Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Introducing Averroes

“Isti, qui negant aliquod ens contingens, exponendi sunt tormentis quousque concedant, quod possibile est eos non torqueri”Translation:“Those who deny the existence of contingency should be tortured until they admit that it is possible for them not to be tortured.” ― Duns Scotus

When I first came across this, I was a bit shocked. Taken literally, it is barbaric. It was written sometime in the late 13th century, in Europe, which would be known for barbarism. That context doesn’t make it much less shocking. However Duns Scotus was a philosopher, not a member of the Spanish Inquistion.

It is likely that he did not actually intend to have anyone tortured. This quote is supposedly how he demonstrated that we have free will. When he says “contingency” he was talking about what we would today understand as “free will”.  His logic is, if someone is torturing you and you ask them to stop, they would need to have free will to do that. Philosopher’s arguments weren’t all that sophisticated back then. It has the ring of a bully saying, “why are you hitting yourself?” while he has your wrist and is smacking your own hand against your head.

Free will is an important element of Christianity because without it, we could not choose to believe in God or not, or choose to follow his laws or not. If we aren’t doing that, then all of God’s punishments don’t make any sense. They don’t make any sense anyway, especially when someone says an entire nation is punished for something done by one person in a previous generation, but such is the logic of the Bible and its readers.

When someone says that our entire system of law is based on Judeo-Christian thought, this is partly what they are talking about, and they are partly right. Many other religions are based on gods and goddesses that act arbitrarily and take over the minds of people and cause all sorts of things to happen for whatever reason they feel like. Gods not of the Bible often have personality flaws or more human characteristics. God of the Bible sometimes does too, partly because there is the YHWH god and the Elohim god, but that’s a different blog. Most of the time, Judeo-Christian God is absent, speaking through bushes, a still soft voice, or sending cryptic messages via angels. But this idea that we have some ability to reason and make choices is pretty consistent throughout the Bible.

There were of course other gods and philosophies and a strong influence on European thought at the time was the rediscovery of Aristotle. When Rome fell and the tribes of Europe fell into constant warfare, the writings of Plato and Aristotle were mostly lost to the West. They made their way to the new Rome, the Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey and further East to Baghdad. As the Muslim Empire grew, they translated the Greek writings and expanded on their ideas, leading to what most agree is the beginning of modern science.

The Muslim Empire expanded all the way across Northern Africa and into Spain. Cordoba Spain was a jewel of multi-culturalism, while most of Europe was still in the Dark Ages. I know some will say that things were happening with the Christians, there was Pope Sylvester II who questioned authority and experimented. But then not too much later there was the Inquisition. These conservative and liberal swings continue for centuries, with small advances in ideas like better treatment for slaves, then a return to repression. For the most part, a culture of magic, the divine right of Kings and rule by force prevailed. The Muslim Empire experienced similar swings with only slightly better success during the times when seeking knowledge was encouraged.

During one of those swings, in Spain, a man by the name of Averroes was commissioned to translate Aristotle. This led him to write on how one might reconcile faith, something that all but a very few considered the only way of looking at the world, with reason, something Aristotle spoke of at length. Reading Averroes, you might think he was a bit crazy. It seems like he is rambling, grasping for a thought. You have to keep in mind he didn’t understand how energy gets here from the sun, how mountains were formed by glaciers or how humans evolved from earlier life forms. He was one of the first to guide us toward how we would eventually figure out all those things.

You also have to keep in mind that he was aware of those conservative/liberal swings. He was commissioned by a liberal Caliph, but in his lifetime his works were banned and he was exiled from Spain. Fortunately for him this was brief. He may have wanted to say much more but didn’t out of fear. He may have wanted to say that logically, there is no god, that god is a symbolic construct to help explain our feelings and dreams, that it is used by the powerful to oppress women and justify slavery. That probably would have got him more than exiled. But I don’t know what he thought, only what he wrote.

When his ideas and translations passed into the Universities that were run by the Roman Catholic Church, they met with more trouble. Thomas Aquinas attempted to work out his own version of reconciling faith and reason. Then in 1277, most philosophy was banned from being taught. The bans were eventually lifted and Aquinas was eventually given sainthood, but not without much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was William of Ockham who came up with the formula that allowed science to move forward and religion to maintain its hold on the hearts of men.

According to Ockham, God creates the universe and can do whatever he wants. We discover patterns in that creation, but reason is not inherent in nature, it is only in our minds. We can explain nature, but we can’t explain God. This answers Euthyphro’s dilemma by saying good is what God declares good. The Church is the only authority to say why or to determine what is evil and who should be punished for it. Science is left to discover patterns all it wants, but has no say about what the church says is a miracle.

Under that system, Galileo was given a tour of the torture chamber. Under that system, the Church went through a string of some of its worse Popes until Luther had his say. Against that system, governments finally started to build walls against the influence. The recent political debates have me wondering if we have made much progress in the last 1,000 years. 

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