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What is the crackpot?: Earlier I called Heraclitus the first crackpot philosopher, due to his technique of explaining the whole universe with one vague idea. This is a common technique among philosophers who try to arrive at the truth about the universe by thinking really hard about it, rather than poking at bits of it. In this entry I speculate why the ancient Greeks produced so many ideas that now seem crackpot, rather than just nonsensical.

Maybe there's nothing to explain. These guys weren't dumb, so their ideas are usually internally consistent. But they didn't know as much as we do, so it's easy for us to pick holes in their cosmologies. Except that it was also easy for people like Cicero to pick holes in their cosmologies, mainly using the rhetorical form of Something Awful-type mockery. Also, once I got past Parmenides in my book, I stopped seeing general crackpot ideas and started seeing ones that looked a lot like modern crackpot ideas I'd encountered before. I believe that crackpottery took a great leap with the founder of the Eleatic school.

Parmenides was so impressed with deductive logic, he personified it as a goddess. According to my book this was the Greek method of dealing with "anything that exists independently of human will or effort, which is everlasting and has effects beyond human control". I actually think Parmenides himself was not a crackpot, though he had a really weird way of expressing his ideas. He looks to me like a radical skeptic.

Parmenides's goddess of logic convinced him that the universe consists of only one thing, which cannot move, has no parts or distinguishing features, and which is the only possible object of thought. Parmenides's monist universe reminds me a lot of the universe you inhabit when reading Descartes, at least until the third Meditation where Descartes totally sells out. Your senses can't be trusted and the knowable universe consists of your mind, about which you know nothing except that it's a thing that thinks... about itself. The radical skeptic arguments are, IMO, impossible to refute and this issue has never been totally resolved (not even by Prof. Hsu).

But radical skepticism is not very interesting. Your sense impressions keep on having parties and you sit idly by, not trusting them enough to join in. The successors of Permenides can't ignore the radical skeptical arguments, but they also want to do some philosophy. So everyone from that point talks about the unreliability of the senses, but except for the Eleatics (like Zeno), they posit a universe containing multiple things. These two conditions, I believe, formed fertile ground for the Golden Age of Crackpotism.

I think the defining feature of a crackpot idea is that its author expects their idea to explain the universe, but they aren't interested in poking at the universe to affirm or disprove the idea. They would rather use pure reason to determine what qualities the universe must have. Except that their pure reason is not so pure: it incorporates premises that were originally acquired through poking.

The Eleatics didn't bother poking the universe because nothing reliable would come out of it, and anyway there's only one thing, it's alredy been explained, motion is impossible, and nothing exists that might do the poking. Because of the force of these arguments, non-Eleatics were also wary of the value of poking. But unlike Parmenides, these guys took as their starting point for their pure reason exercises the behavior of everyday materials, the weather, and atronomical phenomena. Their theories are brittle because they're based not on pure reason (which would give you radical skepticism) but on a small number of sense impressions.

This is not really the Presocratics' fault, because the topic of organized ex post facto universe-poking didn't come up for many centuries (even Aristotle didn't have a good handle on it). But now that we have it, when someone ignores it and does what the Presocratics did (sense impressions -> theory -X-> more sense impressions), we call it crackpot.

The guy who really made me start thinking about this was Anaxagoras, who believed that the fundamental forces of the universe are Love and Strife. Love makes like attract unlike; Strife makes like attract like. Really elegant. More elegant, in fact, than the similar modern crackpot theory (don't remember whose) that posited Suck and Blow as the two fundamental forces.

Also: Democritus, in addition to writing a dialogue between the mind and the senses, came up with his famous atomic theory. This theory started out pretty well, but ran into huge problems because of his insistence that everything is made of atoms. Even energy and ideas. When you see something or think about something, your atoms are colliding with atoms from the thing you're seeing or thinking about.

This reminds me a lot of a crackpot that I think Martin Gardner discussed in Fads and Fallacies. Said crackpot claimed that sound was a particle and not a wave. Sample argument: it's absurd that a cricket would be able to move such a huge volume of air that you could hear it from far away. Instead, the cricket is filling that same huge volume of air with particles, and you hear the particles.

Incidentally, check out the G.O.B.-like behavior of Empedocles, the non-Eleatic who firmly established the now-canonical four elements that show up in video games.

[One story of his death] is that he leapt into the crater of Mt. Elna "wishing to confirm the report about him that he had become a god." ... Empedocles' ego and flair for showmanship. In public he wore a purple robe, a gold crown, bronze shoes, and a laurel wreath. He wore his hair long, had a retinue of boys to attend him, and adopted a grave demeanor. He was known as a physician and magician (professons by no means distinct in antiquity). According to a widely known story he kept a woman alive for thirty days without breathing or pulse.

No, Socrates, it's my illusion!

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