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Those Greeks!

Those ancient Greeks weren’t stupid, were they? I often listen to philosophy and history podcasts, especially the excellent BBC Radio 4 series, “In Our Time”, and I constantly hear about the amazing discoveries and achievements of the Greeks.

Sure they made mistakes, for example they did put too much emphasis on interpreting the Universe the way they thought it should be rather than the way it really looked: Aristotle thought the Sun and Moon were perfect, featureless spheres even though people had seen markings on both of these bodies for many years. But considering the tools they had available they really made remarkable progress.

After the end of the dominance of Greek civilisation intellectual progress didn’t really go quite as well under the Romans and as Christianity took over it sunk to new lows, of course.

Why was Christianity so anti-intellectual? Because it was (and still is to some extent) the most corrupt and self-serving belief and political system the world has ever seen. It was only with the gradual breaking of the power of the church with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that western civilisation returned to a true path of truth and enlightenment.

I used those words “true path”, “truth” and “enlightenment” deliberately because they are often used by religion, supernatural belief systems, and other forms of superstition. Everyone thinks that is what they are delivering (or do they?) but very few ever really deliver on the promise.

To arrive at the truth the most important concept to accept is protection against self-delusion. Self delusion happens to everyone but there are ways to guard against it. Christianity, and other religions, are based on self delusion because their adherents have to accept a dogma (Christ existed and was the son of God, God exists and is good, the Bible is the true word of God, etc) which would be highly suspicious to anyone who is guarding themselves against being lead astray into false belief.

Clearly the Greeks suffered from this a bit as well because they had convinced themselves that the surface of the Moon was perfect they had to create an explanation for the markings seen there. They thought the markings were caused by atmospheric phenomena. Well that’s not totally impossible, but it surely isn’t the simplest explanation. The best explanation is that the markings on the Moon are real features, but believing that would require abandoning the dogma of the perfection of heavenly bodies – so they resorted to self delusion instead.

The self-delusion of the Greeks was trivial compared with that of the Christians and that explains why the Greeks made so much more progress in understanding the world. But if everyone has this to some extent how do we know that current scientific theories aren’t the result of a similar phenomenon?

Well we can’t know for sure but modern science does have many mechanisms built-in to minimise the effect of self-delusion. There have been experiments which have produced remarkable results (on homeopathy for example) which have later been shown to be faulty, either because of deliberate or accidental distortion of the data. There have been hoaxes which have gathered a certain amount of scientific support (Piltdown Man for example, although that was viewed with great suspicion from the beginning). There have even been widely accepted theories which have been shown later to be inaccurate (Newton’s gravitation, for example).

But the important thing is that, as further evidence is gathered and methodology is challenged, these findings have been abandoned. Compare this with a faith based system where the original belief must be supported so that more and more arbitrary and apparently false assumptions and ideas must be added to support the original belief.

Perhaps inevitably this has turned into a bit of a rant against Christianity but the reason I started this blog entry was to talk about Greek achievements, specifically the Antikythera Mechanism. This is a remarkable machine, discovered in 1901, which has been dated to 150-100 BCE. It is now accepted that its a mechanical astronomical calculator, which uses a complex series of cogs and wheels to predict the location of the planets, Moon, and Sun, and to predict eclipses and other phenomena.

Its remarkably accurate and an incredible achievement which wasn’t matched for another 1500 years. The researcher who led the study of the mechanism said: “This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely carefully. …in terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”

Many of the parts of the mechanism have been lost but it might have had up to 72 gears, all precise and miniaturised to an extent not achieved again until the 18th century, and indicators on the front and back. The system had corrections for orbital anomalies and could correct for leap years (which weren’t incorporated into the calendar until later). Another possibility is that the mechanism used differential gears, which enabled it to add or subtract angular velocities (although this is now in doubt). Sounds a bit like a precursor to Charles Babbage’s work!

The dating is too recent to identify it as being made by Archimedes but it could easily have been based on designs of simpler machines he created. Archimedes was one of the great Greek thinkers I admire most, along with Democritus, Epicurus, Euclid, and Aristotle (even though his teachings were later mis-used by the church).

I often think about what the world would have been like if the progress of ancient civilisations hadn’t been interrupted by events like the Christians ordering the destruction the great library at Alexandria (one of several possible theories of its destruction, I admit). We would be 1000 years ahead in scientific progress. I think by now we would have interstellar travel, immortality, virtually limitless power, thinking machines, and just about everything else that is currently just a dream. Ah yes, those Greeks sure were smart!

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