Abelard, Peter

Peter Abelard lived a very exciting life, I wonder why no one made a movie out of it.  He travels miles to go to Paris to be with and learn philosophy under his master. And after that, he fights and defeats him in a debate. He falls in love with a girl, writes passionate love letters to her - incidentally for which he is better know than his philosophy. He gets himself embroiled in the politics of religion - runs to Pope for justice - only to be outrun by his rival. And finally cared to by his friend as his health gradually failed and he died.

Like many philosophers he had points of view on a lot of things. Let me focus on just two - because that's what The Oxoford Companion to Philosophy, my guide for this series, focusses on.

The problem of universals. Are universals real? Is there something called - since Salman Khan is in news these days - Being Human? One can understand that Salman Khan as an individual exists. And Shahrukh Khan as an individual is real. The problem comes when we talk about the attribute they share - that of humanness. If humanness is real - how can it be in two places? Why can't it be in two places, I don't know, but philosophers argue over it. Realists say, humanness is real. There are two counterviews to it. Conceptualists or idealists - say that the humanness is only in the mind, as an idea. And nominalists dismiss that too - saying it exists only as a name. Abelard was a nominalist.

The second problem is problem of omniscience and free will. Did God, who knows everything, know that Salman Khan - in his drunken rage and carelessness - would run over a poor man sleeping in a footpath in Mumbai. (Now I am beginning to think, this is probably not a very good example, but since I started with Salman let me proceed). If he knew SK would run him over, did SK have an opportunity to exercise his freewill.

Or take another example, suppose I ask you to choose, exercise your free will and without any fear or favour choose - between red pill and blue pill. You are still thinking about it. Meanwhile, I know - I am not taking a bet, I am not assessing probabilities based on what I know about you - I actually know that you are going to take red pill. And then you take red pill, thinking that you made a decision. You thought you made a decision, but how come I knew about it even earlier. Probably, you didn't make the decision. Probably, you just did what you were destined to do. And I knew that because I knew what you were destined to do.

Now, since God knows everything, do we have free will at all.

I don't know what exactly Abelard's reasoning is - but he believed that God can know, and you can exercise your free will at the same time. God knows - because that's his nature - how you will exercise your free will - because you have the freedom to act.

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