Friday, October 23, 2009

The History of rational thought and atheism (part 1)

As a request from my reddit readers (in this case DB2) I'm working on this new series on the history of rational thought and atheism. Don't worry, my other series on the 'arguments for god' will still continue.

Strangely enough in almost every history of rational thought or atheism there is one person who almost everyone starts with. Epicurus. While I think Epicurus is a great philosopher and one of the first historically recorded atheist thinkers (though he might have not been an atheist...wait till part 2!). He is not, sadly, the father of rational inquiry. The man who takes that place is Democritus.

Democritus, "chosen of the people"

Why have I started with Democritus instead of Epicurus? Is it his idea of atomics that is eerily similar to our modern thinking? Or maybe it was his belief in equality (though it didn't include slaves and women)? Perhaps it was his ideas on mathematics? or geometry? Or his idea that the world was round? Maybe his generally correct assessment of how early human life was?


His ideas in epistemology though, ah now that reserves him the place in the history book of rational thought. Democritus's idea was that we had only a subjective view on an objective world. While we will never be sure that what we observes is actually real, our thoughts and logic can be used to determine what is real.

While I must disagree with his conclusion on logic (concluding that logic is proscriptive rather then descriptive is a no no!). He still holds an important place in the history of rational thinking. Until this time no one had actually pointed out that the world was objective and that our experience of it was subjective. This seems obvious to us now but even in that time people had argued, and apparently convincingly so, that reality itself could be subjective.

Democritus truly placed the foundational stone of rational thought, without this first steady(ish) concept to work from no skeptical rational inquiry can proceed.

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