Sunday Perspectives

June 14, 2009

A salad bowl of intellectual garbage

AS an undergraduate in the Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos, one of my teachers told us in class that man is a rational animal. He said that the ancient Greek logician and philosopher, Aristotle, was the first to define the human species as homo ratio.

The world-renowned British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in his work Unpopular Essays, suggested that Aristotle defined man that way because people can do arithmetic. Aristotle believed that there are three types of soul.

The vegetable soul, which is responsible for nourishment and growth, is possessed by all living things. There is also the animal soul, whose primary function is locomotion, possessed by animals and humans. Finally, Aristotle talked about the rational soul or intellect, which is the divine mind but in which men participate to a greater or less degree, depending on their level of wisdom. Thus, the rationality of man is dependent on the intellect.

Nowadays, computer technology and artificial intelligence have led to the production of calculating machines that handle mathematical problems far more efficiently than the best human genius, although human beings designed these machines and also supplied the input data with which computers accomplish their incredible calculations.

Since it is no longer impressive to cite man’s mathematical ability as sure evidence of his rationality, we shall explore other areas where the rationality of man can be defended.

Let us look at religion to see whether we can peg our staunch belief in human reason on it. In the Middle Ages when religious orthodoxy was at its zenith in Europe, very little was known scientifically about the world. Thus, people lived in fear of witches and necromancers. Thousands of people were burnt at the stake, because they were accused of witchery.

Any view that contradicted biblical tenets was considered a heresy, and the person holding it was severely dealt with. Galileo Galilei’s confrontation with the Catholic Church in the 16th century is a typical example in this regard.

In the dark and middle ages, it was believed that devils usually settled on the food people were about to eat, and would possess the bodies of those who failed to make a sign of the cross before each mouthful. Till today, many Christians say “bless you” when someone around them sneezes, but they hardly try to find out how the habit originated. When superstitious beliefs were rampant in Europe, it was thought that people sneeze out their souls, and before the souls returned demons floating around would enter the un-souled body; but if they utter “God bless you” the demons were scared away!

During the renaissance, philosophers began to question seriously the idea that religion can provide man with trustworthy knowledge of objective reality.

Francis Bacon, in his Norvum Organon and Advancement of Learning, advocated systematic use of inductive method as the best approach for acquiring knowledge of the world.

The French mathematician and philosopher, Rene Descartes, suggested, in his Meditations on Method, that only clear and distinct ideas arrived through mathematical intuition can lead one to reliable knowledge.

Definitely, the works of these men provided philosophical impetus for the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century which culminated in the works of Isaac Newton.

However, before Newton, Galileo and Johannes Kepler had laid the foundation for a new understanding of dynamics which provided the launching-pad for Newton’s laws of motion. With the rise in scientific knowledge, the hold of religion on people’s minds weakened, and the trend has continued ever since, except perhaps in the minds of religious fundamentalists.

Russell reports that when lightning rod was invented by Benjamin Franklin, the clergy saw it as an impious attempt to thwart the will of God, since the deity uses thunder and lighting occasionally to strike sinners dead.

Sometime ago in Lagos, a pastor was preaching about abstinence from sex, except within a Christian marriage. He boasted that since sinners thought that they can ignore the word of God, He has sent HIV to prove to wily humanity that sexual incontinence will not go unpunished.

These days, many of the Pentecostal pastors, due to their hollow spirituality, preach financial breakthroughs and material prosperity ad nauseam. One of them, a few years ago, was tipped off by a church member who worked in one of the new generation banks to buy shares. He did, and made a handsome profit selling some of the shares.

The following Sunday he went to church and told his congregation how, “by the grace of God” he has been blessed materially. Another pastor followed the preacher’s advice and bought a lot of shares.

That was around June 2008. Now that the prices of stocks have plummeted dramatically, the second pastor is very angry with his colleague for deceiving him.

From this account, it appears that “the grace of God” is selective. Even after astronomy had evolved form astrology, people still believe that the configuration of stars bears special relevance to the quotidian details of human life here on earth.

Most Nigerians think that horoscopes work, that in the starry heaven there is a divine plan specifically meant to direct human affairs. The science of astronomy has put a huge question mark on the veracity of this belief. Many years ago, in a convent, there were some nuns who always bathed while still wearing their bathrobes.

When asked why, since there was no man around to see their naked bodies, the nuns answered, “oh, but you forget the good God.” Apparently, to them God, an omniscient and omnipresent peeping Tom, could see through bathroom walls but not through bathrobes! The idea of sin which pastors and imams use to terrorize worshippers is a harmful antiquated concept.

To a humanist, if “sin” means causing unnecessary suffering, then the idea makes a lot of sense. However, for some church leaders, it is not so. Sometimes, euthanasia is a reasonable way of ending the excruciating sufferings of a patient afflicted with painful incurable disease or condition.