Sunday, September 26, 2010

Will versus rationality

The tension between philosophies of will and those of rationality is one that recurs in human history. For example, in the Eurasian War (aka the Second World War: which is not a very accurately named, the Seven Years War was more global in its spread than either “World War”), the ideologies of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militarist-ruled Japan all emphasized the centrality of heroic will. The Soviet Union, based on Lenin’s Jacobinisation of Marxism (see also here), had a concept of revolutionary will, but, particularly under Stalin, it was subordinated to a cold calculation. The Western Allies were much more about rationality than their Axis opponents: an approach that allowed them to use their greater resources to eventually triumphant effect (remembering that Soviet success was significantly a result of Western logistical support).

But the Allies greater emphasis on rationality rather than will also meant that they were continually wrong-footed by the Axis Powers in the lead-up to war, and in the War’s early stages. Rationality can easily lead to its own errors: errors in judging the intentions and willingness to gamble of those with very different premises, for example. Consideration can be a barrier to action as well as a basis for more effective action. The tension between philosophies of will and those or rationality is a recurring one because both the intent to act and considering how to act, both passion and reason, are basic parts of the human (indeed sentient) condition.

The current struggle with radical Islam shows a similar contrast as to that seen in the Eurasian War. The jihadis are very much philosophy-of-will folk: to an extent that the careful rationality of Westerners struggles to understand, or find effective counters to. That they are philosophy-of-will folk comes across clearly in jihadi rhetoric:
“As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels … Enmity and hate shall ever reign between us … Battle, animosity and hatred – directed from the Muslim to the infidel – is the foundation of our religion”; “We are not fighting so that you will offer us something … We are fighting to eliminate you”; “The real matter is the extinction of America”; “America is evil in its essence”; “Those who think that they can change reality, or change societies, without blood sacrifices and wounds … do not understand the essence of our religion.... Glory does not build its lofty edifice except with skulls … on a foundation of cripples and corpses”.
Strategists may elucidate the rationality of suicide bombing, but the act itself is clearly a grisly “triumph of the will”.

The tension between philosophies of will and those of rationality is one that monotheist theology is particularly prone to. The question of whether to emphasize God’s Will or His Rationality is a recurring debate and tension in all the Abrahamic religions.

In the C9th to the C14th, all three Abrahamic religions struggled with this question in debates over Aristotelian philosophy (and philosophy generally, but Aristotelianism was the focus). Whether to emphasize God’s Will (and so treat reality as simply contingent on what His Will happens to be at any given time) or His Rationality (and so treat reality as having a rational structure knowable to human cognition) was very much a live debate in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In Judaism, the Aristotelian rationality of Maimonedes won out. In Latin Christendom, so did the Aristotelian rationality of Aquinas. But, in both, it was a serious – and, for a while, bitter – contest. The doctrines of both Maimonedes and Aquinas were, at least in part, subject to rabbinical and priestly condemnation.

Nor, in either religion, was the contest ever completely over. Movements emphasizing God's Will continue to erupt – such as the rise of Hasidism or current support among American evangelicals for Creationism. Emphasizing rationality can always be portrayed as lessening God’s glory or as manifesting human arrogance – including giving scope for concerns which are not Godly, for rationality clearly has its own norms.

Still, the emphasis on God’s rationality came to dominate both Christianity and Judaism. With the result that the notion that the world had a rationally knowable coherent structure became the dominant view and the basis for the Scientific Revolution – modern science still being something that is overwhelmingly a creation of Jews and “cultural” Christians, even given the rising Asian contribution.

Islam had its own debate on the question of God’s Will versus Rationality based around Aristotelianism, one that began earlier than that in Latin Christendom and Judaism and, indeed, influenced both. It was:
a struggle a millennium ago between two theological schools, the Ash’arites and the Mu’tazilites, which not only had opposing views of the value and role of Hellenic thought but totally different conceptions of God, which they both believed they found present in the Qur’an (Koran): “On one side was God’s will and power, and on the other his justice and rationality. The argument … took place over the status of reason in relation to God’s revelation and omnipotence. The questions involved: What has reason to do with man’s encounter with God? Is there any relationship between reason and revelation? Does reason have any standing to address God’s revelation, or must reason remain outside of it? And perhaps most importantly, can reason know the truth?” (p.3). Initially the Mu’tazilite rationalist view prevailed, but eventually Ash’arite irrationalism was victorious, with dire consequences.
The interesting question is why, why did Judaism and Latin Christendom go one way, but mainstream Islam went the other in the debate about whether to emphasize God's Will or His Rationality?
Emphasizing God’s Will tends to increase the power of priests and clerics, as interpreters of His Will. You do not need a priest to tell you murder, theft or lying is wrong. Or that marriage is a fine thing. You do need a priest to tell you not to eat pigs, nor weave two types of cloth together, that dogs are unclean, that wrong belief is against God, or that the mechanics of sex is a desperately important moral issue.

But that hardly explains why two of the Abrahamic religions went one way, and one went the other. They all had priests or clerics. Indeed, Latin Christendom had the most elevated concept of priesthood: a rabbi or Muslim cleric is not a vessel of sacraments, an intermediary to the divine, in the way a Catholic priest is.

On the other hand, nor is a Catholic priest a vessel of God’s Law in the way a rabbi or a Muslim cleric is. Even canon law is human law, however much it may attempt to conform to divine purposes.

But, again, being an interpreter of God’s law is a role that rabbis share with Muslim clerics. So, that hardly explains the different outcomes in Judaism and mainstream Islam.

Unless, of course, the Aristotelian impulse in Islam manifested in a way that threatened the status of Muslim clerics. Which it did.

Protecting clerical authority
The central claim of the Mu’tazilites was that the Qur’an was a created thing, embedded in time and so open to interpretation and even revision. A claim that the early Abbasid Caliphs found congenial and supported (sometimes with considerable brutality). The Mu’tazilites:
They were also advocates of free will who questioned predestination. When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 this became a politically useful position and the Mu’tazilites gained the support of the regime. Crucially, they also insisted that humanity was free to interpret revelation, and that the Qur’an was created in time — claims that outraged traditionalists. However, once again these were politically useful views as they enhanced the authority of the Caliph and reduced the influence of the clergy.
Conversely, if the Qur’an was something outside of time, its authority was eternal: which meant that the authority of those who interpreted it – the Muslim clerics – was trumps, not the Caliph’s. Abbasid commitment to Mu’tazilite thought and capacity to dominate the clerics – acting as teachers (mudarris) educating the Muslim community, as judges (qādī) resolving legal disputes, or as jurisconsults (muftī) offering legal opinions – proved insufficient to sustain a Mu’tazilite movement whose only real base was Caliphal power against clerics far more grounded in the wider society (and who were the main constraint on Caliphal power). The result was:
by the mid-ninth century the Ash’arites were entrenching themselves and their opposing views of God, scripture, the universe and humanity within the Sunni Muslim tradition. The emphasis shifted in all key areas; above all, God came to be seen in terms of Will alone, outside and above any notions of reason, rationality and natural law, which were all seen as subsidiary and contingent, and subject always to the divine Will. The Ash’arites were also wreaking their revenge for their previous poor treatment: “holding the Mu’tazilite doctrine became a crime punishable by death. The Mu’tazilites were expelled from court, removed from all government positions, and their works were largely destroyed”. By the end of the century, copyists and booksellers were prohibited from trading in works of theology, philosophy and dialectical disputation associated with the Mu’tazilites: “the long process of dehellenisation and [intellectual] ossification had begun”. As the Pakistani physicist and historian of science, Pervez Hoodbhoy, concludes: “Thus ended the most serious attempt to combine reason with revelation in Islam.… By the twelfth century the conservative, anti-rationalist schools of thought had almost completely destroyed the Mu’tazilite influence”
So, because the Aristotelian impulse in Islam manifested in a way that threatened clerical power directly, but was not able to overcome it, the theology of God’s Will became dominant in Islam and, along with it, an occasionalist metaphysics which choked off systematic enquiry into the nature of reality, for God’s Will uber alles meant theology and God’s law uber alles too. Providing us with a dramatic example of ideas having consequences:
Moreover, the view prevails within Islam not only that science and all useful knowledge are completely contained within theology, but that scientific laws do not even exist, because this would entail a limitation upon the Will of God. Similarly, there is no rational order to the universe that God must observe; no secondary causes; and no relations of cause and effect. Instead, the universe is governed by the principles of occasionalism, according to which any and all events happen purely as a result of God’s Will at the moment concerned. As Reilly observes, “Creation is not imprinted with reason. It [therefore] cannot reflect what is not there. As a result, there is no rational order invested in the universe upon which one can rely, only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s Will” (p.51). He also quotes the eminent modern historian of the Arab peoples, Albert Hourani, who observed that Arabs “tend to see acts in themselves, as fitting an occasion rather than as links in a chain of cause and consequence” . It is therefore “not Islamic to say that combining hydrogen and oxygen makes water. You are supposed to say that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together then by the will of Allah water is created”.
Occasionalism applies in every area of life according to this world-view, so that, for example, the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir disapproves of such safeguards as insurance and seatbelts as presumptuous, unnecessary and ultimately futile in the face of God’s sovereign Will: “If one’s allotted time has arrived, the seatbelt is superfluous. If it has not, it is unnecessary. One must realise that the phrase, ‘God willing’, is not simply a polite social convention, but a theological doctrine” (p.143). In summary, according to this view, we do not live in a rationally ordered universe governed by scientific laws but in a realm utterly subject to the Will of God, as disclosed in the Qur’an, and it is incumbent upon all humanity to live entirely and solely in accordance with this revelation of the divine Will …
Not an outlook conducive to science and scientific endeavour. Or even what Westerners would regard as elementary rationality: Western military and other instructors often find dealing with such deeply ingrained views frustrating. Indeed, the work of Danish psychologist Nicolai Sennels (discussed here, here, here, here, here and here) can be seen as charting the psychological effects, and cultural implications, of occasionalist metaphysics.

The impact of colonial rule and introduction of modern techniques of state power has both undermined the traditional structures of Islam jurisprudence (which had already been successfully coopted by the Ottoman dynasty) and, along with Saudi oil money, provided space for the development of Islamic theologies of Will uber alles in the merging traditions of Wahhabi and salafi thought. In the words of one Muslim scholar:
By rejecting juristic precedents and undervaluing tradition, Salafism adopted a form of egalitarianism that deconstructed any notions of established authority within Islam. Effectively, anyone was considered qualified to return to the original sources and speak for the divine will. …
The outcome of the apologist, Wahhabi and Salafi legacies is a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeat, disempowerment and alienation with a distinct sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-à-vis the nondescript "other" -- whether the other is the West, non-believers in general or even Muslims of a different sect and Muslim women. In this sense, it is accurate to describe this widespread modern trend as supremacist, for it sees the world from the perspective of stations of merit and extreme polarization.
… supremacist puritanism in contemporary Islam is dismissive of all moral norms or ethical values, regardless of the identity of their origins or foundations. The prime and nearly singular concern is power and its symbols. Somehow, all other values are made subservient.
In other words, a theology of the Will even more unrestrained and intensive than that which had become traditional in Islam.

In Judaism and Latin Christendom, by contrast, the debate over Aristotelianism was within the religious class and so not seen as an attack on its authority. This may have made wider social attitudes crucial. Jews had become a mercantile minority. God as rational Lawgiver was likely a more appealing final Authority than God as Arbitrary Power: arbitrary power being something Jews suffered enough from.

While Latin Christendom was an increasingly mercantile society dominated by a landowning elite. Certainty and regularity is something landowners want from law. Concepts of Germanic and Roman law would also have encouraged viewing God as Lawful Ruler, not Arbitrary Tyrant.

Conversely, the warrior elites of Islam were not landowners but effectively tax-farmers: the greater the power of a leader to reward followers, the greater his standing, his honour. One can see how putting any limits on the authority of God would be seen as limiting His honour. It may be significant that al-Ghazali, who put the seal on the defeat in mainstream Islam of the Arisotelian impulse and the triumph of occasionalist metaphysics, was an inhabitant of Central Asia and under the rule of Turkish pastoralists. His famous passage:
our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively; this is a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God
expresses the theology of God’s will, and its implications, very effectively. His main opponent, Ibn Rushd, lived on the periphery of the Islamic world, in Spain and, despite writing a famous rebuttal, failed to have influence in mainstream Islam. He was, however, very influential in Latin Christendom where he was known as The Commentator (Aristotle being The Philosopher).

Another way to look at it is that, in Islam, the authority of the Muslim clerics was the only legal constraint on Caliphal power. So the choice was accept a concept of God's Rationality (and a natural law-structured universe) in the service of, effectively unrestrained, autocratic power. Or insist on the primacy God's Will – and thus legal checks on autocratic authority – but at the cost of accepting a lawless universe (one not structured by anything but God's Will). A grim choice that, fortunately for us, neither Judaism nor Christianity was confronted with.

Yet, in the long run, one can see that the proponents of the supremacy of God’s Will were correct: emphasizing His rationality has, indeed, undermined the role of religion (and of priests and clerics) in Western Civilisation (which no longer calls itself ‘Christendom’).

But the triumph of philosophies of rationality is never final, never absolute – consider the rise of Nazism – and is never without its own pitfalls. The West has dramatic and pervasive technological advantages, and is far more prosperous, than Islam. The damage done to Islam’s intellectual capacities by the triumph of the theology of God’s Will is enormous:
the scientific productivity of Muslim countries, measured in terms of articles published in reputable academic journals; patents registered; money spent on research; and numbers of scientists and technically trained personnel, etc, falls far below that of the West, other industrial societies and even other developing countries. For example, between 1980 and 2000 South Korea alone registered 16,328 patents, while nine Middle East countries registered only 370 between them, and many of these were by foreigners; and India and Spain each produce a larger proportion of global scientific literature than do 46 Muslim countries combined. Greece alone translates five times more books annually than does the entire Muslim world; while in the past millennium the entire Arab world has translated only the same number that Spain translates in one year. The impact of this scientific backwardness on levels of economic development is devastating, as a leading Syrian philosopher laments, “Look at the Arab world from one end to the other; there is no true added value to anything”, and as Reilly observes, according to another UN report, “only sub-Saharan Africa did worse than the Arab countries”, despite the advantage these had of massive oil revenues.
Other Muslim scholars agree. Ali Allawi, a former minister of both finance and defence in the new Iraq, has observed that “the creative output of twenty or thirty million Muslims of the Abbasid era dwarfs the output of nearly one-and-a-half billions of the modern era” (p.166), and the prominent Islamic intellectual, Abdelwahab Meddeb, is moved to conclude that the subordinate position of science within Islam has left the latter in a piteous position compared to the world’s other great civilisations in terms of human achievement. He asks what would happen if Islam were to be called to account for what it has accomplished: “What could the Muslim Arab offer? Nothing”, and therefore, unless it takes a new direction, Islam, “constrained by the framework of Islamic faith, will join the great dead civilisations”.
An Islam which is committed to the notion that the peak of human social understanding was reached in C7th Arabia has, to put it mildly, a problem.

But the brute reality is that history is not the creation of thought alone: it is created by action. If believers breed more than non-believers then, eventually, the believers win. In a contest between those willing to act, and those too fearful to, the believers also win.

In the long run, the Islam of God’s Will will likely lose. Islam is still only less than a quarter of the world population, and how many Muslims are committed to the project of the triumph of Muslim Will? The Ismailis, the Kosovars, the Kurds of Iraq, the "Green movement" of Iran are very much not Hamas, Hezbollah, the mullahs, the al-Saud. But the Islam of God’s Will may do a great deal of damage until its targets learn to act effectively (admittedly no Muslim country has the relative power Nazi Germany did in 1939, but the destructive possibilities of modern technology are still grim). Acting effectively requires knowing who is playing what game: and that is still a matter of much debate and uncertainty.

ADDENDA I have tweaked this post a bit, but I think I have it saying what I want to say now :)

FURTHER ADDENDA This post includes a sermon by a rabbi from Atlanta, Georgia making some apposite comparisons between now and the 1930s, 1940s.


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