Philosophy: The Value of Sticking Your Neck Out

This is a historical post. I wrote this in 2011 when just starting to explore philosophy. It’s really a book review of The Dream of Reason. I don’t generally dig into ancient philosophy like this.

I recently read (or listened to anyhow) a book called The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb. Now I am not that interested in ancient philosophy and philosophers, or at least wasn’t before this book. My general point of view is (was?) that we owe ancient philosophers a huge debt of gratitude for their dream of using reason to understand the world. But I also believe that their theories were all just shy of 100% hogwash and no rational person today (thanks to our scientific knowledge) would ever choose to be ‘an Aristotelian’ or some other follower of one of the ancient schools – unless they were doing it for purely religious reasons.

I’m probably wrong in this opinion, since there are many very smart and sincere philosopher’s today that are Aristotelians. But, given my bad attitude, I’m not likely to give them the time of day to convince me otherwise.

With this attitude, is it really that surprising that I have made little effort to study philosophy? But here I think I’ve erred. For after reading a book like The Dream of Reason, I can see that there is immense value in understanding the historical problems that these philosophers were grappling with and to look, with 20/20 hindsight, at what their graspings eventually led to.

And one of the key lessons of the book, if I were to pick one and call it the main theme, is that no matter how wrong you are, if you at least try to use reason, you are probably on the right track. In short, the book screamed to me “Stick your neck out and be wrong! Only the Rejectionists (i.e. people that point out all the problems of other’s beliefs but advance none of their own) truly fail in the realm of Reason!”


Let’s start with Thales. Here is a guy that gets almost everything wrong. For example, he thought absolutely everything in the universe was made of water. Water?!  And he also believed that the earth floated on a sea of water and that magnets are alive. Goodness, how lame can you get?

Except, of course, that there is nothing lame about it. As Gottlieb points out:

Take water first. One distinguishing feature of what we now call scientific account of things is that it should aim to be as simple as possible. Thales rather overshot the mark and tried to reduce everything to just one thing, namely water. … But in seeking a natural substance to unify and thus simplify the phenomena of the observable world, instead of making things more complicated by invoking lots of gods, he was a least looking for knowledge in what we now regard as the right sort of place. (p. 6)

Goodness! Gottlieb is right. Thales was wrong, but in a really productive sort of way! Or in other words – as difficult as it is to believe — he was approximately right.

Yeah, okay, maybe he was on the right track with the whole ‘all elements are made out of the same stuff’ thing, but the earth doesn’t float in a sea does it? And magnets being alive is about the stupid things I could imagine. Except, well…

Why assume that the earth would float like a log rather than sink like a stone? Yet even this defeat is a sort of victory for Thales. In order to refute him we have to reason with him, a compliment we would not think of paying the Egyptian priests.

Thales probably deserves the same compliment for his claim that magnets and amber are alive (or have a soul, psuche, which in those days meant much the same thing). He noticed that they can cause some objects to move and can move themselves towards them, and he was trying to account for this mystery by proposing that they have a type of animation. Spontaneous motion is, after all, often a sign of life. We would object to Thales that the power to cause motion is not quite enough on its own to justify calling a stone alive; but this does not mean we can dismiss his ruminations as mere crankiness. Today there is still not precise definition of life, and in the seventh century BC there was barely even a vague one. Thales’ apparently outlandish idea may there be seen as the natural result of having an inquiring mind at a time when precious little was understood. (p. 7-8)


Okay, so maybe Gottlieb has a point about Thales. But what about that idiot Parmenides.

[Parmenides] held that one cannot meaningfully think or say anything about ‘what is not’. In his view, this would amount to speaking of nothing, and a man who speaks or thinks of nothing does not succeed in speaking or thinking intelligibly at all. (p. 55)

What a nut case! If you can’t speak of what is not, what exactly can you speak of? Certainly not of someone being born or dying. Indeed, if anything ever changes – and mind you that would be the whole world! – then you are speaking of ‘what is not’ which is (according to Parmenides) impossible. The fact that the world does change notwithstanding. Surely here we have a philosopher not worth remembering, right?

But as it turns out, even that nut case Parmenides was on to something.

…Aristotle, dismiss Parmenides with the remark: ‘His assumption that “is” is used in a single way only is false, because it is used in several.’ However, before we write off Parmenides as a man who not only produced poetry but could not even understand his own native language, there is something worth bearing in mind. The tools of grammatical analysis that Plato used to clarify the notation of ‘speaking of what is not’ had only just been developed, apparently by the itinerant ‘Sophist’ teachers who congregated in Athens at the time of Socrates…. Such grammatical terms and distinctions were not yet common currency in Parmenides’ youth and it may never have occurred to him to think about such matters systematically. Indeed, it might never have occurred to Plato or Aristotle to think about them either, if the enigmatic statements of Parmenides and other early thinkers had not prompted them to do so. (p. 59)

And it gets worse. Parmenides not only apparently forced later thinkers to clarify things, but his own student, Zeno, whose sole purpose in life was to defend Parmenides, might be one of the most important things to ever happen to the philosophical world.

Zeno and His Paradoxes

Zeno just wanted to get people to stop making mock of Parmenides. (And let’s face it, Parmenides sort of deserved it.) So he came up with a series of paradoxes that still are very important today.

Consider, for example, one of Zeno’s infamous paradoxes of motion. Suppose for the sake of argument that motion is indeed possible, as common sense says it is and Parmenides denies. And suppose, for the sake of illustration, that the famously fast Achilles intends to run a race at the Great Panathenaea. Zeno points out to Achilles that before he can reach the finishing post, he must get halfway there. And before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter way. … Achilles begins to realize that he is in trouble, for this line of reasons can evidently be continued indefinitely. Zeno persuades him that he therefore cannot run any distance at all… (p. 65-66)

Now as it turns out, I had already heard of Zeno. In fact, Zeno is still quite popular today because everyone feels a need to refute him as the starting point to certain advanced concepts. Zero is particularly important to Calculus, which might be thought of as a mathematical solution to Zeno’s paradox.

The scientists and philosophers of each age tend to use Zeno’s paradoxes as a peg on which to hang their thoughts about subjects that are tangled up with infinity, such as the divisibility of space and matter, and the concepts of time and motion. (p. 68)

So as it turns out, even a seemingly flat out wrong set of ideas like Parmenides were ‘on the right track’ from a certain point of view. The mere fact that he was willing to stretch his neck out and try to apply reason to something caused the advance of knowledge. He may have believed in something that was not true, but at least he believed in something (i.e. wasn’t not a rejectionist) and defined himself by those beliefs rather than his disbeliefs. And he was rewarded for his efforts.


At least when we get to Aristotle, no one doubts the value of his contributions. Yet he was wrong about just about everything too.

I listened to a physics lecture at Berkley where the professor started out going over the history of physics. He described the physics of Aristotle with rich humor in his voice. Aristotle believed that the elements had a natural affinity for each other. So if you pick up a book and let go of it, it falls to the earth because that book is primarily made of the element of earth. The element of air would tend to rise and the element of water was somewhere in between, floating on top of earth, but not rising to the air. It’s all quite ridiculous.

Or is it?

This isn’t very good physics, I’ll admit. It makes no predictions, can’t be falsified, and has the added disadvantage of being wrong.

But isn’t it more or less true that the world of ‘things’ can be split into a few pretty good categories: solids, liquids, and gases? (With fire being ‘energy’)

Aristotle may not have discovered physics, but he was absolutely on to something that was true.

Also, consider this:

We have seen that according to Aristotle that mark of a highly developed science is that it deals with the universal of essential truths about each type of thing – for example, that all cows are ruminants. One of his favorite ways of putting this was to say that science is concerned with ‘that which is always or … for the most part’. …  (p. 273)

Science is built on the idea that the laws of physics are always true. There would be little point in science if that were not so. We’ve been forced to ‘push back’ what we consider the primal laws – and we are still not sure – but it’s that underlying belief that drives science.

Even in the case of ruminant cows, where Aristotle got it wrong again, we can see that he was on to something.

In Aristotle’s ‘Substance Theory’ living things have an eternal nature. This must be so (argues Aristotle) because otherwise there would be no eternal essential truths about cows. So what is a ‘cow’ then?

We know he’s wrong, but how do we know that? Simple, really, because thanks to natural selection and evolution, life evolves and dies out, forming groups and clusters of similar types of life. There probably is no set of characteristics that stamp a cow a cow – so substance theory is bad physics. But there is a general set of characteristics that causes us to call a certain type of being a cow based on similarities and kinship to others. The underlying forces that cause this clustering of characteristics are eternal just like Aristotle had hoped. Substance Theory is bad theory today, but it lead to good theory and was in fact indispensible to modern theories.

Democritus and Atomism

Which brings me to the crown jewel of philosophy (in my opinion, anyhow): Democritus.

Democritus came up with this wild theory that all things were made up of atoms. This idea actually stemmed from, of all places, Parmenides’theories. Democritus seemed to believe that Parmenides, while obviously wrong about the world not changing, was at least on to a correct idea that the world was somehow eternal and unchanging. His idea was to imagine the world made up of various ‘atoms’ or tiny particles that were indivisible and unchanging. They could then explore out different configurations and forms and thereby allow for change in a changeless world.

The atomism of Democritus is not the same as ‘atom theory’ today, but one is a direct descendent of the other.

Even more impressively, a daisy-chain of influence extends from the ancient atomists to the triumph of modern atomic theory of matter in the nineteenth century. (p. 95)

And notice how this means that the nut case Parmenides is, in some legitimate sense, the father of modern science.

Perhaps the most striking thing about it is that this seemingly scientific philosophy grew straight from the dark and incredible notions of Parmenides. It took just one tweak of Parmenides’ premises to turn his motionless, unchanging One into Democritus’ buzzing profusion of atoms. (p. 95)

Lessons Learned

I hope I have impressed upon you the importance of ‘believing in something.’ Yeah, you will probably be wrong. But so what? It would be impossible to be less right then Parmenides, yet he is the father of modern science! (Go figure!) If you even so much as try to use reason, you will probably be on to something no matter how wrong you were.

Consider, for example, the struggle between Atomist and Substance Theory. It’s tempting to claim that Atomist turned out to be right and Substance Theory turned out to be wrong. From a certain legitimate point of view, this is the case. Aristotle’s imagination that living things has some sort of magical characteristic called ‘a substance’ that never changed simply is not true because in fact all things – including living things – are made out of atoms. And all atoms are identical.

Yet can we truly say that Aristotle was wrong? What Aristotle really discovered was that things in the world can be categorized. It is this discovery, probably more than any other, that eventually lead to the rise of “reductionism” — one of the most productive false ideas in the history of physics. The idea that we can break down complex things into simpler things has certainly been a fruitful idea. But beyond that, we can categorize things and break them apart, and put them back together again. Aristotle, even in the very thing he was most wrong about, turned out to be the father of library sciences, computational theory, and even object oriented programming. Therefore substance theory is still alive and well, albeit not in the way Aristotle intended it.

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