Ancient Thinkers
January 21, 2004 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Philosophy experts: were ancient thinkers conscious of the fact that they were making untested assumptions? [more inside.]

I've been reading Anthony Gottlieb's "The Dream of Reason" (a history of philosophy which I highly recommend), and he goes pretty deeply into the ancient greek philosophers. They tend to make grandiose assumptions, such as "everything is made of water" or "all matter is made of indivisible atoms."

As far as I can tell from Gottlieb's book, they just made these ideas up or "felt" them to be true. But they then used pretty rigorous logic to build on top of these assumptions.

Nowadays, if someone said "everything is made of water," we'd say, "um... and your evidence for this is ... what?"

Now I know that these philosophers lived long before the discovery of scientific method, and I know that modern experimental tools weren't available to them, but did they really feel that it was valid just to pull assumptions out of the air?

They may have HAD to pull them out of the air, but is there any evidence that they were embarrassed about this or questioned its validity?

Or am I wrong that they pulled assumptions out of the air? Did they feel that they had some reliable connection to an external source of truth?

By the way, I realize that ALL philosophy must rest on some assumptions, but to me there's a qualitative difference between "lets assume existence" and "lets assume everything is made of water."
posted by grumblebee to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've been thinking about this sort of thing with respect to other philosophies, and wondering if it might not simply be when they say "everything is made of water" they might mean something very different than what we mean by it, and on some level, their assumption would make sense. You could change that statement to "the basic particles that make up matter are a kind of basic fluid" and while the statement still sounds somewhat dubious by modern standards, it sounds a lot less crazy. What was the most basic fluid ancients might have known?

The point isn't that they would have been necessarily correct, but rather, suddenly the assumption doesn't sound completely insane. And on a metaphorical level, there may be a grain of truth in their assertions.
posted by weston at 12:22 PM on January 21, 2004

we'd say, "um... and your evidence for this is ... what?"

See, that's the main difference between us and the ancient Greek philosophers: They never used "um..." sarcastically.

Anyway, I don't have an overall answer to your question, but a book that addresses parts of it is Stuart Isacoff's Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle. While most of the book takes place around the time of Newton, its central idea is the emergence of ways to test sweeping theories (such as the true nature of acoustics), and those theories were rooted in Greek philosophies (especially Pythagoras'). I found it a very interesting book, and suspect you will too, if you haven't read it yet.
posted by soyjoy at 12:26 PM on January 21, 2004

Great question. IANAP, but I have to believe (heh) that there were some kind of validity testing that these pronouncements were run past. "Proof" is/was not some esoteric concept limited to deep thinkers. Consider this unpleasant little vignette:

"Where were you last night?"
"I was at the forum, listening to the debate."
"Oh, yeah? I say you're lying -- you were at the vomitorium!!!"

That discussion either ends there with the husband accepting his guilt, or the wife points out the puke stains on his toga to seal his fate. How do you think it ended? And why would a question as large as the composition of matter be held to a lesser standard?

Now, I suppose the husband may have been cowed enough by the wife to submit to the old clay-pot-noggin-smash without requiring any evidence be shown. Similarly, it's possible that all the evidence required of scientific findings was the societal stature of the philosopher/scientist.

I would guess, though, that there was some kind of "proof" behind these assumptions. It's just that the proof was itself based on incorrect science.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:28 PM on January 21, 2004

I think it's impossible to know that your assumption is "untested" if you aren't aware of any testing methods to begin with. Besides, this was a time when most people were accustomed to believing in things that couldn't be proven. They often relied on gut instincts.

What I'm wondering is if the scientific method is the most recent step in the evolution of thought, or if it's just a temporary pit-stop in an otherwise instinct-controlled universe.
posted by whatnot at 12:32 PM on January 21, 2004

I don't think y'all are realizing the tremendous gulf that separates your assumptions from those of people living in Ionia in the seventh century BC. The kind of evidence-based theory you're taking for granted didn't really exist before Aristotle, hundreds of years later. Of course people used evidence in daily life, but that's irrelevant here (the wife yelling at her husband is not a philosopher). Thales, the guy who said everything was made of water, was a certifiable genius; he discovered several geometrical theorems, predicted a solar eclipse, &c. But he was living in a time when it was assumed by everyone that the gods were responsible for everything, and it was an incredible leap of intellectual daring to try to explain things by physical causes. As for "why water?," Aristotle gives as good an explanation as any:
Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the permanent entity is water (which is why he also propounded that the earth floats on water). Presumably he derived this assumption from seeing that the nutriment of everything is moist, and that heat itself is generated from moisture and depends upon it for its existence (and that from which a thing is generated is always its first principle). He derived his assumption, then, from this; and also from the fact that the seeds of everything have a moist nature, whereas water is the first principle of the nature of moist things.
(From the Metaphysics.) You can make fun of it if you like, but I suspect you'd have a hard time explaining to him exactly why you believe everything is made of "quarks."
posted by languagehat at 12:45 PM on January 21, 2004

It was almost the whole point, grumblebee, at least for some. For Socrates and Plato, testing would have involved reliance on the senses, and this was believed to be flawed as our senses lie. Instead the emphasis was placed on pure reason building from fundamental truths. This idea is based on the metaphysical belief that the world is composed of the "intelligible world of forms and the perceptual world we see around us", with the latter an imperfect copy of the former.

That's only half the story, though, and your statement "I know that these philosophers lived long before the discovery of scientific method" is somewhat unfair given that Aristotle placed a good deal of importance on what we can see in the world around us, and is thought by many to be the father of the scientific method.

Important too to distinguish philosophy, science and metaphysics, here, as these guys were essentially, among others, the scientists of their time, with the term philosophy encompassing much more than it does today.

It's been ages since I studied this stuff, but from what I recall I'd say the earliest Greek Philosophers fit your description of the unwitting theorist; Socrates and Plato were at least aware of the issue and accounted for this; Aristotle made headway in developing the foundations of the scientific method, despite getting an awful lot wrong.

I guess before you can test anything you have to have theories to test, so just to be pondering the nature of things and attempting to explain them is very impressive. You only have to look at the differences in understanding from Anaximander (the water-guy - remember that lecture...) to Aristotle to see the huge developments made. By the time of Aristotle, they were getting things wrong for much better reasons...
posted by nthdegx at 1:00 PM on January 21, 2004

You're asking about the pre-Socratic philosophers. I'm no expert, but one way to look at them is straddling mythology and rationalism. I don't think they "pulled assumptions out of the air" as much as looked to the natural world and tried to draw conclusions about it in intuitive and very rational ways. You mention Thales's contention that the basic element of the world is water. On one level you can see this as a proto-scientific theory which can, in fact, be tested. On another level it is a sort of mystical statement about the nature and properties of the universe.

That being said, there was kind of science being done here. The important thing about Thale's water theory is not so much the theory itself, but rather that he asked the question, What is the universe made of? He took a stab at it, as did many of the pre-Socratics, and the most important scientific concept coming out of their discussion was a form of atomic theory.

The pre-Socratics were just as smart as we are and I very much doubt that the were any more embarrassed or worried about their conclusions then contemporary scientists are about theirs.

As well, the notion of an "external source of truth" is completely Platonic and not really the point of the scientific method, which is about developing theories or models, not truths. When a scientific theory cannot explain observations it will be replaced by a new theory, and this does not mean that the old ones are "wrong" or "untrue," only that the old theory had limited applicability.
posted by tranquileye at 1:08 PM on January 21, 2004

First thing to say is that there is very, very little documentary evidence about the earliest philosophers that could be shown to apply some sort of reason or logic (i.e. the pre-Socratics.) Unfortunately, this is the curse of the ancient historian - much of our knowledge of original thinkers comes not only from secondary, tertiary sources, but the sources of our sources were likely similarly remote.

It's hard for us - I believe - to imagine a situation in which the socratic method (i.e. the rigorous testing of theses against observation) was not widely applied in everyday life. I'd hazard a guess really that without the benefit of this consistently understood and applied criticism, small errors become quite easy to make. Parmenides is an interesting case to look at - one of the pre-Socratics, and some think the originator of conditional argumentation - his most famous work is a treatise in which he "proves" that everything that exists is a solid sphere, and that the perception that it is otherwise is an illusion.

The work of course falls down early with a couple of pretty obvious logical blunders, leading to the inevitable dumbass conclusion. I think we can be quite sure though that Parmenides thought it was watertight. If one of us could travel back in time 3 millenia, I'm sure we could have a stimulating discussion, show where his error lay and he would rework revise and improve his work. Unfortunately I think the truth of the matter was that - not only (as languagehat says) were there socio-religious and educational barriers to group learning, but people scientists and philosophers were few in number and greatly distributed, making the sort of organic, iterative learning process that we take for granted pretty much impossible.
posted by bifter at 1:13 PM on January 21, 2004

All of you have made really interesting comments (thanks!), but very few of you have answered my question (or what I intended my question to be). This is my fault, because my "pulling stuff out of the air" quip sounded like I was belittling pre-socratic philosophers. Actually, I have a lot of respect for them.

But it does seem like they based their theories on feelings and instinct. I DO think stupidsexyFlanders's husband/wife example is important, because these guys must have understood the importance of evidence in everyday life. If you understand the need for proof when someone says "I can lift 1000lbs with my bare hands," then you should be able to transfer the idea of the need-for-proof to philosophical concepts.

Of course, when you DO transfer it, you may come to the conclusion that though it would be nice to have proof, there isn't any way to get any. Or you may genuinely feel that philosophical questions are fundamentally different than real-world questions. But you should STILL understand how one might like proof. So it seems likely then that as you're explaining that everything is made out of water, you'd also add, "and by the way, I don't need proof because...."

So my question is, did any of these guys ever PONDER the question of evidence? Do you need it? Can you get it? If you can't get it, can you reasonably make any claims?

If they didn't, that's REALLY interesting. It makes them psychologically very different from us. Bifter and tranquileye have attempted explanations of how and why they were different. Their answers are the sorts I'm looking for (though I find this whole topic so fascinating that I'm okay with tangents.)
posted by grumblebee at 1:41 PM on January 21, 2004

I don't think it's all that different from how science works today, at least at the bleeding edges - you have a bunch of stuff you want to explain, so you invent a system, and then analyze your theoretical system to show that it can explain the stuff.

For example, "Suppose everything is made out of water. That would explain why stuff is moist all the time!" is not all that different from "Suppose everything is made out of probability waveforms, and you collapse it by blah blah hermitian operator blah. That would explain why stuff acts so wierd!"

Except, of course, for the that fact that the latter theory had some math involved that produced some testable predictions, which turned out to be accurate.

So, did ancient philosophers understand that their axioms were highly suspect? Obviously there's no way of knowing, really, short of actually studying what actual ancient philosophers actually said, so I'll just arbitrarily state my opinion - yeah, sure they did. Their only problem was that the systems they were able to put together with the intellectual tools of the day were so vague and ill-defined that they couldn't produce much in the way of testable predictions, so things were pretty much stuck at the theoretical level.
posted by jeffj at 1:44 PM on January 21, 2004

I think a very important thing to notice is that when we look at many Greek texts (including th eHomeric ones), there seems to be a belief that, yes, ideas are litterally 'pulled out of the air,' or, more precisely, put into our heads by the will of the Gods. Odysseus, when he's in a bind and needs a cool idea to get himself out of trouble, never comes up with the idea himself, but rather has it supplied by a helpful God(ess) who happens to be following his progress. If this is the general belief on where our ideas come from, then questioning one's assumptions is a short step from questioning divine (intellectual) authority.

What I imagine happened, from our point of view, was someone would put together the pieces of a puzzle with a sudden realization, which he thought was planted by a god. The realization would then be shown to apply to any number of real-world phenomenon. This is essentially the course taken through all of Plato: Socrates has an idea, and then gives a bunch of examples of it. Evidence post-dates metaphysics.

More late;r gotta go.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:51 PM on January 21, 2004

So my question is, did any of these guys ever PONDER the question of evidence? Do you need it? Can you get it? If you can't get it, can you reasonably make any claims?

I thought I'd addressed that directly.
posted by nthdegx at 2:34 PM on January 21, 2004

Nowadays, if someone said "everything is made of water," we'd say, "um... and your evidence for this is ... what?"

Nowadays, we have a framework for understanding the world and any new theories have to co-exist with that framework or if not, strongly justify why that is so.

Back then, we were struggling with theoretical models for understanding the world and many things which we take for granted were not so clear. So it was ok to propose theoretical models and then build on them, discuss them, debate them so that their merits/demerits could be understood.

These days we have a better sense of which questions we can ask (those that we can answer) Science is a practical endeavor. Models help us make sense of the world. There is still some debate as to whether quarks really "exist"? (Quarks can't be seen in isolation for example) But this is a side issue. It is less arguable that the "concept" of a quark is a very useful one and helps us get a lot done. And thats enough for now.

As Richard Feynman said:" Do not ask yourself, if you can possibly avoid that, 'how can it be like that?' because you will lead yourself down a blind alley in which no one has ever escaped. "
posted by vacapinta at 2:34 PM on January 21, 2004


If I may take a different tact from the thread back to another way to assault your question, I recommend the tremendous book "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Julian Jaynes. This core of his thesis is that "consciousness" might be a very recent development in human psychology, and that in fact the Greeks (and other ancient cultures) were very likely bicamerally conscious -- literally, the "internal conversation" that we hear between our hemispheres was an extra sensory experience akin to hearing the voice of a god a tribe leader.

He ends Chapter 5 ("The Intellectual Consciousness of Greece") with this bit:

"I have now completed that part of the story of Greek consciousness that I intended to tell. More of it could be told, how the two nonstimulus-bound hypostases come to overshadow the rest, how nous and psyche come to be almost interchangeable in later writers, such as Parmenides and Democritus, and take on even new metaphor depths with the invention of logos, and of the forms of truth, virtue and beauty.

"But that is another task. The Greek subjective conscious mind, quite apart from its pseudostructure of soul, has been born out of song of poetry. From here it moves out into its own history, into the narratizing introspections of a Socrates and the spatialized classifications and analyses of an Aristotle, and from there into Hebrew, Alexandrian and Roman thought. And then into the history of a world which, because of it, will never be the same again."

posted by bclark at 3:09 PM on January 21, 2004

the socratic method (i.e. the rigorous testing of theses against observation)

That is not the Socratic method, that is the method of experimental science, which did not then exist, though Aristotle and Galen made approaches to it. The Socratic method relies on introspection and hypothesis, not experiment. Here's a handy contrast.

I'm afraid Julian Jaynes is a complete kook in my opinion, on a level with Immanuel Velikovsky.
posted by languagehat at 4:07 PM on January 21, 2004

Keep in mind the Duhem-Quine thesis (I can't find a decent link, argh) and thus the problem of assumptions and verification in general. The criticism we make of the ancient philosophers--that their resulting "truths" are based on unverified assumptions--could be said today too. The problem is still with us.
posted by ifjuly at 4:16 PM on January 21, 2004

I second the recommendation of Julian Jaynes. Many of his ideas are untestable but his thesis is provocative and you will likely learn a lot regardless of whether you agree with him or not. I would hesitate to class him with Velikovksy but then thats just my opinion.
posted by vacapinta at 4:41 PM on January 21, 2004

I don't want to repeat some of the excellent points made by languagehat and others, but: it's crucial to free oneself of the idea that the ancient thinkers were essentially defective or incompetent pre-scientists.
posted by crunchburger at 8:18 PM on January 21, 2004

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