keskiviikko 27. heinäkuuta 2016

Thomas Paine: The Age of Reason (1794, 1795 and 1807)

Thomas Paine (1736-1809)

We return from France to America, to yet another of the Founding Fathers of the United States, only to quickly return to France. Thomas Paine had a hand in two revolutions, being also a member of the revolutionary Convent. As a foreigner and a known ally of a moderate republican Girondin movement, he was imprisoned, when the radicals led by Robespierre had managed to take control of the government. While in prison, Paine wrote the first part of his The Age of Reason, a book investigating Christian religion from the standpoint of Deism.

After being salvaged from impending death by the execution of Robespierre, Paine added two further parts to the book. In the prison cell, he had had no Bible to check, and the final parts are meant to accommodate for that fault: Paine goes painstakingly through various books of the Bible, finding out evidence suggesting that the book is not a work of divine revelation.

Paine's primary strategy is to point out internal incoherencies – Moses couldn't have written the first books of the Bible, because he dies before the end of the book, supposed prophecies pointing to the coming of Christ were actually related to ancient affairs of Jews and their kingdoms etc. Although this part of Paine's book was quite relevant when it appeared, it seems trite nowadays, since no one in his right mind takes Bible as a literal source of history. Of course Bible has it inconsistencies – just the existence of two different creation stories belies this. But far more interesting than such biblical nitpicking is to ask why these stories, with all their inconsistencies, have been able to cause a feeling of divinity in their readers.

A more interesting avenue of criticism lies in Paine's discussion of dreams – or the criticism itself is again quite trite (dreams of a person are no proper testimony, and even if God would have used them to reveal his will to people, this power of revelation would only hold for those who had the vision), but the machinery behind this criticism is interesting. Paine sets out an intricate picture of human mind. The driving force of mind is imagination, Paine says, and its activities are recorded by memory and regulated by judgement. Imagination works always, but memory and judgement often rest during sleep. When memory is not working, we don't have any recollection of what we have thought. When memory is working, but judgement is not, we are dreaming.

In addition to incoherence, Paine criticized the supposed immorality of Bible. Lot of this criticism is undoubtedly to the point – stories of ancient Israelites killing innocent babies are cruel. Still, Paine's disdain is also at times difficult to understand. Thus, Paine thinks that the idea of God forgiving sins would be detrimental to morality, because bad deeds would not then be punished in any way. Yet, one might say that at least in some cases true repentance is an acceptable option for external punishment.

Another part of Paine's crusade against the impious Bible is his insistence that the biblical notion of immortality is crass. Christianity speaks of bodily resurrection, but, Paine suggests, a body similar to our current body would just wind out just as our current bodies. Thus, he concludes, immortality must mean change into a completely different, more perfect plane of living. Paradoxically, Christian notion of immortality is then denied by Paine because it is too materialistic – a reason why it was easy for Christian philosophers to accept Aristotelian notion of soul.

After having thrown away all of Bible, Paine directs his reader to the true revelation of God, that is, nature. There is not much original in Paine's naturalistic theology, but we might notice one curious detail in it, namely, Paine's attitude towards mathematics. It appears that Paine thinks even mathematical truths were designed and chosen by God. Thus, mathematics becomes one of the natural sciences, because e.g. the relationships of different triangles are in Paine's eyes evidence for God's existence.

keskiviikko 13. heinäkuuta 2016

Marquis de Condorcet: Historical picture of the progress of human spirit (1795)

Condorcet (1743-1794)

At least after World Wars, any talk of inevitable progress in history seems out of place – every apparent step forward appears to have led to even more horrible atrocities. Yet, the notion of progress seemed so natural for over a century that it should be seriously considered, even if the idea feels naive these days.

Condorcet's Tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain is as infatuated with the idea of progression as a book can be. Its picture of human history is not a straightforward line of progression, because Condorcet does accept that the development of humanity could stop from time to time – for instance, in quite a traditional fashion, Condorcet paints Middle Ages as a time of cultural stagnation and even decay. Still, the main theme of Condorcet's work is one of on-going development.

Condorcet begins from pre-historical times. Of course, he lived in time, when no reliable knowledge of the early development of humanity was available and he was thus forced to speculate on many important questions. Yet, he did raise a central question – why did particularly human beings gain the power to form huge civilisations? Condorcet notes some peculiarities in the physical form of humans – e.g. two hands give them advantage in forming tools. But the most important element explaining the rise of human kind was language, Condorcet says.

An important early invention was agriculture, which helped to sustain human life and allowed people to gather into large collections. This centralisation of human population is not just pure development, Condorcet says, because it also led to centralisation of wealth and power. More remote offspring of this current is warfare – it makes no sense to conquer a roving band of hunter-gatherers, but it is possible to conquer villages and towns. Such conquests led to even further imbalance in society, since the conquering class of people usually received more rights than the people conquered.

One major theme in Condorcet's writing – and indeed, in whole Enlightenment – is the supposed deviousness of clergy. Clerics had power, because they had some important knowledge, for instance, about movement of stars and about proper times for planting seeds. Clergy also had the access to alphabets, early versions of which were often cumbersome to read and write. Although holders of knowledge, priests also mixed truths with errors and even outright lies, which helped them to control the human population.

Condorcet's rather fanciful conspiracy theory sets the tone for the rest of the book. Greeks began the process of liberating reason from superstition, but because they couldn't obliterate the power of priests and other tyrants, the progress was halted and continued only in renaissance. Condorcet emphasises especially the development of science at the beginning of modern age, but also the invention of printing press, which kept truth alive, even under censure. Then final phase of the human development begins then with the American and French Revolutions, which helped to eradicate final social inequalities.

It is especially Condorcet's speculation of the future of humankind, which interests us. It comes as no surprise that Condorcet believes in even further progression, which could be forestalled only by a barbarian invasion. I already noted that Condorcet believed that French revolution had resulted in destruction of all privileges traditionally given to some class of people. Condorcet went even so far as to suppose that in the new society even the genders would have equal status. This does not mean that Condorcet would have held the idea that women could be as valuable as men in society. Especially in case of mathematical sciences, Condorcet believed that females could never obtain the highest rank of a creative genius – a common presupposition of his day.

Condorcet also didn't think that all inequality could be eradicated forever, because he supposed people to have different natural talents, which inevitably leads to e.g. differences in wealth. Yet, like any student of Adam Smith, Condorcet appears to have believed that a kind of invisible hand would keep economy balanced and fair, as long as all traditional privileges were cancelled.

We might ask if Condorcet's hope of diminishing inequality could be nothing but a phantom, if he was not willing to give the state any power to regulate the economy. Yet, Condorcet puts all his chips on education – a very Enlightenment-like move. Apparently all that is enough is just teaching everyone to look things from a more general perspective and especially making them learn probability calculus. Armed with this tool, a person could just calculate her chances of getting any profit from some actions – and by seeing, for instance, that potential punishments overcame all possible benefits of a crime, anyone would be convinced of not committing a crime.

We are starting to see the weak side of Condorcet's science fiction, that is, blind reliance on the powers of human reason. It is fantastic to think that everyone could become a master calculator, able and willing to use mathematics for finding out the best course of action. Yet, even if such a fabulous discipline could really exist in any but quite rudimentary fashion, we might still be skeptical of everyone actually using such a behavorial calculus – and having the strength of will to follow its advice, even against strong temptations.

Similar naivety occurs also in Condorcet's notion of international politics: he believes that the value of commerce would inevitably lead to a time of peace, since in the new liberated phase of human history no country would in the long run benefit from a war. Still, Condorcet does allow patriotism, and indeed, believes it to be a necessary part of the life of a good citizen – one must love one's country and all its denizens. Again quite naively, Condorcet thinks that in a good society, patriotism cannot be in conflict with cosmopolitan and open attitude toward other nations.