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.)

148 thoughts on “Ancient vs modern philosophy

  1. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    “I, at least. am not discussing ethics, but reductionism. If your’re not interested, that;s ok.”

    I thought you were discussing reductionism in the context of ethics. Here is the oart I was responding to :

    “Dan, e.g., seems to think that underlying physical basis for ethics is irrelevant and for many issues it likely is. However, cases like this would seem to show it has a physical basis and that so-called epistemic reductionism is not a complete failure”

    That sounds to me like you are saying that the Gage case in some way contradicts what Dan said. Do you have any disagreement with Dan in this respect?

    I have already said that the study of the physical basis of these things can be interesting and useful in other areas.

    All I am saying is that even a complete physical account of the physical basis of the emotions which motivate ethical decisions or a complete understanding of the evolutionary history of these emotions would have negligible relevance to ethical or moral decision making. I thought you were saying that such understanding would have relevance to such decisions.

    If you were not saying that then we have no disagreement.

    A technical discussion of what we know of these physical bases might be interesting, but it seems off topic if no one is claiming they have relevance to ethical or moral decision making.

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  2. Robin Herbert

    Actually there are many secular claims that thinking good thoughts has benefits at least to you psychological health.

    Suppose I believed this and decided to start trying to think good thoughts to improve my health, would that be a moral or ethical decision? Or a health decision?

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  3. synred

    I was trying to use ethics or at least virtue as an example of partial reductionism that was partly successful, not discussing specific ethical issues. Likely I was not clear. Dan and I had a discussion about this some time ago about whether the underlying physical reality was relevant. Roughly we concluded that he was not interested in ‘physical basis’ and I was -which is not really a dispute.

    I would guess that the physical basis is not very relevant to deciding such issues for healthy people, but does I think impair the ability of people like Cage to deal with them and may be relevant to the existence of psychopaths and sociopaths of various degrees.

    It’s kind of like logic. While there may well be regions of the brain that if damaged impair ones ability to reason logically, logic remains logic none-the-less.

    Such people might not make good machaeridians, but … may well do ok in … ah .. other fields …

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  4. synred

    Actually there are many secular claims that thinking good thoughts has benefits at least to your psychological health.

    It seems likely that many such studies (or at least the press reports about them) confuse correlation and causation. People who are recovering or have less sever disease may well be more optimistic about there prospects. Still there might be some such effects. It would be most interesting to understand it’s physical basis if their are. Damned difficult to do, I would imagine.

    I find if difficult to be optimistic when I’m sick. Still my colds don’t seem to last longer than other peoples — a week with a optimist attitude, 7 days w/o, I suspect. I’d take a vaccine over happy talk any day.

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  5. brodix

    E.O. Wilson said the insect brain is a thermostat. It has also been shown ants can count, when it comes to number of steps and navigating.

    The brain has two sides. The left is described as the logical and the right as the emotional.

    Plants don’t have brains, but they certainly are thermostats.

    Plants also don’t need to navigate, because they don’t intentionally move.

    Sequence is essential to navigation and it is also basic to logic. How many forms of logical are not sequential? Statistics?

    Emotion is a bit of a thermostat; Hot and cold, as well as the resulting effects, connections and all the non-linear entanglements, etc.

    So we have the left side of the brain that sequences, like time and the right side of the brain which is more environmentally, socially, culturally entangled, the scalar of which is temperature.

    So how much are our brains complex thermostats? Funneled through the sequence of perceptions call consciousness.

    When they do brain scans, presumably the active, ie. thermally energized, areas are the ones engaged in perception.

    Which we try to organize into sequence, like words on a page. Notes in a song, rising and falling. Computer code.

    Fade to black.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robin Herbert

    I will let Dan comment on the Gage issue if he wants to – as I say I don’t think that anyone would doubt that people who’s abilities are severely impaired physically might be a special case.

    It does not sound like there is any dispute here.

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  7. SocraticGadfly

    Sherlock, that’s a problem indeed in our judicial system, and not just with juries. In complex federal cases here in the US, many a judge has shown him/herself to be pretty clueless about scientific issues.

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  8. brodix

    I think the brain is a bit of a danger meter and tends to ignore the 95% of things going right, because it’s the 5% of things going wrong that need attention.

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  9. Sherlock

    Socratic, there’s a real problem there alright. It could be ameliorated a bit by removing what synred called the ‘guns for hire’ aspect but I’m interested in the broader problem of authority and autonomy. There’s been a lot of comment on the idea of reduction, indirect or otherwise. The problem for the future of participatory politics generally is the reverse of reduction, the translation from physics (say) to natural language with sufficient fidelity to allow intelligent comment by non-experts to be taken seriously, even by physicists.

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  10. Robin Herbert

    In C P Snow’s “Two Cultures” he asks why the ground breaking experiments demonstrating parity violation in the weak force was not the talk of the high table in Cambridge.

    The fact he has to ask the question demonstrates he has not thought this through enough. To anyone without a physics grounding they are just a bunch of words. One might as well say that the fidelity splitting amplitude of the quark meson Planck identity swap had been demonstrated or some such.

    I have only just recently by some fairly hard work gotten a very loose high level layman’s understanding of what that experiment demonstrated, and that took quite a lot of hard work.

    Snow suggested that an understanding of the second law of Thermodynamics was a basic concept that anyone with any scientific literacy should understand – but it is really a very difficult concept. It is usually described in ways that are misleading and using terms that have specific technical meanings that are quite dissimilar to their ostensible everyday meaning.

    I have huge doubts that a translation of physics to natural language that would allow intelligent comment by non-experts is possible except perhaps in a very limited number of cases.

    In fact I am pretty sure that the majority of people forget what little physics they learned in school and couldn’t tell you what heat is or what Newtons three laws of motion are.

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  11. Robin Herbert

    And of course it goes the other way. Even I know more about logic than Leonard Susskind, or about Aristotle than Stephen Hawking even though I have a fairly basic knowledge in each of these.

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  12. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    The fact he has to ask the question demonstrates he has not thought this through enough. To anyone without a physics grounding they are just a bunch of words.

    I think you’re being unfair. His whole point was that a grounding in physics would not be considered part of a general education, whereas a grounding in, say, Shakespeare (and at least an outline knowledge of the plots of MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet) would be.

    Snow suggested that an understanding of the second law of Thermodynamics was a basic concept that anyone with any scientific literacy should understand — but it is really a very difficult concept. It is usually described in ways that are misleading and using terms that have specific technical meanings that are quite dissimilar to their ostensible everyday meaning.

    While it can be described in such terms, it can also be described entirely validly without such terms, and indeed I’m pretty sure I could explain the basic concept to any thirteen year old who was reasonably bright and had an interest in maths/science.

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  13. Sherlock

    Robin, I don’t believe equations and technical experiments can be translated into everyday language and I admire your tenacity in coming to grips with them on their own terms. I had in mind the meaning of the technical stuff and take hope from an Einstein quote:

    Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.

    There is another Einstein quote that I half remember on the lines of:

    We must make our woirk intelligible to ordinary people or we’re wasting our time.

    I think this is what we need. Don’t know if it’s achievable.

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  14. Sherlock

    I know that the ‘meaning’ of much of physics is often more contentious than the equations, as was, and is, the case with quantum mechanics for instance. But we’d be okay with ‘on the one hand….’ type explanations wouldn’t we?

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  15. Sherlock

    Coel,
    …I’m pretty sure I could explain the basic concept to any thirteen year old who was reasonably bright and had an interest in maths/science.

    I would like to go futher. The basic ideas of modern science should be an essential part of a general education. They are much too important to be confined to a specific subject area.

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  16. synred

    :>In C P Snow’s “Two Cultures” he asks why the ground breaking experiments demonstrating parity violation in the weak force was not the talk of the high table in Cambridge.

    I read the ‘Two Cultures’ a long time ago. It seems to me snow was too even handed. Scientiest are interested cuture, read literature, listen and play music, but the ‘liberal arts’ folks are with a few notable exceptions are not interested in science. It’s one way street.

    My father-in-law seemed to think of physicist as some kind of mechanics — useful perhaps, but of no real importance.

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  17. synred

    Suskind and Hawking certainly know about logic and Aristotle. That they were not writing about these subjects doesn’t mean they don’t know about them. Aristotle in unlikey to come up in the context of string theory or General Relativity.

    You mivhf well know more and as far is science is concerned at least your interested.

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  18. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    The problem is that Hawking does write about Aristotle (along with Mlodinov) without knowing what he is talking about and it does not even seem to have occurred to either of these physicists that they should check their facts.

    I have pointed out this case a few times.

    And Susskind, as I have mentioned before, presents a really daft argument about how the logical OR operator is not symmetric under QM.

    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.

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  19. wtc48

    I’ll have to get to my tempered tuning metaphor later today. I’m not sure it’s apt, but I will try to explain further.

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  20. Daniel Kaufman

    synred: 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?

    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.

    Hawking would fail both, with respect to Aristotle on anything other than physics and astronomy. As would Coel and for that matter, you. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion on the subject and even, perhaps, a somewhat educated opinion, if you are well-read. But it does mean that your opinion cannot override that of someone with the relevant expertise — at least, not in any arena that actually matters (as opposed to random discussions on the internet, which while perhaps personally edifying, do not).

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  21. Daniel Kaufman

    Also gotta’ say I completely disagree with you, re: Snow. His naivety on matters moral and political was breathtaking, insofar as he was an early — though much more articulate — version of the Krauss/Harris “science can determine our values” school of thought, which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject. And before people start jumping up and down, consider my last comment to synred. Would any accredited institution pay Harris or Krauss or any scientist, for that matter, to teach ethics or axiology to students, other than as some sort of celebrity-visiting-instructor stunt?

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  22. Robin Herbert

    And, as usual, if anyone can show me where Aristotle says that things become more jubilant as they approach their natural home, or anything like that, I will take it all back.

    But really, it is just not the kind of thing Aristotle says.

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  23. Robin Herbert

    Coel,

    I would be quite interested in how you would explain 2nd law of thermodynamics to a bright 13 year old. I have tried to communicate my understanding of this to a bright 12 year old and have found difficulty in getting across what ‘reversible’ means in this context or why there should be more micro states associated with some states than others, or how the micro state and macro state definitions of entropy relate to each other.

    He was already coming off a high base of understanding, he tops his science class and gobbles up books about science.

    But he had trouble coming to grips with what entropy is and the best I could do was steer him in a particular direction and ask him to explain it back to me when he gets it.

    He was not satisfied with his science teacher’s explanation either.

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  24. Robin Herbert

    Hi Sherlock,

    ” I had in mind the meaning of the technical stuff”

    Yes, I had that in mind too. But even that is difficult to get across to a general audience.

    Coel thinks that it would be reasonable to suggest that general audiences might reasonably be expected to understand physica to a level that they could appreciate the experiment which demonstrated parity violation in the weak force, I don’t think that this could even be expected of scientists who are not physicists. It would take more time than a layperson has to reach this level, whereas a lay appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays does not.

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  25. Robin Herbert

    It woud be interesting to pick a group of biologists at random and see how well they could demonstrate their understanding of the experiment which demonstrated parity violation in the weak force. I wonder how many could give a good account of what the weak force is.

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  26. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    I would be quite interested in how you would explain 2nd law of thermodynamics to a bright 13 year old.

    Here’s an attempt (sorry everyone for being wildly off-topic).

    The world is pretty complicated, so let’s make a simple version of it. This will still tell you the essential point about the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Take a box containing 100 coins. The coins are either heads-up or tails-up and there is enough room in the box to shake them so that they turn over.

    So shake the box. About half the coins will be heads and half tails. There are lots and lots of possible states that have about half heads and about half tails. Shake the box again and you get another one. And again; you get another one.

    It doesn’t matter which particular coins are heads, or which particular coins are tails, which means there are lots of possible ways of arranging each individual coin such that roughly half are heads and roughly half tails. There is nothing special about such an outcome, so we call the overall state a disordered state.

    Now consider the state where every coin is a heads. This is a very special state because it requires every coin to be in a particular state — namely heads There is only one possible way of arranging the coins such that all are heads. Thus we call this a highly ordered state.

    Now, suppose we are in a heads-only state, and we shake the box hard. What’s going to happen? Well, since there there is only one state with all heads (or, indeed, all tails) the chance of it landing back in that state are very tiny.

    But, since there are lots and lots of states in which roughly half the coins are heads and half tails, it is overwhelmingly probable that you’ll end up with a nearly half-and-half state. In other words the system has moved from an ordered state to a disordered one.

    But what happens if you’re in a disordered state to start? Well, the chances of moving to a highly ordered state are very low, just because there are few such states. Chances are you’ll land back in a disordered state, because there are lots of configurations that are disordered.

    And that’s the second law of thermodynamics. It says that it’s easy and likely for an ordered state to move naturally to a disordered state; but it’s highly unlikely for a disordered state to move spontaneously to an ordered one. (That would take an intervention from outside, such as a kid coming along and turning over each coin as appropriate.)

    You can stop there. So far, no maths and no jargon. Depending on the kid you can also introduce some jargon.

    The “macrostate” is the overall ratio of heads to tails. The “microstate” is the particular configuration of each coin (imagine them numbered 1 to 100, then the microstate is the list HTTHHT…etc).

    “Entropy” is then just a fancy word for how ordered the state is. Formally, it is a count of the number of microstates that would give the same macrostate (e.g. for all-heads the count is only 1, for 50:50 it is lots). A high-entropy macrostate has lots of possible microstates; a low-entropy macrostate has few possible microstates. Saying “entropy always increases” is then just saying what I said above.

    The mathematics of counting microstates is then the combination formula, which should be ok for a maths-able teenager.

    A couple of other points: we’ve made the implicit assumption that each microstate is equally probable.

    Also, the 2nd law is probabilistic, not absolute — there is a tiny, tiny chance that a shake of the coins would indeed give all-heads, but that chance decreases as the number of coins increases. In the real world we’re talking about molecules and there are about 10^23 of them in each teaspoon of stuff. Thus the chances of significant large-scale violations of the 2nd law effectively vanish to zero.

    Coel thinks that it would be reasonable to suggest that general audiences might reasonably be expected to understand physica to a level that they could appreciate the experiment which demonstrated parity violation in the weak force, …

    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).

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