Learning to Reason with Ibn Battuta

Is Ibn Battuta a credible writer?

The question of, “Is this credible?” should be asked of independent statements and pressure tested against information known to have a high probability of being true. To put the blanket label “credible” or “not credible” on this kind of writing makes no sense.

What are his prejudices, if any?

A prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. All of Battuta’s opinions can be suspected of having formed before Battuta had the evidence for their truth or usefulness (as can anyone’s opinions). All of these potentially preconceived opinions, or a subset of these, may not have foundations on the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic. Luckily, there is a way to discover which opinions within the larger domain of preconceived opinions are not based on reason. The way to do this is by applying one’s own power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic to Battuta’s opinions. However, there is no way to know of the other kinds of preconceived opinions – to distinguish which are based on experience and which are not. This is because practical contact with facts or events is a first-person experience. If Ibn Battuta had not been constrained to giving an account in language, but rather had been a futuristic explorer, then he might have been able to leave a technology that would allow others to have his recorded experience. In this hypothetical scenario, there would be a higher probability of succeeding in distinguishing preconceived opinions that are based on experience and those that aren’t.

Therefore, the task is to find preconceived opinions not based on reason. But Battuta’s account is inundated with the ambiguities of language, so it is difficult to know which sentences are opinions that can be processed by one’s own machinery of reasoning without rendering the endeavor absurd. This problem of personal bandwidth constraints is exacerbated by the fact that every single sentence written by a human being expresses a view or judgement formed about something. Take this sentence:
“I left Tangier, my birthplace, on Thursday, 2nd Rajab 725 [June 14, 1325], being at that time twenty-two years of age [22 lunar years; 21 and 4 months by solar reckoning], with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House [at Mecca] and the Tomb of the Prophet [at Medina].”

As far from opinion as you can get, right? But if this is viewed through the lenses of a hardcore Buddhist understanding, the very first couple of words reek of delusion. There is an expressed view that a unified “I” did something. And this view is taken for granted, not even recognized as a judgement overlaid on the experience of mindstream in flux. And if we take the lenses of someone more cosmically oriented, we see that Ibn Battuta is expressing a particular view when he says his birthplace is Tangier. Wasn’t the birthplace a causal geometry in Battuta’s past light cone with coordinates that are determinable in principle? An easier view to identify is that he is fond of Islam. He hints at holding an Islamic view by apparently disagreeing with the yet unborn Pope Gregory as to what century he lives in (note the brackets inserted by infidels to create relatable context.) Not to mention that he refers to a section of his movement across the four-dimensional spacetime continuum with the word “Pilgrimage”, and also invokes the symbols of “Holy House” and “Tomb of the Prophet” to refer to some clusters of baryonic matter.

So given this predicament of being creatures laden with views and judgements, cognitive overload will occur if reason is applied to every sentence. So instead, a general assessment of Battuta’s use of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning should suffice.

Deductive reasoning:
In the section mentioning Battuta’s visit to Gehenna, he says this:

“In the same place there is another church which the Christians venerate and to which they come on pilgrimage. This is the church of which they are falsely persuaded to believe that it contains the grave of Jesus [Church of the Holy Sepulcher].”

Since Battuta shows pretty convincing signs of being a devout Muslim, it is fair to assume that he arrived to the conclusion that the Holy Sepulcher was not the grave of Jesus because he adopted the following premises:

Premise 1: All Islamic teaching is true.

Premise 2: The teaching that Jesus was not buried is Islamic teaching.

Conclusion: It is true to say that Jesus was not buried.

If these were his premises, then he deduced in proper form. And yet the fact that he was capable of deducing properly within Islamic logic-space does not make Ibn Battuta reasonable. Neither could he be considered reasonable if a dispassionate alien came to the same conclusion that Jesus was not buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. If Ibn Battuta is right, he is so by accident. When applying logic, it is essential that the premises on which the conclusion is established be based on verified facts. Ibn Battuta should be willing to change and seek justification for his premises if he is to be considered reasonable. Premise 2 is contended by a small minority of Muslims. But to go that route is unnecessary because Premise 1 doesn’t survive reason, and Premise 2 hinges on Premise 1.

Ibn Battuta only once seems to seek justification for a belief. This is when he asks an imam about the authenticity of the cave with the purported graves of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The imam then ‘kicks the can’ further back by saying that all the scholars (Muslim scholars) have told him that they are indeed the graves of these figures. One does not detect an eagerness to change and justify their practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information. To the contrary, if Battuta’s writing accurately described his mental behavior and that of others, it would seem as if this was not at all a part of their human nature.

Inductive reasoning:
Inductive reasoning can never reach certain conclusions, only become evermore probable based on evidence. With that being said, Battuta probably sucks at inductive reasoning.

Here are general principles he derived from what couldn’t have been but an unconvincingly small set of data points:

“The Meccan women are extraordinarily beautiful and very pious and modest.”

“Three days’ march through this district brought us to the town of Wisit. Its inhabitants are among the best people in Iraq–indeed, the very best of them without qualification.”

“The inhabitants of Basra possess many excellent qualities; they are affable to strangers and give them their due, so that no stranger ever feels lonely amongst them.”

“Its inhabitants (Zabid’s) are charming in their manners, upright, and handsome, and the women especially are exceedingly beautiful.”

“Its people (of Ta’izz) are overbearing, insolent, and rude, as is generally the case in towns where kings reside.”

“Some of the merchants are immensely rich, so rich that sometimes a single merchant is sole owner of a large ship with all it contains, and this is a subject of ostentation and rivalry amongst them. In spite of that they are pious, humble, upright, and generous in character, treat strangers well, give liberally to devotees, and pay in full the tithes due to God.”

There may, in fact, be some truth to his impressions. But he doesn’t communicate as if he were suggesting hypotheses and making offerings of data, but instead as if his conclusions were necessarily entailed by his all-seeing discernment.

Abductive reasoning:
“The whole concourse, weeping and supplicating and seeking the favour of God through His Books and His Prophets, made their way to the Mosque of the Footprints, and there they remained in supplication and invocation until near midday. They then returned to the city and held the Friday service, and God lightened their affliction; for the number of deaths in a single day at Damascus did not attain two thousand, while in Cairo and Old Cairo it reached the figure of twenty-four thousand a day.”

Abduction goes from an observation to a theory which accounts for the observation. Here, the observation is less deaths than usual in Damascus, Cairo, and Old Cairo. The hypothesis is that there is a God that can be persuaded to decrease the death toll by sufficient prayer. And due to the display put forth by the faithful, this god was convinced.

For a medieval context, this abductive reasoning is at least intelligible. The problem is that there is an almost infinite amount of guesses that can also be at least intelligible explanations. Battuta does not view his guess as one among many that might explain the decrease in deaths. He doesn’t even view it as a guess at all, and therefore doesn’t think twice about attributing the phenomenon to his first intuition. This is bad abductive reasoning.

This habit is seen again when he tells the story of the Ummayad Mosque which involved the destruction of a Christian church:
“When Walid decided to extend the mosque over the entire church he asked the Greeks to sell him their church for whatsoever equivalent they desired, but they refused, so he seized it. The Christians used to say that whoever destroyed the church would be stricken with madness and they told that to Walid. But he replied “I shall be the first to be stricken by madness in the service of God,” and seizing an axe, he set to work to knock it down with his own hands. The Muslims on seeing that followed his example, and God proved false the assertion of the Christians.”

It is fairly easy to see that the situation has been flipped in the other direction many times before. If the triumph of some men over others is testimony of divine favor, Tengri was really giving Allah a beating in the siege of Baghdad, Christ in the Capture of Jerusalem, etc. It is palpably irrational to think this way.

Lastly, what kind of world emerges in Ibn Battuta’s account?

Everyone gets a different stream of mental pictures. To get those mental pictures, it is necessary to read the account.

It is important to emphasize that the ‘world’ that emerges is a set of images and tags of language that are understood by integration with previously established patterns in a mind. Every computational substrate with the capacity to process and understand Ibn Battuta’s words will have a different world emerge. Nonetheless, there will be greater overlap in similarities than if one mind had read this and another had read about the structure of carbohydrates. To point to the characteristics that overlap is difficult because there are many. For instance, there is a high probability that sand, or a sandy undertone manifested in the mind at some point while reading his account. Then it could be said that a sandy world emerges from Ibn Battuta’s account, and it would be as correct as anything else one could say.

Here is where personal talent or intuition come into play. One must tell a non-boring, yet reasonable story with some motiavion(s) in order to not simply say: “A sandy world emerges in Ibn Battuta’s account.”


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