5. The Roman Welfare State

This is an unscheduled entry because I expected to go straight from Greek thought to Christian thought, but the Romans have blindsided me with one fact.

Basically, many things in the modern world find an echo in antiquity because the Greeks and Romans always seem to have done it before us. This is especially true when justifying ‘radical’ reform in the modern world. So, for instance, I have heard gay friends talk about open homosexuality in Greece, etc.

Therefore, I was surprised that this fact never made it to my ear: that the Romans provided free food to all the citizens of the city of Rome. They would basically buy grain from Egypt and distribute it to any citizen of Rome. They would not distribute it to anyone just standing on the street, but to anyone who had some sort of permanent residence or membership in local communities.

The Romans apparently believed that they needed to keep their population fed and entertained to prevent a riot (they had high rates of slavery and also had a large slave rebellion led by Spartacus). I had heard that Romans believed in keeping their population entertained; the Hunger Games appear to be based on this fact. But I had never heard about them also keeping their population fed. To me, this seems like a very early example of a welfare state, where the state provides food for its population.

Food stamps don’t seem so radical now.

Source: edX class ‘Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe’

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4. Greek Philosophy and Mathematics

I find the Greeks surprising: they developed a system of thought that was completely different from polytheism while they were still a polytheistic society.

In faith-based societies, life is governed by fate and magic. Nothing needs to be explained—things happen because of fate, or the will of the Gods, or some other magical explanation [more on this here].

Therefore, when Socrates says that wisdom is to know that you know nothing, it is a paradigm shift. He is not saying—I don’t know the will of the Gods, or I misinterpreted the oracle, or I am not sure where my fate will lead me; he just says I do not know. In fact, he was tried and executed for corrupting the youth of his day because he stopped people and asked them how they knew what they knew.

This is best explained by Plato’s allegory of a cave in ‘The Republic’. He says that if you were to imagine that prisoners were tied in a cave such that all they could see was the wall opposite them, and they could not see anything else—all they would know of the world through observation would be the wall opposite them.

Now, if someone put puppets in front of a fire behind them and made dancing forms on the wall opposite, they would think that those large, dancing forms were what being were like. But this is vastly different from what beings are really like. Therefore, our knowledge of the world is limited by the limits of our observation and perception.

Imagine what this implies:

  • We are limited by our senses.
  • We are limited by our ability to perceive.
  • We are limited by our experience (age, sex, geography, class, economic position, ethnicity, etc.)
  • We are limited by what society at the time can perceive, in terms of openness to ideas, technologies for observation, contact and communication with other cultures, etc.

Here, it seems that Plato is only talking about the limits of observation, and not the veil of biases that surround us that do not allow us to observe something without preconceived notions. He says that if the men in the cave were taken outside and allowed to see real humans, they would not be able to value the knowledge produced inside the cave again. They may even be considered mad once they returned to the cave and reported what they saw.

But I wonder, when the prisoners went outside the cave and saw humans in their true form—would they recognize that this was the true form of the human, or would they think that these were mutant versions of humans because they did not resemble the shadow forms dancing in the light? [more on this later]

The bias towards observation can also be seen in Greek mathematics. Now, we all know that Pythagoras gave us equations such as:

a2 + b2 = c2            

for hypotenuse triangles, and the Greeks made major advancements in geometry and mathematics.

But did you know that the equations were not written in this form or in any form we consider mathematics today? The equations were written discursively and proved by actually filling two squares, one with side a and one with side b, into a square of side c (a square of side x is x2). The a square and the b square were actually cut into smaller and smaller squares and fit into the c square. All mathematical proofs by the Greeks were in this form [Read more about this here].

Fig4_pi

Fig. This is the Greeks calculating the value of pi by fitting smaller and smaller squares in a circle (Source: Heaton, 2015).

Sources:

  1. Heaton, Luke 2015. A brief history of mathematical thought: Key concepts and where they come from. Robinson, Croydon, UK.
  2. edX classes ‘Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe’ and ‘Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning’.

2. Cosmology and the Gods

They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless.

-William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, II, iii, 1-6

I was a TA for a class in physical anthropology once and learnt that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers as early as 60,000 years ago (link). This suggests that the idea of the ‘divine’ or some sort of ‘God’ is very old and applies across the hominids from which humans are descended. Some scholars have suggested that it may be something categorically human.

A Dartmouth-based course on edX ‘Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning’ told me that the earliest human cosmologies attributed divine powers to forces of nature because these were more powerful than them and could not be explained. They invented rituals as a means to exert some sort of control on these unknowable and unpredictable forces of nature.

An Arizona State University-based course on edX ‘Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe’ told me that organized religion is one of the criteria for a society to be considered civilized (along with evidence of organization for irrigation canals, buildings, etc.). This implies that the society has a priestly class instead of depending on talented or inspired individuals. Religions in these early civilizations were polytheistic and personified forces of nature, universal values and human attributes as ‘Gods’.

Climate and geography appear to play an important part in defining the characteristics of the Gods*. The ancient Egyptian civilization was located along the Nile, where the climate was predictable; it flooded every year. The desert around the Nile valley also protected the civilization and isolated it from external forces and enemies. As a result, the Gods in Egypt were associated with balance.

The ancient Mesopotamian civilizations were located in an area with unpredictable climate, storms. They were also situated close to hilly areas where hostile nomadic tribes lived, who waged frequent wars on Mesopotamian civilizations. It is not surprising, then, that the Gods of Sumeria and other Mesopotamian civilizations were warring sky Gods.

Climate and geography also influenced the organization and political structure in civilized societies.  The ancient Egyptian civilization had a relatively stable climate, it was isolated from enemies, and it had few locations for developing cities and irrigation structures; it faced little external disturbance. It was ruled by an absolute, divine monarch, and the institutions to support this structure were relatively stable for over two millennia.

In contrast, the Greek civilization in classic antiquity was located on islands separated by the Mediterranean Sea and valleys separated by hills. This allowed political structures in city-states to develop in relative independence, and the civilization devised a range of governance regimes in different city-states, including a military oligarchy and a democratic republic.  City-states were also encouraged to compete with each other in war and in athletics.

Today, the only extant polytheistic religion that I know of is Hinduism, and it is structurally identical to these polytheistic religions:

(1) The system of belief includes multiple Gods that perform different and/or over-lapping functions. These Gods may even be substitutable—for instance, Greek scholars wrote that such and such people also worship Zeus, the storm God, but call him by this other name.

(2) The Gods are not ideal, omnipotent or omniscient; they have human characteristics and are mostly occupied with their own concerns. You can appeal to them through sacrifices such as fruit, meat, or something else of value to you.

(3) The system of belief includes magic in everyday life and may also include people with magical abilities.

(4) The system of belief includes oracles and prophecies, and also uses astrology.

(5) There appears to be a ‘trickster’ God in many of the polytheistic religions, who brings in the problems: Loki in Norse mythology; Narad muni in Hindu mythology; Seth in Egyptian mythologies. There may be others and I will add them to this list when I find them.

(6) The system of belief includes epics. I define epic as the story of a hero on a journey where some Gods are on his side and some Gods are against him. The hero may be semi-divine, but not fully divine, and he can often communicate directly with the Gods. [more on this later].

*More on environmental determinism later.

1. Knowledge

I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.

– Socrates in Plato’s Apology

After twelve years as a scientist, I have to admit that there is a lot I do not know; knowledge has been siloed in containers that I was either biased against or because the container was not accessible to me.

Science is based on increasing universal knowledge through testing the testable. But what happens to knowledge that is not testable?

In studying science, we examine generations of theories and experiments in western scientific traditions. But how did these paradigms emerge?

Post-modernists say that our understanding of the world today is biased by the words we use to describe them. Is ‘development’ a positive initiative or do we assume it is positive because the word intrinsically implies positive properties?

I did not have the answers to these questions because I was trained in a tradition that values empiricism and hypothesis-testing. But, the philosophy of science says that leading hypotheses against which we test our data may also be biased [more on this later].

When I was twenty-three, I read a brief history of philosophy, and became obsessed with Descartes. You have to understand that this was a very cursory text, and my understanding of philosophy was very superficial. Nevertheless, I was inspired and attempted to write down everything that I knew for certain. For this blog, I looked up this list again, and the list is laughable. I do not consider almost any of the ‘truths’ I listed at the time as ‘known knowns’ any more.

Since the age of twenty-three, I have completed a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university, given comprehensive examinations in multiple disciplines, lived in remote areas with marginalized people for years, and have experienced ten years of life. During this time, I have received knowledge from instinct, observation, stories, folk-lore, religious friends and lived experiences. Does this knowledge reconcile with the body of knowledge I received from academia?

Many of my observations could be reconciled with the received body of knowledge from historical research, anthropological research, statistical analysis and natural history reports. But, much of this knowledge is still unexplained. The modern world has emerged from ideas incubated and developed in Europe, but my understanding of histories and trajectories of thought in Europe were haphazard. I could not trace the genealogy of any idea other than the ones in my home disciplines of ecology and environmental studies. These disciplines are increasingly interdisciplinary as individuals interact with the environment at larger and larger scales, and as environmental studies incorporates disciplines that can be categorized as humanities. I needed a wider understanding of thought and knowledge in which I could place the genealogies of thought with which I was familiar.

Therefore, I embark on a personal project of understanding European history and intellectual traditions to understand how academia, and particularly science, obtains its knowledge, and what it leaves out.

For this, I enrolled in a few courses on edX, an online educational site where you can enrol in classes taught by professors at US universities. In this blog, I will be walking through the interesting lacuna in my knowledge from the disciplines of philosophy, mathematics, history, sociology, and literature.

I hope that this exercise will make me a wiser person and help me to reconcile my observations of the world we live in today. Do join me on this journey.

PS: If I have erroneous information on something today, please realize that this is an exercise in improving my knowledge and I hope to correct myself with further knowledge. However, do point out if I am missing something, though.

PS2: Nature of knowledge will be dealt with later.