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The Roots of Western Civilisation

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It is commonplace to see Western Civilisation traced back to its roots in Ancient Greece. The Greeks are credited with inventing or originating everything from democracy, to most of the major forms of literature, to philosophy and science, not to mention the Olympic Games. This is held to attest to the brilliance of the Ancient Greeks, but I find I want to question that and wonder if it does not attest, rather, to the paucity of Western Civilisation.

It may be telling to look at the details rather than the big things. In science, for example, it is thought marvellous that one of the Greeks thought that matter consisted of atoms, an idea which resurfaced in the 19th century and has since become scientific orthodoxy. Perhaps one should be asking why it is that we have not come up with something different in the interim, and to wonder if atomic theory has only resurfaced because modern scientists are not above mining the past when they are short of ideas. (One sees this sort of thing happening in other disciplines.) The reply might be that atomic theory has become orthodoxy because it has been backed up by experimental evidence. I’m not convinced. I do not find it compelling that there might not be some other, possibly better, model for the substance of the universe.

Then there is the earth, water, air and fire idea, where some Greeks espoused the idea that everything is composed of these 4 elements. That seems very close, like it might be the father of, the idea that there are 3 states of matter, solid, liquid and gas, plus energy. I do not want to make too much of the detail. The main idea is that there are 4 substances, and then each generation of ‘thinkers’ just takes the idea and then makes a name for themselves by giving it a slightly different interpretation.

Mind you, when you think of the idea that all life evolved from fishes, which was suggested by some ancient Greek philosopher or other, one does not need to do much re-interpreting.

I find I can play this game with any number of ideas that go back to Greek times: i.e. if you abstract the main idea, or concept, from its detailed representation then you find that precious few new concepts have appeared since ancient times. All we have is modern interpretations of old concepts.

Then there has been much ado in the UK about the Olympic Games of late, not surprisingly, and that bring to mind the idea of ‘competition’. I have no idea where the idea that competition leads to excellence comes from, but the Ancient Greeks certainly were competitive, and the modern world has certainly not discarded that idea, quite the reverse.

A nice example of how competition works was offered by the film I watched last night: AVATAR.

Briefly, the story so far (I am watching the film in two parts, second part tonight): it is Sci-Fi, set on a distant planet where explorers have discovered large deposits of an incredibly valuable mineral. Big Business has therefore arrived, in the form of a mining company determined, by whatever means necessary, to get its hands on the mineral. Unfortunately, the indigenous population of ‘primitives’ are unwilling to have their world plundered and refuse to cooperate, i.e. relocate to some other part of the planet out of the way of the mining operations. This planet is hostile, as in off-the-scale hostile, and lethal to unprotected humans. Scientists have, however, come up with a way to make face-to-face contact with the indigenous. They have been able to grow bodies identical to those of the indigenous people and then to connect humans to these bodies in such a way that they can remote-control the bodies. Really, the humans more or less transfer their consciousness to these bodies, so that, to all intents and purposes, for the duration of the connection, the humans ‘become’ indigenous people and so can go about on the planet and talk to the real natives. These manufactured bodies are called Avatars.

The scientists are represented as benign, the good guys, who are interested in the marvel this planet has to offer, and who want to use persuasion to get the natives to make way for the mining operations. If the scientists do not succeed, then the military will do the job.

The main characters here are a human male, a disabled ex-marine, who ‘inhabits’ one of the Avatars, and a female native. He is the first Avatar – the natives are perfectly aware that these Avatars are not the real thing – that has been accepted by the natives, and he is given the opportunity to join them, to be initiated into the ‘tribe’. This means learning to do all sorts of horrendously dangerous things. This is a ‘lads’ world, a high-octane world, a world of challenge and counter challenge, a world of if there is a choice between an easy way to do a thing and a dangerous, difficult way to do a thing they choose the dangerous, difficult way – this is a competitive world.

The interesting scene is the one where the native female meets the ex-marine (I think his name was Jack) in his avatar. The avatar is totally at sea in this world, has no idea how to cope, and is clumsy. The female saves him from some predators but then turns her back on him and walks off. She is full of derision, calling him a baby, her voice loaded with scorn. This is a really bad attitude. This is competitiveness. This is a closed mind that is going to be forever trapped within itself, a closed universe from which nothing escapes and into which nothing enters. This is a mind which will never have anything more than what it was born and brought up with.

How she would have better reacted is to think, “Here is someone who is obviously not from this world, or any place like this. If he came from a world like mine he would not seem like a baby here. This is someone who can show me new things, who can tell me about other worlds, who can introduce me to new concepts and ideas. This is an opportunity to expand my mind.” To have befriended him would have been far more beneficial, and MORE FUN, than to call him ‘loser’ and walk off with her nose in the air.

This seems to me to illustrate very well how competitiveness hinders rather than drives progress and creativity and the like.

The scientists coming to this world, on the surface may seem to be exhibiting a different attitude. They see that there are interesting things going on in this ecosystem and want to study and learn. But take a closer look: they are coming to this world with the utter conviction in the superiority of science. They call the natives primitive because they do not have technology without ever thinking that this might be a different kind of being, that there may be a non-science based way of life which is every bit as advanced, or potentially more advanced, than their own. They do not leave their science behind and come with an open-minded willingness to learn. The only difference between the scientists and the female who turned from Jack with such scorn is that, instead of walking away, the scientists stay to conquer. One might say that they are even more aggressively competitive than the female. They have already managed to open a school, though I think the natives have boycotted it, and no points for guessing what that school would have been teaching! No, the scientist may wear a benign smile, but behind the smile is all the fervour of a religious zealot out to make a convert.

So, back to my original point, which was that we perhaps should not look with such admiration at the Ancient Greeks, but wonder why we have advanced so little, why things have changed so little, since then. It is very easy to feel self-satisfied with all this technology about, but being unable to see how we would have progressed if we had not been so competitive, without being able to see what our cultures would have become under other circumstances, we are merely running on self-satisfaction, and not on evidence of any sort.

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I think you're giving the physical scientists way too much credit, as well as the prejudices of the 18th century Enlightenment that relied on the myth of the noble savage, but not enough to the anthropologists like Levi-Strauss, who demonstrated through careful study that the so-called "primitives" actually engaged in abstract reasoning, long before the advent of logic or mathematics or any other discipline you may wish to credit the Hellenistic Greeks with.

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I find I can play this game with any number of ideas that go back to Greek times: i.e. if you abstract the main idea, or concept, from its detailed representation then you find that precious few new concepts have appeared since ancient times. All we have is modern interpretations of old concepts.

Can you provide some of these abstractions? Let us say that "any number" is ten, with string theory and the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory included.

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Can you provide some of these abstractions? Let us say that "any number" is ten, with string theory and the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory included.

Well, I did ask for it I suppose! A challenge, that is – although this is not exactly what I had in mind. Nevertheless, what can I make of this?

You have gone to the outer reaches of Physics and brought back a couple of ideas: strings and the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory.

At this point I have to admit to not having kept up to date with ‘current event’ in physics – in common with everything else – since I went off to do my own thinking. The isolation from the rest of the world was necessary to get the job done.

I have heard of strings, of course; they’ve been around for a while. As to the ‘many worlds interpretation’ of quantum theory, I don’t even remember having heard about it. If I was to hazard a guess, I would suppose it might be a version of the idea of parallel universes -- which I think is usually associated with General Relativity, along with such exotica as time travel, but here we really are getting into the outer reaches of the outer reaches of physics, which, nevertheless, has not stopped some researchers spending a considerable amount of time looking for tachyons!—anyway, to return to my guess, parallel worlds might enter quantum theory by way of ‘probability’. I mean, when you interpret the wave nature of matter/energy in term of probability, you may be creating options of the form of: well probably I’ll find the particle here, but there is always the lesser probability that I will find it there, and then it is not a huge leap to postulating the idea of the existence of many worlds – I am way off the mark, or getting close?

Anyway, ‘having heard of’ is not the same as understanding, and in properly rising to your challenge I would have to do a lot of work and, on a rewards for effort basis, I don’t think the effort is worth it.

Let me explain it this way: what I am doing as regards tracing the history of ideas and what is driving it, is of the nature of a jig-saw puzzle. So I have collected, say, 1000 pieces of a puzzle of unknown size, and I have been able to fit them together such that a clear picture is beginning to emerge. I go on finding pieces and they go on fitting into the picture. At some stage I can predict what is going to be on the missing pieces and where they are going to fit into the picture.

The fact that ALL the pieces fit together like a jig-saw and make a coherent larger picture, plus the ability to predict, is all the ‘proof’ one needs to confirm one’s ideas.

If you have done any jig-saw puzzles you will know that the most efficient and fastest way to do them is to do the easiest bit first. Then once you have the easy bits done and the picture is beginning to emerge, then the other, harder bits fall into place much quicker and more easily.

All this is by way of an explanation as to why I consider the outer reaches of physics a poor return for effort. (Also, living in a small town with a small library, and no library of my own, and no internet access of my own, my resources are severely limited.) (Also, this is just a very small part of the totality of things I have to do as regards the larger project.)

However, I can offer a few thoughts.

On the subject of parallel universes, something is flickering in the back of my mind, and I think it is that the idea of parallel universes is part of Ancient Hindu mythology. If that is correct, then considering that the Persian Empire stretched from the Middle-East to India, and that the Ancient Greeks had plenty of ‘contact’, generally in the form of war, with Persia, then it would not be surprising to find the concept of parallel universes appearing somewhere in Greek philosophy.

Of course, it was Alexander the Great who conquered the Persian Empire, and Aristotle (who was a pupil of Plato who was a pupil of Socrates) was Alexander’s tutor, so that places the contact with the Persians right at the hey-day of Greek philosophy.

Can’t do much with ‘strings’ though, I’m afraid.

But how about this: one Greek proposed that the substance of the cosmos consisted of indivisible particles which he called ‘atoms’. Another then said, ‘Oh no it isn’t’, and proposed that the substance of the universe is continuous and endlessly divisible – the good, old Hegelian dialectic; it is SO useful – then a third comes along and proposes a synthesis, i.e. that the universe is composed of both atoms and endlessly divisible substance – at which point we arrive at classical physics where the universe consists of matter and energy, matter being atomic, while energy is a wave and endlessly divisible.

Then along come Quantum Theory and proposes and even better synthesis: all the substance of the universe is simultaneously atomic and endlessly divisible = wave/particle duality.

When one explores the ‘creation myth’ of physics (the Big Bang and subsequent evolution of the universe) and compares it to the ‘creation myths’ of countless old religions, most of which start with a Big Bang i.e. a moment of creation as opposed to, say, endlessness, no beginning no end, one cannot help feeling that one is just reading a ‘modernised’ version of the old myths – like reading James Joyce’s ULYSSES and comparing it to Homer’s ODYSSEY.

The parallel are more than mere coincidence, more than just an indication of a lack of ‘new’ ideas. When the myths are interpreted they tell us what was going on in the minds of their creators and ‘believers’. So the fact that the myths of our time parallel the myths of old is because the same things are going on in the minds of people today as back then – except that the modern mind has become very ‘literal’ and impoverished: hence the rich, metaphorical cosmos of gods and goddesses has been replaced by the literal, symbolic cosmos of science. Also, the cosmos’ of old were not so rule-bound as the cosmos of today.

If you escape those worlds, escape the world of science and the religions, and enter the world of dreams, you leave rules behind. You leave behind symbolism and literalness. You enter a world without rules, but which has a different kind of order: it is the world of ‘meaning’ and of metaphor.

When I travelled abroad (which I did a lot in my youth) I sometimes entered into conversation with people with whom I did not share a common language. We would use gestures, mime, point to objects in the environment and, occasionally, we might have a pen and paper to help things along. When these conversations were successful you ‘just knew’ what the other person meant, and you would use gestures and sound and mime to get your point across and keep improvising until they nodded and indicated they’d grasped your meaning.

This is the cosmos of dreams. There are no definitions, no grammar or rules. It’s all about ‘I know what you mean.’ (and that’s got a lot to do with why I write this way rather than with academic formality.)

And this: in the not-so-distant past, when Christians were forced to account for dinosaur bones, some argued that God must have placed, or ‘planted’ these bones of ‘mythical’ monsters in the earth for reasons of his own. That idea doesn’t sound so improbable if one thinks in terms of a virtual reality existence. i.e. the world need not be so unchangeable, so fixed, and that applies to the greater cosmos as well: what ‘it looks’ like today need not be what it will ‘look like’ tomorrow, and what is possible today may not be all that is possible tomorrow.

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