For example, physicists, engineers, computer scientists don't care much about ancient studies and don't mind throwing away older theories and research.

Yet, in philosophy and religious studies, we relish ancient thinkers. Does this fascination with the old school of thought have practical scientific benefits?

  • 2
    Philosophy and religious studies are not looking for scientific benefits. They are after ideas, doctrines and arguments rather than tests and confirmations, hence the difference. Practice is much broader than practice of science, and even science needs a source for what is to be tested and replace what is thrown away.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 18 at 15:49
  • 7
    "philosophy and religious studies, we relish ancient thinkers." Nope. There are tons and tons and tons of "ancient thinkers" that have been relegated to the trash heap. Yes, those ancient thinkers whose ideas are still considered valuable are treasured, but they are rare among the population of "ancient thinkers".
    – JonathanZ
    Commented May 18 at 15:53
  • 1
    In a thread concerning the modern money system, I was talking about the wisdom of the ancient scholars, and a university professor argued that a high school student knows more than any of the ancient scholars! I told him that is because we teach them the ideas of the ancient scholars and we perpetuate the lessons! My books on chemistry and physics are full of attribution to the applied philosophers in those disciplines. Engineers have to master principles, not history of science and technology, and must use case study and reasoning by analogy to make systems function in the surroundings. Commented May 18 at 16:45
  • 1
    I don't think any human knows enough about the history of self-other communication to decide how knowledge or know-how gets perpetuated in time. We can discuss cases that seem to be accurate in the context of history. I do not have a source, but I recall reading that Laplace was a student of Fourier, and Fourier rejected valid contributions of Laplace. In electrical engineering we use Laplace transforms to convert the transient and steady state time domain into frequency domain. This makes some problems easier to solve. The Fourier transform is less general. It applies to the steady state. Commented May 18 at 17:24
  • 2
    I'm not sure I buy your premise in the first paragraph. We still use many of the engineering principles of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It would be absurd to e.g. ignore the invention of zero by the ancient Indians because it was old. No one throws away old knowledge simply because it is old. We abandon old ideas when and if they are shown to be wrong.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 20 at 15:02

7 Answers 7


The Egyptians understood Pythagoras' theorem. Guess what, we didn't bin. They say no average citizen was able to live as well as a citizen of Ancient Rome before the Fall, until London in the 1720s, so it's no wonder science had a big gap in development funding. When the Spanish reached Mexico it had the largest city in the world because of an effective sewage system, and the Chinampa system of agriculture which is still the most effective large scale food system ever developed. So in some ways ancient peoples exceeded us, and there are certainly examples where we have failed to heed lessons.

But the Renaissance is defined by the recognition that we could do better in some ways than ancient thinkers, like recognising errors of Aristotle (e.g. buoyancy) and Galen (from not having done human autopsies). We should respect people of the past, but also recognise where we have improved, and where we haven't - sortition is another ancient idea resurging in relevance, in the idea of Citizen Assemblies.

Philosophy is not a set of truths, but a practice. Science is simply the results of natural philosophy, the active practice of how to study the natural world. We need to learn how science developed, including mistakes, just like we learn about philosophers not to accept their answers, but to see how we got here, and find the positions we consider mistaken - both Plato and Aristotle supported slavery and opposed democracy, for instance.

There is no binary here. We should learn our history better, but more for guidance against mistakes than inspiration.

  • 1
    @JD: 'Didn' t throw it in the trash' is just so gauche.. 😉
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 18 at 16:18
  • 2
    @CriglCragl - To my American engineering mind "bin" means sort via algorithm and/or store in inventory. Commented May 18 at 16:49
  • 1
    @CriglCragl Hmmm. Ah. A CriglCraglism.
    – J D
    Commented May 18 at 21:13
  • 1
    @Rushi: Ill-gotten adjectives huh. I'm with Viking brevity all the way to Göttingen.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 18 at 21:45
  • 1
    @LiamClink: Turkeys voting for Christmas.. Referendums are direct democracy. The Brexit one shows the problems Citizen Assemblies aim to fix - the population at large didn't understand the issues, & will not get what they thought they voted for (eg lower immigration), & took a bigger economic hit than promised. In Sortition people have to be like a jury, drawn by lot to hear expert testimony on all the issues, & then make a representative decision. The attempt to spread democracy shows you need more than voting, you need an array of guard rails & civil-society culture, free media, rule of law
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 20 at 8:06

Your premise is flatly at odds with evidence, to the point where I believe that it is incoherent.

Physicists credit Democritus with the concept of atoms. Engineers use principles first documented by Archimedes. The first computer scientist we know of was Pāṇini (and the field was already sufficiently developed that we know he was a descriptivist!), although one might argue that computer science simply did not exist prior to foundational work from around 1880–1950 CE. It is incongruent with evidence to claim that these fields — the hardest of our sciences — do not respect or incorporate their historical roots.

In philosophy, most ancient thinkers are understood as having been wrong. Plato and Aristoteles have been continuously debunked from their lifetime to ours, from Diogenes to Gettier. We don't have a fascination or inflated worth placed on history; we merely recognize that an argument is not incorrect merely because it is old. At the same time, because science marches on, ancient claims tend to be missing newer information which refines or refutes them. Even recent philosophers like Linnaeus are completely wrong in the face of cladistics, and everybody's philosophies had to be updated for general relativity, quantum mechanics, and computability theory, which were never predicted in antiquity or classical periods prior to their development in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For obvious memetic reasons, large bodies of religious studies (and the religions which spawn them) can't exist in societies with sufficiently-strict standards of evidence. Also, in terms of industrial output, high-quality precision manufacturing with repeatable results and replaceable parts can only exist in societies with sufficiently-strict standards of evidence. So, religious studies tend to focus on older materials not for "practical scientific benefits" but as a refuge from scientific inquiry and the sunlight of progress.


Analytic and continental philosophies might be seen as programmes, in the sense that they are sets of related activities with long-term goals. But in counter-distinction to that view, philosophy also has the broader goal of sorting out virtues, vices, and pursuing wisdom, which is less of a technical aspiration, and more of a psychological and practical one. In metaphilosophical sense, the definition of philosophy surely can be 'a practice to achieve wisdom (SEP)' which itself is an active area of philosophical inquiry. From the SEP's ideas about wisdom:

In particular, it will focus on five general approaches to understanding what it takes to be wise: (1) wisdom as epistemic humility, (2) wisdom as epistemic accuracy, (3) wisdom as knowledge, (4) a hybrid theory of wisdom, and (5) wisdom as rationality.

In fact, there is a science of wisdom of sorts since clearly, there is a component to being drawn to "ancient wisdom" in this regard that is a vibrant component of modern psychology which is called humanist or positive psychology. So, science, philosophy, and wisdom intersect in this sort of discipline. The University of Chicago, for instance, has the Center for Practical Wisdom where psychologists and philosophers attempt to put the facts that positive psychology claims to use in people's daily lives. They claim on their about page:

The mission of the Center is to deepen our scientific understanding of wisdom and its role in the decisions and choices that affect everyday life. We want to understand how an individual develops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are most likely to make wise decisions. We hope that, by deepening our scientific understanding of wisdom, we will also begin to understand how to gain, reinforce, and apply wisdom and, in turn, become wiser as a society.

You ask:

Is the wisdom of time a scientifically proven fact or just human prejudices?

In response to this, wisdom is not just an arbitrary collection of beliefs, but is grounded in the teleological nature of human preferences. There are, after all, certain psychological and cultural universals that anthropologists have identified in contrast to claims that societies are arbitrary collections of whims and preferences. Of course, it should be noted that this philosophical view might be contested by certain sociological schools of thinking that also oppose ideas like Wilson's sociobiology. Pinker, in his Blank Slate terms these academic schools the SSSM or Standard Social Science Model which has also been criticized.

However, whether one accepts or rejects and in with what vigor the notions of tabula rasa and cultural relativism, philosophy and science indubitably shape many people's view of wisdom, particularly if one's approach to philosophy is a naturalized epistemology.

  • Right, correct things don't go stale.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 19:18

Science and engineering respect ancient knowledge too. However, technology has expanded so greatly that the lessons that were useful then are less applicable now. Aristotelian concepts of motion are not sufficient to land on the moon.

Philosophy and religion are more human focused than science and engineering are. We haven't changed that much in the last ten thousand years.

That being said, philosophy absolutely changes. Modern philosophy is phrased in light of the axiomatic theories of mathematics created in the last hundred years or so. It either uses such axiomatic theories, or carefully sidesteps them.

  • To me, Engineering is the most human-focused field of anything, by far, because it has alleviated and prevented vast amounts of suffering, way more than Philosophy or religion. We should put all of our effort in to that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 19:09
  • 1
    @ScottRowe That's a fun position. To add words to what I said, I'm thinking of human oriented vs. not human oriented in a proximate sense. Engineering may aid humanity, but it does so through the lens of machines and measurements which lead it to more dependent on the most recent capacities to build machines and measure.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 19 at 19:22
  • @CortAmmon - you just have to answer a simple question: "Would the content of Plato and Kant's books be completely different if they had our current knowledge? " Commented May 19 at 23:54
  • @TheMatrixEquation-balance: I can't think of Plato in today's world without thinking of Joe Rogan; I imagine he would have a podcast.
    – Corbin
    Commented May 20 at 23:44
  • We've used telescopes and microscopes and other technologies to observe things ancient thinkers couldn't observe.
  • We've evaluated the processes used by ancient thinkers for gaining knowledge, and we've improved on those, to come up with something that's more robust and reliable.
  • We've evaluated the conclusions of ancient thinkers, and compared them to other claims, based on more evidence, to determine the most reasonable conclusions, given the evidence.
  • We've built upon the conclusions of ancient thinkers, by refining and expanding on that to better explain the evidence.

Science specifically involves questioning and improving and iterating.

Holding up the conclusion of some ancient thinker would be antithetical to science, unless that conclusion has stood the test of time, by continuing to be the best explanation for the data.

in philosophy and religious studies, we relish ancient thinkers

Well, maybe that's not such a good thing...

Philosophy and religion are at least not directly driven by technological development, so conclusions of ancient thinkers may be more likely to hold up.

But there can still be improvement over time in these domains. Philosophy is also very much about questioning and improving.

And the scientific conclusions that we reach could also affect this, e.g. psychology and neuroscience very directly influence our conclusions about the philosophy of mind and religious ideas of "souls" (well, at least it influences those conclusions for some people).

It's also worth keeping in mind that science split off from philosophy, so there isn't really such a definitive separation between the two.

  • "conclusion has stood the test of time" - This is true for music, poetry, literature, religious beliefs. But in relation to scientific understanding, it is a different matter all together. Commented May 21 at 11:31

No. As you can have teens who have been in jail most of their lives, and released when into their 50's or 60's.

They may be "older" but they ain't "wiser" to the world.

Also, time itself is a construct. It's one of those things that we use, but doesn't actually exist. We collectively say that today is this date and time as we have devices telling us so. But there have been many calendars and time systems down the the millennia. It's what makes ancient people so fascinating, yet alien, to us today.

Just as we will be, when we're dug up in a century or two.

Physicists, engineers, computer scientists and their ilk, tend to be ivory tower folks. The jokes of "nerd" don't just go after their being insular, but their inability to form meaningful relationships with cultures and peoples.

I suppose it's what makes them good scientists as they are one trick ponies specialising in one thing, expecting everyone else to pick up the slack elsewhere.

The trinity of religion, philosophy and science is important to every worldview though. Sure you get extremists who sway to one more than the other. But to everyday Joe they will use each to varying degrees.

  • 3
    'Nerds' "form meaningful relationships with cultures and peoples" when they make enormous improvements in life for vast numbers of people for generations. I'll take that over celebrities or sports any day.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 19:16
  • 1
    I don't think you'd find many philosophers, or physicists, arguing that time is a "construct". Who do you suppose constructed it, and -- more to the point -- when?
    – Sneftel
    Commented May 20 at 7:56

Per some moderately-reliable sources, IQ was traditionally calculated with respect to age. So if a young person could solve problems posed for adults, their IQ was deemed higher.

Mental Age: x

Chronological Age = y

IQ score = x/y * 100

A chronologically 10 year old child who answers questions meant for 12 year olds has an IQ of 12/10 * 100 = 120. You can consult Guru Google for confirmation.

There's a thread on The Flynn Effect, the discovery that IQ has been increasing over time (follow the link), on another forum and someone remarked "Too bad Plato."

I suppose the idea of the age-based IQ score above can be extended to generations of humanity. We may ask, "how old is humanity?" 2.5 million years old according to an article in Wikipedia. Ok, but how smart are you all?

  • 2
    That is still done for children. A three year old who is extremely above average is nowhere near an adult, yet we want some measurement that gives them a high rating. So we assign a high value to a three year old matching the average five year old, or a seven year old matching the average 12 year old. At some point we switch to an absolute scale. You will find intelligent 15 year olds who exceed the average at any age; you don’t want to say they have an infinite IQ.
    – gnasher729
    Commented May 20 at 11:50
  • 1
    This may happen because some kids develop faster than others, sometimes it is an advantage that remains forever.
    – gnasher729
    Commented May 20 at 11:52
  • 1
    You're comparing apples to oranges. These age based tests were the first iteration essentially meant to sort school children by development, while the Flynn effect was found on an entirely different test. Also you could argue that the entire IQ thing is pseudoscience and that the Flynn effect doesn't actually show an increase in intelligence but just a stronger movement to practice these logic puzzles as scoring well on them is treated by the simple minded as "intelligence" and intelligence is rewarded. And if you get better on these tests over time it could just imply bad tests...
    – haxor789
    Commented May 21 at 9:02

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .