Lesson 1: The Nature of Belief

1. Types of belief. How do we obtain knowledge and how do we know that it is true? Degrees of belief. The beginning of knowledge. Do we just receive and order sense impressions? Which is fundamental: our mind, or external reality directly perceived by our mind? The epistemic cycle: building up our knowledge not by passively receiving sense impressions, but by interacting with our surroundings. Pattern recognition. The problem of innate ideas and its resolution by the epistemic cycle. Higher epistemic cycles. Language and reality. Ontological realism.

2. Early Man. Discoveries in Serengeti, Sterkfontein and Peking. Cave paintings in Lascaux and Altimira. The bone-markings of Ishango. The uniqueness of man.

3. Early civilisations. Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, India, China.

4. Greece. The art of asking the correct questions and the first attempts to find ways to answer them. The Ionian philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Parmenides. The atomists Democritos and Leucippus. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The development of logic and the mathematics of Euclid. The problem of change. The mathematical structure of the world. The world as an organism. Celestial and terrestrial matter. Theories of motion. Essentialist and descriptive theories of nature. The problem of time: is the universe eternal or cyclic?

5. Reasons for the failure of science in all ancient cultures. The myth of the eternal return and the Great Year.

Reading List

S.G.F. Brandon, Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East. Hodder and Stoughton, 1963.

T.A. Brody, The Philosophy behind Physics. Springer, 1993.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.

M. Clagett, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity. Collier Books, 1963.

F.C. Copelston, The History of Philosophy. Vol. I. Greece and Rome. Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1944.

C. Dawson, Progress and Religion. Sheed and Ward, 1929.

D.R. Dicks, Early Greek Astronomy to Aristotle. Cornell, 1970.

B. Farrington, Greek Science. Pelican.

H. Frankfurt, Before Philosophy. Pelican.

I.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough. London, 1911.

E. Gilson, Methodical Realism. Christendom Press, 1990.

G. Holton and D.H.D. Ridler, Foundations of Modern Physical Science. Addison-Wesley, 1958.

R. Leakey and R. Lewin, Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes us Human. Little, Brown and Co. 1992.

A. Marschak, The Roots of Civilisation. Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1972.

O. Neugebauer, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity.

S. Sambursky, The Physical World of the Greeks. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956.

A.G. Van Melsen, From Atomos to Atom: A History of the Concept 'Atom'. Duquesne, 1953.


1. What do we mean when we say that we believe something?

2. How do we know that our beliefs are true?

3. How do we know that there is an external world?

4. Are men unique, or are we just a higher sort of animal?

5. What was the special contribution of ancient Greece to our civilisation?

6. What are the arguments in favour of believing that all is made of atoms moving in a void?

7. What was Socrates' most important contribution to human thought?

8. Describe Plato's concept of ideal forms.

9. How is mathematics related to the world?

10. Why did Aristotle believe in the centrality of the earth, and in the difference between terrestrial and celestial matter?

11. Why did all ancient civilisations believe in the cyclic nature of time? What effect did this have on the development of science?

12. Why did science fail to develop in all ancient cultures?


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