In his article How Aristotle created the computer: The philosophers he influenced set the stage for the technological revolution that remade our world, Chris Dixon (note 1) gives us a notable tracing of present day computing back through the history of thought to the classic Greek philosophers. In this voyage back in time Claude Shannon and Alan Tuning played pivotal roles in the final stage of developing computers as we know them today. On the one hand Shannon’s main contributions were to separate the logic and the physical layers of computing, and then having mapped Boolean arithmetical logic units onto electric circuits. On the other Tuning, in his attempt to solve the decision problem (Is there an algorithm that could determine whether an arbitrary mathematical statement is true or false?) showed us how to design computers in the language of mathematical logic.
Both Shannon and Tuning constructed their work on the mathematical logic developed by George Boole and Gottlob Frege in the nineteenth century. The work of these two thinkers was, in turn, built on the work of Leibnitz in his development of a universal language of math and science based on ideographic symbols similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics where the characters, we are told, would be atomic concepts of math and science. This led to significant enhancement of human reason and even to Leibnitz’ development of the ‘calculus ratiocinator’, a machine that could process the language.
Some thirty years after Leibnitz breakthrough, Descartes (1630) published his Discourse on Method in which he moves Euclidean geometry from spatial diagrams to the standard algebraic notation we use in analytical geometry today, and a key stepping stone for Newton’s and Leibnitz proposition of Calculus (they developed it independently, although Newton arrived at it ten years earlier). But the mathematical logic of these great thinkers of the 17th century derived from Aristotle’s logical system proposed in his “The Organon”. It is actually an almost unbelievable occurrence that logic did not evolve at all between those instances, that is for 2,000 years. Immanuel Kant is cited as expressing that logic did not take a single, even minor, step forward since Aristotle, and asking himself whether logic as proposed by ‘the Philosopher’ was finished and complete?
Formal Logic is not the only field of knowledge that remained unchanged over those twenty centuries. Aristotle also made very significant inroads in the understanding of biology. He was a serial and obsessed dissector and Gottlieb (2016, p. 230) (note 2) describes him as ‘the most influential investigator until Darwin evolved’ and, in fact, he was moving in the right direction with respect to evolution and that all organs are adapted to performing a useful function, although clearly falling short of articulating natural selection. Interestingly enough, like Darwin and A.R. Wallace (note 3), Aristotle’s insights in biology developed during a period of his life of intense traveling.
Formal logic and biology are two fields where Aristotle got it right, but what is most remarkable is that in other fields he got it wrong but his conjectures still remained in place for 2,000 years. One of those fields is physics where he conjectured that matter is infinitely divisible despite that the pre-Socratic Democritus and Leucippus had formulated atomic structures of matter essentially not different from what we accept today.
So, what is it that made knowledge stagnate for so long? What drove humanity towards such a long period of darkness? It is illustrative that Aristotle was known during that long period as just ‘the Philosopher’ or even more dramatically as ‘the master of those who know’ (Gottlieb, 2016, p.236). It is quite possible that here lies the seed of acceptance and non-questioning of what since Kuhn (note 4) we call the prevailing paradigms. For some reason our ancestors lost the capabilities of critical thinking. It is very easy to fall into that state of mind. The mind is inclined to form habits and accepted truths, to adopt heuristics based on past experiences and to rely on those heuristics for unquestionably making decisions.
Just as that happened to Humanity as a whole during the Dark Ages, it happens to us as individuals in our everyday private lives and professional activities. Paradigms and heuristics enable us to get the present task done but they also lead us to miss opportunities and fail to anticipate threats. A successful professional life in the knowledge economy requires us to set up the structures that will avoid us falling into the trap of a passive state of mind. Success as professionals and success of our organisations depend on this but we do not recognize it because in strategy and strategy evaluation we tend to assess decisions made but are not equipped to assess the impact of decisions not made – and opportunities lost and threats not dealt with are most often the result of decisions not made.
The organ that has developed in the knowledge economy for organisations to protect against these shortcomings and instill critical thinking is mentoring, which is about stapling to corporate leaders a mind that is not contaminated by everyday stresses nor absorbed by everyday tasks. We colloquially call that an aide for ‘thinking out of the box’ that is key to success in the knowledge economy where it is demanded that we continually innovate. And it is not just about innovating on products and processes as was the case in the stable old industrial economy – it is about innovating on business models, which is far more challenging.
The lesson to be learnt by organisations from this abyss in Humanity’s development over close to twenty centuries is that their leaders need to be kept on their toes in terms of rethinking their own place in the universe and the position of the organisations they lead. Critical thinking has emerged as an essential function so, paraphrasing Aristotle, this creates the need for a new organ that we call mentor-in-confidence (www.ceo-mic.com).
Although Humanity survived after 2,000 years of stagnation it must be kept in mind that most organisations will succumb after only two or three years of sluggishness. Thus, reinforcing critical thinking cannot wait.
Note 1: Chris Dixon – How Aristotle created the computer : The Atlantic.com
Note 2: Gottlieb, A. (2016) The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Rennaisance, Penguin Random House (UK)
Note 3: Desmond, A. & Moore, J. (2009) Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company: New York
Note 4: Kuhn, T. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, Il.: University of Chicago Press
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