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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Bloggers Could Learn from the Ancients

Bloggers Could Learn from the Ancients

Author: Reilly Capps/Monday, February 24, 2020/Categories: natural history

Our greatest intellectual heroes are often zealous about one thing, and it isn't telling you how smart they are. Socrates said his great advantage was he knew was that he knew nothing. Montaigne chiseled into the beams of his ceiling "ΟΥ ΚΑΤΑΛΑΜΒΑΝΩ," "I do not understand," a quote from Sextus Empiricus. John Keats admired Shakespeare not because he got things right, but because he suspended judgment, had "negative capability, which is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason."

by Reilly Capps:

These people would have been terrible at writing blogs. Blogs, especially conservative religious or political ones -- and sometimes environmental ones like this one -- might as well carve their beliefs in stone. Facts are incorporated as they confirm worldviews, almost never when they contradict. 

I was reminded of that when I read an article "Archaeology" magazine about a man who might be considered an early blogger. He was Diogenes, a Greek, and he lived in the city of Oinoanda in Turkey. He was so sure that his ideas were right that he carved them in stone on the walls of the city center. These ruins, buried in the sands of time, are now being dug up and read in the light of day.

Here's a (weird, computerized) YouTube summary of the inscription:

Epicureanism was the literal bedrock of his philosophy. It was a good choice. Epicureanism, of all the ancient philosophies, comes closest to our modern understanding of the world. It's based on physics, holds that everything in the universe is just matter and void, that things change by random chance -- the swerve -- and that the gods are real, but only in the sense of being conceptions in our head.

Maybe we should give Diogenes credit; he was overly sure of himself, just like modern bloggers. But we should take into account the context of the times. He was writing the second century, a time when Christianity was spreading throughout the known world. There never been a religion like it; it boasted absolute truth, the only truth there was, applicable to everyone, written in an unchanging and unchangeable book that couldn't be analyzed or debated. It might as well have been written in stone. So Diogenes was just combating certainty with certainty.

Now, the successors to Socrates (or Montaigne or Sextus Empiricus or Keats or Shakespeare) are scientists. They started with the idea that we didn't know anything, even whether the Earth revolved around the sun, as seemed evidence. There is no certainty in science, only theories supported by evidence. If evidence contradicts the theories of, say, evolution or gravity, they have to be tossed out. Science has no Bible. Everything can be edited.

I'm going to take a note from these people. I'm going to call myself a scientist, and know that I don't know anything. I like the story of our origins as revealed by science, i.e.: that everything started in a single burst of energy, and all life comes from a single common ancestor, and individual people are nothing more and nothing less than balls of energy in the great energetic whirlpool of the universe, arising from and returning to the background flow.

This story is very different from the Greek or Christian religions's stories -- although not so different from Epicurus's idea. And not written in stone.


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