Our legacy of reason
We owe a great debt to those on whose legacy we build. As we study these contributors, it is important to remember them for what their great contributions to reasoned thinking were, rather than dwell on their beliefs and biases inherent in the times that they lived. We should not judge them by the norms of their society, but by the innovative thinking that they contributed to it. To repay them, all we can do is start where they left off, working towards improving what we find as best we can.
Confucius, (551-479 BCE) or Kung Fu Tsu, provided not only a means, but the motivation for a reason-based society that positively influenced the world over many ages of civilization. His focus on tangibly improving society through personal effort opened up a new way of thinking about society in general. His illustration of the principles of social action and personal responsibility through cause and effect provide the framework for the ongoing development of societies through rational analysis. He took the nobleness of man from a birthright to an accomplishment. Despite the fact that he took the right of rulership from the invocation of deities to the will of the people, he held that rulership accountable for good governance as a service to society.
Socrates, (c.470-399 BCE) as represented in Plato's earliest dialogues and corroborated elsewhere, represents a leader in the move of humanity towards the use of a humble reasoning that would not be overcome by insistence or cultural assumptions. He showed a devotion so strong to the new democratic movement and the rational way of thinking that he was willing to sacrifice his own life, rather than leave this devotion in question. His example of persistent and unpresumptuous methods of investigation became the hallmark of many great discoverers that followed in reasoning and science.
Mozi, (470-391 BCE) or Mo Tze, made significant contributions to the ideas of meritocracy, and peace activism through diplomacy and fortification designs. He disputed the ideas of fatalism, and preferred a philosophy that put destiny in the hands of the individual, promoting the idea of a meritocratic society. Ideas of his followers, the Logicians, have been considered to be proto scientists. Mozi contributed significantly to Chinese mathematics, science, providing us with the first known description of a camera obscura, the foundation for modern photography over 300 years BCE.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE) brought the world a clear vision of clear thinking that let go the shackles of metaphysics. He let us know that the world in which we live, the natural world of the here and now in which we live together is the most important, that spiritual metaphysics is a distraction from what is important, often confounding our judgement. Epicurus' ideas brought focus on what was to become naturalistic philosophy, leading to science, and empirical philosophy, leading to an accountable understanding of ethics.
Lucretius (c. 99-c.55 BCE) wrote an amazing work exemplifying Epicurian thinking at the heights of the Roman empire. His portrayal of a proto-atomic theory, proto-germ theory, proto-evolutionary theory, and his focus on the natural world as significant and the spiritualist or metaphysical worlds as fictional distractions made a strong vision of what we now take for granted as the modern rational perspective. His writing, "De Rerum Natura" was rediscovered in Florence and was a significant factor in spawning the move to naturalism and scientific thinking today that we call the Italian Renaissance.
Hypatia (350 or 370CE-415CE) was the last librarian of the great library of Alexandria. She taught astronomy and philosophy, and was head of the Platonist school. While her own philosophy de-emphasized empirical understanding of nature, her role suggests that she was a great caretaker for the broad philosophical diversity and knowledge represented by Alexandrian enlightenment. She was killed by a Christian mob in 415, a date often used as the end of the ancient classical age in addition to 533 when Plato's Academy fled to Persia.
Wu Zetian (625-705CE) The only ruling woman empress of China. She promoted the status of women in Tang Dyansty society, ordering biographies of famous women to be published. She also fired a more nepotistic bureaucratic population and replaced them with scholars, requiring exams before conferring positions. She reduced the size of the army and the tax burden, and invested in public works. While she became more superstitious late in life, she promoted Buddhist philosophy for a significant portion of her reign.
Alhazen (c.965-c.1040 CE) made a broad range of contributions to optics, the understanding of the human eye, and experimental physics. Perhaps most noteworthy is that he laid one of the earliest structured set of rules for the scientific method. It was his culture that inherited the learning of Alexandria when Europe and the cultures of the Mediterranian turned against science and learning. He built on Euclid, Aristotle, and Galen, and added to the lineage that fostered the European Renaissance and the modern scientific method.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE) popularized the investigation of the natural world as a means to developing our understanding. While he was harassed by the powers of his day for promoting these ideas, he did still profess to live within the constraints of his religious authorities. But his contribution to a reason-based world view has been extensive, primarily in the areas of applying mathematics to physical problems, developing and using scientific instruments to study nature, and being honest enough about what one discovers to question one's own presumptions when contradictions arise. His efforts began to bring the world of physics in a large part of the world out of centuries of dogmatic affirmation.
Benedict de Spinoza, (1632-1677 CE) while living in very myth-based societies, demonstrated clearly how to critically review text in order to develop a coherent understanding of what was happening. He offered us methods of gaining insights into the understanding of the authors by studying their word usage, progression of plot, and inconsistencies in the world views that they presented. His rational analysis provides an example that has helped generations speak clearly about what was going on in their own cultural traditions and in their societies. Spinoza also provided significant reasoning for addressing personal responsibility outside the submission to authority or myth systems.
Émilie du Châtelet 1706-1749 was a great supporter of the sciences and rational philosophy. She developed the equation below based on her extension of falling/rolling objects on inclines that Galileo had done, and studied mathematics and physics, forwarding the great traditions of Bernoulli, Leibnitz, and Newton. She was also a strong advocate for the equality of women. She had a close relationship with Volatiare, and they spent years doing scientific research together. She was the first woman to publish a scientific paper at the French Academy. Her equations on the vibrations of metal later went on to enable Eiffel to develop a new kind of tower in Paris.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) His "The Age of Reason" is a tour de force of critical thinking regarding the traditional myths and power structures of society he found himself in. Perhaps if it weren't for Paine, we would still be living in a society like that and not the United States and France that came out of his "Common Sense" and campaigning. We are in great debt to him that our society is as secular and as scientifically inclined as it is. Surely he rode on the coattails of Voltaire, Locke, Spinoza and the young Descartes, and amplified their messages so that those like Lincoln and later Edison could learn from his understanding. While he promoted Deism as a general veneration of the universe as worthy of awe and praise, he also campaigned strongly for free thought and reason.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) an author-activist and strong proponent that men and women should equally participate in a society based on reason. She believed that education was the way to create that equality and was a forerunner of the women's rights movement and supported co-education. Her notion was that reason and emotions should inform each other.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) used Galileo's method of honestly analyzing and describing the world to open up dramatic new insight into the study of living things. He described the human species' place in the web of life in a way that was the first to dramatically challenge myth systems across the globe with tangible evidence, systematic analysis, and logical rigor. Within his new framework, the origin of species (including man), disease, behavior, physical attributes, variations of fossils, and inheritance all became intelligible and related through the understanding of a coherent process: evolution.
With the writing of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1791-1851) allowed humanity to address the choices, the risks, and the potential achievements of society in light of the evolving tools and insights of science. By carving the genre of science fiction for hte English language from Milton and Ovid, she gave humanity the creative means to dream self-aware of the future. Frankenstein also lay the groundwork for countless authors that have inspired people to pursue careers in science. Science fiction is a system of envisioning the future that keeps the decision-making in the hand of the audience. In this new tradition we can creatively and inclusively pursue the future, presenting proposals and other musings of the future honestly, for what they are.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) wrote the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine (Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a mechanical information processing machine. Even at that early stage she envisioned the idea that computers one day might produce music capable of any level of complexity.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1949) provided the western world with the first popular framework for understanding the workings of the human mind without having to invoke mythologies of the dominant culture and interpret mental experiences according to legend-based presumptions. Freud, and his intellectual progeny, like Karl Jung, opened up a new world of psychology and psychoanalysis that has evolved far from its early roots into a system that can improve the lives of individuals through proactive treatments that are results-driven, practical, and revisable based upon continued research.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) championed the abolition of lynching, segregation, racist Jim Crowe practices, and the lingering racial bigotry that was entrenched in society by the slavery practices from which she was emancipated. As a young school teacher and later as a journalist and author, she took the high road of reason by increasing public awareness of the injustices that were being committed in America. She practiced civil disobedience, used the legal system, helped start social organizations like the NAACP, promoted women’s rights, and ran for public office. She helped establish a new level of public discourse and set new social norms for practicing civil rights that continue to act as a foundation for the ethical standards of modern society.
Jane Adams (1860-1935) A Pragmatist and considered to be the founder of the social work profession in the U.S. She was a public philosopher, sociologist, public philosopher, and leader of the woman's suffrage movement.She is also the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She ran Hull House in Chicago, which was a settlement house. Hull House was an attempt to create mixed income neighborhoods intentionally to reduce the economic class gap in society.Settlement houses provided daycare, education, and other human services.
Marie Curie (1867-1934) a chemist and physicist who transformed humanity's understanding of radioactivity in so many ways. She is the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, let alone the only person to two Nobel prizes in different fields. She coined the term "radioactivity" and discovered the elements polonium (after Poland) and radium.