Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Science versus myth: the relevance of Thales

To: Gerard M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Science versus myth: the relevance of Thales
Date: 15 May 2007 11:53

Dear Gerard,

Thank you for your email of 9 May, with your essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in the form of a fictional letter written by Thales to philosophers today, which I read as an answer to either, or both, of the questions, 'What does the examination of the arguments and theories of the first philosophers show us about the nature of philosophy?', and, 'The possibility of a physical explanation of the nature of the world and how it came to be was a philosophical discovery.'

You said that you battled to reduce the length of the essay from 3000 words, but it takes nearly two pages to get to the point: 'Your difficulty is that societies have always lived in and through the imagination but you are unaware that your cosmology, or, of you prefer, the conditions of symbolisms have changed. In a sense, then, you are as enslaved to myth as much as the people of the antique world.'

And one sentence later, the essay ends!

I would loved to have seen an answer to that question. In what sense do we inhabit a mythical world today, and what would it be like - or what would it be - to emancipate ourselves from that myth by means of reason and logic? how can logic help with our contemporary predicament?

There are various ways in which one can draw parallels. It is arguable that school education is doing a worse job today, compared with the relatively recent past, of equipping young people with a basic general knowledge - through history, geography, science etc. We are breeding generations of specialists: language teachers who are totally at sea with the most basic concepts of science, science teachers who are ignorant of geography, geography teachers who are clueless about history.

Combine scientific illiteracy with the pace of technological change and innovation and you have people whose attitudes to the tools that they daily use are just like the pre-philosophical ancients to the phenomena of the physical world.

An IT consultant wrote to me last week asking what I had to say about the theory that aliens who look like humans are living in our midst. I replied that anything is possible, but in order to have any relevance to what we believe, a theory must be testable. If an IT system goes wrong, you formulate hypotheses and test them. She wrote back yesterday insisting that people were 'closing their eyes' to the possibility of aliens living in our midst. Either the woman is paranoid (which I have to allow is a possibility) or she has managed to get a so-called 'education' without acquiring any sense at all of what science is and what it is for.

Here is one test you can perform to discover a person's 'common sense' physics. A stone is tied to a piece of string which the subject whirls around. The string breaks. What happens next? The three most popular answers are:

(a) The stone continues to go round in wider and wider circles.

(b) The stone continues in the direction in which it was moving when the string broke.

(c) The stone shoots straight out in whichever direction the string was pointing when it broke.

It has been over three hundred years since Newton. Shouldn't every educated person know the correct answer?

(Clue: think about how you aim a sling.)

Another aspect of the way reality has been 'fictionalized' can be seen in the rise of computer games, and the total dominance of screen entertainment. In the 'old' days, you went to the cinema to see a 'show'. You left the everyday world and entered a dark room to enjoy the magic light show. There was never any doubt where the real world ended and the world of the 'silver screen' began.

Now, we have portals in every room which are rapidly replacing windows as our view on the world. Much has been written about this, of course, by contemporary philosophers of culture. You can look up the French philosopher Baudrillard who has much to say on this phenomenon.

More than ever before, we are dependent on so-called 'experts', whose knowledge so far exceeds ours that they could just as well be priests. And many experts behave just as if that were true. This brings us back to the theme of education, and the question what can be done to remedy the situation.

I think we are both agreed that a good dose of philosophy would make a difference. Philosophy should be on every school curriculum. It should be impossible to get an education without being aware of the question what knowledge is and what it is for, how we decide in matters of belief, and most important of all the individual person's responsibility for the beliefs that he or she holds.

All the best,