Carving Knowledge from OUr Poetic Imaginations
– The Critical Art of Understanding –
Every civilization throughout history has created a dogmatic school whose main task is to pass on the doctrine of its founder intact to each generation. In the rare event a person criticized the doctrine or proposed a new idea, heretic would’ve been silenced, expelled, or killed.
What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. If there arises among you a prophet, or dreamer of dreams, who asks you to serve other gods, then that prophet, or dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death. If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, shall entice thee by saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ thou shall not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare him, neither shalt though conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death. (Deuteronomy 12:32–13:9)
New ideas would of course occasionally arise. But, in order to survive, it couldn’t be presented as a new idea but, rather, would have to have been presented as a return to the founder’s original doctrine, which the person would have to argue had been perverted in some way. And, if it was convincing enough, the school would split and a conflict would naturally arise.
Some six hundred years before Christ, though, a few Greeks in the Ionian colonies, after experiencing several culture clashes with nearby civilizations, finally thought, “Hold up. With so many competing explanations of the world, don’t you think we could be wrong about ours?”
You can see the role these clashes had on Greek philosophy quite clearly in the writings of the poet, philosopher, and all-around badass Xenophanes (c. 570 — c. 475 BC):
The Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and black
While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw
And sculpture like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle, and each would then shape
Gods in the likeness, each kind, of its own.
With so many competing beliefs about the world, the Ionians concluded that we humans are fallible — that our explanations of the world are composed of bold guesswork.
But rather than throw their hands in the air and abandon their search for truth, homies invented the single most important tradition necessary for the growth of human knowledge — a tradition of reason; a tradition of an open and honest critical discussion where the aim is to move nearer to truth. This is also spelled out quite clearly by Xenophanes:
“The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us; but in the course of time,
Through seeking we may learn, and know things better…
These things we learn are like truth.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
And even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.”
Xenophanes, in a few short verses, not only highlighted the conjectural nature of human knowledge. But he also designed an elegant theory of objective knowledge. He knew that though our knowledge of it could never be certain or final, a real world nevertheless exists—the world behind appearances—and that through seeking we may come to understand it better.
Though Xenophanes spelled it out explicitly, it was actually his older contemporary Thales of Miletus (c. 624–546 BC) who invented this revolutionary new school — a school that engages in a creative and critical discussion, where the aim is to move nearer to truth.
The Ionian School
Thales was one of the first to conjecture natural explanations of forces in the world. To explain the cause of earthquakes, for example, he conjectured that ‘the earth is supported by water on which it rides like a ship.’ And when the water stirs violently, it causes the earth to shake. This isn’t bad considering he threw it down some six hundred years before Jesus.
But what was even more impressive about Thales is that he seemed to have encouraged his student Anaximander (c. 610 — c. 546 bc) not to dogmatically accept his explanations of the world but to criticize and improve upon them.
Anaximander took on Thales’ challenge and accomplished something truly remarkable. He took issue with Thales’ claim that the earth is supported by water. ‘If the earth is supported by water,’ he wondered, ‘what supports the water? And if the the water is supported by something in turn, what supports it?’ Each time you add a level of support, you’re still faced with the same problem.
To fix this infinite regress, Anaximander argued that the earth is held up by nothing but remains suspended in space because it is equal distance to all things. This novel idea, if followed through to its logical conclusion, should have led Anaximander to propose that the earth is shaped like a sphere. But, it’s likely that his experience of walking on what appeared to be a flat surface deceived him. So, instead, he argued that the earth is shaped like a drum, and that we walk on one of its flat surfaces.
This, to me, is one of the most inspiring moments in the evolution of human thought. And it gets even better. Anaximander recognized that there was an obvious objection to his own claim that the earth was equal distance to all things — one just needs to look at the sun and moon.
To resolve this problem, then, Anaximander imagined two large rims rotating around the earth — a rim one hundred twenty-seven times the size of the earth and the other eighteen times its size, the sun and moon respectively. Both these rims, he tells us, are filled with fire and each has a breathing hole through which the fire is visible. The fixed stars are also rims of fire with breathing holes. And each of these rims rotates on a common axis, which together form a sphere around the earth.
Unbelievable. By criticizing and finding gaps not only in Thales’ ideas but also his own, Anaximander was able to throw down the first spherical theory of the cosmos!
The Evolution of Problems
Xenophanes, inspired by this remarkable new school, applied it a problem he had encountered during his travels throughout Greece as a professional reciter of Homer’s and Hesiod’s poems.
As you saw above, Xenophanes encountered many conflicting claims about the gods’ appearances, which led him to wonder, ‘If the gods aren’t shaped like us, how should we imagine them?’
His solution: a single, all-encompassing, unmoving force:
One God, alone among gods and alone among men is the greatest.
Neither in mind nor in body does he resemble mortals.
Always in one place he remains, without ever moving,
Nor is it fit for him to wander here or there.
Effortless over the cosmos he reigns by mere thought and intention.
All of him is sight; all is knowledge; and all is hearing.
Xenophanes solution — a pantheistic and monistic force — is remarkable, no doubt. But perhaps his greater achievement was to admit that his solution is no more than a guess — one that is highly fallible and open to improvement.
This left the door open for Heraclitus (c. 535 — c. 475 bc), the next Greek on our list, to run with Xenophanes idea. Heraclitus was inspired by Xenophanes’ idea of a monistic god — or force. But unlike Xenophanes’ god, who remained in one place, Heraclitus argued that God was continually in flux.
He arrived at this claim after noticing a deep paradox in nature. The world appears to be filled with things. Yet all these things change in time, even if we don’t perceive the change directly. Winds blow, rivers flow, and children grow. Even something as stable as a bronze cauldron eventually rots away. So how, Heraclitus wondered, can something change yet remain the same?
This problem of change led Heraclitus to propose that, in truth, there are no things but, rather, only a single continuous process. The world is on fire, he claimed. Those who look but do not think believe only the fuel burns, while the bowl in which it burns remains unchanged. Yet the bowl burns. It is eaten up by the fire that holds it.
Fire — or change — is all that there is. And the apparent stability of things is merely an illusion, an illusion which Heraclitus believed is due to a transition in opposites:
Life and death, being awake and being asleep, youth and old age, all these are the same…for the one turned round is the other and the other turned round is the first…. The path that leads up and the path that leads down are the same path…. For God all things are beautiful and good and just, but men assume some things unjust, and others to be just…. It is not in the nature or character of man to possess true knowledge, though it is in the divine nature.
Every thing, then, is like a flame — though it appears to have a shape, it is actually just a part of the Everlasting Fire.
Mad props to Heraclitus for his originality and deep skepticism of common sense. But there appears to be a logical inconsistency in his solution. If opposites are identical and all things are one, isn’t change impossible by definition?
Parmenides (c. 514 — mid 400s BC), Heraclitus’ younger contemporary, certainly thought so. He therefore proposed a radically different solution to the problem of change: he denied it completely, and instead argued that the world is one unchanging spherical block.
Parmenides arrived at this conclusion by way of something like a logical proof. He began his deduction from the tautology only what exists, exists — or what is, is. What is not, therefore, is not — meaning, the nonexistent cannot exist. And because coming into being and perishing each require the nonexistent — that is, what once wasn’t and what someday will not be — change is impossible. Thus, the world is full — it is a timeless, uniform, and unchanging spherical block.
What the hell do ya’ do with that? Especially considering this was the first time someone deduced a conclusion from a tautology or analytic statement like that. His conclusion seems almost fool-proof. Yet it’s completely absurd. One just needs to look around to see shit change. How, then, could he have possibly reconciled his unchanging block universe with our perception of change?
This, I believe, is what led Parmenides to distinguish between Truth (alêtheia) and Opinion (doxa). Though Xenophanes and Heraclitus had already vaguely distinguished true reality from the world of appearances, Parmenides was the first to formulate a criterion to cut through the world of appearances and get at absolute truth.
His criterion is simple. Truth, he argued, can be obtained only by deducing conclusions from premises that are certain, like the tautology ‘only what exists, exists.’
Parmenides, no doubt, deserves a top spot in the philosophical hall of fame. Not only was he the first to employ a hypothetico-deductive argument to make a metaphysical claim about the world. But, to follow his critical reasoning to a conclusion that so vehemently opposes our common sense, as he did, is some next-level shit.
As remarkable a thinker as he was, however, Parmenides’ criterion of truth is surely wrong. There’s no denying the power of deductive reasoning, especially to the extent it’s used to refute a theory, which is largely what Parmenides did. But, as Xenophanes had already highlighted, human knowledge is and always will be conjectural. Because, even if we could prove that our logic is sound (which is an impossible task since it requires logic to prove logic, which is circular), our premises are not.
All concepts are created, pulled from stillness, from emptiness; they are just noises and scribbles on a paper — abstract symbols we use to paint over our boundless and inseparable conscious experience, which in turn is composed of theories, albeit biological ones that have been shaped by natural selection (by trial and the elimination of error).
How, then, can these noises and symbols actually be what things are in themselves? They obviously can’t. There’s no escape — we mere mortals will always live behind painted walls; in the world of appearances. Our theories about the world will always be but a web of guesses.
Now, before we move onto the last Greeks we’ll meet in this chapter, let me just mention one more thing about Parmenides’ theory — that is, it is an empirically falsifiable claim.
Falsifiability is a modern requirement for scientific claims. It was introduced in the twentieth-century by one of the dopest philosophers to date — Karl Popper— to distinguish metaphysical claims from the empirically rigorous claims of science.
If a claim is to reach the status of a ‘scientific claim,’ it must in principle, Popper argued, be able to conflict with some observation or experiment. That is, it needs to stick its neck out, leaving itself vulnerable to refutation. And the further it sticks its neck out, the better.  (For more information about falsifiability, see Popper’s Problem of Demarcation.)
In any case, it was the atomists — the last of the Greeks we’ll meet in this chapter — who recognized and took advantage of this fact.
Leucippus (c. 5th century BC) and Democritus (c. 460 — c. 370 bc), like Parmenides, believed that our senses can’t be trusted — they’re too dull to observe the atoms move through the void. And they also believed that logic is necessary to transcend our faulty senses.
Democritus realized, however, that it would be impossible to improve upon Parmenides’ theory without our senses, even if they can’t be trusted fully. He expresses this in his famous dialogue between the two caricatures he created for the Intellect and the Senses:
Colored — by convention; sweet — by convention; bitter — by convention.
But in truth — atoms and the void.
Poor intellect! You take your credentials from us and want our downfall?
But by casting us down, you fall yourself!
The atomists therefore used both logic and the senses to refute Parmenides’ block universe and replace it with their theory of atoms and the void.
Because Parmenides had created an empirically testable theory, the atomists were able to start from an observational refutation — that there is clearly change in the world. Taking this as their starting premise, they then flipped the coin on Parmenides’ logic, which went something like this:
There is change.
Therefore, the world is not full.
The nothing does exist.
Thus, the world consists of the existing,
The hard and full, and of the nonexistence:
The world exists of atoms and the void.
Atomism was incredibly successful. It lasted for over two thousand years and culminated in Newton’s mechanics. It wasn’t abandoned until the middle of the nineteenth century, when Michael Faraday and James Maxwell showed us that electricity, magnetism, and light are all just manifestations of the same thing — the electromagnetic field — thereby pushing us back in the direction of a Parmenidean view of the cosmos. But more on that later.
We see here in ancient Greece, beginning with Thales and Anaximander, a tradition in stark contrast to the dogmatic school. The goal of the Ionian school was not to preserve the doctrine of the school’s founder intact but to improve upon it. They didn’t expel or kill someone for criticizing a teacher’s idea or for proposing a new one. They encouraged it.
They understood that criticism is necessary to progress our imaginative and, thus, highly fallible explanations of the world. And that it’s only after we find a hole in an existing explanation, like the infinite regress in Thales’ argument or the logical inconsistency in Heraclitus’ claim or the empirical absurdity in Parmenides’ block universe, that we can then propose a better solution. And, in some two hundred years, this tradition led the Greeks from superstitious myths to the theory of atoms and the void!
The birth and development of the Ionian tradition is a marvelous story. It has given us so much of what we have come to appreciate. It’s critical, then, to understand not only to how it works but also how fragile it is.
Aside from a few sparks in China and India, it has been invented only once. It began with Thales and Anaximander and lasted only a few hundred years before taking a series of blows, beginning with the Persian empire’s invasion of northern Greece. And, again, when the Greeks exchanged their words for their swords under the Macedonian and Roman empires. It was eventually pushed to near extinction when the Catholic Church, largely under the spell of Plato and Aristotle, suppressed all free thought and claimed that the Bible was the only true source of knowledge. And, though it was picked up briefly at the start of the first millennia by the Abbasid caliphate, it didn’t make a stable recovery until after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when scholars migrated to Italy, bringing with them what ancient writings had survived.
* * *
 Irrefutable theories are not meaningless, as Popper himself made clear. In fact, most of our theories begin as irrefutable myths and only later sprout into empirically testable theories. What matters to those who are interested in truth is whether an irrefutable claim attempts to explain or solve a specific problem, because only then will we be able to discuss it rationally — that is, only then will we be able to criticize whether or not it solves our problem better than the other solutions on offer.
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