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 (May 18, 1048 – December 4, 1131) 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)

Learn more about this great poet and thinker at:

Umar Khayyam –  by Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 – The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam – Encyclopædia Britannica.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – by Sajjad H. Rizvi for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – for Muslim Heritage

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell!

Betrand Russell in 1938, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.

Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’

For myself, he was particularly influential to my younger freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my youth and seeking new and more satisfying ways of viewing the world. I read his History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian each several times over. I admire his clear, precise thinking and his principled anti-war stance which came at a significant cost, including jail time and loss of a prestigious job at the University of Chicago, and it’s always so enjoyable to watch him speak (you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube) in his oh-so-aristocratic accent with a pipe often tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was not a perfect man, but he was never a less-than-fascinating one.

Learn more about the brilliant and idiosyncratic Bertrand Russell at:

Bertrand Russell – by Ray Monk for Encyclopedia Britannica

Bertrand Russell – by Andrew David Irvine for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Various pieces on Bertrand Russell – by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

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 his birthday.

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, but he did not believe that his faith required him to believe something that his reason and his own eyes demonstrated was untrue.


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

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!

Say What? Colin MacLaurin on Evidence, Reason, and Knowledge

Left, logarithmic radial photo of the universe by Pablo Budassi. Right, Isaac Newton’s entry on ‘Furnace’ in his notebook, 1666, Special Collections University of Chicago Library, both public domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘It is not therefore the business of philosophy, in our present situation in the universe, to attempt to take in at once, in one view, the whole scheme of nature; but to extend, with great care and circumspection, our knowledge, by just steps, from sensible things, as far as our observations or reasonings from them will carry us, in our enquiries concerning either the greater motions and operations of nature, or her more subtle and hidden works.’

Colin MacLaurin, An Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries1748

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, Mary Fairfax Somerville!

Mary Fairfax Somerville by Thomas Phillips at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland

Mary Fairfax Somerville, born on December 26, 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland, was a mathematician of uncommon brilliance. After a very limited formal education, Fairfax educated herself from the family’s library. Though she initially was a poor writer and speller, she was an avid reader and an accomplished painter. Her interest in mathematics was sparked by a series of algebraic symbols and equations used as decoration in a fashion book. Once she began to uncover their meanings, she was hooked, and mathematics became one of the ruling passions and pursuits of her life.

Mary spent much of her time in youth and young adulthood in nearby Edinburgh. She married a cousin, Samuel Greig, at age 24, who didn’t actively interfere with her intellectual pursuits but didn’t support or approve of them, either. He died only three years later.

Back in Scotland, with a newfound independence purchased by her late husband’s money and her respectable status as a young widow with two children, Mary immersed herself in her intellectual pursuits in earnest, despite her family’s disapproval. She solved a mathematical problem placed in the Edinburgh Review by Dr. William Wallace, professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh; her successful solution won her a medal and the interest of the mathematical community. Wallace guided her continuing education and introduced her to other mathematicians and scientists. She began to publish articles and books on a wide variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, including for the Royal Society, and would continue to do so for the rest of her life.

Mary received more moral and financial support when she married again in 1812. Her second husband, William Somerville (another cousin, whose mother nursed Mary as an infant), delighted in her work. They initially settled in Edinburgh, where Mary regularly communed with a small but noteworthy circle of intellectuals which included Wallace, Adam Ferguson, and Sir Walter Scott (a long-time family friend). Mary and William later moved to London for his job, where her impressive intellect and accomplishments brought her greater fame. She became friends with other luminaries such as Sir John Herschel and Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron), who engaged Mary to tutor her daughter. This daughter, Ada Lovelace, also became a noted mathematician and a founding mother of computer science.

For the rest of her long life (she died on November 29th, 1872, about a month before she would have turned 92), Mary continued her research, problem-solving, and writing in science and mathematics, publishing many important works. Her success enabled her to support her family after her husband lost his money in an unsuccessful investment, then had to retire from work due to ill health. She became an active feminist, joining London’s General Committee for Women’s Suffrage and signing John Stuart Mill’s 1866 petition for women’s right to vote.

Learn more about this brilliant woman at:

Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780 – 1872. Writer on science ~ site page for her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland

Mary Fairfax Somerville ~ by Shane Wood for Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes College

Mary Somerville: British Science Writer ~ by Erik Gregersen for the Encyclopædia Britannica

Mary Somerville: Pioneer Woman Mathematician and Scientist ~ by Jone Johnson Lewis for ThoughtCo.com

Mary Somerville: Queen of Science ~ by Ruth Boreham for DangerousWomenProject.org

Mary Somerville, Scientist, Writer and a Woman of Her Time ~ by Alice Prochaska, Somerville College, Oxford

Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville ~ by Mary Somerville, edited and annotated by her daughter Martha Somerville, published in 1874

Scientist Mary Somerville to Appear on Scottish £10 Note ~ by Rob Davies for The Guardian, Feb 10th,  2016

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, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine, there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 – by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science – by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician – Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine – In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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, Blaise Pascal!

Blaise Pascal, crayon drawing by Jean Domat, c. 1649, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Blaise Pascal, born on June 19th, 1623 in Auvergne, France, was a mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist, theologian, inventor, and writer.

This polymath was so talented in so many areas that any one of them could have kept his memory and influence alive to this day. Steven West writes in Philosophize This that we could ‘feel completely inadequate when we learn that he invented the calculator (yes, the calculator) at age 18.’ David Simpson writes in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘In mathematics, he was an early pioneer in the fields of game theory and probability theory. In philosophy, he was an early pioneer in existentialism. As a writer on theology and religion, he was a defender of Christianity.’ Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon write for Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s principle of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason.’

Pascal’s Wager is probably his best-known idea, keeping his name alive in popular culture as well as among scholars. The argument can be summarized thusly: You can believe in God, or not believe in God. When it comes to the effect of the state of your belief on your possible eternal afterlife, if you don’t believe in God, you may very well be damned for all eternity. But if you do believe in God, you may achieve salvation. When it comes to the effect of your state of belief on your life here on Earth, whether or not you believe in God, your life will not be affected hugely. We’re all constrained as a matter of course by cultural expectations and codes of behavior, after all. The religious constraints we might find inconvenient and even tedious sometimes don’t, generally, significantly burden your life more than any others, while the practice of religion can add a great deal of meaning and satisfaction to life. Since we stand to gain much more than we might lose, all in all, it’s the most logical and therefore best bet to believe in God.

Now Pascal is an extremely intelligent man, and he knows belief is something you can’t just flip on like a light switch. That’s why he advises that the prudent person will choose to believe in God for the reasons described above and then behave as if they believed it. With enough acts of piety, religious study, and time among other virtuous and true believers, they are bound to end up believers themselves. This is very insightful psychologically: it accords well with what we now know about how the brain works, and his ‘fake it till you make it’ belief formation process is very like modern cognitive behavior therapy. Enact the change you wish to see in your mind, and your mind will follow, or to use modern terminology in common use, your brain will be ‘rewired’.

I’ve heard many people object to Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that they think religion does have too many negative effects to accept that the wager in favor of God-belief is a good bet. To ignore what your reason tells you about how unlikely it is that anything exists outside of the natural world, and that contradictions within and among the scriptures of the world indicate that none of them are divinely inspired, and so on, makes you a traitor to reason and critical thinking and science. It undermines your ability to perceive and understand the real world on its own terms. And betraying your own powers of reason, so that you can feel safe about an afterlife that no-one can demonstrate happens anyway, infantilizes you by subjugating your critical thinking to your superstitious fears.

I don’t buy the first objection anymore, though I once found it convincing. After all, few are better at reasoning and critical thinking than Pascal. His formidable powers of reason don’t appear undermined in any serious way overall considering his incredible lifetime achievements in mathematics, physics, logic, practical invention, and science. Choosing to believe in God clearly doesn’t seem to hamper his intellect one bit.

I still object to the Wager, but on these grounds: I think Pascal, unjustifiably, assumes too much when constructing his argument in the first place. Why, for example, bet on the idea that God would even be pleased by and liable to reward belief in him, even if eventually sincere, when it originates in this sort of self-serving calculation? Why not assume instead that God, if he exists, would reward honesty itself, whether in believers or nonbelievers, so long as their state of belief results from good faith efforts to seek truth? This seems, to me, more in line with the inclinations of the creator of a rational, ordered universe, the ultimate expression of reason, which in turn requires fearless, honest inquiry if it’s to be known, understood, and appreciated in the fullest way possible.

But this wager is just one relatively minor result of Pascal’s exploration of this fascinating world, and given his pioneering inquiries in the areas that would later be known as probability theory and game theory, it’s not surprising that, in brainstorming, he came up with this possible solution to the problems of belief vs. reason. And whether or not he got it right, it’s long captured the public imagination and really does make us think, as he’s done exquisitely during, and throughout the centuries after, his all-too-short life.

Learn more about the great Blaise Pascal:

Blaise Pascal – by Desmond Clarke for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – by David Simpson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Blaise Pascal: French Philosopher and Scientist – by Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon for Encyclopædia Britannica

Pascal’s Wager and – +EV your way to success!! – by Steven West, Philosophize This!

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!