Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gilson on the Modern Philosopher

"Many of them live by what they choose to forget."
 - from The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Legacy of the Enlightenment

I'm just finishing reading The Enlightenment And Why It Still Matters by Anthony Pagden, an excellent history of the enlightenment as well as Pagden's interpretation of its significance. His last chapter - The Enlightenment and Its Enemies - is a robust defense of the Enlightenment legacy against its critics.  While Pagden is certainly right that the Enlightenment has bequethed us some genuine treasures, in particular the modern theory of rights and constitutional government, he gives the Enlightenment far too much credit. Why, for instance did the Enlightenment happen at all?

What so many of these opponents of Enlightenment have failed even to ask is why the world of virtue and moral authority that had apparently served our ancestors so well should have been overturned in the first place. Why, in other words, did the Enlightenment happen at all? It cannot simply be explained away, as the De Maistres and the Burkes had hoped, as the murderous revenge of disinherited minorities suddenly - and inexplicably - grown powerful. I have tried to offer an answer, not in terms of a conflict between "reason" and belief, between science and religion, but rather in terms of the historical failure of Christianity to continue to provide the kind of intellectual, and consequently moral, certainty that it had once done. By the mid-seventeenth century the entire structure on which all monotheistic beliefs rest, that the universe had been the creation of a divinity who continues to dictate every aspect of its being, had come to seem to many Europeans as threadbare as paganism had once seemed to Plato and Aristotle. In origin, all except the strictly theological aspects of Christianity - all that it could salvage from its Judaic origins - everything that relates to the human, and to life on earth - derived exclusively from ancient pagan sources manipulated by a powerful and often brilliantly imaginative clerical elite. Hence the description of it as "Hellenized Judaism." What the Enlightenment did was to replace this Christianized vision of the human condition with a more appealing, less dogmatic account, derived initially from the same attempt to reshape the most powerful of the ancient philosophical schools.

It is appropriate that Pagden gives a characteristically Enlightenment-style argument in defense of the Enlightenment. What makes it peculiarly Enlightenment is its use of history as a category that stands in judgement of all other modes of thought. By the mid-seventeeth century, Pagden tells us, the ancient view of God as Creator and Sustainer of the Universe had "come to seem to many Europeans as threadbare as paganism..." (that's my emphasis.) What is significant, and what justifies the Enlightenment, is the historical fact that the ancient view came to seem threadbare; whether it actually was threadbare, whether that perception was in accord with the truth of the matter, is irrelevant. History has spoken and the "age of theology" was over and the "age of reason" had begun.

The difference between Plato and Aristotle on the one hand, and the Enlightenment thinkers on the other, is that paganism (and by that I assume Pagden means the sophists and pre-Socratics) was more than merely apparently threadbare to Plato and Aristotle. They provided extensive arguments to show that the older pagan philosophy actually was threadbare and inadequate. Enlightenment thinkers by and large could not be bothered with such details. Descartes, for instance, merely informs us that he found the scholastic philosophy he was taught in school unbelievable and decided to chuck it overboard and start afresh. The great polemicists of the Enlightenment like Voltaire, and like their contemporary counterparts Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, didn't and don't actually refute their medieval nemeses. Instead, they heap scorn on traditional philosophy and theology, flattering their readers that they are too smart to believe such nonsense, and hope no one sees the bluff.

It is understandable why they took this approach. The sense of the Enlightenment thinkers was that the ancient ways of thinking had played themselves out and a new approach was needed. Whether this was true or not, coming to terms with  someone like Thomas Aquinas to the point of genuinely demonstrating the bankruptcy of his thought is potentially the task of a lifetime. But that very task, through the length and difficulty of its execution, would thwart its purpose - which was not to spend a lifetime in scholastic thought, but to move beyond scholasticism to something new.  The whole point of the Enlightenment was to get out of the (so they thought) suffocating thicket of medieval thought.

But "moving beyond" St. Thomas is not the same as refuting him. Ironically, instead of trying to sidestep the scholastics, St. Thomas might have served as a model for a genuine movement of Enlightenment rather the icon of medieval obscurity he became. For St. Thomas actually performed the task mentioned in the last paragraph - the task of moving beyond an older school of thought via a thorough refutation of it. And this brings me to Pagden's counterfactual account of history.

Pagden imagines what might have happened had the Protestant Reformation never taken place:

Luther, who was burned as a heretic in 1521, has gone down in history as nothing more than yet another troublesome friar hankering after the purity of the early Church. Christianity, although rarely ever at peace, remains united. The discovery of America has led to some flutters of uncertainty within the universities, but any thought that it might present a challenge to the traditional view of the laws of nature or God have been successfully repressed. There have been no French Wars of Religion, no English Civil Wars. The Revolt of the Netherlands, lacking ideological cohesion and foreign aid, has been swiftly suppressed. There has been no Thirty Years' War. Spain continues to be the richest, most powerful nation in Europe and remains locked in an unending struggle with France. Copernicus and Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Mersenne succeed in creating a new kind of Renaissance, which flourishes for a while under moderately tolerant regimes. Thomas Hobbes, however, although he enjoys some small success as a mathematician, eventually follows his father into the Church and dies, like him, an embittered alcoholic. John Locke is an obscure doctor at Christ Church, Oxford, renowned only for the silver tap he succeeded in inserting into the Earl of Shaftesbury's lower intestine without killing him in the process. Newton achieves recognition as a gifted astrologer and competent administrator and some notoriety as a somewhat heterodox theologian. By the end of the century the "Scientific Renaissance," as it later came to be called, as been silenced, the heliocentric theory and Descartes's atomism between them having proved too much for the Church to tolerate. The next generation has nothing to build on. The "mighty Light which spreads itself over the world," which Shaftesbury had seen in 1706 and which he believed must ensure that "it ... is impossible but Letters and Knowledge must advance in greater Proportion than ever," is instead a steadily darkening cloud. Western Christendom drops behind its centuries-old antagonist to the east, the Ottoman Empire. In 1683 Vienna falls to the armies of Sultan Mehmed IV. Russia, or "Muscovy," as it still calls itself, backward and divided, is easily defeated and overrun in January 1699. Spain and France still control the western Mediterranean and dominate most of northern Europe. But threatened by the seemingly irresistible Ottoman armies, they become increasingly theocratic and resistant to any innovation, from mechanical clocks to vaccination, which, they fear, might offend their ever-unpredictable God... Lacking any capacity for scientific or social innovation, the European powers not already under Ottoman control steadily decline until finally, in May 1789, Sultan Selim III marches into Paris. Within a few years what the English ecclesiastical historian Edward Gibbon had predicted in 1776 has come true, and "the interpretation of the Koran is now taught in the schools of Oxford and her pupils demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the Revelation of Mahomet." United in one massive religious and political community, which reaches from the Himalayas to the coasts of Scotland, the Ottoman Empire survives into the twentieth century... 
An utterly implausible flight of fancy? An illusion? Perhaps, but something not wholly dissimilar did, in fact, befall the Islamic world. During the reigns of the Caliphs al Mansur (712-75) and his successors Harun-al Rashid (786-809) and al-Ma'mun (813-33), an entire school of Hellenizing philosophers, jurists and doctors greup: men like the surgeon Abul Qasim Al-Zahravi, known as "Albucasis"; the mathematician and astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi, after whom a crater on the far side of the moon is now named; Abu or Ibn Sina, called "Avicenna" in the West, the author of a vast treatise that brought together all the medical knowledge of the ancient Greek world then available, from Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen; Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, physician, astronomer, mathematician, physicist, chemist, geographer, and historian, who in 1018 made calculations, using instruments he had created himself, of the radius and circumference of the Earth that vary by as 15 and 200 kilometers from today's estimates. The best known in the West, however, was Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd, or "Averroes" as he was called by his Latin readers, who was so highly regarded in the Christian world that he became known simply as "The Commentator" (just as Aristotle was known as "The Philosopher)... But Averroes was not only the greatest of the Arab Muslim scholars and perhaps the most influential of all Muslim philosophers, he was also the last. In the late twelfth century the Muslim clergy began a concerted onslaught on translation from the Greek and against all forms of learning that did not derive from either the Qur'an itself or from the sayings of the Prophet...

Pagden mentions Averroes "Latin readers", among whom were Thomas Aquinas, but doesn't seem to see the implication for his counterfactual history. At the time St. Thomas was reading Averroes, Platonism was the reigning philosophical school in Christendom and set the terms within which the Christian Revelation was interpreted. Aristotle was, in the twelfth century, a recent, revolutionary discovery. His major works had been lost in the West and only became known when translations from the Arabic (which themselves were translations from the Greek) became available. Not only because he was a pagan philosopher, and not only because he contradicted Plato in fundamental ways, but also because he came via the Arabs - complete with Muslim gloss by Averroes and Avicenna - Aristotle was greeted with a great deal of ecclesiastical skepticism. So much skepticism that the teaching of Aristotle was banned by the Church for decades, with his advocates like Aquinas also coming under a cloud of suspicion.

But Thomas Aquinas was not Descartes or Voltaire. He criticized the reigning philosophical regime from the inside, showing that he was its master and knew it better than did its defenders. He also demonstrated that, for those who love the truth, there was nothing to fear from Aristotle. For the truth cannot contradict itself. If the Gospel is true, whatever is true in Aristotle cannot contradict it, despite superficial appearances. Far from his faith being in conflict with reason, Aquinas's faith was a spur to an intellectual revolution in Christendom: His faith that Christianity was true meant that Christianity could have nothing to fear from the truth wherever it is encountered, even if it comes through pagan philosophers and Muslim translations.

Something similar could have happened with the revolution of thought that occurred in the Enlightenment. Like Aristotle and before him, Plato - who was also initially resisted as a pagan interloper ("what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?") - Enlightenment style thinking would have gone through some bumps and bruises but what was good in it would have eventually been accepted by the Church. This, in fact, was what was happening with Galileo. He initially had the support of the Pope, but through a series of unfortunate circumstances and scheming by the established bureaucracy, found himself on the wrong side of an ecclesiastical ban - just as had happened to Aristotle. But, unfortunately, Galileo was not St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was not merely brilliant, but also humble, pious, charitable and selfless - a saint. Galileo, in contrast, was vain and egotistical, and it is interesting to wonder how things might have turned out if the Galilean personality was more Thomistic. Nonetheless, the Church would have come around to Galilean physics eventually, as it had come around to Plato and then Aristotle.

In Pagden's counterfactual history "by the end of the century the 'Scientific Renaissance,' as it later came to be called, has been silenced, the heliocentric theory and Descartes's atomism between them having proved too much for the Church to tolerate." But there is no precedence for this in the (even by then) long history of the Church. The Church successfully absorbed Plato and other Greek thinkers, the pagan Latin intellectuals like Cicero and Virgil had been taught for centuries (and even figured as heroic figures in works like The Inferno), and only relatively recently Aristotle had been absorbed through his Islamic commentators. Pagden's alternative, anti-intellectual history, a history where the truth is "too much for the Church to tolerate", is without precedent in Christian history.

A crucial difference between the Church's approach to truth and the Enlightenment's is that the Church was not willing to absorb new truth at the expense of old. It is certainly true that scholastic-type thinking was in many ways proving a hindrance rather than a help at the dawn of the modern age, and the temptation to clear the thickets by slashing away wholesale at traditional thought is understandable. But it is surely an unwise thing to destroy that which you don't really understand,  for you may very well destroy a cultural inheritance that was gained by centuries of effort, and that could be gained no other way. And that is what happened with the Enlightenment, which in its efforts to get on with the scientific revolution, destroyed the ancient philosophical inheritance of the Greeks. The result is the modern world: Scientifically unsurpassed but philosophically bankrupt. The Church, in its efforts to avoid losing the accumulated wisdom of centuries in the hurry to get on with novel investigations, surely slowed the pace of scientific progress, and did so consciously; but it is a mistake to confuse a commitment to a measured pace of scientific progress with an opposition to scientific progress altogether, which is Pagden's mistake.

Pagden's counterfactual military history has a contradiction in it. He uses the history of the Ottoman Empire as an example of what might have happened had the Enlightenment not occurred in the West, but then has the Ottomans defeating the West because of the subsequent lack of innovation in the West.  But if the Ottomans are the actual historical exemplar of a culture that lacks Enlightenment and stagnates for lack of innovation, wouldn't the lack of Enlightenment in the West simply have resulted in a stalemate between East and West, rather than the Western triumph that actually occurred?

In fact, the Western superiority in innovation long predated the Enlightenment. This is ably documented in the works of Victor Davis Hanson (e.g. The Western Way of WarCarnage and Culture, The Soul of Battle) among others. All the way back to the ancient Greeks, the West showed a unique openness to innovation, particularly in military matters, that provided a sometimes subtle but persistent military superiority with respect to the East. The only way the medieval Crusades were possible was that Western technological superiority - both in arms and in logistical support - allowed far smaller Christian armies to compete on level terms with Islamic hordes.

The Enlightenment did not happen out of the blue, but was made possible by the medieval innovations that pre-dated it. Innovations in agriculture like the plow and the harness, which made medieval farms far more productive than their ancient (or Eastern) counterparts, contributed to population growth; medieval navigational innovations like the compass and the sextant made possible the voyages that discovered new worlds, and medieval inventions like modern banking made possible their financing.

The truly interesting counterfactual history would be one in which the Enlightenment acknowledges its debts to the past and remains within the innovative tradition going back to the Greeks, rather than constructing a mythology of the past that justifies its own revolutionary, and philosophy destroying, origin.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Scientific Absolutes

Steven Novella has a post on SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) here. What interests me are his comments on science and absolutes. Using the classic question concerning the possible existence of a black swan, he has this to say:

Sometimes a hypothesis can be stated in such a way that a single counter-example will disprove it. The now classic example is that all swans are white. A single non-white swan will falsify this hypothesis. How thoroughly do you have to search, however, before we can conclude that all swans are white? Would you have to simultaneously survey every swan in the world? If it takes 10 years to conduct a thorough survey can you be sure that a black swan was not born in the last 10 years? 
The problem here is in thinking in absolutes. Scientific theories, rather, often deal with probabilities and are not necessarily wrong when exceptions are found. In the case of swans, the more thoroughly we look for non-white swans without finding them the greater our confidence is that all swans are white, and we can certainly conclude that most swans are white and that any exceptions are rare.

While it is true that science does not deal with absolute conclusions, it doesn't follow that science doesn't involve absolutes at all. In fact, science can't be done without some thinking in absolutes. Consider those swans that are the subject of a worldwide survey. Assumed in the story is that scientists have no problem distinguishing swans from non-swans, be they black or white. We might say that, as far as the experiment is concerned, scientists are absolutely able to distinguish swans from non-swans.

Why, for instance, on encountering a creature that is furry, has floppy ears, and barks, doesn't a scientist announce a revolutionary discovery: Not only can swans be black, but they can have fur and floppy ears! Because, of course, what the scientist has encountered is a dog and not a swan. Experiments like the one described by Novella presuppose, albeit unconsciously, an Aristotelian natural philosophy - specifically, the distinction between essential and accidental properties of being. An essential property is a property that makes a being the kind of thing it is; an accidental property is a property that, whether a being has it or not, does not change the kind of thing it is.

How is it possible for us to make absolute statements regarding essential properties? How can we know, for instance, that while all swans may not be white, all swans are naturally born with the ability to fly? (I qualify that statement with "naturally" because, through accidents of birth or injury, a particular swan might not be able to fly. This does nothing to change the fact that its nature is directed toward flight and would have achieved it but for accidents of fate). Hume famously denied such a thing was possible with his criticism of induction. But what Hume overlooks is that when we analyze something, we not only understand it as a catalog of properties, but we also understand it's mode of being, the why behind its collection of properties. A swan has a mode of life peculiar to it, and very different from the mode of life of a dog, that accounts for the essential properties of the swan vs. a dog. A dog is an animal that hunts prey through smell, and so is built low to the ground with a wet nose and an extraordinary sense of smell. The swan eats plants at the bottom of ponds, and so has a long neck and a bill, but a poor sense of smell since it doesn't need it. The dog's nose is essential to its mode of being so we can be sure we will never encounter a dog with a bill, and similarly we won't find a swan with a soft wet nose. But being black or white is irrelevant to the mode of life of either, so we should expect that we might find different colored dogs or swans. And in that case, statistics tell us the probability of occurrence of the various colors.

If we don't like Aristotle, Kant saw the same thing with respect to the distinction between essential and accidental properties, but he hoped to avoid any metaphysical assertions concerning being. His solution was to relocate the essential/accidental distinction from being (i.e. in the world out there) to the subjective (i.e. in your mind). Kant argues that in order for experience to be possible for us at all, it must be organized by our cognitive faculties into some sort of coherence - otherwise our experience would be the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of William James. Actually, it would be worse than that, for Kant insists that it wouldn't be experience at all, not even a confused one ("confusion" still implies a relationship between the confused elements, some stable background with respect to which they are confused.) So the mind organizes experience spatially and temporally, with space and time being the terms in which the mind constructs that organization. Essence and accident are categories within which the mind refines experience. For Kant they are imposed on nature rather than read off it as with Aristotle. But it doesn't really matter for the purposes of this post, for they are just as absolute for Kant as they are for Aristotle; they are just subjectively absolute rather than objectively absolute. Either way, empirical investigation is impossible without some thinking in absolutes.