In Our Time: Al-Ghazali

Al-Ghazali was a leading intellectual in the Islamic world of the 11th Century AD, a philosopher, lawyer, teacher, thinker and mystic who made important contributions to Islamic philosophy and to sharia law. The experts on In Our Time who discussed his life and work were Peter Adamson (LMU in Munich), Carole Hillenbrand (Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities) and Robert Gleave (University of Exeter).

The era in which Al-Ghazali lived was one of political change. The caliphate was beginning to collapse, and the Christian Crusaders were fighting for and conquering parts of the Middle East. There was a rump of the old Umayyad caliphate in Spain, and their Abbasid replacement had for a while been a figurehead government with the Shi’ite military holding the actual power. When Al-Ghazali was alive the Shi’ites were in control in Egypt, but the Sunnis had restored the caliphate to actual power in the east (where Al-Ghazali lived). This was an intellectually rich era, with many important and influential scholars. An important piece of context for Al-Ghazali’s life and work is that he was born when the translation movement had just finished its project of translating the works of the Greek philosophers into Arabic.

Al-Ghazali was born in the 11th Century in Persia and was of humble origins. He was orphaned, and so doesn’t receive his education because of his family connections – instead he is identified as being particularly clever. He was educated in all the subjects that an Islamic intellectual of the era should be – including the Qu’ran and Sharia law. He clearly excelled as when he moves to Baghdad in 1090 he soon gets the best job in the city, when he is still only 33. During the 5 years he lives in Baghdad he is the most senior person in the biggest mosque in the city. His primary duty is teaching, but the role is also a political one – for instance he wrote a tract rebuking the Shi’ite rulers of Egypt.

During his time in Baghdad he writes a work called The Incoherence of the Philosophers which is a rebuttal of the use of Aristotle and the other Greek philosophers in Islamic religious philosophy. this sets him in direct opposition to the leading thinker of the previous generation. The main thrust of his argument is that the Greek notions of causality leave no room for the actions of God in the world. For example if you hold a flame to cotton then the Greek philosophers would say that the fire causes the cotton to burn. But Al-Ghazali believes you need to leave space for God and for miracles. So it is God that causes the cotton to burn when the flame is held to it, and God could choose that the cotton doesn’t burn (i.e. a miracle would occur).

Al-Ghazali was also influential in the field of Sharia law. His work on this topic was philosophical in nature and focussed on the principles behind the laws. These are more important than the details of the laws themselves because an understanding of the principle behind a law will allow the law to be adapted to the changing realities of the world.

After he had been in Baghdad for five years he suffered some sort of breakdown. He left the city and his high status job and wandered as a Sufi mystic. Sufism is focussed on a direct personal and mystical connection with God, and this contrasts with mainstream Islam (which focusses on obedience to the laws). Although he lived a life outside the teaching structure of Islam he continued to publish on philosophical matters – now within the Sufi tradition. At the time Sufism was not very closely aligned with the rest of Islamic thought and it was Al-Ghazali’s work in this part of his life that brought it and mainstream Islam closer together.

In their summing up at the end of the programme the experts said that although a lot of his writing concerned philosophy (and he played an important role at the time) his lasting legacy is in the field of Sharia law.

Heart vs Mind: What Makes Us Human?; The First World War; How to Get Ahead; Precision: The Measure of All Things

We finished three different series over the last week so I wasn’t going to write about any of the one-off programmes as well, but Heart vs Mind: What Makes Us Human? irritated me sufficiently that I wanted to say why! The premise of this film was that the presenter, David Malone, had always thought of himself as a wholly rational person but then his life had become derailed – his wife had started to suffer from severe depression and it was as if the person she had been no longer existed. In the wake of that, and his responses to it, he started to think emotions were more important to what makes us human than he’d previously thought. So far, so good – I mean I might quibble about how it’s a known thing that no-one’s really totally rational and we know that the mind affects the body & vice versa; and I might wonder what his wife thinks about being talked about as if she might as well be dead. But those are not why I found this programme irritating.

I found it irritating because the argument he was putting forward had the coherency and strength of wet tissue paper. He took the metaphorical language of “brain == reason; heart == emotion” and then looked for evidence that the physical heart is the actual source of emotions. There was some rather nice science shown in the programme – but whenever a scientist explained what was going on Malone would jump in afterwards and twist what was said into “support” for his idea.

For instance, take heartbeat regulation. It is known that there are two nerves that run from the brain down to the heart and they regulate the speed of the heartbeat. There is a physiologist in Oxford (I didn’t catch his name) who is looking at how that regulation works. It turns out there is a cluster of neurones attached to the heart which do the actual routine “make the heart beat” management. The messages coming from the brain tell the heart neurone cluster “speed up” or “slow down” rather than tell the heart muscle to “beat now; and now; and now”. Interesting, but not that astonishing – I think there are other examples of bits of routine tasks being outsourced to neurones closer to the action than the brain is (like the gut, if I remember correctly). Malone took this as proof that the heart had its own mini-brain so it would be possible for it to generate emotions. And so it’s “like a marriage between heart and brain with the brain asking the heart to beat rather than enslaving it and forcing it to beat.”

There were other examples of his failure to separate metaphor from reality – indeed his failure to realise that there were two things there to separate. Take, for instance, the metaphor of the heart as a pump. Malone hated this metaphor, so industrial and mechanical and soulless. Practically the root of everything wrong with modern society! (I exaggerate a tad, but not much.) However, the heart undeniably does pump blood round the body. So he looked at visualisations of blood flowing through his heart (another awesome bit of science) and talked about how beautiful this was – as the blood is pumped around the shape of the heart chambers encourages vortices to form in the flow which swirl in the right way to shut the valves after themselves on the way out. Which is, indeed, beautiful and rather neat – and I learnt something new there. However Malone then carried on about how we shouldn’t keep saying the heart is a pump because the complexity of the heart’s pumping mechanics are too beautiful to be reduced to what the word pump makes him imagine. Er, what? Saying you can only imagine pumps as simple metal cylinders with pistons says more about paucity of your imagination than the pumpness of the heart.

I think part of my problem with this was that I’m not actually that much in disagreement with him so it was irritating to watch such a poor argument for something reasonable. I too believe Descartes was wrong – you can’t separate mind from body. The mind is an emergent property of the body. And there is feedback – our mental state, our emotions and beliefs, affect the body and its functions. Our physical health and physical state affects our minds. It’s not surprising to me that it’s possible to die of a broken heart (ie mental anguish can affect the physical system including disrupting heartbeat potentially fatally in someone whose heart is already weak). But this is not because the metaphor of the heart as the seat of emotions is a physical reality. It’s because mind and body are one single system.

None of us are rational creatures. Emotions are a central part of what makes us human. And metaphors do not need to be based in a physical truth to be both useful and true.

(I also get grumpy about people who think that explaining something necessarily robs it of beauty but that’s a whole other argument. As is the one where I complain about the common equation of industry with ugliness.)

Moving on to what I intended to talk about this week: we’ve just finished watching the BBC’s recent 10 part series about The First World War. This was based on a book by Hew Strachan, and used a combination of modern footage of the key places, contemporary film footage, photographs and letters to tell the story of the whole war from beginning to end. Although obviously the letters were chosen to reflect the points the author wanted to make, using so many quotes from people who were there helped to make the series feel grounded in reality. It was very sobering to watch, and the sort of programmes where we frequently paused it to talk about what we’d just seen or heard. It wasn’t a linear narrative – the first couple of episodes were the start of the war, and the last couple were the end, but in between the various strands were organised geographically or thematically. An episode on the Middle East for instance, or on the naval war, or on the brewing civil unrest in a variety of the participating countries.

I shan’t remotely attempt a recap of a 10 episode series, instead I’ll try and put down a few of the things that struck me while watching it. The first of those was that there is so much I didn’t know about the First World War. This wasn’t a surprise, to be honest, I’ve not really read or watched much about it and didn’t spend much time on it at school (having given up history pre-GCSE). But I’d picked up a sort of narrative by osmosis – the Great War is when Our Men went Over There and Died in a Brutal Waste of Life. And that’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. Even for the Western Front – the British narrative is all about it being “over there” but (obviously!) for the French and the Belgians this was happening in their country and in their homes. One of the sources used for this part of the war was a diary of a French boy – 10 years old at the start, 14 by the end – which really brought that home. And (again obviously) the Western Front and the French+British and German troops weren’t the only participants nor the only areas of conflict. I thought separating it out geographically & thematically was well done to help make that point.

It was odd to note how much the world has changed in the last century. Because there was film footage of these people – dressed a bit too formally, but looking like ordinary people – the casual anti-Semitism and racism in their letters and official communications was more startling than it would’ve been from more distant seeming people. Things like referring to Chinese or African troops as “monkeys” in relatively official documents. I’m not saying that racism or anti-Semitism have vanished in the modern world, but there’s been a definite change in what’s acceptable from politicians and so on.

Throughout the whole series the shadow of the Second World War loomed. Obviously no-one knew at the time how things would turn out (tho it seems one of the French generals did make some rather prescient remarks about only getting 20 years of peace at the end of the First World War). But it’s rather hard to look at it now without the knowledge that hindsight gives us. Which ties in with my remark about anti-Semitism above, because one of the things that changed cultural ideas of “what you can say about Jews” is the Holocaust. And other hindsight spectres included the situation in the modern Middle East as set up in large part by the First World War, and of course the Balkans too.

Interesting, thought provoking, and I’m glad I watched it.

Very brief notes about the other two series we finished:

How to Get Ahead was Stephen Smith examining three different historical courts and looking at both the foibles of the monarch and the ways a courtier at that court would need to behave & dress in order to succeed. He picked out a selection of very despotic rulers – Richard II of England, Cosimo Medici of Florence and Louis XIV “the Sun King” of France. I wasn’t entirely convinced about Smith as a presenter, a few more jokes in his script than he quite managed to pull off, I think. But good snapshots of the lives of the elite in these three eras/areas.

Precision: The Measure of All Things was Marcus du Sautoy looking at the various ways we measure the world around us. For each sort of measurement (like length, or time) he looked at how it had evolved throughout history, and at how greater precision drives on technology which in turn can generate a need for even greater precision. I think I found this more interesting than J, because I think it’s kinda neat to know why seemingly arbitrary units were decided on when they could’ve picked anything. I mean the actual definition settled on for a meter is arbitrary (the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second) but there’s a rationale for why we decided on that particular arbitrary thing (the definition before the definition before the current one was that it was 1/10,000,000th of the distance from the north pole to the equator).

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

Krakatoa Revealed – somewhat chilling documentary about the 19th Century eruption of Krakatoa and what we’re learning about the certainty of future eruptions of Krakatoa.

24 Hours on Earth – nature documentary looking at the effects of the diurnal cycle on animals and plants. Lots of neat footage and a voiceover with somewhat clunky and distracting metaphors (“Soon the sun’s rays will flip the switch and it will be light” !?)

Episode 1 of David Attenborough’s First Life – series about the origins of life and the evolution of animals.

In Our Time: Ordinary Language Philosophy

The In Our Time episode that we listened to this Sunday was quite a chewy one for first thing in the morning! Its subject was Ordinary Language Philosophy which is a school of philosophical thought that dominated the subject during the first couple of decades after the Second World War. It then fell out of favour in the 1970s, but may be making something of a comeback now. The three experts who talked about it on the programme were Stephen Mulhall (University of Oxford), Ray Monk (University of Southampton) and Julia Tanney (University of Kent).

Ordinary Language Philosophy is a strand of Analytical Philosophy which developed in opposition to the idea that in order to do analytic philosophy you need to formalise the language used. Like the rest of analytic philosophy it grew out of the work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell on defining what a number is. This school of philosophy (and mathematics) took the stance that to properly understanding a word you needed to look at it in its context rather than in isolation, and they used formal logic to talk about the underlying structures of sentences. This was also covered in the In Our Time episode about Russell which I listened to & wrote about a year ago.

Ordinary Language philosophers took the idea of context further, saying that studying sentences in isolation doesn’t give you enough context to understand their meaning. “The apple is red” means something different when you’re saying it because your eyesight is being tested or when you’re saying it because you hate green apples but someone has thoughtfully given you a red one. Tanney also gave a third example of context that felt much more clumsy – if you’re talking about colours for painting then you could be defining red by the apple (but you wouldn’t say that exact sentence so I think the analogy breaks here).

The main thrust of Ordinary Language Philosophy was a desire to bring philosophy back to reality. The members of this movement felt that a lot of philosophical problems could be shown to not be problems at all if you were willing to consider how words were actually used in their everyday contexts. The example they talked about on the programme was Socrates desire to think about questions like “what is truth?”. In his dialogues the other person would try and answer the question by talking about examples of truth, but Socrates would want the essence of truth not examples. And Ordinary Language Philosophy took the view that this was the wrong way to go about it – considering examples of truth in their real world contexts is how you build up an understanding of what “truth” is.

The three main thinkers that they talked about on the programme were Ludwig Wittgenstein, J L Austin and Gilbert Ryle. Originally Wittgenstein had agreed with Bertrand Russell that formal logic and formalisation of language was necessary to undertake philosophy, but he returned to these ideas in the 1930s in Cambridge and changed his mind becoming one of the main proponents of Ordinary Language Philosophy. Ryle and Austin were both at Oxford, and another name for this philosophical movement is Oxford Philosophy. At the time Oxford was one of the main centres of philosophical thought in the Western world – but oddly they said on the programme that Ryle and Austin didn’t really work in collaboration or discuss their ideas with each other.

The example of the sort of work that these philosophers were doing that’s stuck in my mind from the programme is Austin’s work on the nuances of excuses – which he was interested in from a moral philosophy point of view. He was interested in the difference between “it was a mistake” and “it was an accident” – at first glance you might think these are roughly equivalent, but there’s actually a significant difference in agency between the two excuses. If you say something was a mistake you are accepting responsibility for it, but if you say it was an accident then it’s something external to yourself that went wrong. So the excuses represent different moral statuses and different levels of culpability. The story Austin used to illustrate the difference was re-told by Mulhall – imagine you and your neighbour both have a donkey and you graze these donkeys together on common land. One day you decide that you don’t want a donkey any more and so go to the common to shoot it. You carefully aim, and fire but once you get to the donkey you’re horrified to discover that the donkey you’ve shot is your neighbour’s donkey! So when you go to your neighbour with his donkey’s corpse you say “I’m sorry, it was a mistake”. But if instead you’d aimed at the right donkey, but just as you fired the donkeys moved and the wrong donkey got hit by the bullet, then you’d say to your neighbour “I’m sorry, it was an accident”.

They ended the programme by discussing the “death” of Ordinary Language Philosophy in the 1970s. Tanney and Mulhall seemed to think that this was premature – the criticisms weren’t so great as to make the philosophy worthless, and Tanney in particular regarded herself as a part of that school of thought. And she was keen to stress that she felt it should become a significant line of thought again. Monk seemed a little more on the critical side, although he didn’t actually outright say one way or the other.

In Our Time: Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss is a name I was vaguely aware of, but I couldn’t bring to mind why. And as we listened to this In Our Time programme about him I realised I’d also heard of some of his ideas, at least in passing, but never attached them to the name. The three experts who were discussing him were Adam Kuper (Boston University), Christina Howells (Oxford University) and Vincent Debaene (Columbia University).

Lévi-Strauss was born in France in 1908 to secular Jewish parents. Kuper described him as being part of the French “bohemian bourgeois” intellectual elite of the time. Lévi-Strauss went on to study philosophy at university in Paris, where he had such notable figures as Satre as classmates (Satre was specifically mentioned because of later debates between the two men). After graduating Lévi-Strauss initially became a teacher but hated it, and so took an opportunity that opened up in Brazil as a Professor of Sociology. This is despite not liking travel and not liking fieldwork – clearly it was better than being a schoolteacher. In 1939 he returned to France, but not long after had to flee to the US.

At this point in the programme they also talked a bit about Lévi-Strauss’s politics – he was very active in the socialist movement as a student. He later said something about discovering politics was not for him, and the experts on the programme were suggesting this was due to disappointment over not being called back to France to take part in government during the 1930s. His political opinions became more conservative over the years, and by the 1968 Student Revolution in France it wasn’t something he was interested in participating in.

It was during his time in New York that Lévi-Strauss began to write the first of the books that would make his name. He did a survey of what was known about the kinship rules of every society in the world. What he was interested in was applying the ideas of structuralism to this sort of anthropological data. Structuralism originated in linguistics, looking at the grammatical rules that underlie language and Lévi-Strauss was looking for the underlying structures that determine kinship. His premise was that the big difference between animals and humans is the incest taboo (which is now shown not to be the case – other primates also appear to have the equivalent of the incest taboos when not in captivity). So he saw the whole of the development of human society as growing out of the need to exchange wives with other tribes, and by comparing all the different societies he distilled out of the data a set of three possible models for kinship rules and for how this exchange was achieved. The impact of this book was huge within anthropology, although not so much outside the field. And it’s one of the works that has lead to him being considered one of the fathers of modern anthropology, and the father of structural anthropology.

The book that brought him to public attention outside the field of anthropology was Tristes Tropiques – a memoir of his time in Brazil. But the most famous of his books was La Pensée Sauvage (the title is often translated as “The Savage Mind”, but Debeane was pretty scathing about the accuracy of that translation, preferring (if I remember right) “The Primitive Thought”). In that his thesis was that there is no fundamental difference between the thoughts and thinking processes of “civilised” and “primitive” people; it’s their culture that shapes how their thoughts are expressed rather than underlying differences. He also set out the idea that given modern Western scientific thought is such a small part of the spectrum of human thinking we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to only examining it. Instead we should try to understand the whole range. It was this book that lead to fierce debates between Lévi-Strauss and Satre about the nature of freedom. I think it was Satre on the side of people being completely free to act as they chose, and Lévi-Strauss who felt they were constrained by the underlying rules of society. Which the discussion in this programme tied into the increasing conservativeness of Lévi-Strauss’s politics.

The last of Lévi-Strauss’s works that they discussed on the programme was his four volume book on mythology. This compared the myths of all the indigenous peoples across the Americas and looked at the underlying links and structures. There wasn’t time for them to go into much details, but I think the gist of it was that Lévi-Strauss came to the conclusion that the whole continent shared a common structure of myth and that many of these myths were in conversation with each other.

In some ways I felt like this was a bit of an odd programme – in that it felt like it was made a few decades too soon. Lévi-Strauss only died in 2009 (even if most of his important work was published by the 1980s) and I’m not sure there’s been enough time to get the necessary distance to look back on his contributions. J disagrees with me here, he thinks that would be a different programme and this one was fine as it was.

In Our Time: Pascal

Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century Frenchman who was a scientist, mathematician & philosopher. Several of his ideas are still recognised today – either still in use (for instance some of his mathematical work) or recognised by the naming of modern things (like the programming language Pascal). Discussing him on In Our Time were David Wootton (University of York), Michael Moriarty (University of Cambridge) & Michela Massimi (University of Edinburgh).

Pascal was born in 1623, and died in 1662 age 39. David Wootton gave us some context for the France of the time which he called essentially the time of the Three Musketeers – so Richelieu is in charge in France, the country is allying with Protestants in the Thirty Years War but in terms of internal politics there is a big crackdown on Protestantism. In the wider world Galileo is active at this time – which took me by surprise as I think of Pascal as nearly-modern but Galileo as end-of-medieval and clearly that’s not a sensible distinction! Descartes is also still alive when Pascal is born.

Pascal was educated at home, his father had planned that the boy should be told about various subjects young but then not study them until later when he was ready for them. But the young Pascal had other ideas – for instance figuring out Euclidean geometry himself once he’d been told about it, rather than waiting till he was taught the subject. One of the people on the programme (I forget which one) said that Pascal was Mozart type levels of genius – just in maths, science & philosophy rather than music. One of Pascal’s first notable works was inventing a mechanical calculator while he was still in his teens – he did this to save his father time (his father was a banker and thus had lots of adding up to do).

Pascal’s work in physics was on one of the big questions of the day – could there be such a things as a vacuum or not. Aristotelian ideas said no, but an actual experiment suggested yes. Pascal repeated the experiment – taking a tube filled with mercury & closed at one end, then inverting it in a basin of mercury. The level of the mercury in the tube drops and a space opens up at the top of the tube, there’s nothing this space can be full of, so it must be a vacuum. Pascal also took these experiments further – looking at different liquids (like water), and testing the effects on the height of the mercury at different heights above sea level. He was one of the first to demonstrate that air had pressure, and that this pressure varied with altitude.

Pascal also had an influence on the future of science & the scientific method. He hadn’t been brought up reading Aristotle as the “answer” to all the questions about the natural world, and he didn’t believe that you required a metaphysical starting point to answer a physical question. So he said that in science there was no appeal to authority, nor was there Truth, just that you looked at the facts as they were and explained them as best you could. Then when more facts were known you might have to change your mind – you’d not have Truth, just have got as close as you could under the circumstances. One of the experts said that Pascal was one of the first people to actually demonstrate this way of having scientific progress – other writers before him had talked about how you could progress in science but he actually did it.

Pascal was also interested in mathematics & he corresponded with Fermat. One of his theorems to do with the geometry of conic sections is still used by mathematicians today. Pascal’s triangle was mentioned briefly on the programme as another example of his mathematical legacy. He was particularly interested in probability, and would work on gambling problems for French aristocrats he knew. He & Fermat worked on a particular problem to do with what the pay out should be for a game of Points that is interrupted before the end. In Points a coin is flipped multiple times, each time it’s heads player A gets a point, each time it’s tails player B does. First player to 10 points wins the pot. How the pot should be split if it’s terminated early depends on what the probabilities of each player winning from the state it’s in (rather than just splitting it according to how many points so far). Pascal & Fermat’s work has had far reaching implications in a lot of the business world, not just in gambling or the specific problem – like insurance for instance.

Later in life (if you can call it that for someone who dies so young) after some sort of intense religious experience Pascal turned away from science & towards religion & religious philosophy. Here he believed strongly in appeal to authority – he built on the work of earlier philosophers who said that human reason is too weak to comprehend the Truth of the world in a metaphysical sense. And so in contrast to his scientific ideas Pascal felt that religious Truth is revealed and is unchanging. Pascal had become a member of the Jasenists, a Catholic sect that built on the ideas of Augustine in the same sort of way that Protestants did – in particular believing that people cannot come to a state of grace through their own efforts, they must be chosen by God to receive God’s Grace and so only the chosen are saved. Mainstream Catholicism of the day believed that by doing good and repenting sin you could come closer to being saved, and so the Jesuits regarded the Jansenists as heretics just as much as Protestants were. One of Pascal’s later works was written to argue that the Jesuits & mainstream Catholicism were wrong, and it was partly arguing based on appealing to the authority of Augustine and saying that the Jesuits were diluting the true Christian morality to make it more palatable to the masses. This work is credited by some later Catholics as having damaged the reputation of the Jesuits enough to have been a contributing factor in their suppression in the late 18th Century.

Pascal’s Wager is one of his philosophical ideas that is still remembered today. Massimi pointed out that it was never intended to convert an atheist, but was aimed at sceptical Christians. In it Pascal says that given there are two states – either there is a God or there isn’t – then there two ways to wager: either bet for God or bet against God. Given this, how should you bet to maximise the chance of a good outcome? If you bet against God and you are wrong, then you will suffer eternal damnation after death, so the best thing to do is to avoid that – bet for God and even if you’re wrong you’ll suffer no consequences. This doesn’t work if you believe there is no God, you need to have doubt about that. It also doesn’t say anything about whether or not Christianity is the Truth – Massimi pointed out that one objection to Pascal’s Wager is that the same argument can be made for any religion. And if you enjoy this world’s pleasures then there is also a down side to betting for God, making it a less obvious choice (definitely no pleasure now as vs. possibly no pleasure later, a more complex situation to weigh up) – which was not a problem that Pascal had. He said once that life was like being chained in a dungeon in the dark, and every so often the guards come in and strangle someone. Cheerful fellow …!

In the summing up section of the programme they discussed how Pascal’s legacy lives on in science & mathematics but is most influential in religious thought. The three experts credited him with laying the foundations of modern Christianity – in that faith & religion now are seen as something that you choose to believe in without needing a rational argument. And that is a very Pascalian way to see it.

In Our Time: Gnosticism

Gnosticism was part of the growth of secret knowledge cults in the first few centuries AD, flourishing in the 2nd & 3rd Centuries. Although not necessarily associated with Christianity it is best known as a different interpretation of Christianity, and the mainstream Christian Church reacted against what they regarded as heresy in ways that are still part of Christianity today. The three experts who talked about this on In Our Time were Martin Palmer (International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture), Caroline Humfress (Birkbeck College, University of London) and Alastair Logan (University of Exeter).

This was a programme that constantly threatened to runaway with itself – I think there were three times that Melvyn Bragg had to stop some tangent (often that he’d started) by saying it was a topic for another programme. And they ended a little abruptly having pretty much run out of time. The jumping off point for the programme was that in 1945 a set of documents were found buried in Egypt, and whilst some were burnt for fuel some made their way to scholars. These documents turned out to be Gnostic “gospels” and this revolutionised scholarship about Gnosticism as prior to this time it was mostly known through the writings of Christians explaining how terrible it was.

So first they talked about what Gnosticism was. Which isn’t quite as easy to pin down as all that – it wasn’t so much an organised religion as a collection of revelations and beliefs that share commonalities. And that’s part of the point. One of the commonalities is that they saw the world as divided into the material world (bad) and the spirit world (good), and the route to salvation or enlightenment was to awake from the cares of the flesh to a more spiritual awareness. It spread across a lot of Europe & Asia, and was banned by many authorities both religious & secular, but the experts mostly discussed it in the context of its interactions with and reactions to Christianity (I think that might be where Gnosticism in general is centred, but I’m not sure if that’s the case or if that’s just where they chose to focus).

Humfress told us about the creation myth that (with variations) is common throughout Gnosticism. In this there is an unknowable divine God from whom are generated various emanations of this divinity, the number varies between tellings of the myth. The last of these emanations was Sophia – Wisdom – and she desired to see the divine without his permission or knowledge. Her efforts to do so created a rent in the spiritual world and through this rent or veil is created the demiurge Yaltabaoth who creates the material world. Yaltabaoth is pretty definitely associated with the god of the Old Testament, and is pretty definitely cast as evil (the material world is Bad). This was the point where J & I were saying “oh so that’s why it was banned in lots of places” 😉 Once Adam was created he had no soul, so Sophia sent her daughter Zoey to be Eve and to tempt Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge. All humans as descendents of Adam & Eve have a spark of the divine within them, their soul, and if they awake to this knowledge then they will join with the divine unknowable God.

They were keen to stress the point that in mainstream Christian tradition one is saved and redeemed from one’s own sins – guilt is an important part of the deal. You did do wrong, and Jesus died to save you from the consequences. But the Gnostic tradition is about salvation through awakening to knowledge of your true self. You aren’t guilty of sin, your previous behaviour was the result of the demiurge who made you part of the material world. And once you are awakened it’s like you were drunk and are now sober & see how the thoughts you had before weren’t profound but were the result of the state you were in.

Gnosticism involved secret knowledge & initiation into the mysteries, but once you were initiated & anointed you were a Christ and you were an equal of anyone else who’d been anointed. This is very different from the hierarchical order that was developing within mainstream Christianity. And in fact the reaction against the Gnostics was part of what strengthened that heirarchy – making themselves different from the “heretics”.

They also talked about the impact that discovering Gnostic texts had. In academia it had a profound impact on how people interpreted the Gospels that made it into the canonical texts. And lead to re-interpretations of early Christianity (or “Christianities”). And in the more popular world it’s also had an impact. They were saying how it has influenced New Age thought & philosophies, but also the interpretation of the place of women in the Church. Particularly in light of the Gnostics having a trinity that consisted of Father, Mother & Christ, and I think they were implying that part of the Church sidelining women was reacting against the Gnostics.

It was definitely an programme where you could see that the 45minutes just skimmed the surface of the subject.

In Our Time: Epicureanism

Epicureanism is another Greek philosophy I’d heard of but didn’t really know more than the name. Even less than I knew about scepticism, where at least I was vaguely aware of the idea. The experts dicussing Epicureanism on In Our Time were Angie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), David Sedley (University of Cambridge) and James Warren (University of Cambridge).

Epicurus was a Greek who lived around the 4th Century BC, who wrote extensively on many subjects including physics, natural history, ethics & philosophy. Many of his writings survived – partly the way things always survive, by being copied again & again as people find them useful and also by being referred to by other people. But they’ve also survived in a more surprising way – a library in the house of a Roman living near Herculaneum was preserved via being carbonised (so they said, I assume carbonised in a readable form) and there are works of Epicurus that are only known from this library. There’s also a poem written by Lucretius extolling the virtues of Epicureanism that passed on much of the philosophy, Hobbs in particular waxed lyrical about this.

They spent a while discussing Epicurus’s understanding of physics, as that underpinned his philosophy. He wasn’t the first Greek philosopher to believe the world to be made out of atoms, but he did write about this extensively. He argued it starting from the idea that our senses tell us that the world is made up of bodies, and that there must therefore also be voids otherwise no movement would be possible. He then argued that the bodies we see (like a person, an animal, a plant, a rock, whatever) must be made up of smaller bodies because the ones we see are divisible and change. So these small indivisible (and invisible) bodies are atoms, and they exist in a void. He also argued that this void must be infinite, because if there is an end to it then what’s beyond the end? Logically it must be infinite and then this implies that the bodies (atoms) are infinite in number – if there was only a finite number then they’d be spread too thin to form the larger bodies.

Epicurus also needed to explain how come we can have free will if everything is made up of atoms that move in precisely predictable ways, and he did this by means of “the swerve”. This is saying that an atom as it moves in its straight line might deviate a small amount in its course, and this then means that not everything is predictable so there can still be free will. This idea came back again in the early 20th Century – as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle allowed philosophers who were worried how free will could fit into a universe ordered by Newtonian physics to say that the universe wasn’t predictable. But the experts were saying that it’s not clear how that actually works, mechanistically speaking, to give free will it just feels intuitive that you need some sort of unpredictability to the universe.

These ideas about the physical basis of the world put him in opposition to the Sceptics. Because his arguments are all based initially on “our senses tell us …” he can’t share the Sceptics’ views that one cannot trust one’s senses. So he argued against that. His theory about how our senses work was that there was some film emanated by a physical body that passed through the air to the ears or eyes or whatever. And when it entered our sense organs then the brain’s interpretation of that was always accurate – but it might have been changed between the object and one’s sense organs. So an example is an oar half in & half out of water looks bent but feels straight. The Sceptical way to look at this was that it was a contradiction between your two senses so how could you tell which one was accurate? Epicurus said that your perceptions were both accurate – it looks bent, it feels straight – and it’s that something happens between the object and your seeing of it that makes it look bent.

This model of the physical world is what lead to Epicurus’s philosophy of life. If everything is made up from these bodies, including the soul, including the gods, then there is no afterlife and the gods are not our creators. So the right and good way to live your life should be based on something in this world, and Epicurus said that this should be pleasure. When a baby is born, it already knows the difference between pain & pleasure it’s not something taught – so choosing pleasure as your guiding principle is going back to basics. This wasn’t a philosophy of sybaritic luxury, Epicurus believed that true pleasure was when you were free of pain and it didn’t get better by adding on more luxuries. So if you weren’t hungry, then that was the same amount of pleasure regardless of whether you’d had a simple, filling meal or a fancy feast. They talked about this quite a bit on the programme – there was something about two sorts of pleasures, and the static ones (like freedom from hunger) being the greater ones. Epicurus also counted freedom from fear as being a foundational form of pleasure, so to follow his philosophy you needed to work on not being afraid of death. When it came to physical pain his idea was that if it’s mild pain then you can use your mind to remember past pleasure or anticipate future pleasure and eventually the pain will pass. And if it’s severe pain then it won’t last long (they were saying on the programme that this was because if it was severe pain then you were probably going to die, and as there was no afterlife then it’d all be over).

They were saying that Epicureanism lasted well into Roman times as a philosophical school, but it’s in many ways the opposite of Christianity. So as Christianity rose Epicureanism fell out of favour. The works of Epicurus were rediscovered in Europe in the Renaissance, but they didn’t have much time on the programme to discuss this.

In Our Time: The Ontological Argument

The episode of In Our Time that we listened to this week was perhaps a little brain-twisting for first thing on Sunday morning, but also in some ways appropriate for a Sunday! In it Melvyn Bragg and his guests (John Haldane (University of St Andrews), Peter Millican (University of Oxford) and Clare Carlisle (Kings College London)) discussed the Ontological Argument. This was put forward by St Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury) in the 11th Century to prove the existence of God by logic alone. In this it is different from argument by design (ie the world works so well that it can surely only exist because someone designed it), or the cosmological argument (where the existence of the universe at all requires the existence of something that caused the universe to exist and this First Cause is God). In essence the Ontological Argument is that if God is by definition the greatest and most perfect concept that there can be, then he must exist because if he did not then there would be the possibility of a greater concept namely one that was all that God is but that also existed. So as God is the greatest, then he must exist. I think that’s the way it runs, anyway – as I say, somewhat brain-twisting.

It was criticised initially by some of his contemporaries, but continued to fuel others’ thought – later it was taken up by philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza & Leibniz and criticised again by thinkers such as Hume & Kant. I was particularly struck by Kant’s criticism, which is that existence is not a predicate – he was answering in particular the formation of the argument that is saying that if God is the most perfect incarnation of all things (ie is perfectly knowing, is perfectly powerful etc), then he must necessarily also be perfectly existing as that is a quality that such a being must have. Kant was saying that existence isn’t a quality like the others – so you can describe an object, perhaps it is tall, blue and hairy. And then you can ask the question “and does it exist?”, this is a separate question to idea of what the object or concept is.

I can see the seductiveness of the Ontological Argument – both to bolster one’s own faith and to say to others “but you must believe, see I have proven it’s true!”. But to be honest it felt circular to me – it involved first defining God in such a way that his existence was part of the definition, and then saying “and therefore he exists”. I’m sure there are more subtleties to the idea than that, however, otherwise it wouldn’t’ve occupied so many people’s thoughts for so long.

“A Mind Which Could Think Otherwise” Neema Parvini

The lecture at this month’s British Museum Friends Open Evening (“A Mind Which Could Think Otherwise: Understanding Shakespeare’s Creative Intelligence”) was tied in with their current major exhibition about Shakespeare (which we went to see a couple of months ago). The lecturer, Neema Parvini, is an academic at the University of Surrey & has written a couple of books about Shakespeare. The subject of his talk was whether or not Shakespeare is some sort of “universal genius who speaks to all of us” or purely a product of his time & place. Or perhaps more accurately the subject of his talk was a survey of the opinions (both popularly and in academia) about that question.

He started with an overview of what Shakespeare means to “the man in the street”, which includes the idea of him as somehow timeless with something to say to anyone regardless of race, creed, social status, gender etc. He then took a fairly lengthy digression through the Marxist theories of Louis Althusser, with several lengthy quotes in quite technical language (perhaps technical in a Marxist specific sense, perhaps technical in a more general philosophy sense, I don’t know). Eventually he returned to the point, which was the impact of these ideas on literary criticism, and how this ideology of a person as the product solely of their culture and upbringing was brought to the academic discussion about Shakespeare. Essentially the pervailing view in academia became that Shakespeare cannot be understood outside of his specific historical & cultural context, and that he’s as sexist, racist etc as any other product of that background. And that the only reason he’s regarded as some sort of universal genius is because we’ve all been indoctrinated during our schooling to believe this.

He then moved on to his own opinion on the subject – which is that while this backlash against the idea of Shakespeare as universal was necessary it has gone too far. He very briefly discussed the scientific work that lead him to this opinion – mentioning Richard Dawkins & Stephen Pinker. The idea here being that while we’re products of our culture, there are also fundamentals that are common across all cultures. In Pinker’s work this is language in particular, but also other things like emotions like jealousy, fear, love etc. (As an aside, although he didn’t mention it in the lecture this is the Nature vs. Nurture debate – and the idea that it’s one or the other is generally regarded as a false duality nowadays.) So his opinion is that there are things about Shakespeare’s plays that speak across the generations and across cultures, but there are things that are the product of his time and place. He then said he didn’t have time for many examples, but gave a few brief instances that demonstrated that Shakespeare was set apart from others of his contemporaries in how he wrote his plays. Shakespeare doesn’t often take sides among the characters of his plays – people are rarely completely evil, even the villains are given redeeming features and given human motivations. There are also not the moralising introductions or epilogues that others of his contemporaries would insert where the “lesson” of the play was spelt out. So whilst Shakespeare might well’ve been just as sexist etc as the rest of his culture, the way he wrote his plays allows one to sympathise with the characters even when our modern perspectives are different to Shakespeare’s.

Whilst he was quite a good speaker (although not good at reading out long passages from other’s works without stumbling) the subject of his talk wasn’t quite what the title and description of it in the booklet for the evening had lead one to believe. And I think the overall structure could’ve done with some reorganisation or tweaking for the audience – in particular I would personally have cut the lengthy discussion of Althusser’s philosophy and presented it more briefly & in a manner that was more clearly related to his point, like he did with the biology later in the talk. And then have had more time to go into a few specific examples, perhaps contrasting different critiques of the same passage from the three perspectives so that we could see as non-academics what the practical outcome of this theorising is. I wouldn’t’ve gone so far as to walk out of the talk (bad manners, if nothing else), but I did have some sympathy with the point of view of the person who did get up and grumpily announce “I thought this was supposed to be about Shakespeare” and leave, slamming the door behind him.

In Our Time: Scepticism

We’ve developed a tradition of listening to a podcast of a recent In Our Time episode while we eat our breakfast on Sundays. This week we moved it to Saturday morning as we were off to see the Tour of Britain start on Sunday (of which more another time), and the programme we listened to was about Scepticism.

A brief note on the format, in case you haven’t listened to any of the In Our Time programmes – it’s a BBC Radio 4 series where each week Melvyn Bragg invites 3 experts on a particular subject to come on the programme and they discuss that subject live on air for 45 minutes. The subjects cover all sorts of things – philosophy, history, the sciences, art etc. It’s generally presented at a level where you don’t need to know anything about the subject in advance, but it still feels like it gets into the details. Some programmes are very narrowly focused (someone’s life & works, or a particular event in history, or a particular concept), some are more broad – like this one about the philosophical idea of Scepticism.

The experts this week were Peter Millican (Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford), Melissa Lane (Professor of Politics at Princeton University) and Jill Kraye (Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy and Librarian at the Warburg Institute, University of London). They started the programme by discussing what the philosophical concept of Scepticism actually is – the idea that it isn’t possible to be certain about anything, including whether or not the external world is real. They then moved on to discuss the origins of the philosophy in ancient Greece, and how it is opposed to more dogmatic movements that insist that some things can be assumed to be truth. The second half of the programme followed the rediscovery of this philosophy in medieval Europe & the impact that this had on the Renaissance & Enlightment eras (and on our own world). For instance Descartes philosophy (the man who decided “I think, therefore I am”) came from an examination of Sceptic ideas. And modern science is heavily influenced by Scepticism – instead of dogmatically insisting one “knows” something, to come up with hypotheses that fit what’s been observed & then keep asking questions, being sceptical.