When I first started reading philosophy of life it came as a shock to realise the ancient and medieval philosophers, more-or-less, made it all up. They typically had little or no empirical evidence much less method and they did precious little research. All they had were their personal observations and reasoning as would be expected then. Their assertions often had no basis in observation at all. There was little testing of the conclusions with research or systematic investigations as we would expect today such as “double blind” experiments and statistical analysis.
Perhaps this was not unreasonable as every form of explanation must start somewhere. An original hypothesis needs to be formed before it can be discussed and tested. The problem was those original hypotheses were not properly challenged with evidence-based reasoning and remained substantially unaltered until much later.
Perhaps the most famous exception to this lack of emphasis on research was Aristotle who strongly advocated empirical research, but many other philosophers and particularly theologians did little basic research save referencing written texts and conventional wisdom from previous generations. These written texts being based on older written texts all the way back to the unsubstantiated original hypothesis proposals. This may be a little harsh, but it is mainly the case.
It was not until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe, and a little earlier in Islamic countries, empirical research and questioning was used to form the beginnings of the scientific method as we now use and understand it. It was the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, in Europe, and many others who started to question the wisdom of the ancients and develop more coherent explanations of the universe more closely aligned with careful observation of the things around them.
This may be a rather shocking claim to the average educated person let alone philosophy dons, but I do not see any other interpretation of what we appear to know. Sometimes, observation and reasoning took them a long way; Euclidean geometry and the laws of logic were astounding triumphs of the ancient mind given the tools of science (not) available. At the other extreme, assertions the elements of the universe were earth, wind, water and fire was a nonsense interpretation of the universe but one that persisted for millennia. Other assertions turned out to be more accurate such as the Greek theory of atoms. But as there was no possible way those ancient Greeks could have any evidence to support this assertion one must class this as a “lucky guess” based on the idea that there must be a single irreducible part of anything. Quantum physics now questions even this assertion.
Despite my initial scepticism as to ancient (and not so ancient) philosophy, the theories, hypotheses and downright guesses, taken as a whole, were still an amazing achievement. These philosophers tried to explain how human beings and the universe worked. The fact they were trying to explain their situation and not just resorting to mysticism was and is important. They established, as a principle, the human situation can be rationally assessed. This was a vital and important achievement and is, to my mind, their greatest achievement.
In many cases, their explanations have turned out to be very wide of the mark and rather fanciful. But, considering the tools they had to hand, they achieved a lot. Not least was fostering the idea one must ask basic questions about our existence. We can boil these down to three fundamental questions about our existence:
- What am I?
- What is this universe?
- Can I ever know the answers?
Over the millennia the interest in these basic questions has waxed and waned. At times, a religious belief: all is in the “good book”, was transcendent. Be it the Bible, Talmud, Koran or any other text, the writings effectively extinguishing further consideration of alternative answers to the questions. At other times and especially today our inquisitiveness knows no bounds. Human inquisitiveness is mostly approached through applying the “scientific method” albeit we are not at all sure how and if it provides any certain answers. But despite all the caveats and reservations, we continue to seek the answers to those essential fundamental questions.
Those basic questions raised by the ancient philosophers are still immensely relevant with huge gaps in our understanding of the answers.
There is a quotation from the defunct humorous magazine Punch from the 14 July 1855 edition that sums up a common answer:
What is Matter? – Never Mind.
What is Mind? – No Matter.
This is how we often consider two big issues: what is this world (what is matter?) and who am I (what is mind?), but can we go any further? The third question underlies the whole problem: how can I know the truth? Or perhaps more precisely how can I know, I know the truth?
The Modelling Mind book attempts to address these questions and provide some answers.
My hypothesis, presented in the book, is based on known evidence and proposes a theory supported by observation and reasoning. It will be for the reader to judge how reasonable the conclusion is.
(Excerpt from the preface to Modelling Mind)