WWVW – What Would Voltaire Write?

December 19, 2010

A couple of my new Canadian Anglican cyber-acquaintances from the “Talking With Atheists” post on In a Spacious Place – yes, the discussion is still going strong at 114 comments – have expressed frustration at trying to figure out just what the “rationalist” view of “truth” is, given the great variety of positions taken by thinkers over the millennia. I was trying to come up with a response to this, and realized they hadn’t even gotten around to mentioning Hegel, the ultimate “rationalist,” of whom I can honestly say I have never come close to figuring out what he meant by “reason.”

It has often occurred to me that a Darwinian view of the origins and nature of the human species, including its mental capabilities, accounts well for the fact that we are a lot better at thinking and communicating with one another about tangible, sensorily perceptible, measurable objects than about inner states  or abstractions – the former are more immediately relevant to the survival of the species, therefore our minds naturally evolved in such a way as to be good at dealing with them, and the fact that we can talk about other things at all is secondary. A “spandrel” as some recent writers have been saying (I think Stephen Jay Gould started it).

Anyway, this train of thought reminded me of the following passage in Voltaire’s delightful story Micromegas, an example of science fiction avant la lettre which I read some 40 years ago and has stayed in the back of my mind ever since, along with a lot of other stuff of his. Micromegas describes two extraterrestrial visitors to Earth, both of them highly advanced culturally and scientifically of course (to be capable of interstellar travel) – and also, as it happens, very large. They eventually figure out that these tiny objects moving around on two legs are sentient beings, invent a way to communicate with them, and in the last section have an interesting discussion with the members of a scientific expedition they have literally picked up:

The traveler, moved with compassion for the tiny human race, among whom he found such astonishing contrasts, said to the gentlemen:

“Since you belong to the small number of wise men, and apparently do not kill anyone for money, tell me, pray, how you occupy yourselves.”

“We dissect flies,” said the same philosopher, “measure distances, calculate numbers, agree upon two or three points we understand, and dispute two or three thousand points of which we know nothing.”

The visitors from Sirius and Saturn immediately desired to question these intelligent atoms about the subjects on which they agreed.

“How far do you reckon it,” said the latter, “from the Dog Star to the great star in Gemini?”

They all answered together: “32 degrees and a half.”

“How far do you make it from here to the Moon?”

“60 half-diameters of the Earth, in round numbers.”

“What is the weight of your air?”

He thought to trick them, but they all answered that air weighs about 900 times less than an equal volume of distilled water, and 19,000 times less than pure gold.

The little dwarf from Saturn, astonished at their replies, was now inclined to take for sorcerers the same people he had disbelieved, just a quarter hour ago, could possess souls.

Then Micromegas said: “Since you know so well what is outside yourselves, doubtless you know still better what is within you. Tell me what is the nature of your soul, and how you form ideas.”

The philosophers spoke all at once as before, but this time all their opinons differed. The oldest quoted Aristotle, another pronounced the name of Descartes, this spoke of Malebranche, that of Leibnitz, and another again of Locke. The old Peripatetic said loudly and confidently: “The soul is an actuality and a rationality, in virtue of which it has the power to be what it is; as Aristotle expressly declares on page 633 of the Louvre edition of his works”; and he quoted the passage.

[note by Allogenes: Voltaire’s French original is even more impressive, it gives a couple of words in Greek: Εντελεχεια εστι.]

“I don’t understand Greek very well,” said the giant.

“Neither do I,” said the mite of a philosopher.

“Why, then,” inquired the Sirian, “do you quote the man you call Aristotle in that language?”

“Because,” replied the sage, “it is right and proper to quote what we do not comprehend in a language we least understand.”

And it goes on. Follow the link and read it all for yourselves if you’re interested.
Enough for now, I’ll be back with more in days to come…

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