Saturday, March 3, 2012

I Blame Women

Not really, just kidding. I am responsible for my own actions. I know. Oh the dangers of sarcasm on the Internet. There is a fine line between using a title that grabs attention and digging a big hole for yourself.

What I really want to talk about is how I got here and then how we all got here. My new mantra is “how do you know?” This makes me great fun at parties. Obama is proposing death panels. Really? How do you know? Thiomercuosomething or ‘nother in vaccines causes autism. Really? How do you know? Building number 7 of the World Trade Center was purposely demolished? Really? How do you know? The resurrection of Jesus actually happened. Really? How do you know? The government spaces the mile markers on the highway at less than one mile to make you feel like you are getting more miles out of your drive. Really?

These are all from real conversations with real people. People who are nice and do good things for their neighbors. People who vote for the same people I do. People who drive. People who have children. When I started this blog, I had questions. Not simple questions or unusual questions, the kind of questions that people ponder all the time. What I quickly discovered is that I did not have a system for determining the answers. Through finding some of the answers, I discovered the system.

For example, how do you get something from nothing? That one could only be answered by one of the greatest minds in physics, with the latest knowledge on the subject of the origin of the universe, Lawrence Krauss. Fortunately he was able to boil it down into a short lecture, otherwise I would have had to go to school for four more years.

As I have honed my “how do you know” question and learned to ask it more tactfully so people will actually consider it, I am surprised at how often the answer is something like, “I just know” or “I don’t know and you can’t know.” Often this will be followed up by a single source. That source will sound authoritative, like Robert F. Kennedy or the Huffington Post. Those sources will usually have very few sources or very bad sources. But hardly anyone ever checks those sources. And that is what they are counting on. (That would be the infamous “they” of all conspiracy theories).

So, getting back to the women. One of the earliest was an elementary teacher. In history, she taught us that in the time Columbus, everyone thought the world was flat. In literature, she told us a story of a boy watching the ships disappear over the horizon in that same era. So I asked why, if people saw ships sailing over something that appeared curved, why would they think the world is flat? She didn’t know. I should have checked her sources.

Many years later, in college, I met the type of women that I thought knew the world was not flat. They ate the right foods. They dressed in natural fibers. They listened to the right music. They didn’t like war. They were pro-choice. They didn’t want to be tied down. All the good stuff. Then one of them showed me a picture of a guy in a white cotton shirt, not a dress shirt, not a pirate shirt, but sorta in between those two. He’s out in the woods somewhere with his arms out wide and a big smile, just breathing in the fresh air and sunshine. She says, “ooo this guy is so great, he is dedicating his life to spiritual inquiry.” At the time I thought I knew what that meant and since this woman thought it was great, I thought it was great. After trying to figure it out for a while, mostly what I wonder now is how do you get paid to do that?

Another woman, while discussing what we were going to do with our lives once we got out of school, replied with a sort of incredulity, “Do? Why do you have to ‘do’ anything?” I tried to summarize my personal synthesis of Marxism and Capitalism in 20 words or less, but I didn’t get to finish the thought. I realized it was not really a question. She continued, “What about the idea of just being? We can just share ourselves with our neighbors and change the world right from our homes.” Several figures regarding rent and groceries were flashing through my mind but I could see the conversation was not going in that direction.

The idea of transforming the world by simply being a good person and sharing our ideas with people we come in contact with actually does have some merit. But this theory she was working on had some serious flaws. At the time our incomes came from some mysterious place where other people worked and for the moment work was more of a hobby for us, so I put that little debate in the back of mind. I have checked many sources for what she was talking about. Most of them lead back to Plato and Aristotle.

Plato had the idea that for everything that could be described, somewhere there was a perfect form of it. He didn’t know where, but that was what he thought. Aristotle improved on that and said that we can imagine and describe perfect forms and everything might be moving in that direction and you can trace backwards, seeing cause and effect until you get back to some original force, an unmoved mover. Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great who rode off on an insane military mission and got syphilis or something and died in India. Things went downhill from there.

It took centuries to build new empires that could incubate the type of thinking that lead to the insights of the Greek philosophers. Most cultures had some sense of a golden rule, a division of labor, and prepared for changes in the weather, but few looked at the global picture and asked what system to use to figure things out. Few embraced knowledge that came from other cultures.

One of the rare exceptions was the Translation Movement centered in Baghad starting around in the 9th century. Although the impetus behind it was to discover techniques for alchemy and to know the size of the earth so they could conquer it, the results of their research led to science as we know it. The Muslims were conquering much of the surrounding territory and exploring beyond that. They brought back manuscripts in a variety of languages and sought the knowledge contained within them, disregarding the cultural barriers.

One of the most important insights was to take Aristotle’s conception of math, something he considered perfect and only useful for conceptualization of the static and apply it to physics, the science of change. One of those early scientists, Al-Battani, worked out the length of the year within two minutes and measured the tilt of the earth. References to him and Al-Tusi appear in the works of Copernicus in 1493. Of course he did not take high school English and did not learn to create a proper bibliographical index, so very people at the time would have known whose works Copernicus were built upon. It took modern scholars to recognize those references. Their job was made more difficult because the Christian European conquerors destroyed many of the Arabic manuscripts when they invaded Spain in 1492.

As a sign of progress, I always ask 5th graders that I come in contact with what they are teaching about Columbus these days. One recently said, “In 1400 and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in 1400 and 93, Columbus stole everything he could see.” Not bad. Now if we recognized the plagiarism that was going on back in Europe too, that would be real progress. Calling it plagiarism is not really fair to Copernicus, citing sources is a relatively new idea. There is however plenty of documented history showing how political leaders downplayed the Muslim science and claimed their own was superior.

But enough history for one week.

No comments:

Post a Comment