Daily Archives: July 2, 2012

Locke on the obviousness of God’s existence

I’ve been reading Locke and found this in his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding.

It is as certain that there is a God, as that the opposite angles made by the intersection of two straight lines are equal. There was never any rational creature that set himself sincerely to examine the truth of these propositions that could fail to assent to them; though yet it be past doubt that there are many men, who, having not applied their thoughts that way, are ignorant both of the one and the other.

This little passage stopped me in my tracks. How to process such an outlandish claim? In the portion of the Essay leading up to this passage, Locke has established himself as an honest and fastidious critic of received opinions — scrupulous almost to a fault, almost to the point of tedious nitpicking — and then he comes out with this!

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Could it be that Locke didn’t really believe what he wrote here, that he included this conspicuous but insincere nod to orthodoxy merely for purposes of self-protection? That seems rather out of character for Locke, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. His belief in God was clearly sincere (the rest of his oeuvre puts this beyond dispute), but he may have deliberately exaggerated his level of certainty. I’ve known many religious people to do that, including my own past self. Locke lived in intolerant times, perhaps even more intolerant than our own, and perhaps the generally unorthodox character of his thought made it advisable for him to make it clear that absolutely never no way not in a million years could he ever be considered an atheist.

Why go so far, though? People don’t normally use such comically extreme wording when they’re merely bowing to goodthink. Have you ever heard anyone compare one of our contemporary shibboleths of intellectual respectability (evolution, global warming, the Holocaust, racial and gender equality, etc.) to a theorem in geometry? The ringleaders of the American Revolution did famously call human equality “self-evident,” and Richard Dawkins did coin the unfortunate word “theorum” in order to express just how certainly true Darwinian theory is, but these are just figures of speech. If pressed on the point, I’m sure (well, fairly sure) that Jefferson, who was both an extremely intelligent man and a slave-owner, would have conceded that human equality is not quite self-evident the way Euclid is self-evident. Locke, on the other hand, spells out exactly what he means — and does so, moreover, in a context (an Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, not a political manifesto) in which casual exaggeration would have been most out of place.

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I can only conclude that Locke meant what he wrote — that it was his considered opinion, after making a meticulous study of the nature and grounds of human understanding, that all atheists are either (a) people who have never really applied their thoughts to the question of God’s existence or (b) irrational the way someone who denies basic mathematical truths is irrational.

I’m in the first category, at least when it comes to “God” as most theologians understand that term. As I continue my project of examining various arguments for God’s existence, I hope to uncover just what it is that Locke found so convincing. (I’m still working on the next in the series. These arguments are so interconnected with every other area of philosophy that evaluating them always turns out to be more complicated than it looks. As the Salman Rushdie character says, “To understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”)

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German dominance at the very highest levels of accomplishment

A discussion between Bruce Charlton and commenter Dearieme here brought up the question of whether or not France, given its long cultural dominance and large population, was underrepresented among the ranks of civilization-making geniuses.

At first I supported Bruce in saying that France was roughly equal to Britain and Germany. In Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment, he identifies a total of 4,0002 significant figures in the arts and sciences, and roughly equal numbers of them from the period 1400-1950 come from those three regions. (Italy is a respectable runner-up, but no other region even comes close.)

Upon further consideration, though, it still seemed that there was a qualitative difference between the great Germans and Englishmen on the one hand and the great Frenchmen on the other. As great as Lavoisier and Descartes were, they and their compatriots still seemed to be a notch below the likes of Newton, Shakespeare, Einstein, and Beethoven. So I went back to Human Accomplishment and looked only at the best of the best — the top 72 of the 4,002 greats identified by Murray, those who scored at least 50 on a scale where Shakespeare is 100 and Richard Wright is 1.

Here’s how the nationalities of those 72 super-greats break down:

At this level of accomplishment, Germany is clearly in a class of its own, with both France and England lagging behind.

If we lump together countries which are culturally and historically akin, the chart looks like this:

The Germans still dominate, and would do so to an even greater degree if the Netherlands (usually considered part of Großdeutschland despite the language difference) were included, but the Anglosphere is now close behind it — and, yes, the French do seem to lag a bit. The real underachiever, though, is Spain — historically one of the most powerful countries in Europe, on par with England and France, but with only a single dubious name to contribute to the ranks of the super-great.

Here are the names of the people represented on the charts above:

  • Greater Germany
    • Germany: Beethoven, Einstein, Mozart, Kepler, Koch, Herschel, Bach, Gauss, Goethe, Wagner, Kant, Leibniz, Paul Ehrlich, Dürer
    • Switzerland: Euler, Paracelsus (both German Swiss)
    • Poland: Copernicus (German Polish)
    • Austria: Haydn
  • The Anglosphere
    • England: Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Faraday, Cavendish, Halley, William Smith, Harvey, J. J. Thomson
    • Scotland: Lyell, Watt, James Hutton, Maxwell
    • USA: Edison, Thomas Hunt Morgan
    • New Zealand: Rutherford
  • Italy: Galileo, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, Titian, Virgil (Roman), Giotto, Bernini, Cassini (Italian French), Marconi
  • France: Descartes, Lavoisier, Pasteur, Lamarck, Cuvier, Laplace, Fermat, Cezanne
  • Greece: Aristotle, Hippocrates, Plato, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy (Greek Egyptian), Homer, Archimedes
  • Scandinavia
    • Sweden: Berzelius, Linnaeus, Carl Scheele
    • Denmark: Tycho, Bohr
  • Netherlands: Rembrandt, Huygens
  • Spain: Picasso

Many of the specific fields of art and science catalogued by Murray are dominated by a particular nationality. Below I list all the fields in which a single nationality accounts for at least 50% of the super-greats.

  • Music: 5/5 (100%) are German (including one Austrian).
  • Physics: 6/9 (67%) are from the Anglosphere; 4/9 (44%) are from England proper.
  • Chemistry: 2/3 (67%) are Swedish.
  • Art: 6/10 (60%) are Italian.
  • Mathematics: 4/8 (50%) are German (including one German Swiss).
  • Earth sciences: 2/4 (50%) are Scottish.
  • Philosophy: 2/4 (50%) are Greek.

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Filed under Greatness / Genius, Statistics