“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tenth-Century Arabic Philosopher Discovers Hyperobjects

Spicules, the Sun (each hair-like one is half as long as Earth
and 300 miles wide, flowing in a magnetic field)

This Arabic speculative metaphysics is just getting more and more jaw dropping. I seriously recommend that you familiarize yourself with it.

Here's the latest line of thinking from ar-Razi, in Doubts against Galen (the ancient physician). It goes like this (paraphrased):

The subgroup that posited infinite eternal space and time was in error. Not because they were wrong to critique Galen and Aristotle, though. They were quite right to do so. But let us now do so in Aristotelian terms.

(I like this already. It's a different approach than I'm used to, which goes, boom, here comes Bacon, now let's throw out the scholasticism.)

He continues:

All entities that are created are subject to corruption (that is, they degrade and are impermanent). Thus the heavens, although we are told that they are permanent, might simply consist of some very long lasting substances that only appear to be eternal to our human eyes. If not, then you are claiming that they are uncreated, and this is absurd.

(Remember they thought what Ptolemy thought, namely that the stars were fixed to orbs or a glass like substance. Ignore the wrongness. This argument rocks.)

Now for the truly amazing part (using the same analogies):

Gold, gems and glass can disintegrate, but at much slower speeds than vegetables, fruits and spices. So we can expect whatever the celestial sphere is made of to degrade over the course of thousands of years. In fact, astronomical events take place on scales vastly larger even than the scales on which epochs between peoples happen.

Think of a catastrophe such as a flood or a plague, and how these events create ruptures between periods of history so that the time of one entire people, with its history and observations, can pass to the time of another. How much would a ruby degrade between the time of Hipparchus and the time of Galen? So the degradation rate of a celestial body might be to that of a ruby as that of a ruby is to that of a bunch of herbs.

Now think about spatial scales. If you were to add a mountain's worth of mass to the Sun, you would not be able to detect it on Earth because the Sun is so massive in the first place.

So we have ar-Razi discovering objects that are massively distributed in time and space in the tenth century, just by thinking. And me being amazed by that.

1 comment:

skholiast said...

Hi Tim,

Yes, the histories of philosophy that skip from Augustine to Bacon (or Descartes!) -- sometimes sparing a word for Aquinas -- are just unconscionable. I recently made a list for my own interest to see who was left out of such a chronology. It was pretty astounding. Maybe I'll post it.

In any case, one of the first impressions I had of Harman was that he was mining some very promising veins in turning to the Islamic occasionalists. Your quote from ar-Razi re. the corruptibility of the heavens reminds me that the same point was made expressly by several of the Church Fathers. I'm thinking it was either Basil or Gregory Nanzianzen who underlines in his commentary on Genesis the very first words, In the beginning, and underscores that e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. that has a beginning has an end. (This means incidentally that for most of these thinkers, human beings are explicitly mortal through and through; to be sure, there's a soul, but the soul is also mortal. The "life everlasting" that their Christianity speaks of is something granted supernaturally by God, not something that comes with being a soul.) There's a somewhat promising revival of patristics in theology lately, but news seems to be taking its time in reaching the philosophy departments down the hall.