Monday, October 25, 2010

The Red Tent

A few years ago, I read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, and was very disappointed in it. It tells the story of Dinah who was the sister of the twelve brothers who formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Her primary mention in the Bible is that she was raped, and two of her brothers killed the entire village of the man who raped her.

I thought it was a wonderful idea to tell the story from Dinah's point of view, the story of a rape victim living in a patriarchal society. I thought the author would narrate some of the same events as the Bible, but have some of them seem less important to the women as they did to the men, and insert new events that were important to the women, but not to the men, and so didn't get mentioned in the Bible.

I was a little disappointed right off the bat for two reasons: first, she didn't just add stories to the biblical narrative, she changed them. Of course she has the prerogative of doing so, it just seemed like she took a great idea and didn't take it to its full potential. Second, this book was saturated with sex. It seems that everything turned on it. Again, that's her prerogative, but at some point, you just say, "All right, I get it, you can write about something else now."

But I almost threw the book away when it came to the story of Dinah's rape. Here, this author (a woman) had the opportunity to give a voice to all the women who have been raped in cultures which had little to no sympathy for their suffering, and how does she portray it? Dinah really wanted it. It's just an affair she has with a man, and her brothers kill the village because she has shamed the family.

So I don't recommend this book. It had enormous potential, and squandered it. If you're looking for an author who writes stories for and about women from a biblical perspective, I recommend Francine Rivers.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Monday, October 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

Here is a story. Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived on the edge of a village. She lived alone, in her own house surrounded by her garden, in which she grew all manner of herbs and other healing plants. Though she was alone, she was never lonely; she had her garden and her animals for company, she took lovers when she wished, and she was always busy. The woman was a healer and midwife; she had practical knowledge taught her by her mother, and mystical knowledge derived from her closeness to nature, or from a half-submerged pagan religion. She helped women give birth, and she had healing hands; she used her knowledge of herbs and her common sense to help the sick. However, her peaceful existence was disrupted. Even though this woman was harmless, she posed a threat to the fearful. Her medical knowledge threatened the doctor. Her simple, true spiritual values threatened the superstitious nonsense of the Catholic church, as did her affirmation of the sensuous body. Her independence and freedom threatened men. So the Inquisition descended on her, and cruelly tortured her into confessing to lies about the devil. She was burned alive by men who hated women, along with millions of other just like her.

Do you believe this story? Thousands of women do. It is still being retold, in full or in part, by women who are academics, but also by poets, novelists, popular historians, theologians, dramatists. It is compelling, even horrifying. However, in all essentials it is not true, or only partly true, as a history of what happened to the women called witches in the early modern period. Thousands of women were executed as witches, and in some parts of Europe torture was used to extract a confession from them; certainly, their gender often had a great deal to do with it; certainly, their accusers and judges were sometimes misogynists; certainly, by our standards they were innocent, in that to a post-Enlightenment society their "crime" does not exist. However, the women who died were not quite like the woman of the story, and they were not killed for quite the same reason. There is no evidence that the majority of those accused were healers and midwives; in England and also in some parts of the Continent, midwives were more likely to be found helping witch-hunters. Most women used herbal medicines as part of their household skills, some of which were quasi-magical, without arousing any anxiety. There is little evidence that convicted witches were invariably unmarried or sexually "liberated" or lesbian; many (though not most) of those accused were married women with young families. Men were not responsible for all accusations: many, perhaps even most, witches were accused by women, and most cases depend at least partly on the evidence given by women witnesses. Persecution was as severe in Protestant as in Catholic areas. The Inquisition, except in a few areas where the local inquisitor was especially zealous, was more lenient about witchcraft cases than the secular courts; in Spain, for example, where the Inquisition was very strong, there were few deaths. Many inquisitors and secular courts disdained the Malleus Malificarum, still the main source for the view that witch-hunting was women-hunting; still others thought it ridiculously paranoid about male sexuality. In some countries, torture was not used at all, and in England, witches were hanged rather than burned.

All this has been known for some time. Yet in the teeth of the evidence, some women continue to find this story believable, continue to circulate it. Some women are still so attached to the story that they resist efforts to disprove it. The myth has become important, not because of its historical truth, but because of its mythic significance. What is that significance? It is a story with clear oppositions. Everyone can tell who is innocent and who guilty, who is good and who bad, who is oppressed and the oppressor. It offers to identify oppression, to make it noticeable. It legitimates identification of oppression with powerful institutions, and above all with Christianity. This is, above all, a narrative of the Fall, of paradise lost. It is a story about how perfect our lives would be -- how perfect we women would be, patient, kind, self-sufficient -- if it were not for patriarchy and its violence. It is often linked with another lapsarian myth, the myth of an originary matriarchy, through the themes of mother-daughter learning and of matriarchal religions as sources of witchcraft. This witch-story explains the origins and nature of good and evil.

Diane Purkiss
The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Monday, October 11, 2010

When Were the Middle Ages?

When were the Middle Ages?

I always thought I knew the answer to this question. They were the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the modern era. The first half of this period, up to 1066, were the early Middle Ages (previously called the Dark Ages). The second half were just the Middle Ages. So when my book, God's Philosophers, purports to show how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science, I meant in the time between the Norman Conquest and the discovery of America. In general, the Middle Ages are held to end in about 1500, although dates between 1453 (the fall of Constantinople) and 1517 (when Luther nailed his theses to the door) have been suggested. The year 1492 always seemed to me the best one because, not only did Columbus set sail, but back home, the final Islamic kingdom in Spain was conquered.

But at least two reviewers have complained that the Middle Ages actually ended rather earlier than I had thought. They said that this meant the fourteenth-century achievements that I had labelled as medieval actually belonged to the Renaissance. I have to admit that this objection did occur to me. I noted in my book that there is a habit of calling something good which happens around 1400 (say, in painting) early Renaissance. Meanwhile something bad that happened at the same time (say, the Hundred Years War) would be called medieval. In fact, anything bad that happened at any time has been called 'medieval', so perhaps we should not be so surprised. Since the scientific advances that I documented were 'good', they had to be products of the Renaissance and not the Middle Ages.

In reply, I would note the following. Firstly, among historians, it is universally accepted that the first half of the fifteenth century forms a part of the Middle Ages. By definition, they end when the modern era begins and you cannot push this date back before 1453. Few would try to push it back to before 1492. Secondly, the Renaissance is not a historical period (and no one can agree on when it begins and when it ends). It is really just a category invented by art historians in the nineteenth century. You can describe architecture as Renaissance (as opposed to Gothic or Romanesque). But you can't really describe a time period this way.

Finally, the Renaissance happened in Italy rather earlier than it happened in Northern Europe. So even if you can push the Renaissance back to before 1400 in the context of Florence, you cannot do this when talking about France or the Netherlands (let alone England). Much of the foueteenth-century science I discuss in my book takes place in Oxford and Paris. There is no way that the period before the Black Death in either of these cities could possibly be called the Renaissance, early or otherwise.

But in the end, none of this matters. I did not write the book to rehabilitate a time period (whatever the shorthand of the title might imply), but the people who lived during it. The achievements of Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme and the Merton Calculators are not lessened because some reviewers chose to claim that they didn't actually live during the Middle Ages.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Doubting Darwin's Doubt

Alvin Plantinga, in his Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism, employs what he calls "Darwin's Doubt". He quotes a letter Charles Darwin wrote to William Graham where Darwin asks whether our beliefs can be considered trustworthy if they are result of our evolutionary ancestors' struggle for survival, and suggests that if the lower animals have cognitive states like beliefs we wouldn't consider them trustworthy. Thus Darwin himself had an inkling of the problem that Plantinga's problem addresses: if our minds are merely the product of evolution, why should we trust them? In particular, why should we trust them when they tell us about evolution?

This suggests that the object of Darwin's Doubt was Darwin's own belief in evolution. But the letter itself suggests something different, something that I find even more interesting. Below is the entire letter, taken from volume 1 (pp. 315-17) of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, edited by his son Francis Darwin.

Down, July 3rd, 1881.
Dear Sir,

I hope that you will not think it intrusive on my part to thank you heartily for the pleasure which I have derived from reading your admirably written 'Creed of science,' though I have not yet quite finished it, as now that I am old I read very slowly. It is a very long time since any other book has interested me so much. The work must have cost you several years and much hard labour with full leisure for work. You would not probably expect any one fully to agree with you on so many abstruse subjects; and there are some points in your book which I cannot digest. The chief one is that the existence of so-called natural laws implies purpose. I cannot see this. Not to mention that many expect that the several great laws will some day be found to follow inevitably from some one single law, yet taking the laws as we now know them, and look at the moon, where the law of gravitation -- and no doubt of the conservation of energy -- of the atomic theory, &c. &c., hold good, and I cannot see that there is then necessarily any purpose. Would there be purpose if the lowest organisms alone, destitute of consciousness existed in the moon? But I have had no practice in abstract reasoning, and I may be all astray. Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? Secondly, I think that I could make somewhat of a case against the enormous importance which you attribute to our greatest men; I have been accustomed to think, second, third, and fourth rate men of very high importance, at least in the case of Science. Lastly, I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world. But I will write no more, and not even mention the many points in your work which have much interested me. I have indeed cause to apologise for troubling you with my impressions, and my sole excuse is the excitement in my mind which your book has aroused.

I beg leave to remain,
Dear Sir,
Yours faithfully and obliged
Charles Darwin

Pay no attention to that racist behind the curtain. Francis Darwin footnotes the phrase "that the Universe is not the result of chance" with the following:

The Duke of Argyll ('Good Words,' Ap. 1885, p. 244) has recorded a few words on this subject, spoken by my father in the last year of his life. "... in the course of that conversation I said to Mr. Darwin, with reference to some of his own remarkable works on the 'Fertilisation of Orchids,' and upon 'The Earthworms,' and various other observations he made of the wonderful contrivances for certain purposes in nature -- I said it was impossible to look at these without seeing that they were the effect and the expression of mind. I shall never forget Mr. Darwin's answer. He looked at me very hard and said, 'Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times,' and he shook his head vaguely, adding, 'it seems to go away.'"

So what Darwin was doubting was not evolution but his own belief or impression that the universe shows itself to be the product of intelligence, of mind. That is what he questions in light of evolution.

This isn't a gotcha! moment for Plantinga however. On the one hand, the letter could easily be understood as saying that doubting the belief in an intelligent creator opens the door to doubting all of our cognitive faculties. This is how Plantinga presents the issue, by taking it the further step of applying it to our belief in naturalism and even evolution itself, but Darwin could have been implying it in the letter already. Regardless, even if Darwin didn't apply it this way, it doesn't mean that we can't.

On the other hand, Darwin may just be applying his doubt to the beliefs that were inconvenient for him in some way. That's also a possible interpretation of the letter, but I think it's far too uncharitable. It accuses Darwin of being inconsistent and using ad hoc reasoning; worse than that, of doing so consciously. I'm very uncomfortable with charging Darwin with dishonesty.

On the third hand, perhaps Darwin was only applying this doubt to the thoughts we have before we turn a critical eye on them, our instinctive reactions prior to having the light of reason shone upon them. He doesn't say that in the letter either, but I think the letter could also be reasonably understood this way. In that case, he wouldn't be applying his doubt to evolution, because his belief in evolution is precisely the product of critical thinking. He doesn't doubt the process of reason or rationality, just the building blocks that the process works with.

Again, it's certainly possible that that's all Darwin meant. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any reason for applying it to one and not the other. In fact, most arguments like Plantinga's explicitly question whether the process of reasoning could be trusted if our minds are what they are merely in order to increase the likelihood of our survival and propagation. It certainly seems that reason is veracious, but why should we trust this "seeming"? Perhaps it was useful to our survival to have an overwhelming impression of the veracity of reason -- just as Darwin had the occasional overwhelming impression that nature is a product of a divine mind -- regardless of whether reason actually is veracious. So Darwin's Doubt applies. Indeed, Darwin's Doubt is a universal acid, eating through every traditional concept and leaving in its wake ... well, nothing. It's an acid.

But now, to return to the elephant in the room, Darwin had the overwhelming impression that the order present in nature bespeaks of a divine mind. That strikes me as a pretty big deal. Moreover, this belief was still coming over Darwin with "overwhelming force", albeit intermittently, within a year of his death. And he gets himself out of that belief by suggesting that evolution by itself makes it difficult to see why our beliefs should be trustworthy, a point that kicks the door wide open to Plantinga's argument and the charge that naturalism is ultimately self-defeating. Again, Darwin may not have intended to apply his doubt to his own belief in evolution, but there's no reason it would apply to one and not the other. The point of course is not to challenge whether evolution is true but to challenge whether it's the whole story: if it were then the belief that it's the whole story would not be trustworthy.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Islam and the invention of the University

From time to time, it is alleged that the invention of the University, one of the crowning achievements of Medieval Christendom, was copied, or at least strongly influenced by Islam. A typical example is Diarmaid MacCulloch in his History of Christianity (Penguin, 2009). In a similar vein, it is claimed that the world's first university was not Bologna but the the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It's date of foundation is about 970AD. Bologna was founded between 1088 and 1158 when it was recognised by the Holy Roman Emperor.

But in fact, Al-Azhar was founded as a madrasa, a charitable school of religion and law. It was not an independent corporation and could not award degrees until 1961. In contrast, the Western universities are corporations with separate legal personality. They set their own statutes and are not restricted in the subjects they could teach or how they organised themselves. For this reason, science and medicine found a home in the University but never in the madrasa.

The standard authority on the connection between Islam and western universities is George Makdisi, whose book Rise of Colleges: Instituions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh,1981) is cited by MacCulloch in his own misleading comments on this subject. Makdisi is worth quoting (pages 224-5):

The university as a form of organisation owes nothing to Islam. Indeed, Islam could have nothing to do with the university as a corporation. Based on the concept of juristic personality, the corporation is an abstraction endowed with legal rights and responsibilities. Islamic law recognises the physical person alone as endowed with legal personality.

The university was a new product, completely separate from the Greek academies of Athens and Alexandria, and from the Christian cathedral and monastic schools; and it was utterly foreign to the Islamic experience.

Makdisi goes on to claim that the college, a charitable residence for students, may have had Islamic antecedents. It is colleges that MacCulloch is thinking of when he says in his History of Christianity western schools "copied in a remarkably detailed fashion the institutions of higher education which Muslims had created for their own universal culture of intellectual enquiry." But MacCulloch misleads by missing the most important elements of western higher education which had no Islamic antecedent at all.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum