In Memory of Hypatia of Alexandria

Detail of the death portrait of a wealthy woman, c. 160-170 AD near modern-day Er-Rubayat in the Fayum, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsHypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but original sources that old are hard to come by, especially from a city as turbulent and violence-torn as the Alexandria of her day. The day of her death is better known, sometime in March of 415 AD. Since the latter date is more precise, we’ll break with our birthday remembrance tradition here and celebrate the memory of Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.

She was a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher who wrote commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia was a Neoplatonist, a philosophy with mystical overtones which posits that everything derives its being from the One, an ultimately conscious yet nonmaterial, non-spacial entity which is the pure ideal of everything that is. She was a scholar and teacher in a field and in a male-dominated world, and historians from her day to ours emphasize her extraordinary talents and her femininity with a nearly equal mix of awe and bemusement.

So let us remember and honor Hypatia for her great contributions to human knowledge and to the history of women’s liberation, living proof that women are equals in intellect and courage.

And let us also remember her sad death as a cautionary tale against those who inflame popular sentiment to seize power for themselves. Hypatia met her death at the hands of a Christian mob caught up in the anti-pagan hysteria of the day; Alexandria itself was caught up in a power struggle between civic and religious authority. The mob of extremists who dragged Hypatia from her carriage, torture and kill her with roofing tiles, and defile her body are inspired by their partisanship with theocratic bishop Cyril to kill this pagan philosopher, this mathematician and astronomer (then often equated with sorcerer), this woman who dared teach men, this friend of Cyril’s rival Orestes, civic leader of Alexandria. According to Hypatia scholar Micheal Deakin, “Cyril was no party to this hideous deed, but it was the work of men whose passions he had originally called out. Had there been no [earlier such episodes], there would doubtless have been no murder of Hypatia.”

From a certain millionaire we all know* who rose to power whipping up populist support throughout his presidential race with extremist racial and religious rhetoric, back to Hypatia’s time and beyond, power-hungry opportunists plead innocence from the very violence they inspire. Yet it appears hard to justify that plea when reason and the lessons of history plainly reveal the nearly inevitable results of fomenting sectarian strife. Extremism in the defense of liberty or anything else is a vice** because of the way it drives away reason and sympathy, and after all, nothing is as liberty-destroying as mob violence and death.

* ‘What If Trump Wins?’ by Jeet Heer in New Republic, Nov 24, 2015

** in reference to the quote ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’ from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination acceptance speech 

Read more about the great Hypatia of Alexandria:

Deakin, Michael.’Hypatia of Alexandria‘ from Ockham’s Razor radio program of Radio National of Australia (transcript), Sun August 3rd 1997. (click ‘Show’ across from ‘Transcript’)

O’Connor, J J and E F Robertson. ‘Hypatia of Alexandria‘, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland website.

‘O’Neill, Tim. ‘“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again‘. Armarium Magnum blog, Wed May 20, 2009

Zielinski, Sarah. ‘Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar‘. Smithsonianmag.com, Mar 14, 2010.

…and about Neoplatonism

Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

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~ A version of this piece was originally published here at Ordinary Philosophy one year ago

There Is a Moral Argument for Keeping Great Apes in Zoos, by Richard Moore

Who's Who in the Zoo Illustrated natural history prepared by the WPA Federal Writers Project, 1937-38, public domain via Library of Congress

Who’s Who in the Zoo Illustrated natural history prepared by the WPA Federal Writers Project, 1937-38, public domain via Library of Congress

I get apprehensive whenever someone asks me about my job. I’m a philosopher who works on the question of how language evolved, I reply. If they probe any further, I tell them that I work with the great apes at Leipzig zoo. But some people, I’ve discovered, have big problems with zoos.

Plenty of philosophers and primatologists agree with them. Even the best zoos force animals to live in confined spaces, they say, which means the animals must be bored and stressed from being watched all the time. Other critics claim that zoos are wrong even if the creatures aren’t suffering, because being held captive for human entertainment impugns their dignity. Such places ‘are for us rather than for animals’, the philosopher Dale Jamieson has written, and ‘they do little to help the animals we are driving to extinction’.

But I want to defend the value of zoos. Yes, some of them should certainly be closed. We’ve seen those terrible videos of solitary apes or tigers stalking barren cages in shopping malls in Thailand or China. However, animals have a good quality of life in many zoos, and there’s a strong moral case for why these institutions ought to exist. I’ve come to this view after working with great apes, and it might not extend to all species equally. However, since great apes are both cognitively sophisticated and human-like in their behaviour, they offer a strong test case for evaluating the morality of zoos in general.

The research my colleagues and I conduct isn’t harmful to the animals and, if it goes well, it will help us get a better grasp on the cognitive differences between humans and apes. For example, we did a study with pairs of orangutans in which we tested their ability to communicate and cooperate to get rewards. We hid a banana pellet so that one orangutan could see the food but couldn’t reach it. The other orangutan could release a sliding door and push the pellet through to her partner, but wasn’t able to take it for herself. They did okay (but not great) when playing with me, and they mostly ignored each other when playing together. We then performed a similar set of studies with human two-year-olds. Compared with the apes, the two-year-olds were very good at getting the reward (stickers) when they played with an adult.

Taken together, these studies tell us something about human evolution. Unlike apes, humans are good at pooling their talents to achieve what they can’t do alone. It’s not that the apes don’t care about getting the food – they got frustrated with one another when things were going wrong, and one orangutan in particular would turn his back and sulk. However, unlike humans, they don’t seem to be able to harness this frustration to push themselves to do better.

The value of research aside, there’s an argument for zoos on the grounds of animal welfare. In the best zoos, such as Leipzig, great apes live in spacious enclosures modelled on their natural habitats, and are looked after by zookeepers who care about them deeply. Large jungle gyms keep them stimulated and stave off boredom; they’re also kept busy with ‘enrichment’ puzzles, which they can unlock with tools to get food. Zoos recognised by the two main accrediting bodies in Europe and the United States are rigorously vetted and required to take part in education and conservation programmes. And there’s no solid evidence that apes living in well-designed enclosures get stressed or disturbed by human observation.

Of course, zoos can’t provide their animals with conditions such as those in an untouched forest. But for the great apes in captivity, there’s rarely a viable alternative. There are estimated to be more than 4,000 great apes living in zoos worldwide. Most of the regions where they are found in the wild – orangutans in Indonesia, chimpanzees and gorillas in Central and West Africa, bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – are ravaged by habitat loss, civil war, hunting and disease. As few as 880 remaining mountain gorillas survive, in two small groups in the eastern reaches of the DRC, while orangutan habitats have declined 80 per cent in the past 20 years. While some conservationists dream of rehoming zoo apes in the wild, these vanishing forests mean that it’s rarely feasible. The orangutans in Leipzig are certainly better off than they would be trying to survive in forests razed to make way for palm-oil plantations.

Since zoo apes cannot be returned to their natural environments, specialised sanctuaries are another option. But these require large plots of land that are both safe and uninhabited by existing populations, and such locations are scarce. As things stand, sanctuaries are already struggling to survive because they’re almost exclusively dependent on charitable donations. And most of them are full. In Africa and Indonesia, inhabitants are typically orphans that have been taken from the forest by hunters or palm-oil workers, who kill larger apes and kidnap the babies to sell or keep as pets. Elsewhere, sanctuaries are overflowing with retired lab apes or rescued pets. These institutions lack the capacity to accommodate the thousands of apes currently living in zoos, let alone the money that would be needed to support them.

Given the obstacles and the great expense of rehoming apes, very few places try to do so. Damian Aspinall of Howletts Wild Animal Park in England leads one of the few programmes that release gorillas back into the wild, by taking them to a protected reserve in Gabon. His intentions are heroic and hopefully the plan will succeed. Some gorillas have resettled well. But the results so far have been mixed; in 2014, five members of a family of 11 were found dead within a month of their release. We also don’t really know whether zoo-born apes possess the skills they need to survive, including the ability to retrieve different local foods, and knowledge of edible plants. Young apes learn these skills in the wild by watching the knowledgeable adults around them – but that’s an opportunity that creatures in captivity simply don’t have.

Now, all of this isn’t necessarily an ethical argument for continuing to breed apes in zoos. You might argue that if we can’t save the apes already in captivity, we should at least end breeding programmes and let the existing populations die out. However, captive breeding helps preserve the genetic diversity of endangered species. Moreover, research shows that visiting zoos makes people more likely to support conservation efforts – an effect that’s amplified by more naturalistic enclosures. So first-person encounters in zoos serve to educate visitors about the incredible lives animals lead, and to raise money for wild conservation programmes.

Allowing the ape populations in zoos to wither assumes – without justification – that their current lives are so bad as to be not worth living. It also risks inflicting harm. Boredom is a real risk for zoo animals, and it’s widely believed (although not yet scientifically established) that the presence of infants brings both interest and happiness to the families. Mixed-aged groups create collective dynamics that more closely resemble those in the wild. If we care about the welfare of captive apes, we should allow them to breed – at least in controlled ways.

One day, the prospect of returning captive apes to their natural habitats or housing them in well-funded, spacious sanctuaries might be realistic. Currently, it is not. Instead of condemning zoos, we should dedicate our efforts to supporting them: to pushing bad zoos to reform or close; to funding more research into the welfare of captive animals; and to encouraging all zoos to strive to do more for their inhabitants. That way, perhaps, I will no longer need to shy away from telling strangers what I do.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Richard Moore is a post-doctoral researcher at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. His work has been published in journals including Biology and Philosophy and Animal Cognition. (Bio credit Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Nicolaus Copernicus!

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń, ca.1580, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń, ca.1580, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Let us remember and salute the visionary Nicolaus Copernicus on the occasion of his birthday.

de-revolutionibus-manuscript-p9b-by-nicolas-copernicus-www-bj-uj-edu-pl-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commons

De Revolutionibus manuscript, page 9b by Nicolaus Copernicus (www.bj.uj.edu.pl) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born on February 19th, 1473, Copernicus gave our modern world the heliocentric theory of the solar system. He credited the ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos with originally describing how Earth and her sister planets orbit around the sun and took it upon himself to make the observations and work out the mathematics to prove it. Copernicus reintroduced the heliocentric theory so convincingly that it overcame the dominant earth-centered model preferred by the powerful Christian Church for theological reasons. His rigorous and clear reason simply could not accept the clumsy, assumption-laden model that Claudius Ptolemy had devised in the second century A.D. to explain why the planets did not behave as expected if the earth-centered model was accurate. Copernicus was a religious man himself, but he did not believe that his faith required him to believe something that his reason and his own eyes demonstrated was untrue.

For emphasizing the primacy of observation-driven reason over theology when it comes to describing and explaining the natural world, Copernicus is widely credited with starting the Scientific Revolution.

Here’s a short list of excellent resources to learn more about the great Nicolaus Copernicus:

Nicolaus Copernicus – by Sheila Rabin for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Nicolaus Copernicus – by J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson for the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St. Andrews, Scotland

Nicolaus Copernicus – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Copernicus – episode 2 of the BBC series The Beauty of Diagrams, hosted by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Science and Philosophy, a Beautiful Friendship: A Response to Michael Shermer

From the archives, two years ago…

Ordinary Philosophy

There’s been some very public dig-taking between the science and philosophy camps lately. Lawrence KraussNeil DeGrasse TysonStephen Hawking, and other scientists are saying philosophy’s become irrelevant, little more than an esoteric old boy’s club. On the other hand, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and others criticize ‘scientism‘, the conviction that science, and only science, can and should be the ultimate source for all human knowledge; that all truth claims, that all ethical, metaphysical, and political beliefs, should not only be informed by or founded on, but entirely determined by, empirical evidence.

Michael Shermer’s article ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics‘ (Scientific American, February 2015) doesn’t dismiss philosophy so directly. He includes philosophy in a list of three other arenas of human thought, with religion and political theory, as those to which most people turn for answers in matters of right and…

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But My Brain Made Me Do It!

I’m on the home stretch of preparations for the GRE, studying hard in hopes that I only have to take it once. How I long to get in good writing time again and finish my beloved Douglass travel account series! Soon, soon. Until then, here’s a piece I published almost exactly two years ago today, which I just re-edited for clarity and flow, and re-illustrated with a beautiful drawing of a cross-section of brain and spinal column evocative of a flower.

Ordinary Philosophy

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsThere’s a common idea which leads many people (myself included) to instinctively excuse our own or others’ less-than-desirable behavior because we were under the sway, so to speak, of one or another mental state at the time. This is illustrated especially clearly in our justice system, where people are routinely given more lenient sentences, given the influence of strong emotion or of compromised mental health at the time the crime was committed. “The Twinkie Defense” is a(n) (in)famous example of the exculpatory power we give such mental states, where Dan White claimed that his responsibility for the murder of two people was mitigated by his depression, which in turn was manifested in and worsened by his addiction to junk food. We routinely consider ourselves and others less responsible for our wrong actions if we’ve suffered abuse suffered as children, or because we were drunk or high at the time, or we…

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Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

‘At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration

Aminrazavi, Mehdi and Van Brummelen, Glen, ‘Umar Khayyam‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131‘. The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Omar Khayyam‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Rizvi, Sajjad H. ‘Avicenna (Ibn Sina)‘. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

‘Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam)‘. Muslim Heritage

O.P. Recommends: Your Brain on the Scientific Method

Old Medicine Bottles, PublicDomain via Wikimedia CommonsIn ‘Your Brain on the Scientific Method‘, Sara E. and Jack M. Gorman open with a discussion of John Oliver’s recent takedown of scientific sensationalism in the media and its negative impact on the public’s understanding of science and its methods. Just about every day, it seems, there’s a study that comes out which reveals that things science said were bad are actually good for you and vice versa; that some foodstuff, familiar or exotic, was just discovered to be the ‘miracle cure’ for something or other;  some new report or yet another scientist will come out either proving or disproving human-caused climate change; and so on.

But there’s a lot more to the story of public misunderstanding of science, the authors say: the reason we often have trouble understanding science and its methods is the same reason why scientific sensationalism is so effective: science is so contrary to the way our brains generally, instinctively work. Find out why in this excellent piece…

Gorman, Sara E. and Jack M. ‘Your Brain on the Scientific Method‘. Oxford University Press blog, May 17th 2016.

Scientific Studies‘. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO, May 8th 2016.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!