Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Common Era - Modern Science

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Although I prefer to focus on the cultural matters, sometimes the things that history books spend most of their time on, Kings, Queens and military conquests, really do matter. One of those items that I have omitted so far in this story is the Mongol invasion. It is peripheral to my discussion, but played a central role in shaping the 13th century.

Covering more territory than either Islam or Western Europe, the Mongols were conquering the Far East with rapid precision. Their military tactics were far in advance of anyone in the rest of the world at that time. Genghis Kahn had little interest in nation building or new technology, only conquering.

By 1240, his armies had reached Europe. He had come near Islam, but went over it to the north instead of through it. Whether or not he could have taken all of Europe remains one of those interesting questions for historians to ponder. Polish armies were on the run after the Battle of Leignitz, but then the Mongol invaders suddenly packed up and returned home, a 6,000 mile journey. This was not from fear, but from a decree by the Kahn himself. Upon his death, a new leader must be chosen, and that must be done back in Mongolia.

After that process, battles continued, but infighting weakened their armies. They began to integrate with the countries they had come to rather than dominate. Unfortunately for Islam, one of their last advances was into Baghdad. In 1263, the city was sacked and rivers ran black with the ink of the books that were thrown into it. Both of these empires had spread themselves too thin and both were now in decline. Unfortunately they were able to inflict a lot of damage on the good that had come out of their rising.

Western Europe was just getting its act together and now it had a lot less to worry about. The problems on the western edge of the Islamic empire, in Al-Andalus would get no help from Baghdad. As Christians conquered Spain and Jerusalem they claimed that they were taking back what was rightfully theirs. But they did more than take back land that was once Roman territory, they found riches of knowledge. It was based on Greek texts, so they claimed that as theirs also, ignoring what had been done with them over the last 1,500 years.

I began this search with the question of why did science thrive in Western Europe and nowhere else. The Chinese have many inventions, Baghdad was a center of learning for centuries, but Europe gave us telescopes, the printing press, the crossbow and eyeglasses.

The answer is, it didn’t. The roots of science are nowhere near Western Europe. It was NOT the sense of a universe with a creator and immutable laws, or the concept of free will, or a tightly administered university system that gave rise to science. It was a spirit of openness and willingness to doubt. It required a tolerance of other cultures and a recognition that intelligence is widespread and not related to a particular worldview. It required contributions from entire known world brought together under one roof. And it required a financial commitment from the highest levels.

The reason we believe science came from Europe is that’s what the history books say. In this case, the adage is true, history is written by the victors. Europeans copied from Middle Easterners and Northern Africans who had gathered knowledge from the Far East. They stole their homework and called it theirs. Then they beat them up and took their lunch money. When their money ran out, they found some new kids and took theirs too. There is no one person to blame for this, but speaking metaphorically, Western Europe was the bully of the world.

They had successfully created a system that had all of the appearances of a system of checks and balances. The military needed the authority of the nobility and nobility was crowned by those who knew the word of God. God had come down to earth, humbled himself and declared himself one with all of us. According to this myth, the meek had inherited the earth. Dominion over all the earth would soon be achieved and 1,000 years of peace were at hand. Right after a few more savages were killed off.

Even learning had become an expression of the Almighty. Making sacrifices was primitive, but God was all knowing. Learning about nature was a path to understanding the glory of creation. God still had a plan, now it could be discerned not just by prayer, but by reading signs in nature. If nature seemed to be contradicting something in the Bible, it was best to consult the theologians. Once they had spoken, you could get back to your test tubes and telescopes.

It doesn’t help that science at the time was primitive. Some of what Galileo did during his lifetime has been labeled alchemy. The ideas of peer review and repeating experiments were not established. Early science was performed by people who had the time, money and resources, often funded by the Church or for the purposes of military expansion. You got published if you could afford to fund the publishing, not based on the merits of your discovery. Accusations of this continue to the present, and too often they are true.

The authority of science is often questioned and compared to the authority of the Bible as if they are equal. Ironically, questioning authority is a value of science. Scientific teaching, when done correctly, tells you what is unknown and tells you the weak points of its arguments. Scientists, if they are doing it right, acknowledge the discovery of new information and welcome changes to their understanding. That some scientists and some teachers get it wrong, does not make the scientific method wrong.

Like the Buddha said, “Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings - that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.”

I know of no other religious leader who says this and truly means it and means it to apply even to their self. It can’t be called a belief system because it is telling you not to believe, but to question. Only after examination do you take what you have found as a guide. Even then, if new information is discovered, examine again. That’s the modern world view that will solve the problems that the old world view got us into to.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Commone Era - Tusi's Couple

This is the 4th in the series. Return to #3

Tracing philosophy, like I did last week, is fairly easy. Commentators build on each other and reference each other. Tracing how science moved around the world in the Middle Ages is not so easy. The idea of a copyright did not exist yet. There were no international scientific publications.

Recent historical research into this has been much like detective work. If you look at De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (go ahead, grab your copy, I’ll wait) written in 1543 by Nicholas Copernicus and compare it to Al-Tusi’s Tahrir al-Majisti ( might carry it), you will see diagrams of Tusi’s couple that are almost identical. Maybe Copernicus arrived at this independently, but it seems unlikely to me. And even though the work and data from the 9th century Muslim, Al-Battani, is mentioned by Copernicus in that same work, that fact is rarely mentioned in history or science classes.

In case you have forgotten, Copernicus came before Galileo. He published his ideas about the earth rotating around the sun late in his life because he knew it could cause trouble for him with the Pope. He is often credited with beginning the scientific revolution. More often, I am seeing this credit come with the qualification “in the West”, but this is a recent phenomena and even when used, no mention of where else in the world scientific ideas came from. Sometimes there will be a vague reference made to translations of Greek works by Arabic scholars. The growth of the university system is also credited without mentioning where they got their books.

Why have we lost this connection? There is at least one technical reason. The Arabic language is very ornate. When written, a slightly more or less pronounced curl of a symbol can carry meaning. This does not lend itself well to being reproduced with movable type. Invented around 1439, Queen Isabella funded the increased use of the printing press. It could also have something to do with the over 1 million Arabic books that were burned after Spain was “reconquered” in 1492.

Even before gaining back the territory of Granada, the last Muslim Kingdom in Spain, rules were in place to enforce the conversion of everyone to Catholicism. The most famously brutal leader of the Spanish Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada was appointed Grand Inquisitor in 1483. It was common for Jews and Muslims to fake their conversions to Catholicism. It was the job of the inquisition to insure they were authentic and expel, torture or kill them if they did not comply.

1492 is famous of course in the Americas because that is when Columbus arrived. Whether he was the first European there or just the last one to make a big deal out of it is not my concern here. More important is that he claimed a land that was already inhabited by the Lucayans, Tainos and Arawaks for his God and his country, thinking nothing of taking seven of them back to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand and having them baptized. Immediately the Spanish and Portuguese began to draw lines on the map, with their authority secured by the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, laying claim to these new worlds that they barely understood.

On his second voyage, Columbus was escorted by an Apostolic Delegate and missionaries with clear orders to evangelize. In 1494, Columbus sent 500 slaves to the Queen but she refused them and continued to advocate for good treatment of the natives. This did not slow the pace of conquest and did not stop Columbus from enslaving the natives to work in mines and plantations on Hispaniola. By 1496, Columbus’ brother Diego had secured the port of Santo Domingo. In 1510, Balboa founded Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien on continental America. By 1515, the conquest of Cuba was complete and other Caribbean islands were under Spanish control. The wealth that came from these adventures shifted the focus of Europe from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

Throughout, it was important that these conquerors had official authority behind them. It seems unlikely that those authorities were not aware of the mistreatment of people in the New World. They were most likely more concerned about the gold, timber and cotton flowing to them. Ferdinand and Isabella were always careful to receive a Papal Bull that authorized their claims. This idea of the rulers of the people having the blessing of the religious leaders had been fermenting for centuries. Two centuries earlier, Thomas Aquinas had revisited the work of Augustine of Hippo to create justifications for war.

Augustine had said, "The commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged wars on the authority of God, or those who have imposed the death-penalty on criminals when representing the authority of the state, the justest and most reasonable source of power"

So, if it was criminal to be anything but a Christian, then killing people who refused to convert was not a problem. It is doubtful that this was Augustine’s intention, but over the centuries the Church had increased in power and figured out what they could say to their followers and what they could get away with. 900 years later, Aquinas clarified and added criteria for when killing was justified:
  • First, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain (for example, "in the nation's interest" is not just) or as an exercise of power.
  • Second, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state.
  • Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.
Again, leaving much open to interpretation. If the Pope says it is good and just to bring Christ to the New World, nearly anything is acceptable. The motive of peace can be claimed when any kind of conflict arises. Simply claim that you are the one who is going to bring peace, as soon as you kill off a few of the non-peaceful ones, and your actions are just in the eyes of the Lord. Go wherever you want, as long as you carry the right flag with you, you are justified.
With these rules in place, the acquisition of knowledge from one declining empire and the acquisition of resources from a much weaker tribal culture, the pattern for the development of the Americas was set in motion.

Regardless of what was officially stated, it seems clear that all were aware of what was happening in these far off conquests. Even after Columbus was arrested by Francisco De Bobadilla and sent back to Spain in chains for his mistreatment of the Arawaks, his punishment only lasted a couple months and he was returned. Conquest and mistreatment of natives was not limited to Columbus or the rulers of Spain. The patterns that began here would last for centuries.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Common Era - Toward Western Europe

A little timeline just to get things in perspective. I know I have been covering the Islamic empire quite a bit, so a little review of the Christians is in order. The Roman Empire did not begin as a Christian one, so it has a different flavor than the Islamic empire. Both had considerable fighting within their boundaries, but the Christians had more trouble over who was actually the King and what brand of Christianity they were worshipping.

475 – Rome falls. Or at least that is the most common date used. At the time, it was just one more piece of bad news. The Western Emperor had been deposed by the Barbarians. Many Romans still felt that there was an Empire and that it would return to its former glory.

Dec 25, 800 Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This was the beginning of a somewhat reunited Europe, although fighting continued. The tradition of the Pope crowning the King would last for 1,000 years.

Nov 27, 1095 – The First Crusade. Pope Urban combines the ideas of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with that of waging war. He says, “The West must march to the defense of the East.” By 1099 they had captured Jerusalem, killing many Jews along the way and brutally murdering Muslims in the battle.

1088 – Establishment of the University of Bologna, Italy. This and other universities grew out of the Christian cathedral and monastic schools. With the wars of conquest going on both in the East as well as in Spain, Western Europe was increasingly exposed to the ancient writings of Plato and Aristotle and the advances in math and science coming out of Baghdad.

1210 – Teachings of Aristotle were condemned. This was only effective in the University of Paris.

1277 – Broader condemnations were made. Some specific works of Thomas Aquinas were included; particularly those that were attempting to reconcile the pantheistic ideas of the Islamic philosopher Averroes with the dogmas of Christianity.

1323 – Pope John XXII pronounces Thomas Aquinas a saint. The Church continues to claim the final word on God’s powers and the truth of miracles, but methods of analyzing cause and effect in nature are taking hold throughout Christendom. Depending on whom you read, this was an era of oppression of knowledge by the church, or the inspiration for the beginnings of science in the West.

The Christian kingdoms of Leon and Castile were gaining power and consolidating in Spain at this time, but I’m going to skip those details for now and catch up with Ferdinand and Isabella later. The histories of the crusades and inquisitions that were prevalent at this time are well documented elsewhere, so I don’t think it is necessary to rehash those.

Two major figures that were instrumental in transferring the knowledge that had accumulated across the Islamic empire were Maimonides and Averroes. Maimonides is a well known Jewish scholar throughout the west and east today. Averroes was a Muslim scholar and is not so well known. But he was acknowledged by Thomas Aquinas who is famous for attempting to reconcile Christianity with rationalism.


Maimonides, was a Jewish philosopher, born in Cordoba in 1135. He died in Egypt 12/12/1204. He is one of the foremost rabbinical philosophers in Jewish history. He wrote the14 volume Mishneh Torah, still an authority as a codification of Talmudic law. He was well read in the Greek philosophies (in the Arabic language) and in Islamic science.

In 1148, the Almohads abolished the dhimma status that protected the life and wealth of Jews within Islamic rule. Under the new laws Jews now had to wear identifying clothing. Given the choices of conversion, death or exile, he chose exile. He moved around southern Spain for ten years then settled in Fes, Morocco. He studied in University of Al-Karaouine then went to Fostat, Egypt in 1168. Although exiled from Muslim Al-Andalus, staying within the Islamic empire was still preferable to Christianized Europe.

In fact Maimonides was working against the forces of European expansion. Christians were taking Jews captive and Maimonides took part in rescuing them from King Amalric’s siege of the Egyptian town of Bilbays. After the unfortunate loss of his brother, along with the family fortune, he became court physician to the Grand Vizier Al Qadi al Fadil, and later to Sultan Saladin.

One of his better known works is The Guide to the Perplexed; supposedly a long answer to a young man who was having difficulty holding on to his faith in the miracles of the Bible while also learning about the laws of nature and how unlikely it was that those miracles could have actually happened. I began reading it when I was myself perplexed and did not find it to be much of a guide at all.

In the guide, Maimonides grants that parts of the Bible are allegorical. He does not allow for God being anything but real and presents arguments for its existence. These are somewhat complex arguments, similar to the cosmological argument or teleological argument, both can be easily googled, and both can be shown to be logically unsound. He goes on to analyze some Biblical stories, leaving much open to interpretation. In fact philosophers, Jews and even Kabballists have claimed he supports them.

Of course at the time his arguments were new and the Internet was quite a ways off, so it is easy for me to sit here and be critical of his work. I include him here to acknowledge his contribution to furthering the conversation of modernization and note that we have progressed quite a bit since then.


It was not just Judaism that was under attack by the Moors, philosophy itself, even from a Muslim perspective was ridiculed. The Ash’ari theology had spread rapidly. It looked only to Allah as the source of wisdom. To look to knowledge for the sake of knowledge was considered arrogant and counter to Islamic teaching. Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers and in response, Averroes wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, excelled in medicine and law and one day, his mentor handed him many of the works of Aristotle, telling him that the Commander of the Faithful (as the ruler was called at the time) was complaining about the disjointedness of Aristotle’s expressions, or perhaps the trouble was with the translations that they had. He felt that if anyone could summarize and clarify those works, Averroes could. He devoted 30 years of his life to doing just that.

His rationalist line of thinking did not always play well with the increasingly fundamentalist rulers. Although the reasons are unclear, we know his political career ended abruptly with criticisms from Islamic jurists. After his death, a contemporary, Abdelwahid al-Marrakushi wrote that the secret reason for his ordeal was that he wrote, “And I saw the Giraffe at the garden of the king of the Berbers.”

Seemingly innocent, and possibly not intentional, this reference was to a king and it was not done with proper protocols. Jealous, competing enemies took it out of context and brought it to the attention of the Caliph Yaqub al-Manur. Averroes was exiled and many of his books were burned. We know of him mostly today through the translations that survived in Europe. He was allowed to return shortly before his death in 1198.

His philosophy ranged from Plato’s paternalistic and authoritarian ideas of absolute monarchy supported by coercion and indoctrination of the young, to the acceptance of women’s equality. He defended philosophy and said it could exist alongside religion.


If you were to read their actual philosophies, you might not find them impressive. Their arguments would probably seem elementary. They wouldn’t seem like anything new. That could be because they are almost 1,000 years old. At the time however, people were still struggling with the earth being round. They might not have thought that the sun was carried across the sky in a golden chariot, but they still didn’t have any idea what it actually was. They were being told by a powerful tradition that God was responsible for everything, but they could see people taking command of how crops grew and where water went and the health and well being of their loved ones. These things needed to be reconciled.

I highlight these two men, but there were many who had their same ideas. We know of these two because they were literate and eloquent. Also, they worked well within the confines of their traditions, enough to gain respect, but challenged that tradition just enough to be considered great thinkers of the ages. I’m sure there were many others that challenged tradition considerably more but we don’t know of them because they were marginalized, not given an education, or their writings were destroyed, or perhaps their heads removed.