Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Debates

About eleven hundred years ago a famous philosophical debate took place between the two greatest minds of the age: Ibn Sina and Biruni. Both were amazingly accomplished polymaths. Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine became "The" medical book for six or more centuries for both East and West (where he is known as Avicenna) and became a major influence on Thomas Aquinas by his work on reconciling Aristotle with religion. Both were accomplished natural scientists and poets.

The debate consisted of a series of written questions posed by Biruni to Ibn Sina and Ibn Sina's answers. The quality of the dialog, though initially high, deteriorated, mostly because Ibn Sina was an arrogant asshole:

The one great shortcoming of Ibn Sina’s education was in the area of character. The death of the Amir Nuh in 997 had left Ibn Sina’s father without a patron, but the court stepped in with various gifts and grants to his talented son. This left Ibn Sina, now eighteen, on top of the world. Pampered and flattered since childhood, he fell prey to what proved to be a lifelong arrogance. Who but Ibn Sina would dictate a self-congratulatory autobiography at the age of thirty-seven and use it to settle scores dating back to his childhood?107 Later in life he would quote the following verse, indicating that over time he had gained in perspective but not in modesty:

When I became great, no country could hold me: When my price went up, I lacked a buyer.108

Starr, S. Frederick. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (pp. 258-259). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

So:

were fundamental and hence irreconcilable, each of the young polemicists chose to ridicule the arguments of the other. What started as an earnest intellectual exchange quickly descended to a vulgar quarrel. The tone of Ibn Sina’s responses from the outset was arrogant and condescending. At one point he charged that “there is nothing more absurd” than Biruni’s questions, and at another he waived off Biruni’s objections by saying “it is inappropriate for you to pursue what your intelligence prevents you from pursuing” and “you have a poor command of logic.”

Starr, S. Frederick. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (p. 263). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Unfortunately, this is not a rare defect of precocious, as I have noted myself.