Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Beginning of Critical Thought

Time for a very sensible post

'Aristotle, Aristotle, was a bugger for the bottle'

When young, I followed a strain of mysticism. I was trying to make sense and comprehend this strange 'thing' we call existence. Also, like many young men, I was a fool. The mysticism I consulted had ready made answers for everything. At first I accepted this, but as I matured intellectually, the solutions started to appear superficial and glib. I started to ask questions, such as: 'On what basis is this belief supported'? My burgeoning experience and training as a scientist reinforced my doubt. Eventually, I evolved and sometime in my mid twenties I emerged as a fully fledged sceptic and rationalist. Even as I rapidly approach my dotage I remain firmly fixed that knowledge remains with the rational. There are no short cuts. For those who seek a quick fix for life's conundrums, mysticism will, no doubt, provide answers.

Rational thought began with the ancient Greeks. Sometime in the 6th century BC something amazing happened in the small city states which comprised the Greek 'nation'. Although never a nation in the conventional sense, as each city was passionately and fiercely independent, however, they were bound by a common racial and cultural identity. Why the Greeks became rational is something of a mystery. Older and more sophisticated civilisations should have beaten them to it, but they didn't. We have no written record of whether an Egyptian in 1400 BC reflected on why the sun traversed the sky, in a scientific sense. Of course the Egyptians had explanations, but these were based on the 'God Explanation'. Thus god, or gods, made everything happen. Magic wands are a powerful instrument to stunt intellectual thought. To these folk, to ponder on how gods make things happen would have seemed impious and tantamount to heresy. They were not stupid, however, their smarts were channelled into ritual and 'knowledge' which was considered profound and important, to them.

The ancient Egyptians and Assyrians had knowledge. It was a practical form of knowledge often worked out by trial and error. The ancient Egyptians couldn't have built the pyramids without a sound grasp of geometry. They never made the intellectual leap to consider the abstract and build on concepts. If things were not useful for religious or building purposes it was not worth considering. In a way this is what happened to the intelligentsia in the middle ages. Learned Monks were consumed with doctrinal religious minutiae and therefore, contributed to intellectual progress, not at all; pity. As an example, regard the works of Thomas Aquinas, the supreme medieval Catholic scholar. This remarkable man focussed absolutely on religious matters and dogma. Shame he didn't focus his formidable intellect on answering the world's conundrums with scientific principles. Religion always stultifies intellectual thought and progression, it never helps. When has a papal bull resulted in a longer lasting light bulb? I rest my case.

So the Greeks, somehow, became speculative. We can sense their wonder and gape at their genius from our established and rational perspective 2,600 years later. The Greeks were the first people to consider mechanistic and none wand waving solutions to the mysteries of life. Their tentative foray was fascinatingly wrong. It was a start, and those who followed built upon admittedly weak foundations. It is understandable that the first exploration into the rational was shaky. What really mattered was the methodology. A methodology which did not submit to unsupported assertion; everything was questioned and scrutinised. By the time we come to the apex of Greek thought in the 5th and 4th centuries BC we are confronted with the vast intellects of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle pondered deeply on everything. Socrates, with brief forays into other disciplines, maintained he was only concerned with ethics.  

These great men sincerely believed that all knowledge could be achieved by thinking very hard. Now there are some problems which are suited to this technique. Mathematics and formal logic come to mind. However, there are some problems not so easily solved by the pondering, ponderous, intellect alone. Knowledge based on experience was completely dismissed, or given scant regard. This is a great shame as we now know that most of our practical problems are solved this way. The 'experience' method, or as it is better known the 'scientific method' is based on the critical observation of the real world.
Thus, the ancient Greeks made great strides in the realm of logic and mathematics. As for the rest, apart from ethical issues, they contributed little. Their delving into the real world was astonishingly naive for men of such penetrating intellect. Sadly, such was the authority of Plato and Aristotle, that their stultifying influence lasted 2,000 years. During the enlightenment and scientific revolution every discovery had to refute some Plato/Aristotelian doctrine. Remember, Aristotle stated that flies generated spontaneously from rotting meat.

Sadly, critical thought in the Western World died with the subjugation of the Greeks to Rome. The Romans cared for philosophy, not at all. It was a mere diversion in intellectual sophistry for the elite before they went off to kill people. The Romans made straight roads, strong swords and armour. This made them great. Let the oiled effeminate Greeks pontificate on things not related to war or the land. Thus the Romans contributed absolutely nothing to abstract thought. They contributed to literature, no doubt. Read Tacitus and tell me you are not moved!  Intellectual energy was channelled into prose and the practical. A Roman noble could recite Homer whilst stabbing a Teutonic barbarian, east or west, of the Rhine
So we come to the final point and perhaps, tragedy. Western society is supposed to be founded on sound scientific principles. Strange, as most folk couldn't define 'principle' and if it disappeared from the lexicon they would not notice- fucking shame.

The Ancient Greeks were astonishing. Although they contributed greatly to intellectual thought, most of what they said was wrong. Apart from their contribution to mathematics and logic, most of what they said, was complete bollocks. But it was a start.     

'Socrates himself, is particularly missed, a great little thinker especially when pissed'


  1. I still believe the world is flat, the moon is made of cheese and Father Christmas is real. I have a belief system that works for me, it has worked all my life, and continues to work, I am a sceptic about somethings and a believer of others.
    I don't really believe in psychics, but I do know some people just "know" things, because I am one of them, I can't explain it and I don't want to try. Himself always used to say to me "how do you KNOW that" I could not explain it then and I still can't and when I just KNOW he has stopped asking how I know and just accepts that it will happen ...(whatever it is) and it always does. I can't describe it except to say it's a feeling in my gut about an event that I can't possibly know will happen. I am not talking earthquakes or tsunamis, I am talking personal life and family stuff. It generally only happens with people I am very close too but has happened with people I have never met or only met once. Sometimes it's stuff I would really rather not know. But I always know when I am being lied to I am not talking silly fibs here I am talking the life changing really big lies, and I don't need to be in the same town or country as the person doing the lying, I don't even and to see their faces, A little voice just pops into my head saying "Well now thats a fucking great porkie" and it always is. :) Happy Sunday and hope you are having a relaxed UK Fathers day.

  2. I suppose Kath, it is comes under 'Women's Intuition'.