Ancient vs modern philosophy

Ancient vs Modern

Did the ancients get it right? Indeed, better than the moderns? No, this conversation between Dan Kaufman and I is not about mystical insights or the secret scientific knowledge of the people who built the pyramids. Rather, it’s about what, if anything, ancient philosophers understood about the human condition that was then lost by the philosophy that developed during and after the Scientific Revolution.

We begin with an overview of the differences between ancient (meaning, Western, pre-middle ages) and modern (meaning, post-Descartes) philosophy, focusing on the early idea, later abandoned, that philosophy is not just a discipline of study, but a way of life. That turn toward a specialized field of inquiry began to take place during the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, and of course has accelerated with the rise of the modern academy in the 20th century, especially after War World II.

About halfway through the video we switch gears, from talking about philosophy in general to tackling ethics more specifically, an area where the differences between ancients and moderns are particularly stark. Specifically, we discuss the question of why philosophers at some point turned away from an ethics based on the concept of virtue and embraced the idea of moral values and judgments, a turn that both Dan and I — for different reasons — think was not exactly the brightest idea ever. The conversation ends with a discussion of whether universal ethical principles exist. (Hint: not really, but it’s complicated.)

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148 thoughts on “Ancient vs modern philosophy

  1. Robin, sorry that I don’t seem able to make myself clear on these points. As far as teaching 13 year olds, I don’t suggest that they should understand the details of experiments or the solving of equations unless they have a particular aptitude in that area.
    The young people I meet seem to have an almost 19th century idea of the nature of the world we live in (despite their easy familiarity with the latest technology). We can surely bring these ideas up to date without drowning the wonder of it in technical details that are beyond most of us.
    The fact that ‘A brief history of time’ sold 80 million copies shows the appetite that exists for accessible explanations of big themes. Is it regrettable that people look to physicists and cosmologists for their answers rather than to philsosophers?

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  2. Here is a question that a 12 year old (my son) has asked me and I have had to say that I simply had no idea and couldn’t even begin to suggest an answer.

    We are sitting together on a carousel in the park at evening spinning slowly round looking at the night sky. He says that in our frame of reference we are stationary and that the stars we are watching are moving relative to us. So I say that I suppose so. Then he says that a particular star we have watched has circled us in a few seconds but that it is about 4 light years away. Then he asks, doesn’t that imply, giving a rough calculation of that circumference, that it has travelled many times faster than the speed of light in our frame of reference. And shouldn’t that be impossible?

    The fact that I can’t suggest an answer shows that, even as I have tried and I have distinctions and high distinctions in university maths courses to demonstrate that I am not a complete dummy, I still have not grokked this subject.

    He will understand that one day (if it is indeed understood, which I don’t know) and may be able to explain it to me.

    But I don’t see how physicists don’t see that this stuff is difficult for us to understand. There is not time in a normal life to allow us to spend very much time on this.

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  3. Hi Coel,

    “I think the underlying point of that is not too hard. It is simply this. Suppose we took a fundamental particle and made a copy of it flipped by a mirror, so that left and right were reversed. Would that copy behave exactly the same way? The answer is nearly, but not quite (the not-quite being the parity violation).”

    But the point is, he was asking people to appreciate what a great achievement the experiment was. Given a high level description like that no one can tell whether there is any beauty or excitement in the experiment that would demonstrate it. It might be a pretty hum-drum experiment which could demonstrate that, for all the rest of us know.

    If there had been someone around who had a great gift for describing these things and had described this well, then there might well have been much discussion of it around the Cambridge High table and elsewhere.

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  4. An academic’s understanding of, for example, Shakespeare’s plays is also difficult for the layman, maybe as difficult in its own way as an understanding of a physical concept, but literature is different in that it can be appreciated at the level of a general audience, because that is basically what it was written for.

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  5. Hi Sherlock,

    I think that people go to physicists for different kinds of answers. Incidentally, “Brief HIstory of Time” is what my son is currently reading and thankfully it has displaced such things as Pokemon Sun and Moon.

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  6. Incidentally, I am not expecting an answer to the carousel thing – he will work it out and have fun doing so, maybe in a few years. Just an illustration of the difficulty of these things for the lay person. You get to the point where you think you have just about got it and then you get a question which demonstrates you don’t got it at all.

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  7. Robin: he should consider the speed of a spot of light from a torch traversing a distant object, and then (unrelated, but fun) negative group velocity and other interference based effects

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  8. I know you want to defend team physicist, but the fact is that even really great physicists can be lousy critical thinkers outside their own specialty.

    Well I have to more or less agree with that. Esp. in pop books…

    I’ve also thought ‘quantum logic’ kind of silly. Plain old logic works fine, if you ask the right questions…

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  9. One way of determining whether someone knows enough about something to opine on it in an authoritative manner is to ask yourself this question: Would any accredited institution pay this person to teach the subject to students?

    Well it’s worth considering, but not that reliable. Prof. Jame T. Fetzer is or was paid to teach philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He thought the Zapruder film had been doctored to cover up the ‘fact’ that the car had stopped to make the grassy knoll shot possible. He since moved on to Sandy Hook and 911 trutherism. Margaret and I made a fool of him at a JFK convention a few years back. He’s very big on touting his credentials. He threatened to hit me. Always a winning argument.

    Margaret stepped in front of him and he accused me ‘hiding behind her skirts’, but she hadn’t worn skirt since 1969 (a slight exaggeration, but not by much).

    I looked up some of hisphilosophy science work. It reads like warmed, breathless Daniel Dennet. It wasn’t s much wrong as trivial. beating to death some point (that I’ve forgotten) that seemed pretty obvious to me.

    http://d.umn.edu/phil/main/

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  10. I would be quite interested in how you would …

    Strictly speaking micro states per macro staties is part of the reduction of thermodynamics to to statisticala mechanics.

    Why does your room end up messsy? Are there more ways for it to be neat or more ways for it to be messy.

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  11. Here’s a observation from my 12 year old granddaughter made when she was 6.

    Told the the universe was everything there is, she heard about ‘mulit-verse’. She commented, “if the universe is all there is, there can only be one”

    I’ll have to try statistical mechanics on her. I’ll attempt to make it has concret as possible though she is pretty good at abstraction.

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  12. synred:

    You seem to have ignored this part:

    “While this is not any kind of exhaustive test, its certainly a good rule of thumb. Another way would be to look at credentialing degrees, but these are also not exhaustive, but rather, good rules of thumb.”

    One would also, of course, need to add to this peer-reviewed publications. Of which it will also be the case that is overwhelmingly the philosophers who are doing the work on these subjects, not physicists or cosmologists or whoever.

    These are, in fact, the rules of thumb by which our society indicates relevant expertise.You may not like it, but there it is. So Hawking can go on about Aristotle as much as he wants or Krauss on ethics, but its we — i.e. philosophers — who are doing the peer-reviewed research in these areas and teaching the relevant subjects in the university. Krauss may have a lot to say about ethics, but its my colleagues and I who are actually teaching ethics to every nursing student who graduates from this university with a nursing degree. It is we who are teaching logic to every student that goes to Law School. Etc.

    I’m frankly surprised at your resistance to this pretty obvious truth. After all, it’s what determines who the relevant experts are in your field as well.

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  13. Coel:

    I: think the underlying point of that is not too hard. It is simply this. Suppose we took a fundamental particle and made a copy of it flipped by a mirror, so that left and right were reversed. Would that copy behave exactly the same way? The answer is nearly, but not quite (the not-quite being the parity violation).

    Actually parity violation is not small. It can be 100%.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_experiment

    Still the mirror explanation is pretty simple. It usually how to I think about it.

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  14. https://fas.org/sgp/othergov/doe/lanl/pubs/00285652.pdf

    At a macro scoping level parity ‘violation’ occurs with screws. Almost all screws are right handed. In nature neutrino’s s are all left handed. Hence the 100% parity violation seen by Prof. Wu is due tothe fact that thre are no right handed neutrino’s. Some fairly clear pixs are in the article linked. A pix is worth 1K words.

    Not try explaing CP violation…

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  15. An academic’s understanding of, for example, Shakespeare’s plays is also difficult for the layman, maybe as difficult in its own way as an understanding of a physical concept, but literature is different in that it can be appreciated at the level of a general audience, because that is basically what it was written for.

    When as students you are asked “What’s your major?” And you answer ‘Phsyics” and usually get the resonse “Oh! You must be smart…”

    My usual say “No physics is simple. it has clear cut answers (at least at the undergrad level); English (or whatever) is hard.”

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  16. Robin, My Grandaughter as slso out grown ‘pokemon’. We did have history in the form of how much it resembled Roman Gladiators.

    Now she like Gumball, which while awfully loud, it has it’s philosophical moments.

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  17. Dan said:

    Would any accredited institution pay this person to teach the subject to students?

    Yep, that’s part of the argument against Jesus mythicists. Price is at an unaccredited institution, and none of the other of their leading lights have regular teaching gigs, if any.

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  18. But try explaining why that is counter intuitive, startling, beautiful etc, the things that Snow suggested should make this a topic of conversation. Why were people not expecting parity to be violated? Why is it against intuition and common sense? What is beautiful and original about Wu’s work that is not the case with any physics experiment?

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  19. Well I’m not a great believer in credentials. I appreciate your post, but not because of your credentials.

    I can find a credentialed philosopher on different sides of almost any issue, so in the end I’m forced to rely on my own understanding of the issues regardless of how weak it might be. Not that I ignore credentials entirely, but I don’t rely on it. It’s more important that what there saying makes sense.generally speaking the credentialed philosophers do make more sense than the wannabes.

    Fetzer was tenured and had plenty of peer review publications, but is still a wack job.

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  20. Why is it against intuition and common sense? What is beautiful and original about Wu’s work that is not the case with any physics experiment?

    Interlude – THE NEWTON-BEETHOVEN COMPARISON Four – EXPERIMENTUM CRUCIS : Newton’s Decomposition of Sunlight with Prisms Interlude – DOES SCIENCE DESTROY BEAUTY ? Five – WEIGHING THE WORLD : Cavendish’s Austere Experiment Interlude – INTEGRATING SCIENCE AND POPULAR CULTURE Six – LIGHT A WAVE : Young’s Lucid Analogy
    Seven – SEEING THE EARTH ROTATE : Foucault’s Sublime Pendulum Interlude – SCIENCE AND THE SUBLIME Eight – SEEING THE ELECTRON : Millikan’s Oil-Drop Experiment Interlude – PERCEPTION IN SCIENCE 9 – DAWNING BEAUTY: Rutherford’s Discovery of the Atomic Nucleus Interlude – ARTISTRY IN SCIENCE 10 – THE ONLY MYSTERY: The Quantum Interference of Single Electrons

    Crease, Robert. The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    A Martin Perl Book Club selection. Crease is a philosopher..

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  21. Hi Robin,

    Then he asks, doesn’t that imply, giving a rough calculation of that circumference, that it has travelled many times faster than the speed of light in our frame of reference. And shouldn’t that be impossible?

    Yes he’s right, and no, it shouldn’t be impossible! The more-technical statement of the speed-of-light limit is that one cannot transfer information from one location to another at greater than the speed of light.

    It is relatively straightforward to have a “something” that travels faster than light if no actual “thing” is moving from one location to another. Consider taking a laser beam and swinging it round in a circle. Then consider that the locus of where the beam has got to will (beyond some distance) be moving round at faster than light. But that’s not a problem, the “locus” is an abstract construct, not a material thing. The actual photons are not moving faster than light.

    So, ask your kid if he can figure out a way of using his rotating-carousel idea to hold a conversation with someone on that distant star, such that the interval between each communication is less than the light-travel time. Only if he can do that is he violating the speed-of-light limit!

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  22. Re credentials. Dan has a fairly good argument, but not a knock-down one. For example, I would never be hired to teach theology at a university, but I have no problem at all in declaring many theologians, including ones with high reputations such as Alvin Plantinga, to be completely wrong about the existence of god and on vast swathes of their theology. And I don’t consider people like Plantinga to have expertise on the “existence of god” that I don’t have (I would readily concede that they have expertise on what other theologians have written about the existence of god that I do not have, but that’s not the same thing).

    Credentials are a good short-hand, a good rule of thumb, but not the final answer.

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  23. One way to think of entropy and the experts can point out my errors, would be the signal to noise ratio. All signal would be low entropy and all noise would be high entropy. Yet that would seem to mean low entropy could only exist as some vortex, extraction or construct within a larger, disordered state.

    Unless it is absolute zero, as an equilibrium, which is no useable energy anyway.

    ?

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