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Posts from the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Logicomix 2: the fine line between insanity and genius


“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Following on from last week’s post on Logicomix, it occurs to me that I failed to deal with one of the key themes of the graphic novel: the relationship between logic and madness. The authors openly make a big deal out of this (i.e. they discuss it as characters in the book), mainly because there seems to have been a disproportionately high incidence of mental illness among the great logicians. As noted by Gian-Carlo Rota:

It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some point in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel and Post are some.”

The purported link between insanity and genius is, of course, a well-trodden theme in popular culture; we need only think of Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. As a result, the ‘mad genius’ trope does set alarm bells ringing, particularly because the causative connection between mental illness and the work of logicians has been persuasively challenged (see, for example, this blog post). This raises the question of the extent to which the mad genius cliché is really just used to ostracise or at least stigmatise part of the intellectual community. After all, it is much more comfortable for people generally if high intelligence and the study of complex mathematics is confined to a category of the population with personality disorders.

Notwithstanding the above, the idea that many great logicians were driven insane by an obsessive dedication to their work does make for a compelling narrative. In many ways, madness represents the polar opposite or obverse of the coherent framework these thinkers were trying to achieve. To this extent, the fear of insanity must have been very real. In Logicomix, Bertrand Russell is the vehicle for expressing this fear, and he is shown as tormented not only by his encounters with mad logicians, but also by the knowledge that his family has a history of mental illness. And yet, Russell is also presented as the most human of the thinkers engaged in the quest for foundational mathematics. He fervently protested against what he saw as the madness of the First World War, had numerous passionate relationships with women, and was involved in several radical experiments in education. In this way, Russell becomes a sort of human conduit to the netherworld of foundational mathematics, a twentieth century Virgil tasked with guiding the reader towards an understanding of what the quest was really all about.

Interestingly, the narrative is framed as a talk given by Russell at an American university entitled “The Role of Logic in Human Affairs”. Moreover, the talk is given on 4 September 1939, the day the UK declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. As a result, Russell is confronted at the gates of the university by a crowd of anti-war protesters advocating that the USA play no part in the escalating European conflict. Russell invites the protesters to hear the lecture he is due to give, noting that “I will be speaking about reason, in its highest form: logic!” Of course, in introducing his lecture audience to the foundational quest for mathematics he does the same for the humble reader, thus acting as a guide both within and outside the text. In this way, Russell becomes a narrative symbol for accessibility, which is surely the overriding objective of the book as a whole. Of all the ways to be introduced to the work of the great twentieth century logicians, Logicomix as a graphic novel must be the most approachable.

The Editors

Dante’s Two Suns

“Soleva Roma, che ‘l buon mondo feo, 

due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada 

facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo”


“Rome, which formed the world for good,

once held two suns that lit the one road

and the other, the world’s and that to God.”

 Purgatorio XVI


Dante Alighieri is well known for being the author of the Divine Comedy, probably one of the most important works written in the West in medieval times, given its continuing influence over the creative arts up to the present day. And yet not everyone knows his other works in quite the same way, particularly the Convivio and De Monarchia, which reveal his many interests and proficiencies as well as the staggering wealth and depth of his knowledge. As he shows off this encyclopaedic knowledge, certain themes crop up more than others, revealing the author’s particular interests. Perhaps the most prominent of these is politics. For Dante, to meditate on this theme meant to take stock of his own condition, so tragically determined by his political choices. Immersed in the Classical authors, Dante had assimilated the political thought of Aristotle and Cicero. As a result, he conceived policy as the way to create a pacific coexistence for citizens through laws and justice. In line with Classical ideals, Dante considered it a moral duty for everyone to be involved in political life if they had the capacity to do so. 

Being a politician in the Middle Ages was not exactly an easy ride. A centuries-old and at times ferocious struggle for supremacy was ongoing between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. On the one hand, the pope wanted to exercise his power over the emperor as the head of a Christian nation. On the other, the German emperor was determined not only to obtain complete autonomy from the pontiff, but also to influence certain important decisions within the Roman Church, such as the designations of bishops and even the election of the pope. 

In the peripheries of the Empire, the tensions between these authorities reached a violent climax in Italy, at the time one of the richest parts of Europe, both culturally and economically. These violent conflicts, probably owing to the area’s proximity to Rome, were not only well documented in city records, but also in Dante’s own private reflections. There were two factions: the Guelphs, who traditionally supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, allies of the emperor in opposition to the pontiff. The period was characterised by wars between neighbouring cities as well as within cities. This generated the climate of terror and bloodshed to which the Divine Comedy bears witness. The poet himself was banished from Florence and later sentenced to death for his political activism. It is worth noting the traditional reluctance of political theorists to deal with practical administration, from Aristotle to the early 16th Century. Indeed, only a generation after Dante, Petrarch, although he did write about the troubling Italian situation, carefully abstained from involving himself in it. In this regard also, the Florentine showed himself to be the brightest star in the Medieval cultural environment. 

Dante’s fascinating progression from Guelph to Ghibelline is not our main concern, however, as I would like to focus the discussion on his philosophical speculations, which were aimed at resolving the moral paradoxes of Christians who were involved in policy. To obey the rules of the Church or to obey the laws of the state? The debate was an age-old one, dating back as far as the 5th Century BC in Athens, when Antigone made her touching decision in Sophocles’ well-known tragedy. For the first time in the history of western literature, freedom of conscience had been recognised by the Theban heroine’s choice to prioritise the law of the gods over earthly laws. However the dichotomy which led her to sacrifice her young life remained intact and irreconcilable.

Dante recalled St Augustin’s idea from De Civitate Dei and developed it, enabling him to heal this rift by illustrating the autonomy and necessity of both institutions as they descended directly and naturally from God. His explanation was a philosophical one: given that man is made of body and soul, his nature is both corruptible and incorruptible. And as any nature must have a purpose, Dante found that living in peace was the purpose of the body, and eternal happiness the purpose of the soul. Moreover, he identified two guides appointed by God to lead the people towards those aims: the emperor was the leader of earthly life and the pope was the leader of eternal life. 

As such, he argued that the emperor must have unrestricted power, since only a person who has everything does not desire anything else, and is consequently in a position to treat people equally. (Some of you may remember an Italian Prime Minister who used the same argument to win votes, but the final result did not quite match up to the idea!). The pope, as the Vicar of Christ, was only supposed to be concerned with giving moral instruction to humanity in order to secure their salvation, while supposedly being immune to all power and riches.

Thus Dante, as a Christian and politician of the early 14th Century, was able to corroborate the “Two Suns Theory”, an early version of secularism according to which the Church and the empire were two separate entities that were both necessary for humankind. Although his philosophical thought is rigorously scholastic, the poet approaches problems from an ethical stance, rather than treating them purely speculatively. His reasoning is never merely an end in itself but a tool with which to discover the solution to existing problems and situations.

It doesn’t matter if much of our later reading gives Dante the role of a tireless and blind loyalist, belonging to an antiquated world. It doesn’t matter if he did not adequately consider the Italian bourgeoisie’s reinforcement as a pressing request of freedom and autonomy hardly compatible with the absolute power of the Emperor. It doesn’t matter if national kingdoms were appearing on stage as competing powers for the Holy Roman Empire, and therefore representing a serious threat for the political unity of Christianity. It doesn’t matter if Dante’s ideological structure, which he meticulously constructs in his works, was going to collapse like a house of cards.

The great Florentine writer and philosopher should not be considered as a laudator temporis acti; that is, an inactive, slow and pessimistic reader of contemporary society. Rather he should be considered as a man who courageously made his critical skills available for the advancement of society, which, according to him, was the only possible means to achieve the advancement of mankind, and therefore the only way to reflect the divine order on Earth.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info:

The God Argument

 GraylingThe God Argument – A.C. Grayling

Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” Mark Twain

With the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still looming behind a fragile ceasefire, and with ISIS still rampaging their way across northern Iraq, now seems like a good time to talk about atheism. A.C. Grayling’s short book is essentially a step-by-step guide to giving up religion, with absolutely no ground conceded to my kind of wishy-washy agnosticism. Grayling takes us through each of the main arguments for religion before savagely but politely uprooting them and tossing them aside. The second part of the book is then a celebration of humanism, which is the author’s preferred alternative to God.

The book is chiefly memorable for the way in which Grayling goes about his business of dismantling preconceptions regarding religion, basically doing a lot of the intellectual groundwork that most of us can never summon the energy for. A particular favourite of mine is the manner in which he illustrates the nature of proof via Carl Sagan’s story of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire – the lesson being that an inability to invalidate a hypothesis is by no means the same as proving it true. The implications of this are twofold. Firstly, that redefining religion to fit modern science smacks of inconsistency. Secondly, that not being able to disprove the existence of something does not make the odds of its actual existence 50-50, as is sometimes assumed when we say we can’t know with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Grayling points out that this is exactly the same as saying we can’t know that fairies, goblins, unicorns or mermaids don’t exist, but we usually reconcile ourselves to the extreme improbability that they actually do.

More important than the powerful logic Grayling deploys in his favour, however, is the fact that the author is clearly motivated by a genuine preoccupation with the effect of religious belief in the world, and not by a proselytising desire just to make sure everyone agrees with him. I say this is important because I think a lot of atheistic thinkers get caught in the proselytising trap, Richard Dawkins being chief among them. This is, of course, not to say that they are necessarily wrong, but that the way in which they put forward their case harks back to a manner of ideological persuasion we might normally associate with religious preaching, not the opposite. In other words, more or less impartial observers of the religious debate, myself included, need to feel that it is more than a frenzied bout of intellectual masturbation – the stakes may be high but I have always preferred Sartre’s approach, which is to say that even absolute certainty of God’s existence wouldn’t deprive you of responsibility over your own actions (i.e. it should make no difference to how you choose to live your life).

Unfortunately, the reality is that organised religion does make a difference, and for the most part it makes a difference in a profoundly negative way, as has been made abundantly clear to everyone over the past few weeks. Grayling is uncompromising in setting out exactly what he finds distasteful about religion, from its fundamentally divisive nature, to the way it perpetuates itself by targeting children for indoctrination. The latter point is one that bears remembering – no one chooses which side of the wall they are born on.

The Editors

The Wager

Human Happiness (excerpts from Pensées), Blaise Pascal

PascalThis is a short book of extracts from Pascal’s Pensées put together by Penguin Books as part of their ‘Great Ideas’ series, which they launched a few years ago.  I’m not sure why they chose to call it Human Happiness, but it may have something to do with Pascal’s observation that “[a]ll men seek happiness. This is without exception.”  It is, however, worth pointing out that happiness is not really the central theme of the excerpts in question here, and the desire for happiness serves more as an anchor for Pascal’s views on the ‘wretchedness’ of the human condition.  In other words, the fact that we endlessly pursue happiness makes our anguish and doubt all the more difficult to bear.  This is perhaps the ‘classic’ view of Pascal and his writing, and indeed the quote on the cover of the book gives us a flavour of how the 17th century French Jansenist viewed man’s natural state as caught between the cold cruelty of nature and the warm embrace of God:

“What then is to become of man? Will he be the equal of God or the beasts? What a terrifying distance! What then shall it be?”

The idea of distance between polarities ties in nicely with Pascal’s famous metaphysical wager, which is helpfully signposted to us in the book as [THE WAGER] in case we miss it.  Despite this warning I didn’t actually see it coming and it was only afterwards when I thought about what Pascal was proposing that it occurred to me that I’d encountered the wager before.  For those of you haven’t had the pleasure, or who need reminding, Pascal’s Wager basically posits that man must choose between God and No God – “God is, or He is not” – and that mathematically this should boil down to a rational assessment of the risk involved in either option.  In other words it comes down to the following: (i) if we bet on God and He exists then we win everything (and if we bet on God and he doesn’t exist then we lose nothing); and conversely (ii) if we don’t bet on God and He exists then we lose everything (and if we don’t bet on God and He doesn’t exist then we win nothing).

Pascal’s straightforward conclusion is that we should obviously bet on God.

My immediate reaction upon processing all this was that the simplistic logic of the Wager only carries weight because Pascal is renowned as one of the greatest mathematicians in human history (i.e. he must be right because he’s good with numbers).  I think this initial objection (Objection 1, if you will) stems from the fact that Pascal’s equation seems to rely on what Dawkins labelled “inauthentic belief”, otherwise known as the “you can’t just feign belief and ‘bet’ on God” objection.  However, further investigation has led me to conclude that this does a disservice to what Pascal is saying, mainly because the context of the Wager indicates that it’s not really supposed to be a cynic’s hedging of bets, but rather a way of placating man’s voracious appetite for reason.  In other words, the Wager is there as a sort of gateway to religious enlightenment, which presupposes that every man and woman will be able to find the truth of God so long as his or her rationality is temporarily assuaged (i.e. he/she is willing to give God a chance).  This gives rise to Objection 2.

Objection 2 is based on the fact that the Wager then becomes a placebo of sorts, to be taken in order to ignore our rational faculties, and more importantly it assumes that belief in a particular Christian God is a foregone conclusion once the placebo has been administered.  As Diderot pointed out, “an Imam could reason the same way.”  This is particularly worrying as Pascal himself recognises that imagination is “the dominant faculty in man, master of error and falsehood.”  Given this propensity for error, it seems unwise to further dampen our ability to consider things rationally and just drift towards spirituality.  This could lead us anywhere or nowhere (particularly if we accept that “man is vile enough to bow down to beasts and even worship them”).  As such, I prefer Pascal’s other argument, which is basically that man trying to understand God is like a two-dimensional animal trying to understand a three-dimensional universe (Dante said much the same thing).

For those of you who’ve made it this far, however, I wouldn’t base your decision on whether or not to approach this book on your feelings for the Wager, which only has a minor role to play, or even religion, which admittedly has a larger part.  Pascal’s writing is incredibly sharp, and his observations regarding human nature are both shrewd and hilarious:

We would all cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery.”

It is also challenging, and that’s not always a bad thing.

The Editors

On Liberty

libertyOn Liberty – John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill’s classic philosophical text is probably best known for the expression of libertarianism’s fundamental principle, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

It is a principle that, in its striking simplicity, still frequently recurs in modern discourse to oppose itself to any infringement of the individual’s freedom to do as he pleases without harming others: it is the bar by which prohibitive laws are measured in the public’s mind.  See for instance the ban on cigarettes, which only gained momentum when it became accepted that smoking is not just a danger to the individual smoker, but also to others.  Similarly, the principal argument against euthanasia is not that people should not be free to end their own lives, but that allowing people to do so might indirectly result in situations where others feel they are in some way being coerced to do so.

It is a philosophical equation that is astoundingly easy to grasp, which is why it remains such a powerful guardian against the encroachment of individual liberty.  And yet, what is fascinating about Mill’s essay is the way in which, having established this principle in the opening pages, it goes on to discuss the practical implications of abiding by it in everyday life.  Firstly, Mill explores the importance of freedom of thought and how it relates to what we consider to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’: “if any opinion be compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we know, be true.”  However, much more radically for the mid-nineteenth century, Mill then asserts that “though the silenced opinion be in error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth.”  The idea that truth of any kind is multi-faceted, and must therefore be consistently challenged, is harder to accept because it takes the position that you can never be certain of what you know; it is an idea that introduces the spectre of doubt, which is something we all naturally recoil from.  In fact, it seems to me that this is why we recoil from the idea of pluralism generally, often accepting the natural logic of the assertion that “we can’t all be right”.  This is an assumption that Mill definitively rejects, making the point that it is for the individual to weigh competing opinions for himself in a world of doubt and half-truths.  To turn away from challenging prevailing custom and modes of thought is to deny one of the great virtues of humanity:

Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they live in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own.  Now is this, or is this not, the desirable condition of human nature?

It is for its espousal of individualism that On Liberty deserves to be reread in the twenty-first century.

The Editors

Money money money

 What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel is the closest you can come to being a rock star philosopher: in 2007, over a thousand students enrolled on his political philosophy course at Harvard University, and BBC Four recently ran a three-part series with him called The Public Philosopher.  Over the years he has developed a reputation for himself in the US as one of the few public voices that anyone takes seriously to challenge the prevailing theories of economic liberalism and market rule.  What stands out in his writing is not, however, his opposition to extreme materialism as such but rather the original way in which he dissects political and philosophical theory.

His first book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?, was published in 2009 and is essentially just a book version of his university course of the same name.  In it, he asks questions like ‘is it morally preferable to divert a train so that it kills one person rather than five, than to push a fat person off a bridge into the path of an oncoming train to save five people?’  In another chapter, discussing the banking crisis, he refers to the fact that many CEOs in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse distanced themselves from their companies’ decision-making.  Whilst acknowledging that this may indeed have been the case at many large financial institutions, he then asks whether the same CEOs should therefore have been entitled to take all the credit (and related bonuses) during the boom times.

It is this way of turning common issues of ethics and morality on their head that is so distinctive about What Money Can’t Buy.  For example, Sandel takes the hackneyed proposition that advertising and commercialism are corrupting influences and asks: what do we lose from advertising; what does it mean to corrupt?  By doing so, he brings the debate on commercialism back within the realm of logic and reason.  I say this because it strikes me that this particular debate has long languished outside the boundaries of these two fundamental virtues.  Many people have a visceral, aesthetic opposition to commercialism and materialism that may not be unjustified, but without the support of well-reasoned arguments it is simply no good for use in civic discussion.  I remember reading an interview with a protester outside St Paul’s earlier this year in which the protester stated that although he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to change about the current system of government, he had a right to say “no”.  That is undoubtedly true, but if civil unrest is to mean anything substantive it must be accompanied by a well thought out view of what is objected to and what needs to change.  A good starting point would be to read Michael Sandel.

The Editors

The world looks different today

Book coverThrough the Language Glass – Guy Deutscher

“Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

So said the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain and archduke of Austria, who, as a seasoned polyglot, ought to have known.  However, the idea that language somehow reflects cultural difference is an interesting cliché.  It’s a natural assumption to make that because people speak a different language they must think differently too.  In fact, I’ve always wondered about the extent to which one changes personality when speaking another language: physically, you’re clearly the same person, but at what point exactly does a thought cease to be an abstract thing and crystallise into the rigid confines of a particular language?  Depending on where you stand, this could occur at the very last moment before you open your mouth, in which case language doesn’t really affect the thought itself, or, it could occur at a deeper level of consciousness, in which case the thing you are trying to express may itself be sculpted by the vehicle of its expression.

Deutscher approaches the issue from a strictly scientific perspective.  Not for him the airy generalisations about the musicality of Italian breeding a nation of poets, or the harsh logic of German providing fertile ground for the intellectual rigour of philosophers.  Instead, Deutscher looks at specific examples of linguistic interpretation that can be held up to scrutiny.  He then uses these examples as a platform to assess how language affects the way in which human beings view the world.

One such example is the evolution of how different cultures describe colour.  It turns out, for instance, that Homer was extremely one-dimensional when it came to using colour in his work.  This was seized upon by early linguists as evidence that although our perception of colour may not evolve as such, our need or desire to distinguish between different areas of the colour spectrum does.  Another way of looking at it is this: as a culture becomes more sophisticated it tends to refine its language to allow for a more precise distinction of colour.  As such, early civilisations always had a word for red that was used a lot because red is the colour of blood, but not a word for blue because blue was only really appreciated as a colour in its own right with the invention of colour dyes.  Colours were also lumped together, depending on their usage: the early anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers was astonished to find that on the islands of the Torres Straits, people used the same word to describe the colours black and blue.  An overcooked bit of meat is black, but so is the sky.  Bizarre though this may sound, we still use the word ‘blue’ to describe a huge chunk of the colour spectrum, preceded in some cases by the words ‘light’ or ‘dark’, as though someone realised retrospectively that the two shades were not in fact very similar.

If this makes Deutscher sound like he is only interested in the minute detail of linguistic expression, then I’m doing him a considerable disservice.  In his exploration of language, he seeks to establish concrete instances of how the way we see things is predetermined to an extent by the lens of language.   In doing so, the scope of his observations reaches far beyond differences in colour schematics, and embraces the murky relationship between the biological and cultural evolution of humanity.

The Editors