Quotables #7

It is indeed interesting to see how the books we read and the thoughts we expose ourselves to shape one’s understanding of the world. I believe firmly that through reading books–autobiographies and biographies in my particular case–that the quality of one’s thinking can transcend limits imposed by either age, circumstance or direct experience. If I hadn’t been exposed to the thought of Socrates through his student Plato, it would have taken me decades to form as complete an appreciation as I’ve gained for the nature of our profound ignorance and the limitations of human knowledge.

I wrote the following insight a couple years ago on to my Facebook page. What’s funny about it is I couldn’t tell whether I was quoting someone else or if I was reading my own thoughts. The principles contained in the quote below are certainly one’s I espouse but there ones that could just as easily have been spoken by Michael Foucault, Noam Chomsky, Simon de Beauvoir, or Naomi Klein.

All genuine criticisms of power and tradition will be by their very nature subversive. You must become an enemy to unaccountable power to preserve freedom.

I find it odd so many distrust skeptics or critics of power. There seems to be something in the human psychology that almost prefers the certainty of unquestioning and abject obedience.


The Relationship between Science and Skepticism

Greek culture produced hundreds of often contradictory philosophies and worldviews. The sheer number of ideas produced by the Greeks made thinkers like Socrates wonder if any of it could be trusted. One philosopher argued the world was made entirely from the element water; another argued it was made from air; and still another suggested the world was composed of fire. Thinkers did not just disagree about the material that made up the world; they disagreed about things like justice, the ideal society, the role of the gods, love, art, and the meaning of life.

There was a tendency in these early Greek thinkers to emphasize the importance of conclusions as opposed to questions. If you start at the conclusion, without properly testing it first (by asking questions), you risk ending up believing something that isn’t real is real.

For this reason a new type of thinker called a skeptic emerged emphasizing the importance of asking questions and possessing a questioning attitude. Skepticism is a powerful tool of discernment (understanding): skeptics do not go into a problem thinking they already have all the answers. Instead, are humble and keenly aware of how hard it is to truly figure out what is happening when they are studying a problem.

For example, the Greek poet Hesiod asserted things like crops failed or disease broke out because it was the will of the gods. However, skeptics like Thales of Miletus  rejected supernatural explanations in favor of a more scientific approach. When we are practicing science we are not interested in who created the world but what the universe is made of; scientists are not interested not in the assume purpose of a thing but how that thing came into existence. Scientists explain the world in terms of forces like gravity, friction, heat, momentum, etc. and not in terms of the will of divine beings (who may or may not even exist in the first place).

The change of emphasis—moving from who (gods) to what (matter)—contributed to the eventual emergence of skepticism in the Greek world and beyond. The reality is no one had ever actually seen the gods; these divine beings had simply been posited (thought) into existence. Socrates, one of history’s more noteworthy skeptics, argued it made no sense to try to have knowledge about the gods when one did not first understand oneself. The gods, if they even existed, were fundamentally unknowable. Therefore, it was justifiable to have not only doubts about their existence but also their alleged activity on the earth. The physical world, on the other hand, was right in front of us there to be examined and could be induced (encouraged) through tests to give up her secrets.

Skepticism is at root an intellectual position: skeptics possess a questioning attitude; they do not think absolute 100% certainty is possible; they use reason and critical thinking and practice systematic doubt. Systematic doubt is a process where the skeptic asks questions and tests claims systematically. For example, if a belief or claim cannot stand on its own merits or stand up to systematic study (be proven true or false through the scientific method) then that belief or claim is considered untrustworthy and abandoned. This does not mean skeptics do not believe in anything. On the contrary, skeptics believe in all sorts of things; however, what they choose to believe reflects humanity’s intellectual limitations. The skeptic acknowledges that all knowledge at some level is uncertain (even our best tested and proven scientific theories).

Skepticism made its first appearance in the fertile culture of the ancient Greeks. The Greeks developed elaborate philosophical systems and ideas around topics like religion and branches of philosophy like metaphysics. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with answering questions about the fundamental nature of reality. In other words, Metaphysics deals with big abstract topics like:

  • Can something exist outside of space and time?
  • Is time real or an illusion?
  • What are the laws of Nature?
  • What is causation?
  • Do humans possess free will?
  • Is there any meaning to life?

There are two fundamental issues with metaphysics: firstly, the big questions asked are not falsifiable; secondly, metaphysics focuses on asking questions fundamentally about thought or the way people think (and since different people value or emphasize different things, experiences, etc. differently this becomes a problematic process); and finally, the answers we conjure up using metaphysics (can lead us to hasty, ill-considered conclusions which is an inherent risk of relying on induction alone).

Instead, metaphysicians answer questions through abstraction (imagination) and deduction. For example, neither Aristotle nor Plato conducted a single experiment to prove any of their theories. They used pure reason or logic to develop their theories and supporting ideas. This of course did not prevent them from developing theories about the world. For example, we can credit Aristotle (at least in part) with elaborating on the “geo-centric model” (earth-centered) of the universe; and in the case of Plato he developed his theory of forms where he believed ideas were more real than the actual physical world.

If skeptics, and scientists, did not question assumptions made about the world conjured up by thinkers like Plato or Aristotle we would still: believe sickness was caused by demons; the earth was the center of the universe, flat, and immovable; comets were signs of divine displeasure; human blood sacrifice ensured better harvests; our futures were dictated by the random placement of the stars and planets; and heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. When it comes right down to it, scientific skeptics place a great deal of stock in intellectual honesty and integrity refusing to purposely delude others or be deluded themselves.

Antisocial Media: Monetizing Fear & Outrage

Filter bubbles. Facebook and Google’s business model is built upon this structure. These companies gather and store all your data. All of it. Even cell phone conversations. They use this data to create a profile for you. That profile is fed into an algorithm. That algorithm essentially creates a “Truman World” experience for everyone online: two, three a dozen, a thousand people, might enter the exact same search phrase in Google but get different results. The result you get reflects your profile (which contains a psychological and ideological picture of what makes you tick). The same goes for your news feed on Facebook and Twitter..

What is the risk? Fear and outrage are packaged and delivered to you so you will 1). Stay online longer, 2). Share your outrage with your friends, and 3). Subsequently keep your friends online longer so that 4). Your attitude can be shaped and/or you can spend money.

Facebook and Google have psychology departments that help them market to you and get you addicted to your smart device. Fear and outrage apparently are the most effective tools to use to keep you engaged.

This is problematic: because if today you are only anti vaccine curious in a year’s time Google’s algorithm will identify this and send you to anti vax sites as opposed to science based websites. They encourage your fear for profit.

The end result is curiosity turns into conviction in a few short months. Meanwhile Google has made additional advertising revenues off your increased screen time and society can add one more potential casualty to the needless measles epidemic. The people who believed the Clintons were running a pedophile ring at a restaurant were shaped by a similar technique on Facebook. The reason so many conservatives formed a more positive view of the Russians over the last three to four years likewise reflects how this online marketing model works. Basically ignorance gets recycled and reinforced by these filter bubbles. You think you know a thing or two but really you have been ascending Mount Stupid all along as per the Duning-Kruger effect.

This insidious shaping of opinion applies to politics, economics, culture, everything. You are up for grabs. I uncovered a new layer to this yesterday: I posted a comment on a site where I compared a char from an obscure movie to a real life politician. Within ten minutes.I returned back to FB and a friend had posted a meme about killing politicians behind a picture of the film character I had alluded to. What are the odds of that happening on it’s own? Facebook actually uses your activity and finds a common strand between us and then exposes you to some idea we can identify with together. Ideally we will make each other outraged and generate more screen time and revenue. Trudeau has issues but wow looking at all the people sharing Trudeau memery and outrage definitely has deleterious effects: you aren’t critical of policies but of people and constructive public dialogue breaks down or becomes impossible. How is democracy supposed to function if we are always angry and at one another’s throats…?

So creepy. Makes me scared for democracy because we cannot share anything resembling a narrative governed by a shared set of facts

Be aware that your Google searches and Facebook feed are weaponized in this way: it isn’t an accident that when you go searching for information to confirm your conviction that climate change is a hoax that you find it so easily.

You can prevent being forced into your own Truman World when Googling if you use a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs hide you and your searches from info gathering corporations. Try it sometime when buying plane tickets. You will get a different price compared to just doing a raw search. Why? Google and FB sold your data to other corporations. These crops have a profile on you that measures your tolerance to cost. So if you are loose with the purse strings expect to literally pay more for products online because you have been identified as an easy spender. The VPN hides you from corporations which means they present a price that actually reflects the market and not your profile.

Sapere aude.

The Origins of the Enlightenment

Scholastics were medieval theologians. Theologians specialize in studying God. They read and think about books like the New Testament and study Church doctrines. Scholastics had one purpose—defend the Church from intellectual challenges by freedom seeking kings,[1] questioning scientists and troublesome philosophers. Not all theologians of the medieval period were scholastics. Albert Magnus (1193-1280 CE) was a theologian and a scientist. He was not a scholastic thinker. He did not try to defend the Church from scientific challenges. Rather, he focused on trying to reconcile the use of reason (science) and religion. He did not see a contradiction in the two. Instead, he claimed “real truth” would be found in the harmony of science and religion.

Scholastics, unlike Albert Magnus, did not fret with testing their claims through experiments.[2] They emphasized the importance of “revelation” over reason. Revelation, also called “revealed truth”, is when God apparently reveals Himself to the mind of the individual. In other word revelation takes place when God talks to you in your head. The fundamental problem with revealed truth is determining when God was doing the talking or the individual was talking to themselves. The two are indistinguishable because they look exactly alike. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks did not believe people could speak to themselves, i.e. the voice inside one’s head was literally a god communicating to you. So if you were having romantic thoughts they were placed there by Aphrodite and so on. Logically speaking, it is more likely the voice inside your head is placed there by you as opposed to a series of gods or God.

Scholastics relied on not only their inner voice but also the use of logic and deduction.[3] Deduction is a powerful tool because you can use it to reach big conclusions from little information. For example, in the 20th century we finally had telescopes powerful enough to look outside of our galaxy. A Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître (1894-1966 CE) was the first to notice galaxies were either tinted blue or red. Thus, he deduced light was cast from these galaxies like sound traveling from a car to a person standing still (as in the Doppler Effect). When a car approaches a person standing still the sound is low but when the car passes by the pitch becomes higher. Light, Lemaître deduced, must also change when it is traveling towards and away from us, i.e. if a galaxy was “blue-shifted” it was flying away from the Milky Way but if it was “red-shifted” then that galaxy was flying towards us. Deduction, as illustrated in the example above, can be quite a powerful tool; however, it is not without its problems.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) was an important scholastic and theologian who was responsible for creating something fancy called the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. The word ontology has Greek roots and is roughly equivalent to the English word necessity. Anselm deduced that it was necessary God exist. He reasoned that he could picture the most perfect and powerful being in his mind. The only way this was possible was if God actually existed (because, Anselm argued, the concept of a God had to point to the object God). In other words, it was necessary God exist because otherwise a concept of this being would not be possible. The problem with Anselm’s argument is it is easily disproven. Another thinker came along about 150 years later named William of Ockham (1285-1347 CE). William, like Anselm, was a theologian and worked for the Church. William, however, unlike Anselm was not made a saint by the Catholic Church. Instead, William was persecuted for doing things like absolutely disproving Anselm’s proof for the existence God. Specifically, William reasoned he could conceive in his mind of the most perfect and powerful unicorn; however, he concluded that just because he had a concept of a unicorn in his mind this didn’t necessarily mean the unicorn actually existed; and that’s the problem with scholasticism, really: it was never based on evidence, it was based on a series of self-reinforcing assumptions about reality.

In the 17th century, the Church was successfully challenged by scientists and philosophers. Science represented a new way of looking at the world. The scholastics looked at the world spiritually; they explained the word spiritually. Scientists looked at the world materialistically and explained physical reality by appealing to laws of nature rather than to a God pulling strings behind the scenes. Scientists didn’t rely on revealed truth like scholastics; rather, they literally tested their assumptions against physical reality; it was the work of early scientists, like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727 CE), who nudged science in the direction of finding patterns in nature; and from these patterns they developed laws like the Law of Gravity, the Law of Planetary Motion and the Laws of Thermodynamics. The Church was also challenged by modern philosophy because philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650 CE) and John Locke (1632-1704 CE) encouraged people to “doubt systematically.” When someone doubts systematically they ask a series of questions, and conduct a series of logical tests, to determine whether or not a belief is valid or if it is fallacious. The best philosophers, like Descartes and Locke, also used scientific knowledge to inform their thinking. This is because intellectuals were more focused on finding patterns in nature, patterns in human societies, etc. and from these drawing conclusions about their meaning and significance. Scholastics, on the other hand, started with the meaning and significance and then explained what they saw.

Humanist philosophers used logic and deduction, as well. However, while scholastics designed arguments simply to defend Church teachings and authority, humanists were motivated out of a genuine desired to describe and understand truth for its own sake. This doesn’t mean humanists did not believe in God; on the contrary, virtually every humanist, scientist and philosopher during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment periods believed in God. God wasn’t in question. The Church’s doctrines, teachings and authority were; and the Catholic Church’s authority gradually grew weaker and weaker over time.

[1] Henry II (1133-1189 CE) of England spent a lot of energy trying to free his kingdom from Church control. This trend of kings and queens weakening the influence of the Church on their kingdoms continued in England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire throughout the 13th to 18th centuries.

[2] Testing something empirically means testing it by means of observation or experience rather than through theory or pure logic.

[3] When we only have a little bit of information we use deduction to work from what little we do know to create a larger picture. The problem with this approach is it requires a lot of imagination and basically no testing or experimentation. Aristotle, for example, used deduction to explain why objects “fell” downwards. He didn’t appeal to the existence of gravity but instead deduced it is in the nature of an object to “want” to fall down. The strange thing about thinkers before the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution is they believed objects actually had intentionality, e.g. magnets were explained as not being attracted due to a force called magnetism but that they had “souls” that sought one another out.

The Trump Effect: Hate Comes to Canada

Dozens of new “white identity” hate groups have emerged in Canada since Trump’s election. Chauvinists and racists existed in Canada well before Trump. But the President has normalized a type of speech giving permission to the impermissible under the pretext he’s standing up to political correctness.

You don’t want to be politically correct? Don’t be politically correct. But don‘t use that as an excuse to be an asshole. People should be decent to one another, not because we are required to use the right words, but because it’s the right thing to do. No, I won’t call you by the pronoun helicopter or “them”. But I’ll call you by your first name and extend a hand of friendship and fidelity to you.

I’ve tried my best to understand why people have given, and continue to give the President, such complete unqualified support. Marco Rubio acknowledged that the way Mr. Trump speaks is dangerous because not everyone who listens to him is “balanced” or “mentally healthy.” What has resulted is what happens when people trade their principles for power, e.g. a less stable, less tolerant, and more violent society.

There’s no sense to it…then again Steve Bannon is on record saying you’d have to destroy the system before you could rebuild it. Perhaps it makes sense to take Bannon (and by extension Trump) that they have no interest in being caretakers of an existing order but makers of a new one.

For my part I’d rather stick with the devil I do know…

A Debate on the Nature of Belief

A Debate on the Nature of Belief 
The medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) argued faith in something was evidence for the existence of the thing believed in. Anselm was a scholastic philosopher who didn’t worry about whether or not the argument was logical so much as it supported established wisdom (Church doctrine).. Once such doctrine was put forward by the Apostle Paul when he remarked in Hebrews 11: 1 that faith was “evidence in things not seen.” There is a fatal flaw affecting Anselm’s approach though: simply believing something exists does not make that thing exist any more than disbelieving in the existence of a thing makes that thing cease to exist.

Being a scholastic philosopher Anselm was not worried about anything other than preserving the Church’s authority and maintaining respect for Church teaching; therefore, he explained away the above contradiction by constructing the following supporting argument (which eventually came to be known as the Ontological Argument), e.g. we would not even have an idea or concept of “God” in our mind in the first place if this Being did not exist.

William of Ockham’s Reponse to the Ontological Argument
A century and a half after Anselm, the monk and philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347 CE) refuted the Ontological Argument (also known as the “argument from necessity”).

First off, it should be noted William of Ockham (1079-1142 CE) was not an atheist. He shared a lot in common with the famed medieval thinker Peter Abelard: a person should not place unqualified faith in the power of belief but test claims and go wherever the evidence takes you. truth (not faith or belief). William also appreciated Thales of Miletus’ (624-546 BCE) approach to learning about the world. Thales was an ancient Greek philosopher who, unlike Anselm, did not just employ reason alone, but actually conducted experiments to test whether his ideas had merit. There was a tendency in Thales’ time to invoke the  gods to explain the mysteries of the physical world. Thales did not invoke the gods. Instead he looked for material and logically consistent explanations for why things worked the way they did.

When it came to disproving Anselm’s Ontological Argument, William used a combination of logic and an appeal to experience. In the great scheme of things, the existence of God simply is not falsifiable. William therefore addressed whether or not Anselm’s argument was logically supportable by testing its plausibility.

William put forth the following counter-argument, i.e. if faith was evidence for the existence of things unseen then faith in the existence of, say, unicorns would likewise be proof of the existence of a one-horned white horse. Ockham pointed out that while faith in God supported the idea of God, it did not support the reality of God’s existence. In other words, it would be absurd to conclude that the simple idea of a unicorn was proof for a unicorn’s existence. We can quite literally conceive of a million different “things” that exist in mind only but do not exist “out there.”

Therefore, to be consistent William rejected the idea that belief in God was evidence of anything; he asserted with equal vigor that believing God did not exist also did not cause God to cease to exist. In the end, God did not depend upon a person’s belief to exist at all. Further still, God could not be postulated out of existence by simply disbelieving in Him. His existence was entirely independent of a person’s belief or lack thereof. Logically, this led William to the following conclusion: God, you, your friend, that cat over there, even that chair, etc. all exist despite of our belief and not because of it.

Yet, for William to successfully refute Anselm he had to tackle Anselm’s supporting idea, e.g. How would the idea or concept of God enter the human mind if it did not already exist in reality?

William used the following two arguments to place the ontological argument in to doubt: firstly, there is a difference between a concept and a thing. For example, an actual thing like a white horse or a single-horned goat do exist in reality. This is an indisputable fact. But there is no such thing as a horse, as defined, that has a horn.

Let’s look at another example: while short Irishmen most certainly exist, it is doubtful that if you chased one down they’d necessarily give you a pot of gold (as per a leprechaun). Yet, the concept of a leprechaun exists. But this concept is just a variation and recombination of things that do exist, e.g. pots, gold, Irish people, short people. The reason the concept–leprechauns, unicorns or God–is a lack of critical discernment on the part of the believer. We literally believe in the power of belief (and frequently do not know what we do not know).

The same logic applies to the existence of any mythological creature. Actually, every single mythological creature—even space aliens—is just a recombination of multiple animals people have first hand experience with; that is, we “copy” and then “paste” the parts of one animal on to another animal to create a new concept. For example in Thale’s time harpy’s and the Chimera were believed to be real. The concept of a harpy most certainly can exist but short of some significant cosmetic surgery a “hawk lady” is simply not possible.

harpy and chimera

In the case of aliens, just think of the way they are represented in film: they’re essentially “little green men” who just look like a weird version of us. They are believed to be uber-intelligent and logically get represented as having extra large heads and eyes. Logically speaking, why would aliens necessarily look like us? The funny thing is on the planet Earth there are stranger looking things than aliens when compared to humans. Consider how different snakes and viper fish are from one another or humans; it stands to reason then that an alien, a being from another planet millions of light years distant, is going to evolve to be at least as different as a viper fish is from a human being (if not more so, e.g. why are both aliens and humans bipedal?).

Producers of alien movies today are an analogue to the scholastics of Anselm’s time: scholastics deal with concepts but not in reality. The philosophy of humanism, which William of Ockham most certainly later influenced, gave people better tools of logical discernment and methods of testing reality.

Secondly, William argued that the creative capabilities of the human mind made people capable of imagining things in to existence that simply did not exist; that being, opinions can exist on things that do not. Therefore, a concept or idea was only evidence of a particular way a person thought about the world; it revealed little about how the actual world operates. So if you believe witches can cast spells then witches cast spells.

Again, a concept is not a “thing” in and of itself; and things do not need us to believe in them to exist. In the end, a concept is just an opinion; and the existence of opinions—or ideas—are not evidence of anything other than the existence of a thought bumping around in a person’s mind; and, again, opinions can exist on things that do not.

William of Ockham was not an atheist. He was a Catholic monk. He also wasn’t even a Renaissance writer and thinker; however, his work anticipated both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. This is because he was one of the first scholars (in a long line including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and eventually, Albert Einstein) who wanted to see the world as it actually was as opposed to how it was believed to be.

The Study of History: The Medieval Model versus the Humanist Model

The enthusiasm people had for the Greeks and Romans during the Renaissance was largely because people started looking at history differently.

The way people think about the past reveals a lot about how they think about themselves. For example, medieval scholars divided history into two periods: an ancient world before the time of Christ (which was a time of darkness) and then the period after his resurrection (regarded as a time of light). We have not thought in these historical terms—times of darkness and light—for a long time. Nonetheless, up until about 1998 CE the majority of scholars still organized time by directly referencing the birth year of Jesus, e.g. Julius Caesar was assassinated om 44 BC (or 44 years before the birth of Jesus) or the Emperor Constantine died in 337 AD (337 years after birth).

In an effort to establish secular (or non-religious calendar), historians now use the acronyms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of BC and AD. Interestingly, despite the fact Western society has not believed in the medieval view of history for centuries the BC/AD structure is still sometimes used exerting a continued and subtle influence on the way we think about history.[1]

Renaissance-era historians were humanists. Humanists were less preoccupied with religion compared to medieval writers. For this reason humanist historians formed a different model of history. Unlike their medieval counter-parts, Renaissance historians did not divide history into two but three periods:

  • The first age belonged to the ancient Greeks and Romans (it was regarded as a period light characterized by a flowering of culture and progress)
  • The second age, or middle-age, was a time of darkness or a “dark age” (humanists like Petrarch branded it as an age of cultural decadence and barbarism)
  • Humanists represented their own age as a new historical era of a special kind: a renaissance[2]—an age of light after darkness, an awakening after sleep, a rebirth after death

According to the humanist model of history, once Rome disappeared all that was good and beautiful was lost. However, light returned to the West once Petrarch (1304-1374 CE) re-introduced the world to the writings of Virgil and Cicero. Petrarch valued the literature of the Greeks and Romans above any other culture because of their emphasis on reason and logic in the pursuit of knowledge.

Another humanist thinker named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) re-envisioned the history of religion in humanist terms. He argued that in the early days, the Catholic Church was a “beacon of light” surrounded by a sea of “pagan darkness”; however, the fall of the Roman Empire and flood of barbarians steered the Church from its true path. Erasmus observed the Church became so concerned with preserving its worldly power it forgot its original purpose: to preserve the simple message of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. Erasmus also blamed the Church’s problems on ignorant monks and mind-numbing scholastics (like Thomas Aquinas). He argued the clergy had become ineloquent and fixated with superstitions and medieval scholasticism[3] as opposed to Jesus’ simple message. Erasmus was optimistic though: he believed the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman literature meant the Church might possibly return to the simplicity and purity of its past.

Medieval historians believed they were living literally at the end of an age. Humanists, by contrast, felt they were living at the beginning of a new and brilliant period in human history. This filled them with a sense of optimism about the future. So while humanists knew both the Church and society needed reforming, they looked hopefully to a future Golden Age. This would be a time when Roman eloquence and Greek philosophy would be re-established; and this, it was reasoned, would revive a purer form of Christianity. Medieval historians and thinkers by contrast were not optimistic; they looked at the world as broken (full of sin). The world to medieval scholastics was something to be escaped, not celebrated or rediscovered.

The Importance of Analyzing & Criticizing History
If someone wanted to accurately forge (copy) a piece of writing created two hundred years ago they must know enough history to avoid anachronisms.[4] For example, if while reading an account of the Battle of Yorktown (1781 CE) the historian explains the Americans defeated the British by dropping atom bombs you should be skeptical, i.e. the first atom bomb was dropped in 1945 on Imperial Japan. Also, the Thirteen Colonies dropping nukes on England would be anachronistic because the technology (nukes) did not exist in the 18th century.

Humanists valued historical accuracy. For this reason they developed methods to test a document’s reliability. For example, who would be more of an authority on Christianity—the Apostle Paul who actually lived in the First Century or Pope Leo X (a pope living in the 16th century CE)? The humanist historian would argue Paul is the greater authority: Paul was closer in time to Jesus than Leo X; therefore, Paul was positioned better both historically and intellectually to discuss events related to Jesus’ time and thought. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457 CE) used newly developed investigative techniques to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. The Catholic Church argued they received a “donation” in the 4th century from Emperor Constantine giving them control of vast parts of Italy. Valla looked at the language of the Donation document discerning it had actually been written in the 8th century, not the 4th. He pointed out that the word “fief” occurred in the document but this word was first used in the 8th century. Thus, there was no way Constantine—a person living in the pre-feudal 4th century—could have given Italy as a “fief” to the Catholic Church.

Erasmus applied similar critical techniques to studying the Bible. He translated the New Testament from Latin into Dutch and published it in 1516 CE. In his translation, he left out the following verse (commonly referred to as the Comma Johanneum) from the First Epistle of John that is the scriptural basis for belief in the existence of the Trinity. The text of 1 John 5:7-8 reads as follows:

And there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.

Erasmus, like Valla, proved the first verse was not authentic. In particular, he found the reference to “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost” was absent in all of the oldest available Greek editions of John’s epistle (letter); the verse was also absent in all the oldest available Latin manuscripts. Lastly, upon investigation he discovered that this verse was entirely unknown to any Christian writer before the Fourth Century CE (300s).

Erasmus argued, by appealing to the available evidence, that if the verse had existed, it certainly would have been quoted by writers at a time when the doctrine of the Trinity was the center of a theological controversy. The controversy about the Trinity actually threatened to tear the early Church part. The majority of Christians did not believe in the Trinity. Instead, most Christians—called Arians—believed in the idea of dualism, e.g. Jesus was the adopted not actual son of God. The Arians argued that the Holy Spirit was not a distinct person; it was just a quality Jesus and God shared in common. So, Erasmus reasoned, those who supported the idea of the Trinity would certainly have appealed to 1 John 5: 7-8 as evidence to disprove the Arian view. But they did not. They could not. They could not because John’s verse did not exist (yet). The controversy over the nature of God was eventually resolved in favor of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Erasmus concluded that the Catholic Church must have added the verse after the council ended to give scriptural authority to the doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Textual criticism of this kind represents a more scientific approach to understanding history that emerged specifically during the Renaissance. Scholastics would have found a way to explain away the change to Epistle of John. Erasmus being a humanist believed truth was more important than appearances. Nonetheless, Renaissance-era historians were far from perfect: they tended to write in a flowery style sometimes sacrificing accuracy to elegance; they looked at history differently than we do; that is, they looked at it as a branch of literature (not its own branch of knowledge). Nonetheless, advances made by humanist historians helped secularize[6] historical writing and thinking. People still saw God at work in history; but they no longer automatically reverted to discussing God in order to make sense of events.

Renaissance historians were more secular in their outlook and conception of history compared to medieval thinkers. Medieval historians were convinced the course of history was simply the fulfilling of scripture, e.g. a savior was promised, a savior was born, and the world was saved. History demonstrated God’s dominion over humanity. In the humanist view history was a guide to life. You could learn from the past and apply those lessons to the present and the future. The study of history, according to the humanists, should inspire one to act virtuously while discouraging living a life of vice; history trains future statesmen in politics and war; it is the mother of experience and the grandmother of wisdom. Old men are said to be wise because their judgement rests on the accumulated experience of a lifetime; therefore, a right reading of history makes people wise. Thus, the new humanistic history emerging during the Renaissance was a secular description of the past; it focused on worldly matters, not God. The causes of events were not explained in terms of God’s will. Causes and motives were explained solely in human terms. The humanist approach remained the preferred model of historians well into even the 20th century.

Source: this article was created in part using Eugene F. Rice’s book The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559 (pages 79-83).

[1] The modern world continues to make use of all sorts of primitive or medieval notions. For example, the ancient Greeks believed the white cloudy substance in the night sky was the milk of the goddess Hera. We still call our galaxy the “Milky Way” but no one believes Hera exists any longer. Also, we still use terms like “sun set” and sun rise” which reflects an ancient belief in a flat earth. In reality the sun neither sets nor rises; rather, the earth spins revealing the sun during the day and concealing it during the night.

[2] The term “Renaissance” was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his influential work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

[3] Scholasticism was represented by a school of thinkers who believed in the importance of preserving the power and influence of the Catholic Church above all else. For this reason they stressed the importance of making all human knowledge conform and agree with Church teachings and a literal reading of scripture. The problem with scholastics is they did not pursue knowledge for its own sake; instead, they were more concerned with preserving the appearance of the Church being the unquestioned leader and authority on science, on politics, economics, the law, and religion.

[4] An anachronism is a thing belonging to or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, e.g. Romans did not have smart phones; therefore, if you were to read a “historical” account of Julius Caesar texting his friends on his smart phone this would be an example of an anachronism.

[5] Various editions of scripture have been changed or altered for different reasons. Martin Luther, for example, disliked the Epistle of James because it stressed the value of completing good works to “earn” salvation. Thus, Luther left James out of his German translation of Erasmus’ translation.

[6] Secularize: to separate from religious or spiritual connection or influences.