Saturday, 15 September 2018

Democritus: an agreeable hypothesis about everything

When philosophy and religion are taught these days, it is most unlikely that the ideas of Democritus (460-370 BC) will get a mention. That is regrettable since his approach to making sense of the universe, life and society has much to commend it.

At a time when religious thinkers were offering different versions of ‘god’ and ‘creation’, and philosophers were coming up with diverse conceptions of nature and its components, Democritus championed the hypothesis that everything was ultimately made up of indivisible entities – ‘atoms’, literally the ‘undividable’. These inanimate entities have always existed and will never perish. Through a variety of combinations, they form substances that make up all things in the universe – from a grain of sand by the sea to distant stars.

We now know that what Democritus characterised as ‘atoms’ are more like what we call molecules (formed by conjoined atoms), and what are indivisible are entities currently classified as quarks, which make up the protons, electrons and neutrons that constitute atoms. In terms of positing ultimately indivisible entities which are the universal building blocks of the universe, Democritus’ hypothesis is nonetheless apposite. Furthermore, anticipating Darwinist biology, Democritus speculated that just as the indivisible basic entities could combine to produce diverse physical properties, these properties could in turn interact and give rise to a wide variety of living things, including human beings.

For Democritus, the emergence of rich complexity from simpler constituent components also applies to the transition from primitive human existence to sophisticated civilisations. The experience of the dangers for isolated individuals and the vulnerabilities of living in small groups, especially when contrasted with the vastly increased opportunities for improvement in larger communities, prompted extensive social and political development. And eventually people would discover that, in order to ensure the benefits of living in a well-structured polity are not wiped away by some unscrupulous ruler, they must as citizens secure democratic control over the state.

Given his account of the world, Democritus advised we should live with three things in mind. First, in society, we must respect and be helpful to others if we are to expect respect and support in return. Individuals who seek only to advance their own interests regardless of the consequences for others, will turn the rest of society against themselves. Secondly, we should cultivate our understanding of reality, and appreciating that while the basic indivisible entities endure, what they combine to produce are finite and will in time disintegrate once more. We should not be misled by superstitions, or fear the natural sequence of beginnings and ends, but accept it calmly. Thirdly, it would be wise to enjoy life when we can, so long as it is in moderation and does not get in the way of our pursuits of deeper fulfilment. Through life’s vicissitudes, a cheerful disposition is a better companion for ourselves and others.

It’s fair to say that anyone hoping to learn something about the nature of the world and the meaning of life, should spare some time to reflect on Democritus’ most agreeable hypothesis.

Additional notes:

• Democritus’ writings were numerous and widely known in ancient Greece, but they are now largely lost. Our knowledge of his ideas today is based on preserved fragments; quotations from his works made by his contemporaries; commentaries by (for example) Aristotle; and later expositions by thinkers such as Epicurus and Lucretius. A short introduction can be found in Paul Cartledge, Democritus, London: Orion, 1998.

• Although Democritus was well ahead of his time with many of his ideas, he did not have the foresight to reject the practice of slavery or the exclusion of women from political citizenship. Alas, these were personal blind spots he shared with many of his contemporaries around 5th century BC. However, they do not form any part of his characterisation of the universe or how we should relate to the transience of life.

• Some of Democritus’ ideas have been attributed to an earlier thinker, Leucippus. But virtually nothing is known about Leucippus, whose very existence has been disputed by a number of historians. Democritus, by contrast, was a well-known figure; indeed his fondness for recommending the disposition of cheerfulness led to him being widely referred to as the ‘Laughing Philosopher’.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

The Most Important Ideas to Teach

There are those who maintain that society cannot function if its members are not taught a core set of ideas about what they should value, what is unacceptable, and how they should accordingly act. Such ideas are meant to remove any ambiguity about what binds people together, and provide clear guidance on the attitudes and behaviours we should promote or condemn.

However, every attempt to define these ideas has failed to achieve its goal. Either it ends up with platitudes about freedom, fairness, and any other positive sounding notion without addressing any contention over rival interpretations; or it pushes through specific claims that are rejected by large numbers of people who find them misguided, or insulting even.

To retreat from articulating these foundational ideas for community cohesion and national unity is often rebuked for conceding to relativism. The imagery conjured up is that of being confronted with people who say they disrespect others, are poised to act aggressively, and we just shrug and let them be. While some ardent libertarians or anarchists may indeed prefer to see no rules for collective wellbeing, and are ready to leave the obnoxious and militant to threaten and damage as they please, most of us would not want to stand idly by. But in order to establish a common front against irresponsible deeds, it is not necessary to invoke some timeless guidance on right and wrong.

What is needed is an understanding of the ideas on how we should learn and explore with each other what are acceptable claims, rules, and practices that ought to be adopted for our common protection and wellbeing. At any one time, there would already be commonly held beliefs and enacted laws in place. It is vital to teach all citizens that, on the one hand, these are not immutable and could be altered subject to evidence review and critical examination; while on the other hand, they need to be respected and adhered to unless reasons and relevant findings render them obsolete.

So there is no relativistic standing back and letting people do whatever they want, but neither is there to be any dogmatic presumption that there is one eternal set of ideas that have settled everything beyond question.

As to how the contesting of conflicting claims is to be managed, that is precisely why ideas relating to cooperative problem-solving need to be taught more widely and effectively. Provisional consensus, empathic deliberations, evidential assessment all need to be explained and cultivated so that people are not misdirected towards fallacies and lies. People also need to appreciate that while they may personally have strongly held views about what they should do, they must engage others in reconciling differences. The argument that one must stick by one’s conscience or one’s god is no different from fanatics’ obsession that they will ignore everyone else because their inner voice tells them what they must do.

The most important ideas for any civilised society are not about what we must believe or obey, but about how we work with each other to continually determine what at any given time we should deem reasonable to believe and obey. The real threat to civilisation comes from those who insist that they will refuse to listen to or deliberate with others, and will act as they wish regardless of the harm that could bring upon others.

To learn more about how to differentiate what does or does not merit our belief, check out:
What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society
Available in e-book format and in paperback.