13 August 2010

Aristotle, the church, and vegetables

I never quite understood why Aristotle, out of all ancient philosophers, was Christianity's favorite child. It is said that Aristotle was widely read and taught by Christian theologians and that his works greatly influenced Orthodoxy and Catholicism alike.

I think that the theologians who studied Aristotle never bothered to study his works too carefully; or that they skipped the parts they didn't like.

I am referring, in particular, to several paragraphs in Aristotle's Metaphysics (Book 4) where an argument is made about those who cannot understand that we cannot claim that something and the negation of it are simultaneously true.

Aristotle writes:
εἰσὶ δέ τινες οἵ, καθάπερ εἴπομεν, αὐτοί τε ἐνδέχεσθαί φασι τὸ αὐτὸ εἶναι καὶ μὴ εἶναι,  καὶ ὑπολαμβάνειν οὕτως. (There are some who, as we said, assert that it is possible for the same thing to be and not to be, and they accept this.)
And concludes:
ὅμοιος γὰρ φυτῷ ὁ τοιοῦτος ᾗ τοιοῦτος ἤδη. (Any such person is therefore no better than a vegetable.)
When you tell religious people that there are contradictions in their arguments, in their statements, in the way they behave, in the things they believe, in their sacred texts..., they reach a point when deus ex machina comes to save them: this is due to “faith”, to “mystery”, to something that I cannot understand because I don't believe what they believe. (How could I? Even if I was willing to believe blindly, whose belief should I espouse? Well, it is a mystery...)

Daniel Dennet uses this Aristotelian quote to make a point:
All parties to a reasonable conversation have to agree at the outset to set aside any trump cards their religion commends. So what if the Bible, or the Quran, says something? Since not everybody accepts that these texts are infallible, citing them as if they were is just rude.
Those who believe that their holy texts are infallible have a tough task ahead of them: convincing the rest of us, point by point, that they are right, starting from common ground.
Indeed, they have to. Otherwise, I can, using their argument, claim that a scribbling done by Kanzi (the famous bonobo ape) is, according to my belief, sacred, and proves whatever I want to prove.

Dennet concludes:

People whose religion does not permit them to engage in such open-minded discourse are in an important sense disabled: They may be the nicest people in the world, but they are incompetent participants in an open forum, and must be excused. Perhaps somebody else can be found to take on the task of representing their point of view while abiding by the basic rules of inquiry.
I agree. They are nice guys and gals, I've met many of them and share many common interests, values and passions. But they better get someone else to argue for them. (And good luck in finding this person...)

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What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant