Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Perfect Changes

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Well, let’s start with–John’s post clarifies a lot of things about this discussion.

John says  I see similarities when he sees diferences, but that’s not entirely accurate.

He sees differences, and  I see evolutions. The differences between  classical Greece and twentieth century New York isn’t the difference between penguins and hummingbirds, but the difference between one stage of evolution and another–of the same animal. 

And my point about the wheel was not that the Greeks invented it, but that the  Egyptians of the Pharonic age didn’t.  No technology, even the simplest, is assured.  Even thriving civiliations whose foundational ideas are friendly to scientific inquiry won’t necessarily invent any basic technology, and once the basic technology is invented whether it develops depends on a number of factors, but especially on those foundational ideas.

My guess, though, is that the primary reason a civilization does not immediately invent technology A, even though technology A is simple and would be useful to them, is that they do not perceive that usefulness.   In a world in which travel is slow, communications are insecure and slow, too, it’s not entirely clear that a way to measure time precisely would have any immediate point.   Natural scientists would want to know how motion worked.  Your everyday Roman mill owner wanted to know how to get his sacks of grain to market before they rotted.

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge–the will to know just because you want to know, and not because it’s “useful”–is the definition of the liberal arts and a very important part of everything else.  

All societies need the technical applications of science desperately, but the connections between those technical applications and the entirely theoretical “pure” research that usually proceeds them isn’t always evident.  

Your ordinary Roman paterfamilias, even a well educated one, probably looked at  Democritus’s speculations about atoms the way some people here look at the study of literature–a nice little hobby, but really pointless, if you think about it.  Much better be practical and study Homer and  Virgil so that you can advance in the Emperor’s service.  

The relationship between Aristotle and Galileo is evolutionary–Aristotle gave birth to the ideas that gave birth to the ideas that gave birth to the ideas that gave birth to Copernicus that gave birth to Galileo.

If we could find a way to allow students to actually replicate the evolution of mammals, instead of just studying about it from the outside, we’d do it in a shot.  In intellectual history, we can do it.   We don’t have to read a textbook telling us how Aristotle is supposed to have given rise to a particular intellectual evolution.  We can read Aristotle and the men (largely) who followed him, we can watch the evolution happen in front of our eyes, we can recreate it and see what it tells us.

Once an evolutionary path gets started, a lot of things affect it.  Yes, the classical world was one of nearly constant war and chaos, not a good place to sit down and think for the sake of thinking, learn for the sake of learning.  It was also a world in which men and women tended to die what we would think of as young, therefore putting an end to a lot of the talent before it had a chance to get anything done. 

But I think that the real issue, in the evolution of ideas that resulted, eventually, in what we now called “science,” was that it looked to most people of the time as a dead end–a lot of silly wondering about stuff that didn’t matter anyway.   There were more pressing problems, like working out the meaning of “justice” and “freedom” in such a way that the relationships between rulers and everybody else could be regularized, so that people could know and trust how their societies would operate, what they could expect from various acts and transactions, for more than a few years or so at a time.  

Even now, if you go to the people at large, there’s a lot of complete incomprehension about pure research.  That’s why we didn’t build that cyclotron.  We’ve had over two hundred yeas of the scientific revolution, and most people still don’t see the point of looking into what a quark is and how it behaves.

Of course, they don’t see the point of looking into the evolution of ethics and morality either (doesn’t everybody already know that stuff? one of my students asked once–she meant that everybody already agreed on what was moral, so there was no point in nattering on about it.  I think she must be having a very interesting, if highly confused, life).

They also don’t see the point of studying literature, which is, you know, just a bunch of stories, and boring stories about people who lived in ancient times or something.  It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my decision to hook up with the guy with the tattoos tonight, or with figuring out what makes my boss tick so that I can get on better with her and maybe keep my job and get a raise.

I mean, for God’s sake, don’t go on blithering about  Becky Sharpe.   Teach me something practical.

The best way to figure out why Greece and Rome didn’t invent the technologies you want them to is to study Greek and  Roman history, literature, and thought so that you can see how the evolution happened and maybe figure out why.   In terms of replicating that evolution, though, since you’d already have access to the Humanities in their totality, you wouldn’t take nearly as long, since there would be references to the kind of technology you’re talking about and–in people like Liebniz and Newton–even some direction on how to make it.

The other thing the Humanities will tell you is how specific kinds of societies will kill science once it’s started (not just the Islam of the Middle Ages and the Taliban now, but the old Soviet Union) and why and how that happens, which might help you to avoid doing that. 

Of course, in the end, some societies simply choose not to, sometimes quite deliberately. That’s what the Taliban did–they took a good look at what accepting science, technology and all the rest of it would mean, and shut it all down.   And they shut down not only the science, but ver specifically the works of literature, philosophy and history they feared (and they were right) would lead to it.

Ack, I meant to address Cheryl’s flawed heroes–gives me a chance to rant about Achilles, so I’m up for it–and to say something about Gail’s wonderful post, but I’ve got two adolescent boys who want me to cook an enormous turkey for dinner, and since I’m always up for bringing death to turkeys, I’d better go get ready for it.

Okay, so it’s one adolescent boy and one grown man, actually over twenty-one.

But I keep trying to pretend that that last thing hasn’t happened.

Written by janeh

June 21st, 2009 at 6:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Perfect Changes'

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  1. First of all, Welcome Gail, its nice to see a fresh name here. I hope you will post again.

    Second, I had another bad night and have not really absorbed either Gail’s or Jane’s posts.

    I agree completely with Jane that civilizations evolve. The problem is that I can’t seem to do much with that.

    Lets take a small example. Consider the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand. The US, AUS and NZ were all settled by colonists from the UK. They all speak some form of English and have rather similar legal systems. They are close together on an evolutionary model.

    But the UK and NZ do not have written constitutions (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_New_Zealand )

    The US and Aus do have written constitutions.

    All 4 have elected legislatures. The UK has an heriditary upper house and an elected lower house, the US and Aus have two elected houses, NZ has one elected house.

    The US has an elected President and a strict separation between executive and legistative. The other 3 countries use a Prime Minister system and the executives are drawn from the legislature.

    All four countries believe in freedom of religion but the UK has a state religion, the US has continual court fights and Aus and NZ simply don’t worry about it.

    I can see the evolutionary threads but they don’t have predictable results. I find it difficult or impossible to draw any conclusions from the knowledge that the UK, US, Aus and NZ are close evolutionary cousins.

    I will agree that “Western Civilization” meaning at least Western Europe, North and South America, and Aus and NZ has an intellectual and evolutionary thread of descent from Ancient Greece and Rome but I can’t do anything with that idea.


    21 Jun 09 at 5:46 pm

  2. I agree that we are all of us children of the West in some sense, but the West is more in its origins than a five mile walk from the Periclean Acropolis. Judea too is part of what makes the West, and even those of us who are not believers in a religious sense share beliefs with Bronze Age Jews we do not share with Egyptians, Babylonians or Greeks. For that matter, it seems to be a commonplace to call “Greek” or even “Athenian” ideas that were common to many peoples north of the Mediterranian and West of the Hesllespont. (That’s not all directed at Jane, by the way: I was reading Hanson lately, and was rather startled by the expansiveness of his claims. Reading Aristotle ought to have taught these new philhellenes more moderation.)

    As for the number of cultures, I’m going to punt. I think we can be reasonably precise as to what nations are a part of the West and to what degree, but the difference between a sub-culture and a related culture is not clear enough to jusitfy debate. Speciation takes a long time in the biological world, and the boundaries can remain hazy, with “lumpers” and “splitters” seeing fewer or more species. Much the same condition seems to exist in describing cultures.

    I’m more concerned with sorting out philosophy. Yes, it’s perfectly true that “natural philosophers” concern themselves with observation of the material universe. They have become the people now known as “scientists” and we can pursue learning in the sciences without referring back to Aristotle, however important his early contributions. But I could make the same observation about Alchemy and Chemistry and Astrology and Astronomy–and it would not justify maintaining departments of Alchemy and Astrology. Our understanding of the natural world and the scientific method have little to do with Platonic ideals and the Nichomachean Ethics. What’s left and taught under the rubric of “philosophy” today is precisely what does NOT have to do with the observation and study of reality–or does someone have a REALLY different take on Plato, Nietzche and Ayn Rand?

    There’s a reason for this: observing reality in the human world gets you, at best, no further than the Nichomachean Ethics–it tells you what is done by the people observed, and perhaps lets you generalize from it–cultural anthropology, really. One may note incongruities, but our satirists are better at this than our philosophers. Observation takes you to “is.” It doesn’t get you to “should.” Yet somehow every philosopher HAS a “should” and Ethics courses mysteriously have a “Phil” prefix in the course catalogs. And for good reason: if natural philosophy has gone its own way and cultural norms belong to Anthropology, what else of importance is left?

    I do not say one cannot arrive at an ethical code for oneself and for a society by observation and reason. I DO say that the results thus far seem to resemble religion much more than they do science. Scientific truth and the methods by which it is arrived at are THERE–demonstrable by themselves, whether Aristotle had written on the subject or not. His ethics, or Plato’s government, not so much.

    For me, this takes what’s left of Philosophy out of the core curriculum. If, after more than 2,000 years, we can’t decide whether someone was right or not, to me it looks a lot more like religion than science.


    21 Jun 09 at 7:57 pm

  3. Bur Robert, there is a debate over whether philosophical questions – the ones which we can’t decide on the answers to – are not worth enquiring into, or the most important questions in human existance.

    And yes, this does make them similar to religions, which hold an odd position today with bits of philosophy, sociology and psychology all claiming bits of the not-dead-yet body.

    Oh, I’m not going to argue that we need to teach formal philosophy to primary school children, but the things we want to teach and especially the behaviors we want to encourage are going to be based on what answers our culture mostly accepts to these philosophy/religion questions.

    OTOH, it was eye-opening to me when someone explained to me that she didn’t see the reason to spend time wondering about questions that don’t have answers, by which I think was meant the type you are describing as ‘more like religion than science’. They’re my favourite kind of questions, and it hadn’t occured to me that not everyone agreed!


    22 Jun 09 at 6:26 am

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