Dark Ages: A Companion Piece to Episode 7: There Is No Spoon
Written By Derek Jones
Take a journey into the past with me.
If you've read my first blog or listened to the podcast, you likely know that history is my intellectual passion. When planning on how to complement this weeks episode, "There Is No Spoon" I'd like to take us back to Ancient Greece and Rome. The question Laurel and I were asking in "There Is No Spoon" was centered around stories that searched for the truth. What is the truth, and how do we find it? The search for truth in philosophical form is part of the study of epistemology. In epistemology one asks the very big question, "How do we know what we know?" Every piece of knowledge has an epistemology at its core. For example, the scientific method is very much an epistemology. In the scientific method, a person or group of persons asks a question, comes up with a hypothesis to potentially answer the question, tests the question, and then publishes their results to have other people verify and retest. Eventually the hypothesis is either proven to be true or false and humanity learns something about how the world works. The epistemology of the scientific method presupposes that the universe is made up of observable phenomenon, raw material with core governing principles-- we can walk on the Earth because of gravity, we can breath air because of evolution, etc... Most of us associate scientific thinking with our current age, but the epistemology is ancient, ancient and Greek.
A thousand years before the birth of Christ, the ancient world was in a dark age. Famine was widespread, people were nomadic, and major empires either collapsed or shrunk. The only place that had food was Egypt, thanks to the Nile river depositing mineral rich soil on its banks. No one really knows why the ancient world was in a dark age, and there are several theories from global climate changes, to leadership corruption. Out of the dark shadow of famine and social disruption, these tiny city states that shared a common language started popping up, and they were coming up with some radical ideas. Constitutions became the basis of government, not gods. Art was made to capture and understand beauty, not display the power of a king. People went to theater to laugh and cry. These city states became the basis of our way of life, the building blocks on which current American and Western European culture is built. I'm talking about Ancient Greece. In particular, there was man named Socrates, and his student Plato, who envisioned a world where the smartest individuals would talk to each other and debate the nature of reality, knowledge, morality, politics, art, and everything and anything else. They called this place the Academy, and it its core there was a new Greek way of thinking called, "logos" (what we call today logic). Logos has an epistemological presupposition, and it is the same one the scientific method has. The universe is knowable. When humans observe phenomenon and study it, we can learn how things happen. From the epistemological core, a golden age of ideas flourished of the likes humanity never saw before, and would struggle to replicate again.
Flash forward about 1,300 years and Rome was the master of the Ancient Mediterranean World, and had been for sometime. Rome had a major Greek culture crush. Roman philosophy, art, literature, law, history, clothing, I mean pretty much everything, had some type of Greek connection, appreciation, and/or heritage. But that would change as the Roman Emperors started putting their patronage around a new way of thinking, Ancient Christianity. The Christian thinkers of the time had a fundamentally different epistemology than the Grecian Academy. The ancient Christians argued that with the advent of the Bible, all human knowledge stopped. There needed to be no further debate, no further discovery, no further quest for truth, other than debating what the Bible said and how to better incorporate Christian orthodoxy into the Roman state. A battle over how the universe worked ensued, and the Academy was burned-- literally. We will never know what knowledge was burned with it. Logos lost the war over how knowledge is gained, and with the advent of all knowledge being derived from the newly formed Catholic Church, the Ancient World made way for another dark age.
Just like the dark age before the rise of Classical Greece, Western Europe would not stay in a dark age forever. The classical writings of the Ancient world were preserved by the Medieval Muslim Caliphates, and were eventually rediscovered. The study of Ancient writing would endure, ushering a return to logos and the Academy of the Ancient Greeks became the modern university system we have today. Humankind would see a new era of logos, and the Medieval world would lead us to the Modern world. Now, nearly every American walks around with a networked super computer in their pocket and all human knowledge is accessible.
So what's the lesson here? Today we are witnessing a new battle over knowledge. Powerful people are telling us to believe their version of facts, divorced from logos and without evidence. Simply put, it matters how we come to know the things we know. And human society without a generally agreed consensus on epistemology squashes debate, silences dissent, and disenfranchises the truth. Creating an epistemology that is not based on logos is the intellectual soup that feeds a dark age. Should we challenge general assumptions about how the world works? Absolutely. But we can an ill afford vanquishing knowledge for convenience, facts for fictions, and reason for madness.