Thursday, March 24, 2011

Xenophanes on the limits of human knowledge

To: Laura K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Xenophanes on the limits of human knowledge
Date: 25 May 2001 13:53

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your second essay on the Presocratics, which you sent with your e-mail of 15 May.

I enjoyed this essay. Your account of the importance of the history of print in relation to the early development of science was an eye-opener for me. So many things fall into place. All the institutions and frameworks which we take for granted today were still in their infancy, or had yet to be developed. Yet one would never guess this from reading Descartes, at least, without reading in between the lines. His rational quest is that of the sole investigator, determined to rely purely on his/her own resources and refusing to trust any evidence whose legitimacy could conceivably be doubted. No hint that science is, our could be, a collective endeavour.

I can certainly see how a case can be made that the rhetorical strength of Descartes’ appeal presupposes an audience who are only too aware of the untrustworthiness of reports of the latest ‘discovery’. Yet, despite all the pitfalls, science did gain a foothold which it has never relinquished.

Now the old problem has a new twist. In a magazine not long ago (it was ‘The Big Issue’, a monthly magazine distributed on the streets in the UK by homeless people, so quite a number of the articles have socialist/ radical themes) I saw an article which argued that the landing on the moon never happened, and was in fact a hoax, a conspiracy perpetrated by the scientific community. Conspiracy theories will always be with us: claims that the Oklahoma bombing was done by the American government being the latest example.

The point is, that with the knowledge I carry about with me in my head, I couldn’t prove the article wrong. Though I *trust* that the moon pictures and moon rocks were real and not fakes. I *trust* that the astronauts did not lie, that the reports of what the astronauts said were not lies, and so on.

I suspect, however, that these were not issues that loomed large for Xenophanes. First you have to have science before you can doubt science, and the Presocratic philosophers did not even have science. All they had was ‘theory’. So it could be argued that it is somewhat anachronistic to make a connection here with Xenophanes’ reflections on the limits of human knowledge.

On the other hand, it could slso be argued that it is because scientific theories do not carry their proof on their face, because we have to rely not only on evidence, reports, but also on the scientist’s ability to correctly read the evidence and reports, that the problem of trust arises in the first place. This is something Xenophanes would have readily recognized.

I have no quarrel with your interpretation of the fragments from Xenophanes. I am sure you are right that the remark about the Ethiopians and the Thracians was intended to have universal application - intended to put into question our ability to take a properly objective view of ‘the facts’ - and not just as part of his critique of contemporary polytheistic religion.

One thing that puzzles me, however, is how Xenophanes could have supposed that ‘seeking men find out better in time’. How? He had no history, no model of scientific progress to call upon. It was indeed a moot point whether Anaximenes’ air ‘improved’ upon Thales’ water, or Heraclitus’ fire improved upon Anaximenes’ air. All we have are rival guesses, rival ‘theories’ backed up with very sketchy a priori argument. So, once again, we should be wary of the temptation towards anachronism. The idea that we will ‘find out better’ if we persist seems in Xenophanes’ mouth more like a pious hope than the anticipation of scientific progress.

Or was he speaking, not of ‘scientific’ progress as we now understand it, but philosophic progress? In other words, we find out better in time through pursuing the argument as far as it will go, successively refining our ideas to take account of objections. One thing I have tried to show in the Ancient Philosophy program that there was progress, that the argument did get somewhere. So Xenophanes’ faith in the enterprise that he himself was engaged in proved well founded.

I am pleased that you have made the important connection between the topic for this essay and the history of the book. I am pleased to have learned something. One thing I would still like to know is how ‘books’ figured in the debates between the early philosophers. How was a book ‘On Nature’ received? Were Anaximenes and the rest regarded more like Dawkins or Van Daniken?

All the best,