Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Enlightenment is Not Just DWM

I had a point made to me recently that I never stopped to think of before. The way the point was made to me was rather bluntly; those are usually the best ways that points are made. I've heard and addressed the concern that the Enlightenment, and science in general, are the focus of "Dead White Males," and as a result, something to be dismissed. I've dealt with that in passing, but the point that was made to me was sort of a reverse: the claim that the Enlightenment and science are exclusively White in their structure, and their philosophy, and that they're a White invention.

To sum that up in one phrase: that's pretty fucking absurd.

The Greeks and Romans take the lion's share of responsibility, in the popular conscious, for "creating" science and being scientists and philosophers. It is true that they where incredible civil engineers - not the best in the world (I wouldn't make that claim about anyone) but certainly the Romans deserve credit for creating a civilization who's roads stick with us today. Hell, the Roman roads are still in use throughout Europe today, right along side of their paved roads. Roman roads have lasted for a long time. I irrelevantly pound on this issue because the roads in my home state are crap. Really, they're horrible: you could lose a car in some of the potholes. And they were laid just last year in some cases, but that's totally irrelevant to the post.

Yes, the Romans and Greeks were architectural engineers. But they weren't the only ones. Far from it: I could direct you to the pyramids, but I won't. And I won't because for some godforsaken reason Egypt is considered part of the "West", this nebulous entity that is opposite from the "Other" people. I can't figure out why. Egypt is on Africa. Therefore, it is African, and that glorious civilization is purely African (except for the parts where they were invaded, repeatedly, by the various tribes in the Middle East, themselves no cultures to sneeze at). No, on the topic of Architecture Engineering, let me point you towards the Incas. Let me point out that without the wheel these were people who built in parts of the Andes Mountains that would cause most pathetically-out-of-shape Westerners (myself probably included) to pass out from anoxia. And they did it with an incredibly startling degree of precision that I've never seen. The same can be said for structures like that all over the world. The Moai of Easter Island; the Mayan and Aztec pyramids (oh, I'll be dealing with the Mayans soon enough; they were to the Aztecs as the Greeks were to the Romans, and far too few people acknowledge the similarities of those four cultures).

Okay, that's fine. This post isn't about architectural engineering. This post is about trying to explain how the Enlightenment and Science aren't just about a bunch of dead white guys. Let me start with "science" first. I dislike using "science" as a collective noun because it's not. "Science" is little more than a process; a set of steps taken to reach a material conclusion about a question asked. The first codified scientific method that everyone thinks of was by Roger Bacon. Bacon was English. The process, however, has been used by humans ever since we started thinking. Ever since cognition was birthed, humans have been using the scientific method; a near identical set of steps identified by Roger Bacon in the 1500s. The method, the mode of thinking, is not "European." The method and mode of thinking is "Human." To ask, to wonder, to question - these are all human traits, regardless what ethnicity, sex, or religion you are. That sense of wonder is at the heart of what it means to ask questions, and the scientific method - whether or not you realize it - is an archetype itself that is useful in determining answers to those questions. I guarantee you use the scientific method at least once a day. Hell, you probably use it a lot more regardless who you are, but you don't stop to think about it.

To claim that science and the scientific method are "Greek" and "Roman" and, by extension, "European" is fairly stupid.

"But it was the Greeks, Romans, and Europeans who codified it!"

It was. Aristotle and other Greek omnidisciplinary scientists did codify a lot of the principles. A great many of them were incorrect. You know who proved them wrong? That would be the Persian and Arabic omnidisciplinary scientists who carried on the tradition of the Enlightenment long after the Romans fell to barbarity.

And you want to talk science - why yes, the Ancient Greeks and Romans were master civic engineers. But they were crappy astronomers. No, if I want to know about time keeping and astronomy, there's really only one culture on the planet that I can look too for inspiration there - the Mayans.

Nobody - absolutely nobody - did time keeping as well as the Mayans did. Their stuff was startlingly accurate. And in addition to being incredibly accurate (consider: this is a group of people who never had the wheel, and they developed an accurate celestial calender for some 10,000 years time. In anyone's book, that should be really fucking impressive.) That's what makes this 2012 bullshit all the more infuriating; it's not just White privilege at play here, although that is a huge part of it. It's a a gross misunderstanding of the way that the Mayans understood time, and forcing cultural norms and assumptions on a culture that didn't believe in "Ends." I'll give you folks out there a hint: their calender is circular for a reason.

The Mayans were master astronomers. While not necessarily unrivaled - the Chinese were pretty damn good at it too, and there were a few African tribes that knew a thing or two about stargazing (it's important for navigation; empires like the Ashanti didn't get rich without being important, and being important means you at least need to know how to navigate around the plane ) - they still rank among one of the masters of astronomy. Frankly, I'm surprised we don't use Mayan names for stars, but I'll get to that in a minute (it has a lot to do with the fact that different things have been discovered multiple times all over the globe).

And what about the Aztecs? They were the Romans to the Mayans' Greeks. While the Mayans lived in city-states scattered throughout the jungles, the Aztecs built a large empire, by literally building a city on a lake. So while the Romans and Greeks were master architectures, they weren't the only ones. And while the West codified science as a process, the process as a science is most certainly not a Western thing.

But what about the Enlightenment?

I'll grant that the Enlightenment is European. It's more European in nature than the scientific method is; while science is a human tool developed by our cognition to try and explain the world and utilized by every civilization, great and small, over the years, the Enlightenment is different. The Enlightenment, as I noted in the "Philosophy" page, originated in France specifically. That was where the ideas merged and created the concept called the Enlightenment.

But what about the concept itself?

The name is European. It's well earned, too, when you compare it to the Dark Ages of Europe.

But the thing is, while Europe was trapped under throes of Christian brutality and superstition, there rest of the world continued moving right along with them. The Ancient Greeks and Romans codified a lot of knowledge. They took that knowledge, put it into books, and as Western Europe collapsed into the intellectual black hole otherwise called the Dark Ages, those books migrated East. Specifically, they migrated to the Middle East, where a bunch of supersmart Arabic and Persian omnidiscinplary scientists got their hands on them. You don't think I'm being serious when I call these guys smart, do you? Here, go check some of them out. There's a few modern Islamic scientists on the list, but the bulk of them are from what's called the "Golden Age of Islam," which was the period after the fall of the Byzantine Empire but before the arrival of the Mongols.

The Islamic Philosophers got a hold of these books, these theories, these documents, and they did amazing things to them. Most of them they proved wrong. The rest they refined. Here's something you might or might not know: our numeric system is the Arabic numeric system. 1, 2, 3, 4 - those are Arabic numbers.

0 is also an Arabic concept. The Romans had no concept of 0 in their numeric system; instead, you see things like "Nulla" or "N" to represent the absence of something.

0 wasn't just an Arabic concept, though. Remember the Mayans? They invented the concept of 0 too. They needed it, given how accurate they were (they were a base-20 system; having a zero was rather mandatory. Likewise, the Yoruba of Africa also use a base-20 math system; along with the Tlingit, other Nahuatl people... in the West, we use base-10*). This is what I mean when I say things were invented multiple times in history, in multiple regions. The Mayans had the misfortune of inventing something that, half-way across the globe, the Persian and Arabic Philosophers had already created. And unless I'm mistaken, the Chinese did the same thing.

And speaking of the Chinese - and the folks of the Indian Subcontinent, for that matter - most of that knowledge was not just Ancient Roman or Greek. In fact, the Indian subcontinent has a history of turning out extremely distinguished thinkers and scientists. Materialism and atheism developed independently from the Greek concept in the early Hindic religions, long before Greece had achieved antiquity status. China gave us amazing engineering projects, done with amazing achievements in Math and Science (water-wheels that deserve a place in gear-punk fantasy fiction spring to mind immediately). These ideas migrated Westward, and they fell into the hands of the Islamic Philosophers, who's ideas migrated Eastward.

Anyway, the Islamic Philosophers kept that learning alive. They kept that advancement alive, while the early Roman Catholic Church stomped all over learning in Europe (I'm being extremely unfair. Life in Europe was so incredibly hard by this time, and so incredibly short and brutal, that most people simply didn't have the time to learn anything beyond basic survival. The church was not responsible for this. What it was responsible for was the stance it took towards "heresy" and all of the learning that the Romans and Greeks did.) The idea that knowledge and learning made life easier was alive and well with them. After the Crusades, a lot of this knowledge came back to Europe. That was what sparked the Renaissance, and with it, the "formal" creation of the Enlightenment.

Without those Islamic Philosophers, though, there would be no Enlightenment. Which makes it all the more infuriating when you realize the current state of the Middle East is the West's fault: America especially, when you consider we support authoritarian regimes that cow to extremists in government and denounce learning. If Islam was capable of giving us the Enlightenment by not just keeping the Ancient Greek and Roman knowledge alive, but making it better, how badly are we hurting ourselves a species by continually sponsoring these authoritarian regimes with their heads screwed on backwards - Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, and other authoritarian and oppressive states?

Anyway, the Enlightenment as a name comes from Europe. The Enlightenment as a formal concept was sparked by the Greeks, that torch passed to the Islamic Philosophers, and that torch passed back to Europeans. As an unnamed collection of ideas - that the future was optimistic, that technology and learning could make life better, and that the process called "science" by the Westerners was the key to understanding the world - it has probably existed in some form or another in every culture all over the globe at one point or another.

So no, while "Science" is a Greek term, it is not a Western concept. And while the Enlightenment is a Western Concept, it wouldn't even exist without input from other cultures and civilizations, make it not just an exclusively Western toy. No invention is original; at one point or another, some culture developed it before yours did. So why do we never hear about this? Why is it always "Science = Western = Dead White Males"?

This is obviously not the case, especially in the realm of science that is out of reach of most people: Calabi-Yau manifolds, which I've referenced before, are named after Eugenio Calabi and Shing-Tung Yau. The Chandrasekhar limit is named after Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. The keeper of the Library at Alexandria was an extremely intelligent (pagan) woman named Hypatia. These are people who have contributed significantly to the advancement of science, and with it, the advancement of humanity, but we don't teach about them in high schools. Raman scattering is named after Chandrasekhar's nephew, Sir C.(Chandrasekhara) V. (Venkata) Raman, FRS.

And that's just a few examples, from the realm of astrophysics and hypergeometry (as well as a general omnidisciplinary scientist named Hypatia, who was killed when then-Christians decided they would self-inflict brain damage on the Middle East and Europe by not only killing her but burning down the Library at Alexandria).

Here's why: Science is presented through the spectrum of culture. And the Western culture is extremely West-centric. We are acculturated, and we are taught, to automatically associate science with the west. Just listen to any number of Teabaggers/Christian Right-Wingers who firmly believe Islam has done nothing for humanity. And not only do children, and the people as a whole, get a skewed view of the history of science, where it comes from, and what helped make it what it is (including the fact that multiple things have been invented multiple times throughout humanity's history), they get a skewed view of that skewed view in the sense that they get a theme park version of science's history, if they get that at all and toxic, anti-rationalist and counter-Enlightenment "philosophers" (also European) does instead overcome it. That culture, which we already know is tilted heavily in the direction of privilege, is going to bend everything through that lens. All me to use a scientific analogy: light move in a straight light, unless it gets "bent" by gravity. It usually gets bent "around" objects - the end result being a process called "gravitation lensing." This is what our culture does to knowledge. Knowledge gets "lensed" by the mass of the culture, for good or ill. Because the culture is heavily biased towards Europeans and Whites in general, what ends up happening is that the knowledge gets biased towards them.

Thus, the accomplishments of Islamic scientists, the Mayans, the Chinese, and all of the other civilizations in the world (like, for instance, the extremely wealthy Ashanti Empire in Africa) get "bent" out of focus and ultimately overlooked. We only know about European Achievements because are the only ones that get focused on by the greater Western Culture.

Science is not a European, or a Western, concept. It is a human concept; a human process to understand the greater world. While the Enlightenment is, at it's heart, a European concept, it is transcendent; the belief that knowledge and science will make the world better and that tomorrow will be better than yesterday is one that speaks to a lot of people, even if they don't call it by the European name it's been given.The Enlightenment is a toy-box with toys belonging to a lot of different people. It seems stupid to me to look at those toys and claim they *obviously* belong to Europeans when they don't.

So, having said all that, I'm tired of hearing people claim Science is White, or the Enlightenment is a bunch of White men doing nothing. It's wrong. The claim is wrong, and stop repeating it. To practice science is to be curious. To be curious isn't just being White - it's being human. It's what caused us to step down from the trees, to walk, to explore, to develop, and eventually, it'll be what causes us to leave for the stars and transcend what it means to be "human," redefining the concept.

* I'm not trying to elevate base-20 or diss base-10 with this concept. They're both equally valid; we use base-10 because we have 10 fingers. I don't know enough about math to understand why base-20 would be more useful for the Mayans with what they did, but it must've been, because they used it - and they did amazing things with it.

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