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Category Archives: History of Ideas

Newton was an alchemist. Napier a numerologist. Kepler an astrologer. And Giordano Bruno — Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s poster child martyr for scientists persecuted by irrationally superstitious and corrupt institutions — was an occultist.

The esoteric, the obscure, the fringe, the poetic, and the spiritual permeate the human intellectual landscape, both in the humanities and the sciences1. It’s a major motivator for intellectual investigation. When we come to that epiphany, realizing that our discovery affirms an underlying structural unity of the universe — an instantiation of the beauty of asymptotic change, or fractality, or symmetry, or equilibrium, and that laws seem to be baked deeply into the cosmos — it’s that realization, that glimpse for the mind’s eye, that causes within us a response of such dopaminergic climax and sense of profundity that even the most passionate session of lovemaking pale in its comparison.

To paraphrase the sentiment of a Gnostic text:

Sophia -- whose name means Wisdom, and who was God's divine co-equal and mother of Lilith -- was of such immense transcendental beauty and presence, that God, in his jealous love of her, covered her in the body-cloak of non-existence, never to have her name uttered, so that no mortal could look upon and covet her.

But how does one hide something so omnipresent as **Wisdom**? He thus inverted the *Tree of Life*.

The classic problems of the human condition, too, continue to motivate the scientific mind: the quest for eternal youth and immortality, for man-made sentient creature to aid us in our labors, for a Utopian society / Cornucopia where all resources infinite and people are thus (supposedly) happy, for whether there exists a substance that can turn into any other substance, for whether beings of similar intelligibility with us humans2 exist on other worlds or planes of reality, or for whether super-transcendent intelligence(s) have had some role in the creation or maintenance of our universe.

Whether a Renaissance natural philosopher is using alchemy to derive the philosopher’s stone, or a modern nuclear chemist is trying to miniaturizing nuclear transmutation for 3D-printing, quests of the above type are our intellectual motivators. But there is a tendency in our supposed post-“Enlightenment” climate of scientific and rational rigor to ignore, berate, or at least attempt to justify in some secular sense, a scientist’s interest in these bizarre Occultish ideas that go against the the Enlightenment model of scientific inquiry. In doing so, however, we ignore the underlying unity and composability of human abstraction: fundamental convergences of ideas that refer to the same higher principles of, i.e, symmetry, or man’s place in the universe — missing out on the shoulders of giants to stand on when probing these abstractions qua their nature as abstractions.

The notion that the universe is a hologram, as a theory, is but a drop in the ocean compared to the layers of emanated simulations, embedded virtualized realities, and multifaceted avatarism described in the Bhagavad Gita.

As any good scientist and mathematician knows, the process model-building to make sense of data is as much of a creative process as composing music or writing literature. Thus, could such pre-modern ideas of spiritual, religious, and esoteric origins offer insight into human abstraction qua abstraction, regardless of discipline? Would this enable greater fluidity between abstract ideas of different disciplines? Is there a kind of primordial ontological map of abstract concepts that construct any given discipline?

Often, too, we berate and ridicule these historical quests because of its supposed espousal of pseudoscience or dogmatism, only to be pursuing the same thing in our time. The quest for strong AI, is basically the modern version of the quest for the homunculus, or the Talos, or the Golem — we use Sci-Fi metaphors these days — basically, a man-made fully sentient being. A large part of AI’s history is already pockmarked by ebbs of disillusionment with the entire project because of grandiose promises, and putting our eggs in the dogmatic basket of a single technique like Symbolic AI. Since the AI Winter however, we’ve made some advances in pattern recognition and predictive feedback-control systems — often by using a connectionist correlation model called Artificial Neural Network — but there’s no reason to assume that Neural Networks / Deep Learning techniques will lead to the emergence of artificial sentience (the prerequisite for strong AI), or even that they’ll actually end up solving our hard pattern recognition problems.

While statistical correlation models have been used successfully in recommendation systems, fraud-detection systems, feedback-control systems, and beating world champions at Chess and Go, correlation models are what make superstition, popular horoscopes, pseudoscience, and popular delusions possible in the first place.

My point here isn’t that Artificial Neural Networks aren’t significant or hasn’t contribute to scientific understanding — after all, alchemy and herbalism have contributed to hard scientific understanding of chemistry and medicine — it’s that there’s a lot of “black magic” voodoo involved in Deep Learning that future historians may dismiss this current Renaissance in AI to be nothing more than hyped, superfluous pseudoscience.

That which constitutes our scientific and intellectual validity is always historically, socially, and politically determined, and always from the vantage point of the hindsight inherited from our intellectual forebears.


  1. CF. “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – [Carl Sagan] (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan#Cosmos:A_Personal_Voyage.281990_Update.29) 
  2. I refrain deliberately from using “intelligent life” here. Assuming humans are even to be considered “intelligent”, the Earth has its share of intelligent life that we haven’t cared much to enter into meaningful dialogue with. 
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Wrote another reply to another interesting question on Tumblr–

antigravity000:

What might the cultural and religious emphasis of the Moon for Middle Easterners (Arabs) and the Sun for Europeans suggest about the growth and development of these people? Or does their reverence of one over the other (Sun vs Moon) demonstrate differing psychological growth, a different geographical, evolutionary development?

Historically in the Middle-East, the Moon was closely associated with the female monthly cycles, and pregnancy and fertility. The pre-monotheistic traditions emphasized the Moon’s direct magical role in these things as the astrological agent that caused the female cycles, and the Moon was regarded as a deity. This gave birth to the anthropomorphicized versions of the Moon, and their subsequent cults — Inanna (Sumerian), Ishtar (Assyrian-Babylonian), Ashteroth (Levantine), Anahita (Iranian). These cults became extremely powerful in the Middle-East, until the rise of Abrahamic Monotheism.

The Moon’s “unpredictable” nature, seemingly self-guided movements (relative to the sun and the seasons, at least), and its strange psychological affects on people  during a full moon, was understood as something completely defiant / opposed to the Sun cults that tended to emphasize a male Sun God.

You also had female cults of death that emphasized the Moon — Moloch (male god, Levantine), Ereshkigal (Mesopotamia), Allat (Arabia — part of the pre-Islamic Arabian “trinity”). Sometimes, these deities were invoked during ritual infanticide, usually performed by mothers who couldn’t support the baby.

The whole Moon-Female-Cult religious complex tended to stand opposite to Sun-Male-Cults of Marduk, Ashur, Ahura Mazdah, and Yahweh (Bible), who wanted to impose regularity, patriarchy, legal order, and the establishment of priestly class.

In the Bible and the Qur’an, there is a lot of admonishing of these cults. The Bible curses the cult of Ashteroth (Moon-matriarch-fertility cult), and the Qur’an does the same with Allat (or “Allah’s daughters”) and ritual infanticide.

Actually, Abrahamic-style monotheism, with its emphasis on a male god, law, light, and regularity, can probably be seen in the bigger picture of history as a direct Patriarchal reaction to these female-Matriarchal-dominated “Lunar” spheres of religion.
Patriarchal reactions aside though, there’s tons of Moon imagery across the board in Middle-Eastern mythos, especially in post-Pagan scripture. Judaism’s calendar uses both the Sun and Moon, and the Islamic calendar is purely lunar. Islam also adopted the Crescent as its symbol, but this is actually a much more recent development (~200 years) (Judaism also didn’t really settle on its use of the Star of David/Seal of Solomon until around that time.)
As for evolutionary development peculiar to Middle-Eastern peoples — and I think you and I seem to share similar views on human evolution (mine isn’t really a “view” per se, it’s more of a pretty damn strong hunch) — the fact that there is a Sun vs Moon conflict in Middle-Eastern religious-mythological complex might be demonstrative of something shared bio-psychic among the people. Perhaps, it’s related to an inclination and susceptibility for intense spiritual experiences, vivid imaginations, charisma, prophecy…? But in the Middle-East, historically (and right through to present day), there’s also a great respect for science, precision thinking mathematics, problem solving, wisdom, rational thought, etc., so that the mutual exclusivity between religion and science, mysticism and rationality, doesn’t really exist like it does in the West. Very hard to say on this question of evolution. Perhaps it’s just symptomatic of the holistic embrace of the Sun vs. Moon mythos — being at ease with dichotomies happily co-existing… Just floating this here, though.

^ Not a definitive answer, but worthwhile to consider.

Eternal Reoccurrence vs. Finite Progress

How repetitious is history? — Human Consciousness of Change and Persistence — The Age of Darkness before the Myths of Creation — Fandom Cults of the Academia — Origins of the Wheels of Reoccurrence — Whither be thou, O Sweet Progress?

(Now with fixed footnotes. Hover cursor over footnote to reveal it, or click!)

 

One of the major themes in my Weltanschauung that shows up in my novels, nonfiction, and others nuances, is the concept of historical reoccurrence: the notion that history repeats itself. As with my previous post regarding the death of philosophy, this is not a particularly revolutionary idea in this day and age. It’s wisdom you would’ve heard everywhere from children’s books, elementary school history class, newscasters, comedians, political propaganda, angry tirades, and is often its own butt in joke-telling. It’s a cliché that we take for granted, but also one of the few clichés that we actually take seriously when heeding to the warnings of economic forecasters, political soothsayers — even the advice of our friends telling us not to pursue a certain career path, or to avoid dating a special someone.

What’s interesting is that, our own mass awareness of this notion — that history repeats itself — is a mutually shared understanding, crossing cultures, classes, nations, ages[1], and eras. What’s also interesting (ironic even) is that this hasn’t always been the case everywhere in the history of human culture. What’s even more interesting is how we like to consider our contemporary era of freedom, democracy, mass communications, cheap beer, video games, cell-phones, and the Internet, as something that exists outside of this frame of historical reoccurrence — our contemporary era as an exception to historical reoccurrence, rather than belonging to it, because it’s so “new” and “revolutionary”.[2] And what’s further even more interesting [x4], is that we tend to exclude ourselves as individuals from reoccurrence ‘warning wisdom’ about our lives, eg: “I won’t be the one to make that mistake everyone else has done! Other people made that mistake because they’re stupid / weak / unskilled!”

Now before moving onto what I think is interesting in the above paragraph[3], I’d like to identify a few types of reoccurrence[4].

  1. The reoccurrence wisdom that concerns us as individuals carrying out our daily lives on a micro scale. Life-wisdom like: “she has a history of being flakey”, or “don’t become a writer because the Internet has made their profession obsolete!”, or “don’t wear Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops and baseball caps when haggling in foreign marketplaces, because you risk being pick-pocketed, and merchants will know you’re a tourist and will rip you off!”
  2. That which concerns us on a macro scale: our place in greater society, civilization, and the world. History, economics, politics, society, culture — the big questions, claims like: “allowing the government to strip us of our rights and freedoms in times of terrorist threat will lead to government tyranny and totalitarianism. Just look at the Nazis!”, or “all economies follow the trend of bubbles and bursts, growth-stagnation-collapse”, or “the West has always been the most progressive and innovative than any other part of the world”
  3. Finally, that which concerns observance to laws and axioms of natural phenomena, which requires a ‘reoccurrence’ paradigm. This is a key part of our cognitive understanding of the world as human beings: taking generic rules/concepts, and applying them to particular instances that are likely to repeat. Without it, we cannot have a) or b). These are things like: “F = ma”[5], [physical constants in nature], “don’t touch a hot stove or you’ll get burned” [pain avoidance], “whenever you speak to her about her dead husband, she gets upset” [human psychology as natural phenomena], and “Are you seriously wearing wear jeans and a t-shirt to my wedding tonight? You look like an idiot!” [social norms]

For our purposes here in this entry, we have two essential types of historical reoccurrence that are, I argue, closely linked — (a) life-wisdom, and (b) history-wisdom. Let’s move onto the two main schemes of time.

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Plagiarism, Ghostwriting, False Author Attribution, and Academic Fraud before the Modern Academia
(Postscript to “The Decline of Thinking’s Universality)

 Caption: “The Lyceum” — the School of Aristotle. Were these just Aristotle’s followers, or the ancient think-tank that ghost-wrote his entire corpus?

The issue of plagiarism and ghostwriting in the pre-modern world is something that doesn’t receive much press because it conflicts with:

  1. Our romantic notions of the past as somehow better or more authentic than the modern day, and,
  2. It conflicts with our Creation Myths of the great idols, great men and great civilizations revolutionarily founding the world we live in.

Apparently, it’s fine to call into question the existence of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but to even question the originality and intellectual honesty of Shakespeare, Newton, or Darwin?[1] — what [secular] heresy is this!? (Seriously, folks![2])

I will offer an alternative theory here for so-called historic ‘polymathy’, why it was more prevalent in the past than now. The theory is pretty simple: that the great thinkers were never held accountable for the originality of their ideas at the time they were proposed — it was sufficient enough that they were just recorded (somehow, be it through primary or secondary sources) as saying it, and that it was picked up by a contemporary scholar (*assuming the text even survived). There were no elaborate academic institutions to keep this sort of thing in check — no Deans office that Descartes could be sent to for repeating Anselm’s Ontological Proof in his Meditations, no PhD committee/auditing agency stopping Al-Kindi from ctrl+c/ctrl+v-ing everything he read in Aristotle. Students were not graded for how original their ideas were — they were usually rewarded for how much they imitated their teacher. And they often went further in the academia-aristocracy based off their charisma and the profundity of whatever they were saying. (Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?)

Case example: In Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (this is a lengthy book on history, sociology, economics, political science, etc.), when he discusses the role of climate in the success of civilizations — the notion (in sum) that temperate climates produce temperate peoples and thus leads to successful civilizations — the same ideas more or less appear Aristotle’s Politics. What is this?:

  1. Is this a coincidental convergence of two brilliant minds stumbling on the same ideas independently?
  2. Is Ibn Khaldun blatantly plagiarizing Aristotle (– everyone has read Aristotle)?
  3. Or were these ideas perhaps already widely circulated in an oral tradition that dealt with these topics of meta-history — say, oral tradition of the kinds of discussions that took place in cafes, mosque/temple courtyards, the marketplace, around the campfire, caravan at late nights, etc. — and Ibn Khaldun (and Aristotle?) got their ideas from that?

Now, knowing from my own readings on this, the Politics was not known in the medieval Middle-East, so that throws (b) out. A makes sense. What about A as consequence of C?

These kinds of questions are always hotly debated by usually a handful of unfamous scholars obsessed with seemingly petty questions like this, with no real definitive conclusion. I will say this though: oral tradition is never something considered by these scholars, because it’s allegedly not recordable. And we all know from our Grade 7 essay writing classes, that the academia has a bias for things written. If it’s not written, it may as well not exist to the academia.

These scholars also lack the funding/time/patience/motivation/ambition to reconstruct a kind of history of the spontaneous, grass-roots transmission of ideas, or to read the works of historians of ideas on the topic. But why? Oral traditions carry such a wealth of information, formed through peculiar events and in a historio-cultural matrix. I wonder if scholars of the future, when studying the great thinkers of our time, will still ignore the role of chatrooms, social media, and blog comments, even after they’ve been clearly recorded, in the history of the transmission of ideas.

–Again, Blind men and the Elephant paradox (of the Academia).

But plagiarism — even the whole notion that one had to be an original thinker — is a bit of a post-Enlightenment idea (not to say this didn’t exist elsewhere, but our current notion of it goes right back to the Romantics). Many students and thinkers were expected to emulate the great masters, and the great schools and traditions, and felt reward and satisfaction in doing so.

Now, through careful textual analysis of what actually survives of these great thinkers, it is revealed that they often did not even do the writing themselves. They were recorded by scribes, either during a lecture, after one, or long after their death. Plotinus was blind by the time he composed his Enneads, so required the help of scribes to write down his book. Aristotle’s entire corpus — according to tradition — wasn’t compiled until after his death, and his writing doesn’t even read like an essay; they read like scattered lecture notes.[3] Aristotle’s lectures on mysticism were never written down. Aristotle’s famed Dialogues (written like Plato’s dialogues) have not survived antiquity. Avicenna, al-Ghazali, al-Farabi, Meister Eckhardt, Ochkam, Anselm, etc., a whole slew of medieval thinkers, only received their fame in the books written by their students, compile from their lecture notes and discussions with the teacher. It’s a bit like your band becoming world famous for the bootlegs made off of your guitar tabs, where the bootleg isn’t actually of your band, but of someone else performing your music — and all of this taking place after your death.

As a scribe, like a good guitarist playing tabs, you must have a certain understanding of what your teacher/lecturer is saying in order to coherently record it, even if you don’t fully understand the whole thing. Many scribes might also input their own thoughts, beliefs and culturally-determined preconceptions when recording the lectures of their masters, much as how modern university students do nowadays when taking notes.

In other words, what was going on wasn’t this:

It was this:

Now I don’t want to give the impression that all pre-modern/pre-Renaissance thinkers never wrote any essays themselves — they certainly did, but what survives of their corpus is this hodgepodge of lecture notes, essays, hearsay, rumors, and misinterpretation.

Manuscripts also had to be re-copied by hand (after the 15th century: by printing press) in order to preserve the book’s transmission. This was the task of libraries, monasteries, universities, and churches / mosques / synagogues. Not all scribes are equal, sometimes only a part of the manuscript was copied, because the full length volume existed in a library (only to have the library be destroyed by the Seljuks, the Franks, or the Mongols, and the small part would be what is preserved.) There are also cases where manuscripts have just lost the title page or other ancient meta-data, and have been falsely attributed to this or that thinker.

Other writers would write something and attribute it to a great thinker, usually in order to legitimize an idea, or make money off the manuscript (Aristotle and Plato were hot best-sellers back in the day) — but I also suspect that same sentiment that gives birth to modern fanfiction to be involved in these kinds of writings. Something recently in the news of this kind of authorship issue is with the Gospel of Barnabas.

In sum, our ancient texts, in their current incarnation, is the result of a grand, multi-thousand-year-old historic game of broken telephone, and the survival of best sellers.

Another case in point: there was a book in wide circulation in the Middle-Ages — mostly in the Middle-East and Byzantium — called The Theology of Aristotle, which was basically a copy-paste of Plotinus’ Enneads. Whoever made it, attributed it to Aristotle (hence the name), probably for economic reasons. The impact of this book is tremendous and often overlooked by scholars writing on this — if written by Aristotle, it would mean he was a Neoplatonist, which makes it seem as though Plato and Aristotle were generally in agreement with one another. Anyone who knows anything about philosophy today has been taught that two philosophers are opposites — that was not the case in the Middle-Ages. If this text’s authenticity was not doubted, and we still thought it belonged to Aristotle, we would have a radically different view of the Ancients, and the history of early modern science would’ve looked quite different.

That said, Aristotle has allegedly written actual mystical works, which have not survived (probably not even recorded?). But it’s not the Theology of Aristotle.

Given all of this, it is certainly, without a doubt, very possible that the corpus of Aristotle was mostly or entirely a production of his school — the Lyceum — in order to legitimate the school’s curriculum, status and prestige at the time. I can make the same claim about Plato’s corpus and the Academy of Athens, and probably many other pre-modern thinkers that were so-called “polymaths”. What I mean to say is: Aristotle and Plato, thinkers of this type, were brand names for ancient think-tanks that assembled themselves around a semi-mythical idol. Aristotle and Plato as their works have survived were products of an entire school writing an encyclopedia of knowledge attributed, and attributing it to their founding Master. What I mean to say is: they themselves were not actually polymaths, but idols who were ghostwritten for.

Again, this goes back to the human desire for Creation myths, Idols, and figures.

And again, this is just speculation. That said, if anyone reading this knowledgeable on this subject wishes to discuss this, please feel free.

Ismael Sarepta


[1] And I didn’t choose Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin randomly out of a hat. These are all great men whose products of genius are shrouded in myth, and all have very serious authenticity, originality, and authorship issues. Isaac Newton invented Calculus “independently” (or so it is claimed) at the same time as Gottfried Leibniz did. Charles Darwin didn’t feel the need to public his theory of Evolution until another younger man came along (Alfred Russell Wallace) with the exact same theory, threatening to steal Charles’ thunder. And Shakespeare? Bitch, please, you think the Bible was bad with its authenticity?: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_authorship_question

[2] If you’re going to smash Creation Myths of human origins with Evolution, please be consistent, and do so with the rest of human history!

The Decline of Thinking’s Universality:
Against the Hyper-Compartmentalization of Knowledge (or the Hyper-Compartmentalizers)

It may be ironic that a blog which draws heavily from the philosophical tradition would start thus:

Philosophy is dead.[1]

Of course, that’s not a particularly revolutionary idea, and especially not in this day and age. We all know that philosophy has been replaced by hard, solid, objective SCIENCE!, that has no need for the empty, pretentious quibblings of philosophers, who confirm nothing with factual, real, physical evidence…! According the prevailing creation myths of SCIENCE!, no one before Galileo conducted experiments, and all human knowledge was purely based on religious dogma, superstition. It was the Dark Ages, because Rome — the sole guaranteer of Reason and Progress — had fallen to savage invading barbarians and its own opulent corruption. It was the Dark Ages, and life was poor, nasty, brutish and short.[2]

What rationality did exist was what Christian monks working in dungeons and monasteries, hunched over on copying tables, were able to preserve by scraps and bits of unoriginally copying manuscripts from the Greeks and Romans — because Augustine said it was what any good Christian ought to read, since he was such a squealing fanboy for people like Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, etc. And then finally, it took a handful of privileged white men in Western Europe to pull the ‘West’ up from its own bootstraps, out of the Dark Ages, and to dominate the world again, as they had meant to do, since they inherited the Greco-Roman legacy. Meanwhile, the Church burnt anyone at the sake who contradicted its dogma[3], so the ‘West’ had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the brave new world of innovation. In fact, before this “Renaissance” the West was so behind, that they had to learn and ‘recover’ what they historically knew about the Ancients from those fanatical, backward Arabs! Then thanks to these privileged white European men, we discover the world is not flat[4], revolves around the Sun (Heliocentricism), and Chris can finally discover America, the Reformation breaks the clerical stranglehold on PROGRESS!, and the rest (SCIENCE!)history:

^ Above ^ is a paraphrase of a cultural meme we see espoused by standard textbooks, teachers, TV presentations, Joe the In’ernet-Know-all-Tuff-Guy, etc., treating this subject of SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS! (and all the subtext notwithstanding.) Absurd as this narrative is, I’m not going to dwell on it here, as this entire blog is dedicated to smashing such creation myths of PROGRESS (aka positivism).[5]

Now in truth, things were, as they often are, actually a little more complicated. First of all, all knowledge — all SCIENCE! — was considered under the domain of Philosophy. If you were a thinking person — no matter how amateur or professional, no matter how shallowly or profoundly — what you were doing when pondering the universe, human relations, physical phenomena, God’s attributes, etc., all went back to that word: Philosophy.

  • When Galileo disproved prevailing beliefs about Aristotle’s theory of Motion, it wasn’t called Physics — it was called Natural Philosophy.
  • When Copernicus uprooted Geocentricism, it wasn’t called Physics — it was called Natural Philosophy
  • When Newton discovered the principles of gravity, and formulated MATH around this, it wasn’t called Physics — it was still called Natural Philosophy

( I’m just going to pause here and mention that Natural Philosophy was the discipline that is more or less what we would call science nowadays — philosophy concerning in the nature of motion, matter, astronomy, chemistry (shared with alchemy), geology, animals and natural history, etc. )

Intellectuality — the scope of things you would be educated in — was continuous, fluid, and organic. The Educated were well versed in theology, logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, rhetoric, aesthetics, the Classics, politics, history[6], etc., because these were all universally recognized aspects of Knowledge of the Universetwo sides of the same coin — or, better put, different faces on the same die:

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