Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Avicennian logic?

I only just discovered this. It is a Wikipedia 'Request for Comment' or RfC, which is rather like a court where Wikipedia editors pile on to each other, attack and eat their own. This one is quite extraordinary and concerns an editor 'Jagged 85' who has been systematically falsifying material in Wikipedia since he (or she) joined in 2005. The editor had a clear and consistent anti-Western agenda, systematically distorting source material in a way that untruthfully promoted Islamic (and also other non-Western) intellectual achievements, usually by claiming that a scientific developments or invention or discovery was made or anticipated by some non-Western philosopher or scientist.

It highlights a clear set of issues, as follows.

1. There is a large amount of material affected in Wikipedia, which is widely used as a reference work by millions of people, who trust it as a reliable source. The editor contributed to 8,115 pages, making 63,298 edits. Much of the problem material seems still to be there.

2. It demonstrates the role of Wikipedia in disseminating misleading and blatantly incorrect information across the web. The editor began work five years ago in December 2005, hist first edit claiming that "The Indus Valley civilization is in fact recognized as having been the first to develop urban planning. " Because many of his edits are now established, they have been reproduced and cited all over the internet. For example: Google 'Avicennian logic' (including the quotes) and it returns 6,000 sites (the top one being the Wikipedia article on 'Avicennism', where the phrase originates). Yet I am sure there is no formal system of logic known to scholars as 'Avicennian logic'. Avicenna made interesting contributions to logic, certainly, mostly in propositional logic, although this was originally developed by the ancient Greeks. But so did dozens of other middle-Eastern and Western writers, and the innovations of Avicenna do not compare in scale or impact with those of the high middle ages such as supposition theory, 'consequences' and so on. The article on 'Avicennism' says that "Avicennian logic had an influence on early medieval European logicians such as Albertus Magnus". Yet the idea that most influenced these scholars, including Albert, was Avicenna's distinction between essence and existence, which was a genuine innovation, and a departure from Aristotle. This idea had a profound impact, in different ways on Aquinas, Giles of Rome, Henry of Ghent, Scotus and eventually Ockham. But it is a metaphysical idea, not a logical one. As far as I am aware, no medieval writer discusses Avicenna's logic (as opposed to his commentary on the Metaphysics, which they frequently cite). Kneale's great work The Development of Logic mentions Avicenna twice, neither in connection with logic. Bochenski does not mention him at all. None of the articles in the main secondary sources on medieval philosophy mention Avicenna's logic (although they discuss his other achievements at length).

3. It proves a clear weakness in the Wikipedia 'verifiability principle'. The editor always provided reliable sources for their claims. However, examination revealed either blatant misrepresentation of the source, or a selective interpretation that went far beyond the author's meaning. For a long time no editors bothered to check these. The problem was amplified by his frequent use of scholarly works not available on the internet. Most of Wikipedia's editors are amateurs who have no access to a university library. Thus they cannot check a source from a journal, or an old or obscure book that would only be found in a library. Typical of his technique is this edit where he claims that "Avicenna developed an early theory of impetus, which he referred to as being proportional to weight times velocity, which was similar to the modern theory of momentum" citing Aydin Sayili (1987). "Ibn Sīnā and Buridan on the Motion of the Projectile", Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 500. Yet the source attributes the theory to the fourteenth century French philosopher Buridan, not Avicenna. People trust Wikipedia because they believe the system of 'anyone can edit' allows for cross-checking and verification of references by a large group of users. Clearly, they should get out of this habit.


Moulton said...

Perhaps Avicennian Logic can now be defined to be that curious branch of pseudo-logic in which any desirable thesis is "proven" by means of appealing to a non-existent authority or reference, or by citing a source which, upon closer examination, is found not to actually contain anything probative of the thesis in question. And then you can honestly credit Mr. Jagged as inventing that branch of (pseudo-)logic.

Edward Ockham said...

Er, Jaggedism?

James said...

This article I wrote for the London Spectator may be of interest and exposed the scam some months ago:


TheOFloinn said...

Astonishing! People trust Wikipedia?

+ + +

Further irony: Ibn Sinna was regarded as heretical by his contemporaries.

Eric said...

I see the phrase "Avicennian logic" appears in the Stanford Encyclopedia, in the article "Influence of Arabic and Islamic Philosophy on the Latin West." In that article, it is used for what I would call Avicenna's philosophy of logic, namely that logic is a science all its own that has second intentions as its subject matter.

But, of course, that is a very different claim than the one made in the Wikipedia article, namely that Avicenna invented his own system of logic that eclipsed and replaced Aristotle's.

Edward Ockham said...

Thank you James, and welcome (I recommend the link). And Eric's point is quite correct.

As a further irony, I remain banned from Wikipedia for pointing out other seroius conflicts of interest in another area of junk science. Mr Jagged still seems to be contributing.

Anonymous said...

Opening scholarly sources to laymen might help a little bit (and on the way it could improve the general informity of our citizens, so yay for a vivacious democracy?).

3GoodGuys said...

Wikipedia *is* the encyclopedia that anyone can edit: faithful researchers like the vast majority of users, biased agenda-pushers like jagged 85, offended readers like those who joined Wikipedia solely because of that bias, and... even bloggers who caution against using Wikipedia because it is so flawed. Well... that's the point isn't it? Wikipedia is only as useful as its members make it, and if it's not useful enough for you yet, then there's only one failsafe solution: go fix it.

The maxim that crowd-sourcing works is, ultimately, dependent on the crowd (plus decent technology). Thus, we won't really know whether the populist adage is true or not until people like you and your readers are fixing the problems you correctly point out.

Edward Ockham said...

I've pointed out many problems with Wikipedia, and been banned for it! So it is not, in fact, the encyclopedia anyone can edit.

The problem with crowdsourcing is that it tends to attract cranks. Cranks easily upset and irritate anyone who is an expert on the subject. The result is plain for all to see.

TheOFloinn said...

A Sunni friend of mine complained that an organized group of Shi'ites existed, supported by donations, whose only job was to troll Wikipedia looking for articles involving Islam and rewriting them to favor the Shi'ite position. The Sunnah, she said, had no similar group, being rather more disorganized.

David Gerard said...

It's a pity, as Avicenna really was a top-class polymath as good as the stars of ancient Greece, and does deserve renown as such. A reasonable and balanced article would make this quite clear.

Edward Ockham said...

>>It's a pity


David Gerard said...

I walked into that one, didn't I ;-p It's on the mental to-do list.

Islamo-Critic said...

You may be interested in a new development in the Jagged 85 saga.

I blogged about it here:


Editors at an Islamic wiki are importing all of his works of fiction, assuring him that his "work wasn't in vain".

Strangely, that Islamic site has been endorsed by the the webmaster of a wiki that claims it is an "information resource created for and by faculty, students, and staff at the University of Central Florida," as an unbiased and balanced site.


As I say on one of my posts, three cheers for KnightsWiki and the high standards of higher education in Florida.

blogmaster said...

What is unquestionable is that Avicenna novel contributions to temporal modal Logic have long been acknowledged. His studies of medicine, required that he develop a formal system of temporal modal logic, which had elements that were quite divergent from Aristotelian logic. Avicenna also influenced the formation of inductive logic. Unfortunately, with respect to logic (much like intelligence), there came the tendency to monopolize the topic, among the West.