On civilisation

16 06 2014




After years of living in a charming thatched cottage made of lumpy damp cob, I appreciate the joys of the smooth walls and year-round dry warmth of my current flat. I’ve rented the flat for nearly five years now and at the end of the summer when the heating clicks back on I feel the glow of knowing that I won’t have to sit through a winter at the laptop suffering with stiff, cold fingers, icy feet and a chest infection.

Wherever I have lived I’ve appreciated the convenient delights of hot water for washing up, daily showers and the simple pleasure of being able to boil a kettle for a pot of tea. When it falls dark in the evenings being able to turn on a lamp is reassuring. These small daily conveniences confirm that all is well with the world.

For many people in the western world heat, water and light are considered essential for a civilised existence. Take away just one of those elements and many people would feel deprived. Perhaps I have become soft, but there is no way I could live in cold, damp ancient places again. The rat thudding up the bedroom stairs and out through the charming little cottage window under the eaves ended romantic dwelling for me. Given the choice I suppose I could cope with candle-light as long as I had warmth, but it would be irritating and tiring reading and writing by dim light. It makes me wonder how the writers and thinkers of the past managed to get so much work done.

The desire to read a book in a warm well-lit room might seem innocent enough, but the romantic 18th century thinker Rousseau felt that a comfortable, intellectual existence prevented people from living rich lives.  In the words of Bertrand Russell, romantics ‘did not aim at peace and quiet, but at vigorous and passionate individual life.’ Rousseau believed that civilisation enslaved people. Real life was lived with intense feeling, preferably outdoors as much as possible. Think Wordsworth swooning against a tree and you get the picture.

The romantics rebelled against convention. Individual freedom was worth fighting for and worth all the hassle of going against the status quo. Perhaps this leads to solipsism. Bertrand Russell certainly thinks so and condemns romantic values as destructive. ‘Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.’

Rousseau fitted the stereotype. True to the romantic spirit he sold his watch (being Swiss that was obviously the first thing he thought of) and spent time wandering through France homeless, pick-pocketing and befriending wealthy women when he became short of cash. He had a long-term affair with a chambermaid with whom he fathered five illegitimate children, and all of them ended up in orphanages. He became a social celebrity and was granted favours by Kings. His writing was banned. He inspired a revolution and he fell out with the most benign of philosophers David Hume.

I like to imagine the scatty Swiss and the sober Scot settling down with a good malt whisky or two to discuss the idea of taste and what constitutes human identity, but this philosophical friendship ended badly when Rousseau accused Hume of going along with a plot to kill him. A broken-hearted Hume mourning the loss of his crazy companion remained generous to the end. ‘He has only felt during the whole course of his life,’ Hume said of Rousseau. ‘He is like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin, and turned out in this situation to combat with the rude and boisterous elements.’  Rousseau returned to France where it is believed he ended his own life.

It’s easy to see why 18th century society with its emphasis on land and property rights seemed so depressing to someone who had no home of his own, but had Rousseau lived in the 21st century he might have recognised the benefits that modern civilisation has brought: not only electric light, but high speed trains and air travel. Civilisation has enabled us to build hospitals, waste systems and recycling plants. It has created reservoirs and universities, nature reserves and clean beaches.  It has given us digital photography and film and free music.  It has brought us vaccinations, the world wide web, safety lamps, flushing toilets, postage stamps, pencils, and rubber bands, all of which the Sun newspaper reminded everyone (or at least the 22 million who received the free copy this week) were invented by the English, brand leaders of civilisation itself.

Civilisation is no longer the chain that shackles us, but rather the bridge that takes us to where we want to go. Seen in this light civilisation frees us.


Medieval Mind Blast

2 04 2014



Life as a medieval monk provides almost the ideal conditions in which to practise philosophy: plenty of uninterrupted time, like-minded fellows and few worldly concerns. As long as they could endure chilled fingers, cramp  and eye-strain from hours of work under candle-light, monks could devote their lives to searching for answers to the most mind-expanding questions of all.

Saint Anselm,  a Burgundy-born monk, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1092, was one of the most prolific and influential of the merry medieval thinkers. He wrote On Truth, On Freedom of Choice, On the Fall of the Devil and On Language. He also wrote numerous letters.

He is probably best-known for his argument for the existence of God, known as the Ontological Argument. Ontology means ‘being’ and Anselm’s argument is an attempt to show why God’s being is necessary. He begins by claiming that God is ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived.’ For Anselm’s argument to get off the ground we need to agree that the idea of God is the most superior being we can conceive of, and even if we have no faith in a religious or personal God, we can still think about what the concept God means. If we can think of something greater than God, then that would cancel out God as being the most supreme being.

In the next step Anselm points out that an idea of a supreme being is not the greatest thing we can think of because something that exists only in our minds is not as great as something that exists in reality. A God that exists would be supreme, whereas an imagined God would fall short of greatness. It is not possible for an imagined God to be greater than a real, existing God so therefore God must exist in reality.

Anselm’s reasoning is known in philosophy as an a priori argument in that it does not require experience or observation to be proved true. The argument has instead an internal logic. Anselm believed that because God is the greatest being we can think of, it means that the idea of God is contained within the definition of ‘greatest being.’

Now you can imagine winning the lottery, but actually having the cash is much better (greater) than dreaming about it. Isn’t it?

Anselm was quite proud of his ontological argument and claimed that only a ‘fool’ would deny that God existed, which rather irritated another monk Gaunilo who decided to think like a ‘fool’ and prove Anselm wrong. Gaunilo used the example of an imaginary island. We could imagine the most perfect island that ever existed with clean beaches, crystal clear waters, abundant vegetation, exotic fruits and flowers and extraordinary wildlife. Now we could add as many other perfections as we like: my island would have talking animals, extravagant birds and hot springs the temperature of a warm bubble bath. Now if I said to you that my island only existed in my imagination that would make sense, but if I tried to persuade you that this island of talking goats, gold-winged birds and bubbles had to exist because that made it even more perfect you would probably think that there was something dodgy in my logic.

Gaunilo thought that there was something dodgy in Anselm’s logic. The problem as Gaunilo saw it was that you can’t just imagine things into existence. We could imagine the perfect horse, the perfect house, the perfect holiday, but that doesn’t mean that we can make them real. As a fellow monk Gaunilo believed in God, but he thought Anselm had been perhaps burning the candle way too late into the night and had made a few mistakes with this line of reasoning.

Undaunted Anselm came back to Gaunilo and said that his argument for God worked because God was perfection itself and not an example of a perfect place or person or thing. If there is such a thing as perfection and the most perfect of all perfections is God, then God has to exist.

Thomas Aquinas, who came two hundred years after Anselm, took a rather different approach to the same huge question. Aquinas outlined five ways of demonstrating God’s existence. The second way, known as the First Cause Argument, grapples with  the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Why does the cosmos exist? For this reason, it is known as a Cosmological Argument.

Aquinas also burned the candlelight and wrote voluminously. He was interested in synthesising his study of ideas from Judaism, Islam, Plato and Aristotle into a theory of everything, a bit like the Bill Bryson of his time.

One of the key ideas that Aquinas developed from Aristotle is that all knowledge is gained through experience accessed through the senses. We might recall riding a bicycle for the first time and that first bike ride is part of a whole library of memories that are built on experience. When we remember anything we essentially browse through the history section of our lives. There is nothing in our memory library that was not part of an experience we either saw, heard, felt, touched, tasted, smelled or dreamed.

Aquinas reflected that everything he could see around him – probably not much in his case except a narrow bed, blank wall and monk’s robes – had been caused by something else. The bed had been made by a carpenter from planks of wood that had once been a tree that had once been a sapling and so on and on. Aquinas reasoned that we could keep tracing the causes of everything that we observe in our world, but at some point we have to stop. We can’t go on forever. At some point we have to say: HURRAH! Look, here is THE cause of everything!

For Aquinas the First Cause is something that cannot itself be caused. It is similar to Aristotle’s idea of the Unmoved Mover, the generator of the universe, although for Aristotle the unmoved mover need not care about the universe it moves. For Aquinas, however, the First Cause does explain why the world is so wonderful. For Aquinas the First Cause is the wonder-maker.

The Cosmological Argument concludes that there is something rather than nothing because something (perhaps a great wonder-maker) started the ball rolling. Interestingly, new discoveries in cosmology seem to both support the argument and disagree with it as some of the recent coverage about the ripples of the Big Bang demonstrates. As Jeremy Paxman said on Newsnight: this really is news: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=um9TUFXkSsE

The really big question and perhaps the task of the next age of philosophy is to ask: if we know for certain what lies behind the existence of the universe how does that change things for humanity?

I’ll leave you with Anselm in his own words, not intended as a source of mirth, but it had us in hysterics at last night’s seminar:

“And, it so truly exists that it cannot be thought not to be. For, a thing, which cannot be thought not to be (which is greater than what cannot be thought not to be), can be thought to be. So, if that than which a greater cannot be thought can be thought not to be, that very thing than which a great being cannot be thought its not that than which a greater cannot be thought, which cannot be compatible. Therefore, there truly is something than which a greater cannot be thought, and it cannot be thought not to be.”

Now I wonder, could he have put that any clearer?