Reactionary trends in Islam

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The development of Islamic culture, however, did not proceed in a straight line, any more than any other. From the beginning there were conflicting tendencies. There was a reactionary strand. Islam, after all, was born as a religion of conquest. The notion of hostility to infidels (gyawurs), the inferiority of women, and the justification of social inequality, were also present -although at that time, no more than among the Christians. Like all religions, Islam is open to a narrow and fanatical interpretation (fundamentalism). At times, there were periods of reaction, which curtailed the advance of rationalist thought and scientific discovery. The destruction of the great Abbasid Caliphate by the Mongols in the 13th century set the whole process back and prepared the way for one of the periodic outbursts of Islamic fundamentalism. Ibn Taymiyya called for believers to rid Islam of all innovations. This is the expression, not of the advance of Islam, but of internal crisis, division and decline. This fundamentalist reaction was a disaster for the development of thought and culture in the Arab world. For a time, the flame passed to Iran.

In the 16th century, the Shi'ite scholars were identified with a philosophy of enlightenment which even found a political expression. As a result new scientific and philosophical advances were made possible. The great period of revival came in the 16th and 17th centuries in Iran under the Safavid dynasty, which established the Shiite brand of Islam as the official state religion, primarily as a defence against the Sunni Ottoman empire. The Safavids provided artists and intellectuals with well-endowed institutions and a liberal atmosphere in which to carry on their work. As in every other period where Islamic scholars have been allowed freedom to live and breathe, brilliant results were achieved by thinkers such as Mir Damad and his pupil Molla Sadra and other luminaries of the school of Isfahan.

All this is sufficient to disprove the Western prejudice that the East in general, and the Islamic world in particular, has produced nothing of note in the field of philosophy. In those periods where Islamic scholars were permitted the freedom to develop, they have proved more than equal to the best that the West has produced. But where Islam has been interpreted in a narrow and fanatical spirit, great harm has been done. The intellectual, resenting the onerous restrictions placed upon him, has reacted against the authority of a religion that appears to be the negation of culture and freedom. Thus, there is an anti-religious strain in Islamic poetry. As the following examples show. In the 17th century Dara Shikoh wrote: "Heaven is where the Muslim priests do not reside and the people do not follow his edicts. In the city where the Muslim priests reside, wise men are never to be found." (Dara Shikoh, 1615-1659.)

Almost a century later the Sufi poet Sachai Sarmast complained bitterly: "It is religion itself which has misled the people of the nation as well as the Sheikhs and peers (the priests) who have gruesomely misled the people. While one is a supplicant in the mosque, the other kneels before a temple. But neither of them is any closer to love of humanity." (Sachal Sarmast, 1731-1829.)

Today the rise of fundamentalism has once again cast a dark shadow over the development of Islamic culture. The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, supported by the guns and money of Christian America, represents the ultimate triumph of barbarism and the blackest obscurantism that conceals its nakedness behind a religious fig-leaf. Today it is hard to gaze upon the smouldering heap of rubble that once was Kabul and remember that this was once one of the great centres of the culture of Islam in Central Asia. For any person with the slightest knowledge of the history of this culture, the descent into barbarism is all the more painful.

Of one thing we can be sure. Only socialism can provide the antidote to this disease. The peoples of the East, who gave the world such glorious proof of their intellectual and artistic vitality, will not forever be content to slumber in chains of material misery and cultural poverty. And when the day finally dawns when they put an end to capitalist slavery and transform society on socialist lines, they will take a giant broom in their hands, and they will sweep society clean of all the accumulated rubbish of ignorance, obscurantism and communal savagery. The socialist reconstruction of society must be carried out from top to bottom. And when this great work is finally accomplished, they will create such wonders of creation that they will put in the shade all the marvels of Granada and Cordoba. Then the peoples will rediscover their true heritage and tradition, and recover all their lost dignity and pride in themselves. The old will be created anew and placed on an infinitely higher level for the enjoyment and fulfilment of future generations.


Backward Europe and advanced Asia

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So far from Islamic thought being limited to mysticism and religious fanaticism, it showed a natural inclination to rationalism and science, in which for centuries the Arabs led the world. Great advances were made especially in mathematics and astronomy, but also in many other spheres of science and technology. This point is made by Alfred Hooper in his history of mathematics:

"We have much for which to thank the Moors. They introduced new ideas about medicine and medical knowledge; they taught improved methods of working in metal and leather; they built waterworks, sluices and canals in Spain; in all, they brought the wisdom of India and the East to a Europe which had sunk back into ignorance and savage ways.

"The Arabs were familiar with the work of the great Greek mathematicians who had built up the 'Golden age of Greek mathematics' before the fragile and wonderful civilisation of Greece was absorbed by the intensely practical and utilitarian Romans; they also introduced into Spain the new and revolutionary method of writing numbers that they had learned from the Hindus, a method that was to pave the way for our modern world of science and engineering and mathematics." Alfred Hooper, Makers of Mathematics, p. 24.)

Throughout the Middle Ages the only real advances in mathematics were made by the Indians and Arabs. It was they who discovered trigonometry. It was the Arabs who discovered algebra. The very word is Arabic -al-jabr- which, like so many other things, found its way into Europe from Spain. The Arab mathematician al-Khowarizmi, as well as writing a book on Hindu-Arab number systems (the Indians also played a vital role in developing mathematics, and the Arabs learned from them), wrote another book on the treatment of equations which he called al jabr w'al muquabalah, "the reunion and the opposition". This was later translated into Latin and hence became accessible to Europeans.

Alfred Hooper comments: "The years from about 800 to about 1450, known as the Middle Ages, were marked by an almost complete stagnation of independent thought, which paralysed mathematical progress and cast its gloom over European mathematicians as over all other thinkers." (A. Hooper, op. cit., p. 84.)

The same author adds: "Centuries after the Arabs had introduced the new number-symbols into Europe many people still clung to the old familiar Roman numerals and would have nothing to do with the new system, which they associated with traders and heathens. By the 13th century, however, the new system of writing numbers had become established in many parts of Europe. It was not until then that any real development in the number-reckoning we now call elementary arithmetic could take place." (Ibid., p. 26, my emphasis.)

The Medieval world gained access to the ideas of Aristotle and Plato mainly from Arab sources. Out of a host of brilliant thinkers who influenced medieval Europe, a special mention must be made of Ibn Roshd Muhammed -known in the West by his Latin name Averroës. This great Arab philosopher lived between 1126 and 1198 in Spain during the Caliphate of Cordoba. In his writings, we see the elements of a materialist philosophy, derived from a careful reading of Aristotle. Although he remained a devout Moslem, Ibn Roshd attempted to prove that matter and motion could neither be created nor destroyed, thus anticipating the conservation theories of modern physics. He likewise denied the immortality of the soul. So radical were these ideas, that his theories were persecuted by orthodox Moslems. But through the work of this great philosopher, particularly his commentaries on Aristotle, Europeans became acquainted with the long-forgotten world of classical Greek philosophy.

The main fountainhead of this knowledge was Islamic Spain, which, until it was destroyed by the Christians, was a flourishing, prosperous and cultured nation. Granada, Seville and Cordoba were important and internationally renowned centres of learning. All religions were treated with enlightened tolerance, until the Spaniards led by those narrow-minded and fanatical bigots Fernando of Castille and Isabelle of Aragon set about reducing the flower of Al-Andalus to a heap of bloody ashes. It is ironic that, to this day, Europeans still see themselves as the exclusive bearers of human culture when for the whole of the Middle Ages they acted as the grave-diggers of culture in the East.

The so-called Crusades about which so much romantic rubbish has been written were just so many destructive and bloodthirsty raids of barbarians against people who were, in every respect, their superiors. One of the Christian chroniclers of the siege of Granada, Father Agapito, writes in contemptuous terms about the Arab habit of washing themselves: "Water is more necessary to these infidels than bread; as they make use of it in repeated daily ablutions, and employ it in baths, and in a thousand other idle and extravagant modes, of which we Spaniards and Christians make but little account." (See W. Irving, The Conquest of Granada, p. 251.)

The reactionary and barbarous nature of the Crusades has been sufficiently demonstrated by modern historians like Stephen Runciman. Here is a typical extract by another writer: "In each captured city the Tafurs [poor crusaders] looted everything they could lay their hands on, raped the Moslem women and carried out indiscriminate massacres. The official leaders of the Crusade had no authority over them at all. When the Emir of Antioch protested about the cannibalism of the Tafurs, the princes could only admit apologetically: 'All of us together cannot tame King Tafur'." (N. Cohen, In Search of the Millennium, pp. 66-7.)

And again: "The fall of Jerusalem was followed by a great massacre; except for the governor and his bodyguard, every Moslem -man, woman and child- was killed. In and around the Temple of Solomon 'the horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgement of God that the same place should receive the blood of those whose blasphemies it had so long carried up to God.' As for the Jews of Jerusalem, they took refuge in their chief synagogue and they were all burnt alive. Weeping with joy and singing songs of praise the crusaders marched in procession to the church of the Holy Sepulchre. 'Oh new day, new day and exultation, new and everlasting gladness... That day, famed through all centuries to come, turned all our sufferings and hardships into joy and exultation; that day, the confirmation of Christianity, the annihilation of paganism, the renewal of our faith!'" (Ibid., p. 68.)


Spain and the Arabs

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The conquest of Spain which began in 711 A.D. marked a turning-point in world history. The Arabs who made the first incursions from North Africa had only intended to make a plundering raid, but the inner rottenness of the Visigoth kingdom led to its speedy collapse. The Arabs -or Moors as the Spaniards called them- conquered almost the whole Peninsular and advanced deep into France. The speed of the conquest was mainly because the oppressed Spanish masses rallied to the invaders, who certainly treated them better than their fellow Christian landlords.

The conquest of Spain had the character of a social-revolutionary war, which has been compared to the French revolution. The Arabs appeared before the Spanish serfs as social emancipators, not foreign conquerors. They abolished the oppressive rights of the possessing classes -the feudal landlords and clergy-, and replaced the crushing burden of taxes by a single tax which, as well as being relatively light, was not levied on women, children, the sick, the blind, beggars or slaves. Even the Christian monasteries were exempt. Most Spanish cities were granted favourable terms which were honourably kept by the conquerors. The only land that was confiscated was that of the nobles and clergy who had fled to join the enemy (the demand of the confiscation of the property of counterrevolutionary émigrés was later included by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.)

In essence, Islam contains a democratic and levelling idea which asserts the equality of all men, irrespective of race or colour. This was remarkably advanced for the period under consideration. Far from persecuting other faiths, the Arabs in Spain were far more tolerant than the Christians either before or after Arab rule. They protected all religions and immediately allowed the persecuted Jews to worship freely. Let us recall that the Spanish Inquisition later brutally expelled the Jews from Spain. Like the Mogul rulers of India, they encouraged intermarriage between the conquerors and the conquered in order to bring about the fusion of the two peoples. They advanced agriculture and created the architectural wonders of Granada, Cordoba and Seville. No wonder a large part of the Spanish population became converts to Islam, and demonstrated their loyalty by fighting to defend their homeland and freedoms against the armies of Christian-feudal reaction in the North.

W.C. Atkinson describes the impact of Islamic culture on the minds of the Spaniards in the words of the famous lament of Alvaro of Cordoba: "Alas, all the Christian youths who become famous for their talent know only the language and the literature of the Arabs; they read and study zealously Arabic books, of which by dint of great expenditure they form extensive libraries, and proclaim aloud on all sides that this literature is worthy of admiration." (From W.C. Anderson, A History of Spain and Portugal, p. 60.)

The same author outlines the economic advance achieved by the Arabs in Spain: "Irrigation works, of which traces still survive today, made fertile wide areas of irregular or inadequate rainfall; rice, the sugar-cane, and other exotic crops were introduced; and although the Koran forbade the drinking of wine, the vine was cultivated on a large scale.

"Industry enjoyed a parallel prosperity, that ranged through gold and silver mining, the weaving of wool and silk, the manufacture of paper, introduced into Europe by the Arabs, and of glass, invented in Cordoba in the ninth century, metalwork, ceramics, and leatherware. The fame of these products travelled far, and to handle the flourishing commerce that resulted there grew up a great trading fleet based chiefly in Seville, Malaga, and Almeria." (Ibid., p. 58.)

Thus began a period of economic and social advance that lasted for centuries, and with it a brilliant chapter in the history of human culture, art and science. One commentator writes: "The Moors organised that wonderful kingdom of Cordova, which was the marvel of the Middle Ages, and, when all Europe was plunged in barbaric ignorance and strife, alone held the torch of learning and civilisation bright and shining before the Western world." (Quoted in Ameer Ali Syed, Short History of the Saracens, p. 115.)

Anyone who today visits the Alhambra in Granada or the Mosque at Cordoba will instantly understand that the Arabs of Spain were far in advance of medieval Europe, which they excelled, not only in science and technology, but also in the fine arts, sculpture and painting. The Arabs' cultural tradition was broad: it included the study of logic, the sciences of nature (including psychology and biology), the mathematical sciences (including music and astronomy), metaphysics, ethics, and politics. No town, however small, was without a school or collage, while every principal town had its own university, including Cordoba (renowned throughout Europe), Seville (Ishbilia), Malaga, Zaragoza, Lisbon (Alishbuna), Jaen and Salamanca, which subsequently became the most prestigious of all Spanish universities. There were a galaxy of writers, poets, historians and philosophers.

Contrary to what one might expect, there were many famous women intellectuals. At a time when the notion of the equality of women would have been anathema in Christian Europe, many distinguished poetesses and cultured ladies were held in esteem in Cordoba and Granada. Hassana at-Tamimiyeh, daughter of Abu'l Hussain the poet, and Umm ul-Ula, both natives of Guadalajara, flourished in the 6th century of the Hegira. Ammat ul-Aziz (a descendant of the Prophet, and therefore styled ash-Sharifa) and al-Ghusanieh, from the province of Almeria, were both women who were in the front rank of scholars at the time. There were many others. Mariam, daughter of Abu Yakub al-Ansari, was a native of Seville, where she taught rhetoric, poetry and literature, "which, joined to her piety, her good morals, her virtues, and amiable disposition, gained her the affection of her sex and gave her many pupils." (Ameer Ali Syed, op. cit., p. 578.)


Buddhism and dialectics

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The period of the 6th century B.C. in India was a turbulent one. The primitive communal system was collapsing and being replaced by class society, the cleavage of society into rich and poor and the rise of an oppressive state. Such periods in human history are inevitably characterised by a crisis of ideology, and the birth of new schools of philosophy, politics and religion. Siddhartha Gotama, known to his followers as the Buddha (the Enlightened One) was the founder of just such a radical school of thought that developed as a reaction to the ossified form of the old Vedic philosophy

Born about 563 B.C., the son of a nobleman, Siddhartha is typical of the type of person who breaks away from the upper class and begins to reflect the protests and aspirations of the common people in a revolutionary period. Until he was 29 years old, he lived the sheltered life of a typical prince, with every luxury he could desire. According to legend, he saw a vision (the "Four Signs") which jolted him out of his complacency. He saw in rapid succession a very feeble old man, a hideous leper, a funeral, and a venerable ascetic monk. He began to think about old age, disease, and death, and decided to follow the way of the monk. For six years he led an ascetic life of renunciation, but finally, while meditating under a tree, he concluded that the solution was not withdrawal from the world, but rather a practical life of compassion for suffering humanity.

Buddhism is often thought to be a religion, and indeed over the centuries it has adopted the outward appearance of a religion. This is ironic, because the Buddha himself was opposed to religion. He rejected the authority of the Vedas and refused to set up any alternative creed. The old Brahman religion, with its rigid division of society into castes, its complicated rites and sacrifices to the gods, was becoming widely discredited. By contrast, Siddhartha's doctrine was direct and simple and eagerly accepted by the masses. He considered religious ceremonies as a waste of time and theological beliefs as mere superstition. In place of religious beliefs and religious ceremonies, the Buddha advocated a life devoted to universal compassion and brotherhood.

He taught that it was possible to gain liberation from suffering, not by changing society or fighting to dominate nature, but by withdrawing from life, seeking to gain moral perfection and submerging oneself in nirvana. Through such a life one might reach the ultimate goal, Nirvana, a state in which all living things are free from pain and sorrow. It is generally supposed that because Nirvana can be reached by meditation, Buddhism teaches a withdrawal from the real world. But this is debatable. A Buddhist might reply that the goal of Nirvana is not to be sought for oneself alone. It is regarded as a unity of the individual self with the universal self in which all things take part. Through living a life of compassion and love for all, a person achieves the liberation from selfish cravings sought by the ascetic and a serenity and satisfaction that are more fulfilling than anything obtained by indulgence in pleasure until everything that exists in the universe has attained Nirvana.

However, leaving aside the accusation that Buddhism involves a passive element, whereby men and women learn to accept their lot instead of struggling actively to change it, Buddhism, in its origins, undoubtedly contained an important critical and revolutionary element. Buddha denied the existence of god as the creator of the world. He rejected the teachings of the Vedas. He accepted the old idea of the cycle of births and deaths (sansara) and retribution (karma), but here it has a different sense. It meant that reincarnation depended, not on a man's caste, or on what rituals and sacrifices he performed, but only on his good or bad actions. In the realm of ethics, Buddhism advocated a morality based on selflessness and compassion for suffering humanity. The Buddha told his followers to think for themselves and take responsibility for their own future. The revolutionary implications of this idea, and its appeal to the masses at this time, is self-evident.

The new doctrine was argued in a highly consistent and logical way in the 2nd century A.D. by Nagarjuna, whose rationalism became the basis for the development of Buddhist logic. In common with the great idealist thinkers of the West, Nagarjuna, in defence of a false idealist theory (here carried to the extreme of a denial of the reality of the world) nevertheless pushed the development of logic and dialectics forward. The logic of Buddhism was later developed by other notable thinkers such as Dignaga and Dharmakirti (500-700 A.D.). This laid the basis for later idealist schools such as Madhyamaka, Vijnanavada, Tantric Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

However, the character of the new movement gradually changed. In the first period (the 3rd century to the 1st century B.C.) the Buddha's idea of salvation was based on the idea that the world and human personality constitute a stream of elements of matter and consciousness (the dharmas) which constantly replaced each other. The road to salvation lay in not disturbing the dharmas. But in the early centuries A.D. Buddhism was transformed. Before this Buddha was only a revered teacher. Now he became deified, and salvation had to be sought through the favour of the deity, by the constant repetition of the sacred sutras (scriptures). In this way, Buddhism was turned into its opposite. This new version of Buddhism (Mahayana) was radically different from the original version (Hinayana) taught by the Buddha himself. The latter taught that the material and psychical dharmas were real, whereas the doctrine of Mahayana maintains, not only the dharmas, but the whole world, is unreal.

Throughout the history of Indian philosophy there was always a struggle between materialism and idealism. Both Buddhist and Brahman writers denounced materialist philosophies like that of Samakara, the most outstanding Vedanta philosopher. They waged a fierce struggle against the materialist ideas of this school and also the empiricism of the Nyaya and Vaiseshika schools. Even within Buddhism itself there was a struggle between trends that leaned towards materialism or idealism, such as the struggle between the idealist Madhyamika and yogacara schools against the materialist doctrine of the Theravidins and the Sarvastivadins. Through such bitter internal strife and debate, philosophy develops and grows, creating the necessary tools in the form of logic, which experienced a certain development at the hands of such Buddhist philosophers as Dignaga and Dharmakirti.

However, towards the end of the classical period, Hinduism was fighting back. Janaism, that other great opposition trend in the religious world of the Indian Subcontinent, with its strict insistence on non-violence and respect for all life, was losing ground. And finally Buddhism itself, despite all its brilliant successes, was virtually ousted from India. The Buddha lived and taught in India, and so Buddhism is generally considered an Indian ethical philosophy. Yet, Buddhism did not sink deep roots in the land of its origin. Instead, it spread in different forms south into Sri Lanka and South-east Asia, and north through Tibet to China, Korea, and Japan. In the process, Buddhism suffered the same fate as the Vedic philosophy against which it had rebelled: it became a religion, often rigid, with its own sects, ceremonies, and superstitions -an ironic fate, if one considers the original views of its founder.

The dynamic element in Buddhism, its dialectical side, is shown by its view of reality as something eternally changing and impermanent. By contrast, for the Vedanta philosophy, only the changeless and eternal is real. Modern Buddhist thinkers tend to lay more stress on its "rationalistic" and "atheistic" character with the aim of making it more acceptable to educated westerners in search of a satisfying alternative to Christianity that is dying on its feet. But although it is true that Buddhism in its original form possesses a rational core, and that some of the elements of dialectics were present in it, they were present only in an extremely primitive and undeveloped form, as in Heraclitus and the early Greek philosophers. This represented the first faltering steps of dialectical philosophy, like the first steps of a child that is learning to walk. It is true that childhood has a charm all of its own, and all of us at times dream of returning to it. But to propose to go back to an earlier, undeveloped and embryonic form, when we possess the fully developed, wide-ranging and profound philosophy of dialectical materialism, is like proposing to a grown man or woman that they should revert to childhood. The real development of dialectics can be found only in the revolutionary philosophy of Marxism.


The Carvakas

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There were always those who denied the authority of the Vedas and the life of the soul after death. The earliest Indian materialists, like their Greek counterparts, regarded the elements (water, fire, air) or else time or space, as the primary substance of the universe. The earliest information of this materialist doctrine is to be found in the Vedas and in the Sanskrit epics. The name, Lokayata, means "the view held by the common people", "the system which has its base in the common, profane world", "the art of sophistry", and also "the philosophy that denies that there is any world other than this one". Tradition attributes the Lokayata doctrine to a sage called Brihaspati, who, along with another figure called Charvaka (or Charvak), were the most outstanding proponents of the materialist doctrine. Since nothing is known about them, many have thought them to be mythical personages. But then, very little is known about the early Greek philosophers either, yet we usually accept them as historical figures.

Carvaka rejected the notion of an afterworld, the authority of the sacred scriptures, the Vedas, and the immortality of the self. All such non-material objects as "afterlife", "destiny", or "soul" do not exist. Consciousness thus is viewed as a product of the material structure of the body and characterises the body itself -rather than a soul- and perishes with the body. The Lokayata doctrine conceived of the universe as being formed of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. In some texts, a fifth element (the ether) is added. These elements, in turn, were said to be composed of atoms, indivisible units which were conceived as immutable, indestructible and having existed for all time. The properties of any given object were determined by the atoms that comprised it. Likewise, consciousness and the senses were the result of a particular combination of atoms and the proportions in which they were combined. After the death of an organism, this combination disintegrated into elements that then combined with corresponding types of atoms in inanimate nature.

This early Indian materialism, for its incompleteness and naïve elements, contains the germs of a profound idea and represents a brilliant anticipation of modern atomic science, in the same way as the philosophy of Democritus, Leukippus and Epicurus in ancient Greece. Moreover, in some ways it anticipated the modern theory of evolution. Some of the texts describe how certain elements originate from others, with the earth as the primordial source of all development. In the field of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) the doctrine of Lokayata is sensory, that is to say, it states that all human knowledge is derived from the senses (sense-perception). The sense-organs can only apprehend objects because they themselves are composed of the same elements. Like is known to like. Therefore it denied the possibility of any indirect knowledge. Inference and conclusion were regarded as false instruments of cognition. Of the recognised means of knowledge (pramana), the Carvaka recognised only direct perception (anubhava). "Seeing is the source of all evidence," Brihaspati is supposed to have said.

This shows the negative side of early Indian materialism, which tended towards a narrow sensualism. But this is a defect which it shares with all materialism before Marx. The same narrowness can be seen in, say, the English empirical materialism of Bacon, Locke and Hobbes who nevertheless represented a giant step forward in relation to the idealism and religious obscurantism of the Middle Ages and laid the base for the whole development of modern science. What is astonishing about this early materialism is not its limitations but its extraordinary insight and profundity.

In striking contrast to the mysticism and asceticism of the prevailing religion, the Indian materialists denied the existence of god, the soul and the idea of retribution ("Karma"). This school was alone in the whole gamut of Indian thought that rejected the transmigration of souls. instead, the predominant feature of Lokayata was a healthy and cheerful hedonism. Against the perspective of a never-ending cycle of life and death with the prospect of an eventual spiritual liberation, Carvaka ethics urged each individual to seek his or her pleasure here and now. "As long as you live, live life to the fullest," said Charvaka. "After death, the body is turned to ashes. There is no re-birth." These words, so full of love for humanity and life, are strikingly reminiscent of the life-enhancing philosophy of Epicurus.

With great courage, and also with a lively sense of humour, the Carvaka materialists mocked religious ceremonies, saying that they were invented by the Brahmans (the priestly caste) to ensure their livelihood. When the Brahmans defended animal sacrifices by claiming that the sacrificed beast goes straight to heaven, the members of the Carvaka asked why the Brahmans did not kill their aged parents to speed them on their way to heaven!

Of other early Indian materialists, Geetesh Sharma writes: "Kapil's 'sankhya-philosophy' is basically atheistic. Buddha and Mahavir did not believe in the concept of God yet Mahavir was more spiritualist. Buddha conceived of a religion that had the absence of a Godly concept and was rather based on humanistic principles, logically formulated, illustrating the basic human values of life. He wanted to bring about the emancipation of suffering humanity and therefore based the fundamental principles of his religion on those values, while still being an atheist.

"Madhavacharya, in his works, has elaborated on the theory of materialist philosophers who believed only in the present existing world. They did not believe in the theory of divine creation of the universe by a supernatural power. According to them, if there is a benevolent God supervising humanity, then why is it that a majority of the human population is in the throes of misery and suffering? If there is a just God above us, then why is there so much injustice on the earth, against the poor and deprived sections of society?

"Saint Brihaspati, pioneer of materialism, during the age of the Rig Veda, believed that fire worship, ritualism, practising the Vedas, smearing ashes all over the body, etc., were antics performed by those who considered themselves powerful and learned (...) Dhishan, the disciple of Brihaspati, considers the composers of the Vedic texts a group of confidence-tricksters. The Vedic thinker Permeshthin considered matter as the complete truth. According to him, it is the only source of ideal knowledge." (G. Sharma, Man, God and Religion, pp. 36-7.)

Unfortunately, little is known about the details of this philosophy. Owing to the fierce opposition of the Vedic establishment, not a single document has come down to us, and we are obliged to learn about the ideas of these heroes from the writings of their enemies, particularly the philosophical treatises and compendia (darsana) written by the Vedic opponents of Lokayata between the 9th and 16th centuries. Ultimately, the supporters of materialism were fighting a lost battle. The triumph of the Vedas and Upanishads was consolidated in the classical period. But even then there was always a strand of unorthodox thinking that challenged the Vedic authority upheld by the orthodox Mimamsa, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaiseshika and Vedanta schools. Apart from the consistently atheist and materialist schools of Charkvakas and Lokayata, there were also non-orthodox movements such as the Buddhist and Jainist schools.

All anti-Vedic schools, and even some Vedic schools such as Samkhya and Mimamsa, were atheistic. The existence of god was a standard topic for rational debate. In the 11th century Udayana, in his Flower Offerings of Arguments, set forth five ways of proving the existence of god. The atheists put forward excellent rejoinders, like the following: "If the universe requires a maker because it undergoes change, even God needs a maker because he sometimes creates, sometimes destroys."


The Vedas

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The very earliest Indian religious writings, the Vedas, date from about 1500 B.C. and therefore may be considered as the oldest philosophical literature in the world. In a formal sense, the Vedas are hymns to the gods, but, as Hegel also points out Oriental religions are more philosophical in character than Western Christianity. The gods have less of a personal character and are more akin to general concepts and symbols. We even find the elements of dialectics in Hinduism, and above all in Buddhism, as Engels has explained. The gods and goddesses of the Vedas are not persons but manifestations of ultimate truth and reality, and these writings contain a wealth of philosophical and religious speculation about the nature of the universe. The Vedas already contain the germ of a philosophical idea -namely, the concept of a single world order (Ritam). The principle of order, right and justice is thus built into the fabric of the universe itself. There is also a unity of opposites (the particular and the universal) in the unity of Brahman, the world-soul, and Atman, the individual soul; the immortality of the soul which is re-incarnated in accordance with karma or the law of retribution. By doing what is right a man can escape from the eternal treadmill of reincarnation.

The Upanishads, which are ancient commentaries on the Vedas, constitute a further body of Indian philosophical literature, investing the Vedic gods and rites with new philosophical content. The earliest of these texts date from between 10th and 6th centuries B.C. They have had a tremendous effect not only on Indian thinking but also for social life for thousands of years. The Indian caste system, with its elaborate system of rules governing what members of each caste may or may not do, is presented by the Upanishads as an immutable product of the order of the universe. In this scheme of things, Brahma is the creative principle that underlies everything. From this universal principle, everything is born, and returns to after death. Belief in reincarnation is reaffirmed and provides the basis for man's moral conduct. The notion of retribution (karma) maintained, for example, that a slanderer would be re-born with bad breath! In order to escape from this cycle, man must devote himself to contemplation of the unity of the soul (atman) with brahma.

The mystical and idealist nature of this does not require any comment. However, a reading of the Upanishads shows that they contain a series of arguments intended as a rebuttal of materialist and atheist ideas, which were present from the very dawn of Indian philosophy. In his book Man, God and Religion, the modern Indian materialist Geetesh Sharma (himself a former Hindu priest) gives several examples of this:

"In some of the 'suktas' of the Vedas, there is evidence of opposition to the 'Yagnas' [fire worship] and rituals conducted by the priests.

"In the age of the Upanishads, this criticism of the priests becomes all the more sharp. In chhandogya Upanishad, the procession of the priests has been compared to a procession of dogs. In Mundak Upanishad the ritual of human sacrifice and other rites have been severely criticised.

"In the 18 dominant Upanishads there is one Shvasan Veda Upanishad. This Upanishad basically consists of materialist and naturalist teachings. In one section, it is written: 'neither is there any avatar, nor is there any God; neither a heaven nor a hell. All this traditional religious literature is a conception of self-conceited fools'. " (G. Sharma, Man, God and Religion, p. 37.)


Indian Philosophy

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Indian philosophy is traditionally divided into four periods: 1) the Vedic period; 2) the classical (or Brahmin-Buddhist) period, lasting from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. approximately; 3) the post-classical or Hinduistic period, from the 10th to the 18th centuries; and 4) the modern period, from the British conquest to the present day.

Oriental philosophy was always closely bound up with religion, starting with Hinduism itself. Hinduism is a system of religious ideas and concepts which has persisted in most of the Indian Subcontinent from the early Middle Ages till the present day, although it includes elements that come from a very remote past. Thus Shivaism has pre-Vedic roots and is related to the idea of Shiva, the lord of fettered animals. In its modern form, however, it arose from the general social and ideological crisis in India in the 6th-4th centuries B.C. In the Hinduistic period, the Vishnu and Shiva systems were developed. It was stated that the Brahman of the Upanishads is the god Shiva, Siva or Vishnu. In his great History of Philosophy, Hegel writes: "Indian culture is developed to a high degree, and it is imposing, but its philosophy is identical with its Religion, and the objects to which attention is devoted in Philosophy are the same as those which we find brought forward in Religion. Hence the holy books or Vedas also form the general groundwork for Philosophy." (G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 126.)

In Hinduism, certain dialectical elements can be found in embryo, such as the idea of the three phases of creation (Brahma), maintenance of order (Vishnu) and destruction or disorder (Shiva). Ian Stewart, who has written on Chaos Theory, points out that the difference between the gods Shiva, "the Untamed", and Vishnu is not the antagonism between good and evil, but that the real principles of harmony and discord together underline the whole of existence. "In the same way," he writes, "mathematicians are beginning to view order and chaos as two distinct manifestations of an underlying determinism. And neither exists in isolation. The typical system can exist in a variety of states, some ordered, some chaotic. Instead of two opposed polarities, there is a continuous spectrum. As harmony and discord combine in musical beauty, so order and chaos combine in mathematical beauty." (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? p. 22.)

Hegel was not entirely fair to Indian philosophy, since he ignored the non-Vedic materialist strain in Indian philosophy, with his customary prejudice towards materialism in general. However, it is true that the genesis of Indian philosophy is to be found in the oldest of the Indian writings, the Vedas.

Under the impact of Islam, several other monotheistic religions arose in the 10th century, notably Sikhism as an attempt to reconcile Hinduism with Islam. Hinduism is characterised by an extreme proliferation -almost an over-production- of gods. At one time, the number of gods and goddesses in India (330 million) outstripped the current total population. But from the earliest times we also find the opposite tendency: a tendency in the direction of materialism and atheism.

Indian philosophy arose on the basis of one of the oldest of human civilisations, a line of cultural development which far pre-dates the culture of Western Europe. The Indian cultural traditions has its roots as far back as the 10th-15th centuries B.C. and extends in a virtually unbroken thread down to the present day, showing considerable vitality and exuberance. The original source for all Indian philosophy is the ancient body of oral literature known as the Vedas, the most famous of which is the Rig-Veda. These contain, in addition to hymns to nature-gods and details of rituals, other material of a clearly philosophical character. As early as 1500 B.C. the Rig-Veda asks the question: Where does the universe come from? Likewise, the opening verse of one of the Upanishads asks: "Propelled by what does a directed mind fall upon its object? By whom was life first set in motion? Urged by whom are these words being spoken? Which god harnesses the eyes and ears?"


The Only Certainty is Being a Thinking Thing

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Rene Descartes’ “Meditation Two” continues the first meditation’s method of determining what is certain within his reality. “Meditation One” concluded that it is possible for everything to be a deception and perhaps non-existent, including his own body. However, he realizes that he must be experiencing thoughts at the moment. Also, because he is experiencing something, he must exist. The only thing he knows, therefore, is that he is a thinking thing.

Now, it is a bold thing to say that everything may be false. One’s entire perception of reality can change once this statement is accepted; hence, it is important to examine this premise, as it is essential for the workings of Descartes’ argument. Descartes describes how there may be “some supremely powerful and . . . malicious deceiver who deliberately tries to fool [Descartes] in any way he can” (26). If this is the case, then the entire world surrounding Descartes may be false. This deception may even include his own body. Yes, he senses and feels that he has a body, but this of course could be deceiving.

If he lacks a body, then he also lacks all bodily functions. He does not nourish himself with food the way he imagines himself doing so. He also does not move around as he has always believed. These things come to his mind because he senses them, but the senses may be deceiving. The mere fact that he senses something does not mean that these sensations are real. After all, he has sensed many things in dreams, and those were only figments of his imagination. Who is to say that the senses in his waking hours are not just as imagined?

Now, all of Descartes’ supposed bodily functions may not be real, including those which feed input into his mind. However, he knows that he is experiencing something, whether it is real or not. Experiencing anything requires thought. “Thought exists; it alone cannot be separated from me” (27). Thoughts must be running through him in order for this thought process to occur.

Moreover, he needs to exist in order to experience this thought process. Therefore, as long as he experiences something – or rather, as long as he has thoughts – he exists. He may not be a human body, he may not even be a tangible object. For all he knows – which, at this point, is very little – he may simply be an invisible vapor with absolutely no physical characteristics. Whatever the case may be, he necessarily exists in some form.

Descartes has now realized that he only knows two things: he must be thinking, and he must exist. Therefore, he is necessarily a thinking thing. He may be “a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason” (27). However, he can not know for sure. The only certainty is that he is a thinking thing.

To summarize the argument, then:

Everything may be deceiving.

His thoughts must exist.

He must exist.

.*. The only thing he knows is that he is a thinking thing.

On the other hand, what if he is not even thinking? Yes, he is experiencing thoughts, but they may not be of his own design. If a deceiver of some sort is able to feed all forms of sensory into Descartes, then he may be just as able to feed thoughts as well. Descartes’ entire thought process, then, may merely have been another creation of this deceiver. If this is the case, then Descartes is not even being deceived; he is simply being used. Instead of being fooled, he is a puppet. He can no longer be considered even a thinking thing. The only certainty is that he is a thing.


Reality and Philosophy

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Science: reality and philosophy

Look around the world, explain what you see using a logic progression of steps. The steps need not be reached through any logical order, but such an order must exist when they are used to create a casual, explanatory, predictive, or classifying statement. This is science. If there is anything that could possibly be agreed upon among philosophers of science, this is probably as far as they could get. Science involves so much more than this, but there is virtually nothing else than can be agreed upon (and I hesitate to say that my general and meagre definition would even go unquestioned).

Science is essentially a human construct, created by humanity’s need to explain, understand, predict, and classify. We feel encumbered by ignorance and science is one way to combat that (the other major remedy being religion). Over the past millennia, science has (dare I say) surpassed religion as the “better” explanation of almost everything. Though this essay won’t touch on the subject, it seems that although religion and science were created for the same reasons (to answer the question “why?”), science has progressed and adapted its answer, while religion remains steadfast with the answer “because.” Even still, science is as much a human construct as religion, only differing in subject matter and applicability to (relative) reality.

Science requires explanations. The definition of a proper explanation is no more apparent than the definition of science itself. But it is generally agreed upon that an explanation must explain why and how some event occurred, and it must explain it correctly and consistently, not simply accidentally. These explanations must follow a logical order as stated above. In essence, if the entirety of the subject matter and the terms is understood, the explanation should be logical. Explanations, obviously, require a certain understanding.

Explanation requires understanding, therefore so does science. To explain why ice melts, you need to understand the changing of matter-states and the transfer of thermal energy (I won’t even pretend to understand the details, but suffice to say anyone in university can explain it roughly). Thus, the explanation is dependent upon some level of understanding, and in turn, the explanation creates a further level of understanding. This understanding must be true for the explanation to be proper, but as I will discuss later, an accidentally correct understanding (as with an accidentally correct explanation) can be just as useful in the short run as a consistent and completely correct one.

Science also strives to be predictive. This is possible through the correct application of understanding and explanation. If you know that and ice cube melted when you put it on the table, and you know why it melted, you can predict with a reasonable amount of certainty that a different ice cube will melt if certain conditions (for example, surrounding temperature) are met. This predictive power is the most useful aspect of science. Although it lends nothing to the attainment of truth, almost all practical applications of science are created through its predictive properties. Predictions are also one of the only ways to show us that science has flaws. A failed prediction shows a flaw in understanding, or explanation, or both. Prediction, understanding, and explanation are three very important concepts to science.

Sets of explanations and predictions are set out in the form of theories. These theories attempt to be true to the way the world really is, but most often function on how the world is perceived to be by the theory makers. As alluded to in the introduction, the formulation of theories need not be any more logical than the painting of an abstraction. It seems often times in science that theories are formed creatively, with explanations that assume understanding (that doesn’t actually exist) that therefore create new understanding (with no logical foundation), and this new understanding is used to reinforce the original explanation, correctly and logically. Theory creation can be as much a product of creative trial and error as it can be the result of good logical deduction and strict (or not so strict) induction. The evolution of scientific theories is within the domain of science as well, and tends to stem from the guidelines that science has set out (not that they are strict or well defined). Such evolutions tend to occur when a theory is not precise enough, or cannot be precise enough.

Precision is, therefore, a major component of the evolution of theories, and a major component of science in general. To further science, arguments and explanations must become more and more precise: their explanatory and predictive power must also become more precise. Science itself started out vague and imprecise. Over time, scientific disciplines have emerged and although science itself is rather encompassing (and lacks any precision whatsoever), the disciplines themselves and the theories within have become ever more precise – something that will continue indefinitely. One of the major limiting factors to this precision, and the one of the most controversy, is that of scientific objectivity.

Science is a human construct. Humans are subjective by nature, assuring that pure objectivity is impossible. Therefore objectivity in science is impossible (please refer to my paper “Impossible by Nature” for a detailed argument). The inherent subjectivity within science has two major implications: The first being that the route humanity takes towards the truth is rough and winding. The second implication is that certain areas of science will progress exponentially quicker than other areas. It’s obvious that subjectivity, and the level of it in any particular discipline, has a severe impact on the evolution of science, but the real question is whether this impact is detrimental. Lack of objectivity acts as detour, not as a road block, and therefore should not hinder the overall evolution of science; it simply disrupts the allocation of resources, as well as the relative speed of such evolution. In fact, subjectivity only truly affects the application of science.

Although on a philosophical level science holds no greater goal than the attainment of absolute truth, it seems that most views of science are indifferent to this goal. Science is still a human construct that serves humanity’s curiosity. From every view but the philosophical, a false theory that has similar predictive and explanatory power to a completely true theory is just as satisfying. From a universal standpoint, humanity is far from understanding everything within our scope of existence, and even farther from understanding “it all.” A theory created this millennium could be horribly inaccurate (although relatively precise) on a universal level and still be applicable, useful, and perceived as true for hundreds of years. Only philosophy makes the distinction between something that works by accident, and something that works because it is completely correct; the rest of the world is simply indifferent.

Science is, however, of great use to the world, despite its philosophical drawbacks. The total accuracy of a theory is relatively unimportant from most views of science, at least in our temporal period. A theory must only be accurate within the scope of our human necessity and understanding. This is because the same applications of science can be made no matter the theory that explains the science, as long as the theory correctly explains it – there is no differentiation between accidental correctness and truth. The reason for this is the same reason commerce exams are several times easier than philosophy ones: you can guess with a limited degree of understanding, and arrive at the correct answer. The result is the same as if you knew the actual answer and the reason for it: you get the marks for the question.

Flawed theories can prove extremely useful, in fact. Atomic theory, that atoms are the smallest form of matter, lasted centuries (almost two thousand years if I recall correctly) and had countless impacts of a very large magnitude. The theory itself was flawed and incorrect, but to the extent that it was applied, it proved very useful. It is probable that no complex theory currently in existence is absolutely correct, but that does not limit their usefulness. Usefulness is dependent upon how well the theory explains and predicts things within the scope of human understanding and application. In fact, although many philosophers are quick to denounce and criticize flawed theories and strive to make theory acceptance more stringent, flawed theories can be extremely beneficial to humanity. A flawed theory that works sufficiently for the application of science is far better than no theory at all. While obviously a (more) true theory is highly sought after, such theories are much more complex and require much more time to formulate and create. Flawed theories with sufficient power allow advances in technology that would otherwise go unrealized. It seems that the philosophy of science does not realize this.

The philosophy of science continuously criticizes and points out the flaws in science, scientific method, and points to the vagueness of the guidelines of science. While many of these criticisms are true and deserved, philosophers fail to recognize how dependent humanity has become upon these flaws and how such flaws have allowed science to move forward. Even on a strictly philosophical level, some such flaws have been beneficial. The prime goal of philosophy is the attainment of absolute truth, and the goal is the same within the philosophy of science. Philosophers criticize flawed theories because they are fake-truths masquerading as depictions of reality. This criticism is deserved, but the philosophers fail to realize that the same flawed theories they denounce have led to major technological breakthroughs and technological reform. This rapid technological revolution has in turn led to an increase in humanity’s scope of understanding and ability. And, as such, the increased ability and understanding allows further scientific evolution. The cycle exists and works, so why must it be incorrect? It is possible that the only way to ever reach the truth is to exhaust every possible untruth. If this I true, then current science, the science that is so criticized for being undefined and flawed, has actually been the true path to enlightenment all along.


Decay of Indian philosophy

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The advent of colonialism had the effect of throwing back the development of Indian philosophy. On the whole, the progress of philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries was not noteworthy, and lagged behind the development of social and political awareness, linked to the national awakening and the commencement of the struggle for national liberation. The dominant influence in the newly founded universities was, naturally, the empiricist, utilitarian, and agnostic philosophies imported from England, along with other shoddy products of Victorian Britain. The Indian intellectual was fed on the thin gruel of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Herbert Spencer in order to addle their brains and ensure they did not read more subversive material. There were reactions against, usually of a conservative-mystical character like the Brahmo (Brahma) Samaj movement founded by Rammohan Ray and, toward the later decades of the century, the great saint Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Calcutta. This reflected mere impotence in the face of Western domination, nothing more. Others played with Kant and Hegel, but without any substantial result. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore made noises that sometimes sounded vaguely philosophical, but the degenerate Indian bourgeoisie was no more capable of producing independent thought than it was of leading a fight for genuine independence from British imperialism.

At the present day, more than fifty years after the declaration of Independence, India and Pakistan are more enslaved to imperialism than in the days of the Raj. The domination of imperialism is not nowadays realised through direct military-bureaucratic rule, but through the mechanism of the world market and the terms of trade, whereby more labour is exchanged for less. The enslavement is none the less for that. Fifty years later, the Indian and Pakistan bourgeoisies stand condemned before history. They have not realised a single one of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. They have not solved the agrarian problem. They have not modernised society. They have not solved the national problem. The Indian bourgeoisie has not even been capable of abolishing that atrocious relic of barbarism, the caste system. Above all, they have not got real independence at all.

And now society must pay the price for the rottenness and incapacity of the bourgeoisie. What an irony! Gandhi, Nehru, and the other leaders of Congress regarded themselves as secular, even socialists. Now, fifty years later, the monstrous head of Hindu chauvinism and communalism is being raised in India. This is the revenge of history, its final verdict on decades of rule by Congress. And a similar situation exists in Pakistan, where the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism are threatening to tear apart the fabric of society. These reactionaries, in claiming the unique right to "defend" their own religion and culture, in fact do irreparable damage to both. Yet a study of the history of Islam shows that its greatest achievements were attained in periods of religious tolerance and freedom, whereas the so-called fundamentalists have caused nothing but harm to the Islamic world.


Philosophy of the Islamic world

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The religion of Islam arose in the 7th century in Arabia, in the period of the transition of the Arab people from the primitive communal system to class society. It signified the unification of the Arabs in a common state (the Caliphate). The advent of Islam radically transformed the lives of millions of people. With its simple, levelling message, and its opposition to the reactionary caste system (though not classes) it struck a responsive note especially among the poorest and most downtrodden layers of the population. In its origins, Islam represented a revolutionary movement and the awakening of the great Arab nation. One of Mohammed's last speeches ends with the following words: "Ye people! hearken to my speech and comprehend the same. Know that every Moslem is the brother of every other Moslem. All of you are of the same equality." (Quoted in A.C. Bouquet, Comparative Religion, p. 270.)

Like all revolutionary movements in history, it also revealed itself as a spiritual and intellectual awakening. Despite frequent attempts by later so-called fundamentalists to interpret Islam in a narrow and fanatical spirit that denies independent thought and cultural inquiry, in its early period, the Islamic revolution gave a powerful impulse to culture, art and philosophy. In his classic Short History of the Saracens, Ameer Ali Syed has this to say about Ali, the nephew of the Prophet and head of the first Arab Republic: "While Islam was ... extending its sway in distant parts, Ali was endeavouring in Medina to give an turn to the new-developed energy of the Saracen race. In the public mosque at Medina, Ali and his cousin Abdullah the son of Abbais, delivered lectures on philosophy and logic, the traditions (history), rhetoric and law, whilst others dealt with other subjects. Thus was formed the nucleus of that intellectual movement which displayed itself in such great force in later times in Baghdad." (Ameer Ali Syed, Short History of the Saracens, p. 47.)

This was already the state of affairs in the 7th century. Contrary to the opinions of the modern fundamentalists, Islam, in its origins, was not equivalent to the worship of ignorance and narrow-minded fanaticism. In complete contrast to what passed for philosophy in the universities of medieval Europe, where it was utterly subservient to the Catholic Church, Islamic philosophy was not a handmaid of theology. The formative period of Islamic philosophy dates from the late 8th century to the mid-9th century. Supported by the Caliphs, notably Ma'mun, it was known for its tolerance and freedom of scientific inquiry. Scholars from nations conquered by the Arabs were welcomed by state-endowed institutions. Free-ranging rationalist debate was encouraged. An important feature was the study of Greek texts in translation. At a time when Europe languished in the dark ages, the flame of culture and civilisation was kept shining brightly in the Islamic countries. Baghdad was the centre of a vast civilisation that extended from Cordoba in Spain to India.

As early as 664 A.D. an Arab force reached as far as Afghanistan and took Kabul. About 717, the conquest of Sind was carried out. From here the Arabs turned south and captured Multan. By 1010 the western part of Punjab was subdued. In 1206 Kutb-ul-Din proclaimed himself sovereign of the whole of northern India at Delhi. During the next 120 years the invasion moved steadily south. In the 15th century, the Moslem rule in India was split up into a number of petty states. Finally, these were united into a mighty empire under the Moghul emperor Akbar and his successors. A.C. Bouquet writes: "Akbar was tolerant of Hinduism, and tried to establish an eclectic religion, including elements from all the other faiths recognised in his realm." (A.C. Bouquet, Comparative Religion, p. 138.)

This was a truly universal civilisation. Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Sina (known in the West by his Latin name Avicenna), who lived in Central Asia, in the important university town of Bokhara, was not only a philosopher but also a physician and natural scientist who, although faithful to Islam, did much to spread the knowledge of the scientific and philosophical knowledge of Greek antiquity throughout the Arab world, and thence to Europe, which, for all its fear of Islam, looked to the Arabs as a source of knowledge and education. There were many other great thinkers, like Al-Farabi (flourished 9th-10th centuries), the author of the first works of political philosophy within the context of the religion of Islam (The Attainment of Happiness and The Political Regime). Ibn Sina and others like him helped to consolidate rationalist thinking and propagate natural science and mathematics, both fields in which the Arabs made great discoveries.


Does the theory of natural selection have any consequences for morality? To be able to focus on the more interesting part of this question, will take it as a given that every moral belief held by humans can be explained by natural selection. With this much understood, we can ask: Can natural selection explain the way morality ought to be? It turns out that there is no simple answer to this question. While Michael Ruse and Edward Wilson in “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” from Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, argue that the theory of natural selection can do this, we will see that their argument is deductively incorrect. A stronger counterargument belongs to Elliott Sober, which he writes about in “Prospects for an Evolutionary Ethics,” From a Biological Point of View. However, looking at the writings of J. L. Mackie in “The Argument from Queerness,” Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, we see that Sober’s claim has weakness. Therefore, it is impossible to conclude from these arguments whether natural selection does or does not have any consequences for morality.

It is important to specify exactly what we are asking about morality. In particular, we will use the two kinds of questions posed by Sober. The first kind of question, in a general sense, asks: Why do we have the moral beliefs we do? The second question is more along the lines of: Do we have the moral beliefs we should have? In the words of Sober, the first question poses a problem of “explanation,” while the second is about “justification” (Sober, 94). Sober does discuss the issue of whether these questions are related to each other, but for now, the important point is that there is no automatic connection between these two questions. Sober admits that Ruse and Wilson adequately address the first question in explaining how our moral beliefs can be the product of natural selection. Sober even expands their argument, providing more evidence for the origins of our moral beliefs (Sober, 95-99). Although the question of whether natural selection can fully explain all of our moral beliefs can be debated, we are going to take this as a given and trust that the arguments of Ruse and Wilson and Sober are correct. This will allow us to spend more time discussing the second question, in which Ruse and Wilson have a very different opinion from that of Sober.

While Ruse and Wilson adequately answer our first question about why we have the moral beliefs we have, they take their argument further and attempt to answer the second: “We suggest that it will prove possible to proceed from a knowledge of the material basis of moral feeling to generally accepted rules of conduct. To do so will be to escape – not a minute too soon – from the debilitating distinction between is and ought” (Ruse and Wilson, 423). Although we will soon discuss exactly what is meant by the words is and ought, what Ruse and Wilson are saying is that the theory of natural selection can answer our second question; it shows that no ethical statements are true. In other words, once we have a better scientific understanding of the way our minds work, which is a product of natural selection, we will be able to use this understanding to explain the way morality should be.

Sober’s counterargument will quickly demonstrate that this second part of the argument by Ruse and Wilson is flawed. While they make such statements with little justification, Sober provides a convincing and detailed argument for why Ruse and Wilson cannot answer this second question so easily. While they adequately “explain” morality, they do not “justify” it. To understand Sober’s argument we must begin with a discussion of the “is / ought gap” (Sober, 102) formulated by Hume. While an is-statement describes something without any moral judgments, an ought-statement makes a moral judgment about whether something is right or wrong. Hume’s thesis is that “a deductively valid argument for an ought-conclusion must have at least one ought-premise” (Sober, 103). It is on this thesis that Sober bases his argument against Ruse and Wilson’s claim that no ethical statements are true; it is not deductively valid to derive such an ought-statement from the is-statements that make up the theory of evolution.

Although Hume’s thesis says that it is impossible to deduce an ought-conclusion from purely is-premises, Sober emphasizes that this thesis leaves open the possibility that “purely is-premises provide nondeductive evidence for the truth of ought-conclusions” (Sober, 109). In the case of natural selection, this would mean that there could be some sort of correlation between the moral beliefs that evolved through natural selection and what are ethical truths. However, Sober argues against this idea, producing a generalization of Hume’s thesis: “Purely is-premises cannot, by themselves, provide nondeductive support for an ought-conclusion” (Sober, 109). Therefore, Sober goes beyond Hume’s thesis, claiming that there cannot even be a nondeductive connection between is and ought. To explain why he thinks this in a little more detail, let us look at one specific argument he makes. He starts with two statements worded as follows: “(1) Action X will produce more pleasure and less pain than will action Y. (2) You should perform action X rather than action Y” (Sober, 109). While he agrees that the first statement provides evidence for the second, he suggests that “the two are connected in this way only because of a background assumption […] that pleasure is usually good and pain is usually bad” (Sober, 109). Although he makes the point, that facts about how people form their ethical beliefs can provide evidence concerning whether those beliefs are true, he says that “descriptions of the process of belief formation cannot provide information about whether the beliefs are true unless we make assumptions about the nature of those propositions and the connections they bear to the process of belief formation” (Sober, 110). Therefore, Sober’s conclusion is that any statement about the way things should be must be based on at least one evaluative premise, and cannot even be nondeductively related to pure is-statements without an ought-statement.

While Sober’s presentation of Hume’s thesis adequately discredits part of Ruse and Wilson’s argument, I personally take issue with his claim that it is impossible for is-premises to provide nondeductive evidence for the truth of ought-conclusions; this would mean that ethical facts have absolutely no relation to is-statements. The reason there is a flaw is that when ethical facts are so severely separated from is-statements, which are all we really know are true, we can provide a counterargument using “the argument from queerness” as explained by Mackie. To understand what this argument is, Mackie explains that it has both a metaphysical and an epistemological part. In this case we are concerned with the epistemological part, because we are interested in our awareness of ethical truths. Mackie explains that if we were aware of ethical truths, “it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else” (Mackie, 38). Because this is not the way things are, it cannot be true, at least according to this argument, that such ethical truths exist that are totally unrelated to all existing is-statements. He says that in making moral judgments, “it will require (if it is to yield authoritatively prescriptive conclusions) some input of this distinctive sort, either premises or forms of argument or both. When we ask the awkward question, how we can be aware of this authoritative prescriptivity, of the truth of these distinctively ethical pattern of reasoning, none of our ordinary accounts of sensory perception or introspection or the framing and confirming of explanatory hypotheses or inference or logical construction or conceptual analysis, or any combination of these, will provide a satisfactory answer” (Mackie, 38). This queerness is present when one considers ethical facts as something totally unrelated to is-statements. Therefore, Mackie’s argument from queerness shows that Sober’s claim is imperfect.

We started with the assumption that the theory of natural selection can explain why we have all the moral beliefs that we have. We then showed that the attempt by Ruse and Wilson to answer our second question, in which they say that natural selection proves all moral truths are untrue, is deductively incorrect; it is in direct violation of Hume’s thesis. Sober makes this point clear, and then tries to demonstrate that there is absolutely no relation between the moral beliefs we have and ethical truths, which he shows by the fact that all ought-conclusions must be based on at least one ought-premise in addition to is-premises. However, using Mackie’s argument from queerness, we seen that Sober’s argument is week, even though it may be a better alternative than that provided by Ruse and Wilson. So does the theory of natural selection have any consequences for morality? According to Ruse and Wilson, it does have consequences for morality, while according to Sober, it does not have such consequences. But we have shown that both arguments are weak, and therefore, it is impossible, at least based on these arguments, to rule out either possibility.


Early Christian Philosophy

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n Church Fathers use philosophy (1) as apologetics - to defend the faith, and (2) to penetrate dogmas and grow in understanding

n Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria - Greek philosophy is an limited but real expression of the One Truth and should be used by Christians



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n a Neo-Platonist (revived Plato’s thought); brought back a spiritual focus

Metaphysics - Four Hypostases (individual principles)

n emanation - each of the hypostases emanates (flows from) the one above

1. The One (the Good) - subsists within itself

2. Nous - the exemplars / forms are located here

3. World-Soul - Nature, encompasses all human souls

4. matter - good, but farthest from the One; hence, matter is on the verge of non-being and is the cause of evil because it resists order

n cosmogeny - Nous overflows from the One; it is actualized by contemplating the One, then turns around (conversio) and forms the World-Soul

n the World-Soul contemplates Nous; contemplation gives way to production and it expresses itself as matter, which it shapes to fit the exemplars in Nous

n the human soul is fallen into matter and must ascend to the One in four steps

1. rise above the senses and practice virtue

2. contemplate Nous to gain knowledge of philosophy and science

3. attain contemplative union with Nous

4. attain mystical union with the One


Romano-Hellenistic Period

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n rise of individualism as communal city-states are replaced by empires

n practical philosophy emerges to show people how to personally live a good life and find tranquillity

n focus on ethics; less interest in metaphysics and cosmology

n materialism (matter alone exists; nothing spiritual) emerges

n loss of focus on the spiritual dimension leads to the dying of philosophy

n Stoics (early - Zeno, Cleanthes; late - Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius)

n reduce all reality to matter (a cosmic fire), but still identify an active “spiritual” force in the material world, called Nature or Reason

n ethics - man should control his soul by reason and keep it tranquil

n man should assent to the will of fate / Nature, which determines all things

n man should not be disturbed by external things, such as loss of wealth or death of a loved one, because they cannot harm the soul

n thus, the passions and emotions should be suppressed

n Epicureans (Epicurus)

n strong materialists - the world is composed of atoms constantly re-arranging

n ethics - seek pleasure, avoid pain (hedonism); pleasure the end (goal) of life

n sensible pleasure creates restlessness; intellectual pleasure is better

n Skeptics (Pyrrho)

n “I know nothing” - reach tranquillity by suspending all judgments