Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle’


January 5, 2015

I have always rather liked the melody of John Lennon’s Imagine. I cannot say, however, that I especially like the lyrics, expressing as they do every idiot left wing idea imaginable. It turns out that I am far from the only one who finds the lyrics objectionable. Mark Davies, the Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury in Birmingham, England expressed his objections to the song in his Christmas sermon.

John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine,” which pines for a Marxist utopia devoid of property and religion, lyrically promotes the “ill-founded belief” that “religion is the cause of wars,” when the devastatingly brutal wars of the 20th century were “largely inspired by secularist” and “openly anti-Christian ideologies,” says Catholic Bishop Mark Davies in his scheduled Christmas Day sermon.

Bishop Davies oversees the Catholic Diocese of Shrewsbury in Birmingham, England.  This 2014 Christmas marks the 100th anniversary of a Christmas “truce” during World War I when British and German soldiers, after an appeal by then-Pope Benedict XV, ceased fighting for a day and actually exchanged greetings and gifts and played soccer on the battlefield.

“Why did this happen?” says Bishop Davies in his homily, as reported in the Catholic Herald. “What could have drawn enemies from their entrenched positions to greet each other as friends?”

“[I]t was surely a light which first shone with the birth of a child born in Bethlehem, a Savior given to all humanity who turns our minds to thoughts of peace,” says the bishop.

“The events of Christmas 1914 give the lie to the lazily repeated assertion that ‘religion is the cause of wars,” says Bishop Davies.  “John Lennon would give voice to this ill-founded belief in the lyrics of his song ‘Imagine.’”

“This becomes a heart-chilling vision in which Lennon imagines a world with no hope of heaven and no fear of hell,” says the bishop, “And he adds, ‘no religion too.’ Only then, he suggests will ‘all the people’ be ‘living life in peace.’”

The bishop continued, “Yet the fact is, the wars of the century past, bringing with them atrocities and destruction on a scale never seen before, were largely inspired by secularist and, indeed, openly anti-Christian ideologies. In reality, it is human sin which lies at the root cause of war.”

The idea that religion is the cause of war has been heavily promoted by the so-called New Atheists to justify their anti-theist positions. It is a simplistic idea and easy to believe. It is not true, however. Religion is often the pretext for war. It is not so often the sole cause of war. A quick survey of the many wars throughout history shows relatively few wars are really over religious differences. The Peloponnesian War, the Hundred Years War, the American Civil War, World Wars I and II and many, many others had little to do with religion, even if the combatants believed that God was on their side. Even wars that are fought over religion, such as the Wars of Religion during the Protestant Reformation, on closer examination reveal other motivations, political or opportunistic, are at work. The German Princes who supported Luther were genuinely opposed to the abuses of the Catholic Church, but they were also inspired by German nationalism and a desire to maintain their own power against the imperial pretensions of the Hapsburgs. The Islamic hordes who burst out of the Arabian Peninsula may have been religious fanatics, but they were also attracted by the prospect of booty.

But, I think there is more to object to John Lennon’s song than just the anti-religion themes. Consider the lyrics.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion,

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You, you may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will live as one

John Lennon may have been a dreamer, but he doesn’t seem to have been much of a thinker. He wanted everybody to live in harmony together, yet he sings against the institutions that help people to live together in peace.

What if there were no countries? Would all the people live together in harmony? In Stone Age cultures people do not live in countries, or nation states or formal government. They effectively live in a state of anarchy recognizing no loyalty higher than that of the clan or tribe. People living in such primitive culture tend not to live peaceful lives.Their lives are far more violent than that of people living in more advanced societies. How could it be otherwise? When there is no higher authority to settle disputes between tribes, they often must fight feuds. When there are no police, courts or jails, the only way to assure justice is the threat of revenge by kinsmen. When people began to organize into cities and kingdoms, their rulers found it expedient to discourage private violence by adopting law codes and having the state administer punishment for crimes. When the nations of Europe began to coalesce into centralized nation states in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, one major concern of kings was to eliminate the private wars that was the nobility’s prerogative in the Medieval Period. The kings fought wars against each other but their subjects had to be at peace. The result was larger, but fewer wars. In the last few decades, we have begun to develop ways of mediating between nations and a somewhat crude form of international governance which has made war between the major powers almost unthinkable. Perhaps this idea should be taken to its logical outcome and a world government instituted to keep the peace, but I think that the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages of such a system. The point is, that the development of nations and countries has actually made life more peaceful for most people throughout history. A world of people living in anarchy would not be harmonious.

What about possessions? If we had no possessions would there be no hunger or greed? I don’t see how it would be possible to avoid starvation. Food is, after all, a possession and if there were no possessions there would be no food. And why would anyone take the trouble to grow more food than he needed to feed himself and his family if there were no way to pay him? Why would anyone want to do anything? Maybe John Lennon meant that everything would be held in common. Would this lead to harmony?

Aristotle understood more than 2300 years ago that private property is essential for maintaining peace and prosperity. As he put it, people are naturally self-interested and so more interested in caring for and improving what they perceive as belonging to them, while neglecting the affairs they see as others’ responsibility. Private property creates a more harmonious society since things held in common tend will be fought over. Everyone would naturally take as much as they need from the commune while contributing as little as they could get away with. No matter what system would be set up to distribute the common goods, someone would be sure to feel they are not getting their fair share. There is peace when property ownership is clearly defined with clear laws protecting property rights and commerce. Most of the rich countries of the world have such laws and are relatively peaceful and stable. Most of the poor countries lack such laws and are unstable and turbulent.

I am afraid that John Lennon’s dream would not lead to a world of everyone living together in harmony. It would lead to a Hobbesian nightmare of all warring against all and lives nasty, brutish and short. Maybe we should imagine less and think more.



How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

March 17, 2014

This is a question that is supposed to have been hotly debated throughout the Middle Ages. The idea is that instead studying questions that might be of some use to people, the scholastic philosophers and theologians of the High Middle Ages debated abstruse questions that could not be decided by any evidence and made no difference to anyone living in the real world. This question has become a byword for any intellectual endeavor that is abstract and meaningless.

In fact, the Scholastics specialized in using logic and reason to discuss all sorts of philosophical issues and to reconcile contradictions in philosophy and theology. They were particularly concerned to resolve the differences between ancient Greek philosophy, especially the newly discovered teachings of Aristotle, and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Their method was usually to ask a question concerning some philosophical point. Arguments contrary to official dogma would first be given, then the official or generally accepted position would be stated, with arguments in its favor, and finally the opponents arguments would be rebutted. These arguments often took the form of citations from the Bible or writings of the Church fathers, but a rigorous system of logic was used to explain and expound on the citations and logic was used to reconcile or reject positions. The doctrines of the Catholic Church were not upheld by faith alone or the authority of the Church. Since the Scholastics held that reason and faith both pointed to the same Truth, reason could and should be used to defend the faith. Perhaps the best example of the Scholastic method would be Thomas Aquinas‘s Summa Theologica. In his masterpiece, he examines point after point of Catholic doctrine in the way I explained.

This Scholastic method could be used with other subjects, including the natural sciences. The work that the Scholastics did was not quite what we call science. They were more interested in abstract reasoning about observations than in performing experiments. While the Scholastics made many contributions to mathematics, including introducing Arabic numerals to the West, the extensive use of mathematics to describe and explain  the natural world generally had to wait until the time of Galileo.  Modern science is only possible if you believe that the universe is an orderly, reasonable place that can be studied using reason and observation. By emphasizing rather than rejecting the use of reason, the Scholastics laid the foundation for the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

To get back to the subject, although medieval theologians were much concerned about angelology, including the question of whether angels take up physical space and whether an angel traveling from point A to point B travels through the points between, there is no evidence that the questions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin or the point of a needle was ever seriously debated. It is most likely that the question was made up by later critics of Scholastic philosophy to demonstrate the supposed stupidity and triviality of Medieval thinking. It might also have been a joke among the Scholastics or the type of riddle that students might ask to trip up their professors, perhaps something like the question, “what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object”.

So, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I had always thought that the number must be infinite since angels   are not composed of mass or energy and do not take up any physical space. I may be wrong, however, since I have not taken quantum effects into account. Recent research in quantum angelology, a field of theological physics, indicates that the number is, in fact, finite. The Pauli exclusion principle prevents any two angels from occupying the same quantum states. Angels may not have any mass, but they do contain information and any individual angel cannot be smaller than the Planck length of 1.616 X 10 -34  meters. According to the  article I linked to, the maximum number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is 8.6766 X 10 49 angels.


8.6766X10 49 angels are dancing on this pin.



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The Earth is Flat

December 14, 2012

How do you know that it isn’t? Not long ago, I came across a comment to the effect that the Bible should not be trusted as any sort of guide because it was written  by men who believed the Earth is flat. I do not intend to defend the authority of the Bible in this post, or to speculate about divine inspiration, or even to consider whether the writers of the Bible did indeed believe that the Earth is flat. Instead I want to consider this idea that because people in ancient, and not so ancient, times knew less about the natural world than we moderns do, they were therefore more ignorant and more foolish than we are, and therefore have nothing worth saying to us.




English: The Flammarion engraving is a wood en...

Although it would be cool if you could see over the edge of the Earth.


So, I will ask again. How do you know that the Earth is round? No doubt you have seen photographs of the Earth taken from space. The Earth seems spherical enough. You might also have taken plane trips around the world, or at least a good portion of it. You might have traveled on a ship so far that you have returned to your starting place, and therefore realized that the Earth cannot be flat. Moreover, all the books and maps and globes say the Earth is a sphere. It is so obvious that the Earth is round that members of the Flat Earth Society must either be joking or among the most ignorant fools on the planet.




But, what if there were no pictures from space? What if there were no airplanes or ships capable of long ocean voyages? Could you, by your own observations be able to determine the true shape of the Earth? Probably not.




The truth is, that the idea that the Earth is flat is perfectly reasonable given the information that the people in ancient times had available to them. It is not at all obvious that the Earth is round and there is no reason for anyone prior to the development of modern science to even suspect that might be the case. The remarkable thing is that people in ancient times did learn that the Earth is a sphere.




It was the ancient Greeks who discovered the true shape of the Earth, and the way they learned this might not occur to many even in our enlightened times. The Greeks were a sea-faring people. You can see farther out on the sea since there are no obstructions like trees or mountains as there are on land. Greek sailors noticed that as a ship moved farther away, it did not just recede into the distance. First the hull of the ship vanished, than the bottom of the sail, and finally the top of the mast. Eventually someone realized that this observation meant that the Earth could not be flat, but must at least be curved. The discovery was attributed to Pythagoras (the one with the theorem) but it is possible that the knowledge of the Earth’s shape was known as far back as the time of Homer. Aristotle argued that the Earth must be round because the shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse is round. Eratosthenes actually measured the circumference of the Earth with an amazing degree of accuracy. Contrary to what is still often believed, knowledge of the round Earth did not vanish during the “Dark Ages” nor did the Catholic Church ever teach that the world was flat.


English: Ship at horizon: due to earth curvatu...

English: Ship at horizon: due to earth curvature lower part is invisible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


There are two lessons to be learned here. First, as I said, the concept that the Earth is flat is perfectly reasonable and obvious if you have not been able to make the sorts of observations that would show otherwise. How many perfectly reasonable and obvious ideas do you think are widely held today that are simply wrong? Second, even though people in the past did not possess our modern knowledge of the natural sciences and technology, it does not follow that they were stupid or that they had nothing worthwhile to say to us. It may well be that in some ways they were wiser than we are.








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