About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Freethinking in Brussels

I have been in Brussels (Belgium) for the past few days, alternately enjoying the French and Flemish food, the museums (the one devoted to musical instruments is my favorite), and of course the gray, cold and rainy weather. The real reason I’m here, though, is to give a series of three lectures on matters of science, philosophy and religion at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB), the “Free University.”

VUB is called “free” because it was established to further freethinking, as opposed to the religious thinking promoted by Catholic universities in this country. Imagine that - a whole university that shamelessly labels itself freethinking! Indeed, the motto of VUB is “Scientia Vincere Tenebras,” which can be roughly translated as “science defeats darkness.” Except that “scientia” is actually an ancient word that refers to much more than science per se, it identifies a more encompassing concept that would include both modern science and philosophy, or the broader idea of human knowledge. This is, of course, what universities are supposed to be about, but it is hard to find a more stark and bold declaration of such intentions than in VUB’s motto and very name.

I am here as part of a program related to the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The program is made possible by the Willy Calewaert Chair, which made me curious to learn about who Willy Calewaert was. Turns out he was quite a pivotal figure in Belgian freethought, and had a large impact on Belgian society. Calewaert had a doctorate in law, and his career included posts as professor at the universities of Antwerp, Gent and VUB. He was also Minister of Education. He managed to get himself entangled in pretty much every major battle for human rights that characterized many European countries in the ‘60s and ‘70s: he defended not just people’s basic rights to equality, a fair socio-economic system (let’s not forget that Karl Marx lived in Brussels, where he wrote the Communist Manifesto), expression and privacy, but also fought for the passage of laws on divorce, abortion, and the right to die. Remarkably, he proposed in 1972 a law in the Belgian Parliament that recognized freethinking as a “life stance.” The law was eventually enacted in 1993 and is now part of the Constitution.

Seems to me that figures like Calewaert and institutions like the Free University of Brussels have a lot to teach the rest of the world, including the Western world (and in particular the United States, the often pompously self-professed “best democracy in the world”). I like to think that the rights Calewaert defended ought to be easily recognized as fundamental to the quality of life in any nation, but of course the reality is far from it. I would think that being a freethinker (or a humanist, or however it is one wishes to label their philosophy of life) should be not just a recognized “life stance,” but in fact the life stance to emulate as an example of the best that can be achieved by humanity when it is freed from superstition and pettiness of interests. And yet, President Obama caused an uproar for simply acknowledging the existence of non-believers in American society. I would hope that “scientia” is what we need to teach our children and young adults, because it really is our best weapon against the darkness of intolerance and credulity. But the very word scientia is unknown to most people, and the corresponding idea of a liberal arts education is under assault from both outside and within academia.

Willy Calewaert showed us the way forward, tirelessly fighting for human rights and an open society. And institutions like VUB struggle to keep that candle in the dark alight to show our fellow human beings how we can improve our life in the spirit of knowledge and tolerance. It is good to be in Brussels.


  1. A real nice post! I think I would really like it in Belgium.

  2. Will your entire lecture be translated? I wonder how much a 'professional' translator gets paid, since they must be good enough to translate deeper concepts, shifting syntax and stuff. Take your time going, but hurry back!

  3. Joe,

    no translation is planned, my lectures were in English and people in the audience seemed fine with that. I'll be back in New York next week!

  4. Hello,

    If you're a university student in Belgium (like I was - but I was in the Catholic University, not the Freethinking one), you're suppose to know English. When there is a foreign visitor, there's always a lecture in English without translation... Especially in a country where half of the people speak French and the other half speak Flamish: English is the way to go!


  5. "Scientia vincere tenebras":
    "Tenebras" can mean not just darkness, but also blindness: the inability to see or to distinguish. This is a motto that stands up to not just fear, but to the unwillingness to confront the ignorance and prejudice caused by fear.
    I'd think that Obama, however obliquely, has given us an historical opportunity to stand up and demand our rights: to feel free to espouse a life free from superstition.

  6. ...in particular the United States, the often pompously self-professed “best democracy in the world”
    Max, do statements liek this often evoke the knee-jerk response "Well, if you don't like it here, leave"? (I know it does towards me.)
    BTW, the motto of London University (another freethinking university, founded by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham) is "Knowledge is power". Must be something about these freethinkers, that they don't refernce gods in the mottos...

  7. Kimpatsu.

    ah yes, "knowledge is power" is, of course, Francis Bacon's famous phrase, so it doesn't surprise me that it's the motto there.

    As for the knee-jerk reaction "if you don't like it why don't you leave," yes I do get it from time to time. At which point I usually patiently explain that the point of a democracy is for its citizens to be able to criticize their own institutions with the aim of improving them. Indeed, that that is a better definition of "patriotism" than the one implied by idiotic phrases like "my country right or wrong"...

  8. "Must be something about these freethinkers, that they don't refernce gods in the mottos..."

    Sure they do. They are 'the gods'. everyone worships something...

  9. "everyone worships something..."


    'Everyone' is a lot of people!

  10. Prof. Massimo,

    For me, your post is just perfect. I also think that we need a little bit of enlightening over this whole darkness humanity is passing through in the last decades. It is really nice to see that there are still people devoted to the good causes and to build the structure for the next ones that are to come.
    About referencing gods in the mottos, I think that in that kind of phrases we have to evoke what people can do. The things God should do, He already did. Now it is up to us.
    Right now I am living in Brussels and having the same kind of feelings you described in your post. Also, I am studying at the ULB. So, I am a little suspect in this issue but, who is not, when we are talking about freedom and development of the human being???
    R. A. Castro Lopes


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