2013-04-19

To Paradise

As faithful Stationary Waves readers know, I don't think truth can be determined from historical analysis. But that need not stop us from entertaining possibilities. What follows is one such possibility.

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There are many ways to parse human history. The conventional way to discuss Chinese history, for example, is to parse its historical periods according to the dynasties of the ruling families. This is largely true for histories of the Indian sub-continent.

As we move west to what is known as the "Ancient Near East," the convention changes to something more descriptive: Technology and intellectual achievement. We start with the Chalcolithic, or Copper, Age, followed by the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, respectively. While there is a further breakdown of each of these periods, they are broadly known by the technology that was developed during that time, and how that technology impacted their lives. The advent of both metallurgy and agriculture enabled human society to develop less according to ruling chieftains and more according to prosperity.

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That takes us to what is called "Classical Antiquity," otherwise known as the development of human society according to the intellectual achievements of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. While the cultural center of Classical Antiquity migrated from Phoenicia to Egypt, to Greece, and finally Rome over the eons, the essential character - the core, fundamental aspects of Mediterranean culture - remained more or less the same throughout the years.

What I mean is, unlike previous historical periods or contemporary periods elsewhere in the world, the culture of Classical Antiquity was remarkably inquisitive, logical, mathematical, scientific, and generally Socratic.

While every major culture everywhere has offered its fair share of intellectual achievements, Classical Antiquity gave us something altogether more significant: philosophy, and here I use that word in its most literal sense, a love of thought. Cultures all over the world, throughout time, have developed their various contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and technology. Be that as it may, Classical Antiquity gave us not only all of those things, but also taxonomies, nomenclature, methodologies, and so on.

For example, while every culture has given us musical scales of some sort, it was the Greeks who first developed musical modes. For those of you who don't know, a mode in music is what happens when you take any scale - think "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do" - and shift all the notes over so that you start on a different tone, creating a very different musical "mood." Consider beginning a scale at "re": re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do, re. The mood created by the notes you play changes dramatically. And, in point of fact, the minor scale is nothing more than the very same notes, in the very same order, but beginning with "mi" instead of "do." The Greeks were the first we know to have recognized this.

And they didn't merely "recognize" it. They further discovered that what governs these notes are the harmonic overtones contained in literal sound wave of each note. From that insight, all we know about musical theory has been derived.

Place this in perspective. While, for example, Malaysia has a rich history of unique music, the branches of the musical tree end in Malaysia. Ancient Malaysians developed their own rules about rhythm and note choice, but the Greeks provided us with not just rhythm and note choice, but the entire intellectual framework from which to understand it. That's the key difference.

Of course, the inhabitants of Classical Antiquity didn't stop with music. They gave us mathematics, physics, natural biology, the precursors to modern medicine, philosophy, and so on. In a period of about 1,300 years, they developed the majority of what human beings would know for the next 2,000. Every culture that rose up after Classical Antiquity aspired to nothing more than the equal of what the Romans had enjoyed every day of their lives. This is astounding.

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But when Rome "fell," (or rather decayed) we find ourselves tracking history again according to rulers and dynasties. The Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Napoleonic France, The Spanish Empire, The Portuguese Empire, the British Empire, and so on, and so forth.

World history experiences another brief reprieve from history-by-rule, back to history-by-intellectual-achievement when we arrive at the Renaissance, and later The Enlightenment. Then we're back to empires and kings. Human progress plodded on, demarcated by the rulers and empires that governed that progress, with society essentially at the whims of those rulers.

But for all the wonders given to us by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, nothing would awe the world with the scope of its magnitude until the mathematical revolution that occurred in the late 19th Century. It's difficult for us to understand this 100 years later, but the advent of Reimannian geometry would have such far-reaching consequences that it enabled the first real advance in Philosophy in two thousand years or more. Likewise, it enabled the advances in physics that would be made by the likes of Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein. It enabled the electrical age and the digital age.

Most importantly of all, it enabled the Industrial Revolution, which dragged western society out of mud huts and log cabins, and put us in air-conditioned rooms with mood lighting and soft music played by electrically amplified instruments and digital VSTi's.

How remarkable it must have been to live through those few short decades, a short enough period of time for a single individual to observe society's evolution from candles and dirt floors to fluorescent light bulbs and silicon-stamped, acid-dyed concrete. Think about it.

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But even as the genius of our technology amplified itself exponentially, our society began to lose its grip on the most profoundly important contributions of Classical Antiquity.

We all have some difficulty with nuance and ambiguity, but the Greeks seemed to revel in it. They through themselves headfirst into paradoxes, exploring the extent to which something can simultaneously be both true and untrue. They named their paradoxes after the great thinkers who posited them. Their gods were all-powerful, all-mighty, and yet horribly flawed of character and prone to wicked manipulation. They developed the concepts of democracy and freedom within the context of a society that willfully made each other into slaves.

The revolutionary insight of Classical Antiquity was that logic exists on a two-dimensional plane, with true and false on one axis, and validity and non-validity on the other axis. That is, something can be valid but false, or true despite its apparent non-validity, or false despite its validity. Like all of us, the ancient thinkers tried to arrive at the truth with a valid explanation. Unlike us, however, they were far better-equipped to deal with life's apparent contradictions. If they couldn't be solved, they were passed down to subsequent generations as mere possibilities.

Euclidean geometry was one such possibility: the idea that all space and the universe itself was made up entirely of perfectly straight lines. For 2,000 years no one questioned this, and then Bernhard Riemann had the imagination to consider Euclid's other valid possibilities: Maybe all straight lines curve outward; or perhaps they curve inward? Many of us cannot even fathom how a straight line can curve. It takes a high tolerance for entertaining valid falsity or invalid truth to explore that kind of possibility.

Once Riemann proved his case, society was left free to explore the apparent contradictions of all other aspects of life. We became Post-Modernists, we questioned every tenet of both religion and philosophy, we poured ourselves into artistic dadaism and happily colored outside the lines until the lines themselves didn't matter anymore.

This was a wondrous period of intellectual exploration. But it only lasted a generation.

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The reason it was fleeting was because, having questioned everything, we no longer had a clear message to deliver to our children. Even concepts as simple as a straight line had grown complicated. Our minds couldn't really handle it.

That great ally of scientific inquiry - the ability to accept that something may not have a definite answer, or that if it does, it may be thousands of years before we know what it is - dissolved. Empowered by our ability to compute probabilities, we devolved into an intellectually primitive mental state not seen since the most primitive societies of our ancient past.

That primitive mental state insisted that every question that could be asked had one of two answers: either we could determine a single, unquestionable, axiomatic, underlying truth, or there can be no truth at all.

With stunning readiness we applied this false dichotomy to everything our lives. Where the Greeks accepted that the classical Virtues we sometimes contradictory rules of conduct that formed the bases of an ethical discussion, post-modern mankind insisted that we cannot derive objective utilitarian virtues from axiomatic reasoning than virtue itself must be entirely subjective. Where Bohr saw the universe as looking differently depending on one's underlying assumptions about the behavior of matter, the philosophers decided that the universe could be anything any individual may perceive it to be.

Ethical standards naturally deteriorated. After all, if virtue is subjective, then yours is little more than a personal taste, a judgement that ought not be levied against me. Time tested practices of temperance and restraint fell by the wayside, one after the other, with each subsequent generation doing their part to topple the whole lot. We made noise about rising above the constraints of religion and conservatism, but the reality is, we were justifying our bad behavior to ourselves. So long as we can work in an intellectual framework that enables us to bend every rule to suit our perception then that perception of ours trumps all else. And who are you to tell me otherwise?

It hasn't become a total free-for-all, of course, since many of us have receded into antiquated ideologies. At first, the more conservative among us stuck to their religions to define their reality for them. They couldn't count on intellectualism to elucidate, so they counted on the one thing that had remained unchanged throughout the eons: gods. But they didn't return to the flawed and nuanced gods of Classical Antiquity. Rather, they returned to the starkest and most unquestionable gods ever developed. The Abrahamic "one god" gave people the concreteness they desired, along with a justifiable rage against the deplorable intellectuals who tried to turn their world into relativistic mush.

Others were free to pursue a patchwork religion, blending the imagery of European paganism or Indian Hinduism with the most primitive and destructive form of anti-intellectualism human beings have ever unleashed upon themselves: guruism. Guruism is that hideous rhetorical muck, the art of spouting Shotgun Theories at weak people in need, for little purpose other than to make the guru feel more insightful and powerful than those he helps.

It is the philosophical equivalent of a wooden nickel, and yet its stench permeates every facet of society, from our business schools to our fitness industries to our marketing consultants to our psychology clinics.

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Thus, driven from the fascination of a universe that no individual will ever fully understand or solve, into the dark, anti-intellectual bog of our primordial ancestors, we have managed to grind our society to a near technological standstill. We have increased the number of transistors on the circuit board, but failed to create a replacement for the transistor. We have improved the efficiency of the internal-combustion engine, but failed to provide a method of auto-locomotion other than the piston. We shine lights deep into outer space, but those lights contain only modest improvements on Edison's original design.

And life will continue like this for as long as it takes for us to rediscover that which was taken for granted in Classical Antiquity: Life is hard to understand and many possible explanations exist. If you find one that works for you, it may not work tomorrow; not because explanations are impossible and "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," but because nobody possesses sufficient information to know everything about everything.

The more you explore the truth, the deeper and more multi-faceted it becomes. The apparent contradictions must be made sense of, true. But making sense of something means supplying every conceivable explanation and eliminating only those which cannot possibly be true. Attempting to gain control of our lives by boiling everything down to a single axiom - or worse, by rejecting wholesale the validity of axioms at all - will lead us backwards, back into the depths of the primordial ooze that ruled our brains when we barely had the where-with-all to hammer copper plates into ornaments.

Life is a beautiful, rich complexity. The universe is a place where seeming contradictions can only be boiled down into a set of likely stories. The truth is out there, but it has to be earned. We don't get to venture three feet outside our front door and then proclaim that we have seen Paris.

We stand on the shoulders of those who have previously equipped us with maps and tools and frameworks for thinking, with our eyes focused in the distance, aimed toward Paradise. We shall never arrive, nor is it our purpose to do so. All we can do is add detail to the map, and build additional tools, so that our children can start their journey toward Paradise a few steps ahead of where we started. By god, let's make sure they start ahead of us, not behind.