Ancient Past is Prologue

My mind has been focused on a topic that doesn’t interest most people, that of the ancient world. I suppose most people don’t see it as all that relevant to their lives. But to me it is one of the most important things in the world. It’s about who we are, how we became this way, and what potential we have to be otherwise. Besides, it’s just fascinating. I can’t understand how anyone couldn’t be fascinated by it.

There is something truly strange about the ancient world. And it speaks to something truly strange about our present human nature and society. We have so little understanding of ourselves. We go about blindly, ignorant of our ignorance, like a bunch of busy ants who have no clue what they’re doing other than the narrowly focused activity of gathering food or moving a grain of sand. That is the human swarm, mostly mindless on the individual level and yet capable of great things as a collective, relationships upon relationships forming a networked whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Yet when we look back in time, it began at a much simpler level. It seems that a relatively small number of changes happened that made possible everything that followed. There is much speculation about what these changes were, what caused them, and what significance they had. But it still largely remains a mystery.

This is important. It’s not just academic curiosity. If we don’t come to terms with our past and the present that it has led to, we may not have a future as a civilization or even as a species. I don’t think that is an exaggeration. How we understand our past, accurately or not, will determine what choices we see and don’t see. So, by projecting our present mentality onto the past and hence into the future, we will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will likely find ourselves unable to make the necessary changes for continued survival, as long as we don’t understand how humanity changed in the past.

I get the sense that few people genuinely believe that humans have much potential for being other than we presently are. You can see that in how people act, in their politics and their everyday lives. Most find it extremely difficult to imagine either a past that was or a future that might be radically different. It is simply incomprehensible to them.

4 thoughts on “Ancient Past is Prologue


    It is evident that Block takes Greek zombies to be utterly absurd. It is equally evident, I think, that he has no real arguments for this claim, but only two sets of statements about P-consciousness and A-consciousness: they are not contingent on culturally acquired concepts (first quotation), and they are basic biological features (second quotation). These statements are motivated by intuitions: the first is perfectly obvious and to deny the second is perfectly ludicrous.In addition Block seems to make a tacit assumption (which presumably is also seen as obvious)that basic biological features cannot be contingent on culturally acquired concepts [5].

    For all the conceptual footwork involved in the distinction between kinds of consciousness, Block fails to make clear why Greek zombies should be ruled out as absurd. Neither conceptually nor empirically has this absurdity been established. The closest Block comes to offering an argument is when he observes in the first quotation that “very much lower animals are A-conscious, presumably without any such concept”. I think this is mere hand waving, however [6].

    I grant everyone the right to share Block’s intuitions, especially as they also happen to be mine. But I have learned to be wary of them. Uncritical rehearsal of intuitions is the shortest route to parochialism, as history has amply demonstrated. If we find it intuitively difficult toa ccept Greek zombies, this may just reflect our collective determination to reckon the Greeks among our peers rather than expose a salient feature of ontology.

    • Conservatives often attack leftist identity politics. But they do so only in order to defend their own identity politics. As someone on the political left, I’ve become wary of identity politics across the board.

      It’s not that I think identity politics are always wrong and harmful. Rather, I see the danger of groupthink, where the group is placed above even the supposed principles of the group. For example, being pro-woman, in voting for women no matter what, isn’t the same thing as feminism. The two shouldn’t be confused. But once feminism becomes mere gender identity politics, such distinctions become moot.

      At the same time, simply criticizing and denying identity politics doesn’t make one safe from them. I’d argue that most identity politics are actually unconscious, as most social identities are to varying degrees unconscious. The most powerful of identity politics are those we never think about. They are simply part of our sense of social reality.

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