Ideas of Peter Watson, by Theme

[British, fl. 2005, At the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University.]

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1. Philosophy / A. Wisdom / 3. Wisdom Deflated
Because of Darwin, wisdom as a definite attainable state has faded
     Full Idea: As well as killing the need for God, Darwin's legacy transformed the idea of wisdom, as some definite attainable state, however far off.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.31)
     A reaction: Where does this leave philosophy, if it is still (as I like to think) the love of wisdom? The best we can hope for is wisdom as a special sort of journey - touring, rather than arriving.
1. Philosophy / B. History of Ideas / 1. History of Ideas
The three key ideas are the soul, Europe, and the experiment
     Full Idea: The three key ideas that I have settled on in the history of ideas are: the soul, Europe, and the experiment.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Intro)
     A reaction: The soul is a nice choice (rather than God). 'Europe' seems rather vast and indeterminate to count as a key idea.
The big idea: imitation, the soul, experiments, God, heliocentric universe, evolution?
     Full Idea: Candidates for the most important idea in human history are: mimetic thinking (imitation), the soul, the experiment, the One True God, the heliocentric universe, and evolution.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.03)
     A reaction: From this list I would choose the heliocentric universe, because it so dramatically downgraded the importance of our species (effectively we went from everything to nothing). We still haven't recovered from the shock.
2. Reason / E. Argument / 3. Analogy
Babylonian thinking used analogy, rather than deduction or induction
     Full Idea: In Babylon thought seems to have worked mainly by analogy, rather than by the deductive or inductive processes we use in the modern world.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.04)
     A reaction: Analogy seems to be closely related to induction, if it is comparing instances of something. Given their developments in maths and astronomy, they can't have been complete strangers to the 'modern' way of thought.
6. Mathematics / A. Nature of Mathematics / 4. Using Numbers / c. Counting procedure
Mesopotamian numbers applied to specific things, and then became abstract
     Full Idea: To begin with, in Mesopotamia, counting systems applied to specific commodities (so the symbol for 'three sheep' applied only to sheep, and 'three cows' applied only to cows), but later words for abstract qualities emerged.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.04)
     A reaction: It seems from this that we actually have a record of the discovery of true numbers. Delightful. I think the best way to describe what happened is that they began to spot patterns.
15. Nature of Minds / C. Capacities of Minds / 1. Faculties
There are 23 core brain functions, with known circuit, transmitters, genes and behaviour
     Full Idea: In 2014 the National Institutes of Mental Health published a list of 23 core brain functions and their associated neural circuitry, neurotransmitters and genes, and the behaviour and emotions that go with them.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 16 'Physics')
     A reaction: They were interested in the functions behind mental health, but I am interested in the functions behind our belief systems, which might produce a different focus. Sub-functions, perhaps.
17. Mind and Body / E. Mind as Physical / 1. Physical Mind
Traditional ideas of the mind were weakened in the 1950s by mind-influencing drugs
     Full Idea: One development in particular in the 1950s helped to discredit the traditional concept of the mind. This was medical drugs that influenced the workings of the brain.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 16 'Intro')
     A reaction: This explains Ryle's 1949 book, and the Australian physicalists emerging in the late 1950s. Philosophers don't grasp how their subject is responsive to other areas of human knowledge. Of course, opium had always done this.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / e. Human nature
Humans have been hunter-gatherers for 99.5% of their existence
     Full Idea: Anthropology shows that the hunter-gathering lifestyle has occupied 99.5 per cent of the time humans have been on earth.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 13 'Emergence')
     A reaction: If you are trying to understand humanity, you ignore this fact at your peril. Even agriculture is only a tiny part of our history, and that only disappeared as a major human activity (in many nations) in the last hundred years.
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 5. Democracy / d. Representative democracy
Modern democracy is actually elective oligarchy
     Full Idea: What we regard as democracy in the twenty-first century is actually elective oligarchy.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.06)
     A reaction: Even dictatorships want to be called 'democracies'. The modern system is a bit of a concession to Plato, and he would probably have preferred it to his system, because at least the rulers tend to be more educated than the direct assembly.
26. Natural Theory / A. Speculations on Nature / 1. Nature
Greek philosophers invented the concept of 'nature' as their special subject
     Full Idea: Greek philosophers may have invented the concept of 'nature' to underline their superiority over poets and religious leaders.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.06)
     A reaction: Brilliant. They certainly wrote a lot of books entitled 'Peri Physis' (Concerning Nature), and it was the target of their expertise. A highly significant development, along with their rational methods. Presumably Socrates extends nature to include ethics.
26. Natural Theory / C. Causation / 7. Eliminating causation
The Uncertainty Principle implies that cause and effect can't be measured
     Full Idea: The Uncertainty Principle implied that in the subatomic world cause and effect could never be measured.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 05 'Against')
     A reaction: The fact that it can't be measured does not, presumably, entail that it doesn't exist. Physicists seem to ignore causation, rather than denying it. Can causation be real if it only exists at the macro-level, as an emergent phenomenon?
27. Natural Reality / B. Modern Physics / 2. Electrodynamics / a. Electrodynamics
The interference of light through two slits confirmed that it is waves
     Full Idea: Thomas Young in 1803 confirmed the idea of Huyghens that light is waves, showing how light passing through two slits produces an interference pattern that resembles water waves sluicing through two slits.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 04 'Conception')
     A reaction: The great puzzle emerges when it also turns out to be quantised particles.
27. Natural Reality / B. Modern Physics / 2. Electrodynamics / c. Electrons
Electrons rotate in hyrogen atoms 10^13 times per second
     Full Idea: In the hydrogen atom the electron rotates some 10,000 billion times per second.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 18 'Evolutionary')
     A reaction: That's an awful lot. Is it at the speed of light?
27. Natural Reality / B. Modern Physics / 2. Electrodynamics / d. Quantum mechanics
Quantum theory explains why nature is made up of units, such as elements
     Full Idea: Planck's quantum idea explained so much, including the observation that the chemical world is made up of discrete units - the elements. Discrete elements implied fundamental units of matter that were themselves discrete (as Dalton had said).
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 4 'Intro')
     A reaction: The atomic theory was only finally confirmed by Einstein in 1905. This idea implies that the very lowest level of all must have distinct building blocks, but so far we have got down to 'fields', which seem to be a sort of 'foam'.
27. Natural Reality / B. Modern Physics / 4. Standard Model / a. Concept of matter
Only four particles are needed for matter: up and down quark, electron, electron-neutrino
     Full Idea: We need twelve particles in the master equation of the standard model, but it is necessary to have only four to build a universe (up and down quarks, the electron and the electron neutrino (or lepton). The existence of the others is 'a bit of a mystery'.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 11 'First Three')
27. Natural Reality / F. Chemistry / 1. Chemistry
The shape of molecules is important, as well as the atoms and their bonds
     Full Idea: Pauling showed that the architecture - the shape of molecules was relevant (as well as the bonds). This meant that molecules were just as important as atoms in the understanding of matter. Molecules were not just the sum of their parts.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 05 'Three')
     A reaction: If Aristotle struggled to understand matter, then so should modern philosophers. This involves thermodynamics and chemistry, as well as quantum theory.
27. Natural Reality / G. Biology / 2. Life
Information is physical, and living can be seen as replicating and preserving information
     Full Idea: In passing information, physical changes take place, and information is thus physical. On this account, the act of living can be seen as replicating and preserving the information that a living body is comprised of.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 17 'Dreams')
     A reaction: [He emphasises 'the act' of living, rather than a life]
In 1828 the animal substance urea was manufactured from inorganic ingredients
     Full Idea: In 1828 Wöhler, in an iconic experiment, had manufactured an organic substance, urea, hitherto the product solely of animals, out of inorganic materials, and without any interventions of vital force.
     From: Peter Watson (Convergence [2016], 06 'Inorganic')
     A reaction: For reductionists like me, the gradual explanation of life in inorganic terms is the great role model of explanation. I take it for granted that the human mind will go the same way, despite partisan resistance from a lot of philosophers.
27. Natural Reality / G. Biology / 3. Evolution
DNA mutation suggests humans and chimpanzees diverged 6.6 million years ago
     Full Idea: The basic mutation rate in DNA is 0.71 percent per million years. Working back from the present difference between human and chimpanzee DNA, we arrive at 6.6 million years ago for their divergence.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.01)
     A reaction: This database is committed to evolution (a reminder that even databases have commitments), and so facts of this kind are included, even though they are not strictly philosophical. All complaints should be inwardly digested and forgotten.
28. God / C. Attitudes to God / 4. God Reflects Humanity
During the rise of civilizations, the main gods changed from female to male
     Full Idea: Around the time of the rise of the first great civilizations, the main gods changed sex, as the Great Goddess, or a raft of smaller goddesses, were demoted and male gods took their place.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.05)
     A reaction: Why? War, perhaps?
29. Religion / A. Polytheistic Religion / 3. Hinduism
Hinduism has no founder, or prophet, or creed, or ecclesiastical structure
     Full Idea: Traditional Hinduism has been described as more a way of living than a way of thought; it has no founder, no prophet, no creed and no ecclesiastical structure.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.05)
     A reaction: This contrast strikingly with all later religions, which felt they had to follow the Jews in becoming a 'religion of the book', with a sacred text, and hence a special status for the author(s) of that text.
29. Religion / B. Monotheistic Religion / 2. Judaism
Modern Judaism became stabilised in 200 CE
     Full Idea: The Judaism we know today didn't become stabilized until roughly 200 CE.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.07)
     A reaction: By that stage it would have been subject to the influences of Christianity, ancient Greek philosophy, and neo-Platonism.
The Israelites may have asserted the uniqueness of Yahweh to justify land claims
     Full Idea: Archaeology offers datable figures that seem to support the idea that the Israelites of the 'second exile' period converted Yahweh into a special, single God to justify their claims to the land.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.07)
     A reaction: The implications for middle eastern politics of this wicked observation are beyond the remit of a philosophy database.
Monotheism was a uniquely Israelite creation within the Middle East
     Full Idea: No one questions the fact that monotheism was a uniquely Israelite creation within the Middle East.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.07)
     A reaction: I take the Middle East to exclude Greece, where they were developing similar ideas. Who knows?
29. Religion / B. Monotheistic Religion / 3. Zoroastrianism
The Gathas (hymns) of Zoroastrianism date from about 1000 BCE
     Full Idea: The Gathas, the liturgical hymns that make up the 'Avesta', the Zoroastrian canon, are very similar in language to the oldest Sanskrit of Hinduism, so they are not much younger than 1200 BCE.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.05)
     A reaction: This implies a big expansion of religion before the well-known expansion of the sixth century BCE.
Zoroaster conceived the afterlife, judgement, heaven and hell, and the devil
     Full Idea: Life after death, resurrection, judgement, heaven and paradise, were all Zoroastrian firsts, as were hell and the devil.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.05)
     A reaction: He appears to be the first 'prophet'.
29. Religion / B. Monotheistic Religion / 4. Christianity / a. Christianity
Paul's early writings mention few striking episodes from Jesus' life
     Full Idea: Paul's writings - letters mainly - predate the gospels and yet make no mention of many of the more striking episodes that make up Jesus' life.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.07)
     A reaction: This is not proof of anything, but it seems very significant if we are trying to get at the facts about Jesus.
Jesus never intended to start a new religion
     Full Idea: Jesus never intended to start a new religion.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.08)
     A reaction: An intriguing fact, which makes you wonder whether any of the prophets ever had such an intention.
29. Religion / C. Spiritual Disciplines / 1. Confucianism
Confucius revered the spiritual world, but not the supernatural, or a personal god, or the afterlife
     Full Idea: Confucius was deeply religious in a traditional sense, showing reverence towards heaven and an omnipresent spiritual world, but he was cool towards the supernatural, and does not seem to have believed in either a personal god or an afterlife.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.05)
     A reaction: The implication is that the spiritual world was very remote from us, and beyond communication. Sounds like deism.
29. Religion / C. Spiritual Disciplines / 2. Taoism
Taoism aims at freedom from the world, the body, the mind, and nature
     Full Idea: Underlying Taoism is a search for freedom - from the world, from the body, from the mind, from nature.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.05)
     A reaction: Of all the world's religions, I think Taoism is the most ridiculouly misconceived.
29. Religion / D. Religious Issues / 1. Religious Commitment / a. Religious Belief
The three basic ingredients of religion are: the soul, seers or priests, and ritual
     Full Idea: Anthropologist distinguish three requirements for religion: a non-physical soul which can survive death; individuals who can receive supernatural inspiration; and rituals which can cause changes in the present world.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.01)
     A reaction: The latter two, of course, also imply belief in supernatural powers.
29. Religion / D. Religious Issues / 2. Immortality / a. Immortality
In ancient Athens the souls of the dead are received by the 'upper air'
     Full Idea: An official Athenian war monument of 432 BCE says the souls of the dead will be received by the aither (the 'upper air'), though their bodies remain on earth.
     From: Peter Watson (Ideas [2005], Ch.05)
     A reaction: Intriguing. Did they think anything happened when they got there? There are also ideas about Hades, and the Isles of the Blessed floating around.