chemistry guys have nothing at all to say about ethics and morality, and the rest of the crew is presenting a very particular (and not new) ethical philosophy and preening themselves on how it’s “science,” because by doing that, they think they’ll stop you from asking any uncomfortable questions.

And that’s it for today.

Tomorrow–onto literature.

Because literature keeps us from swallowing fairytales like “the Church persecuted Gallileo for saying the earth went around the sun!”

I’m going to go find some food.

Written by janeh

September 21st, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Intentions 3 (The Defense, Part 4)'

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  1. “ [T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
    We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. ”

    —Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

    “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
    When he said the world was round
    They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
    They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
    When they said that man could fly
    They laughed at us and how!
    But ho, ho, ho!
    Who’s got the last laugh now?”


    21 Sep 11 at 7:36 pm

  2. “I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but the middle of my week is a complete, unholy mess.”

    You haven’t, because you’ve been too busy disputing to blog properly. I apologize.


    “What does matter is what particular [ethical] decision your time and place has come to, because that decision will have consequences for your life and everybody else’s.”

    This point is mine, I’m afraid. Why learn about such things when they are nonetheless dictated by society and one’s personal opinion is without weight?

    That humanities/literature/history etc. were studied long before science is not at issue. The point is whether this makes them worth studying now; I contend that a knowledge of pre-scientific (or even post-scientific) philosphy and literature contributes nothing to the knowledge of science. In fact, it is quite unnecessary to know Galileo from a hole in the ground in order to grasp physics.

    Aristotle, you give too much credit. This was a guy who taught that fish were created by autobiogenesis, simply because it was the only explanation he could think of without actually getting his hands muddy in a pond. His “science” was nothing but obscured animism, not amenable to experiment, and what he didn’t know (which was pretty much everything), he simply made up.

    By the way, I would put the start of the Islamic Dark Age at the Turkish conquest. Up until then, Arab civilization at least maintained a high material culture (superior to Europe) and preserved the Greek learning they had inherited (which Europe did not). The Islamic world was not yet turned entirely inward; explorers like Ibn Batuta sailed all over the Indian Ocean and penetrated much of Africa.


    The core of science is not the experimental method, or even observation, but universality and measurement.

    The comparative history of thought is interesting, but I think your point could be stated more clearly, and I will take the liberty of doing so: “Those who cannot remember history are at risk of repeating it, and what they are at risk of repeating is the destruction of rational inquiry.”

    “Everything you do is dependent on the political and social realities of the society you live in… What they do care about–identity, meaningfulness, purpose–probably sounds pretty stupid to you, but that doesn’t matter.”

    Again, this point is mine. What is the use of understanding, if the illiterate mob will rule anyway?


    “Everything hangs together. Nothing is separate.”

    With my apologies to the ghost of Muir, it is entirely possible to know some things without having to first know all other things. Conditional knowledge is still knowledge.

    “Science itself not only was but is first philosophy. At its base are a set of axioms and assumptions that drive everything else.”

    Only in the sense that the definition of “philosophy” has drifted over time. Science has exactly one axiom, which I noted already: Natural law is mathematical and universal. A scientist need know nothing whatever of “epistemology” or “ethics” in order to understand and advance science.

    “…the history of events will allow you to investigate how putting some ideas into practice has worked out over time.”

    The history of events is fascinating, but more depressing than useful.

    “The neuron and brain chemistry guys [et al.] have nothing at all to say about ethics and morality…”

    This is incorrect, so far as descriptive morality is concerned. Some interesting research has been done in this field.


    21 Sep 11 at 11:10 pm

  3. In reply to abgrund’s comments — after dealing with/following creationists for the last decade or so, I must submit that their existence gives lie to all of abgrund’s assertions about both humanities and the sciences.

    Creationism is only possible by being almost totally ignorant of most of the humanities, including philosophy (and especially epistemology) and ancient history and by simultaneously being totally ignorant of the history of science.

    Castigating them as the illiterate mob far from minimizing the importance of education, rather illustrates the vital importance of a solid and complete education.


    22 Sep 11 at 9:00 am

  4. michaelwfisher@cox.net

    22 Sep 11 at 1:07 pm

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