20 June 2019

Great Achievements

Great Achievements

I will start by asking two questions. Whose great achievements? And where is the philosophy? I would say that the easier of the two questions is “where is the philosophy?” As for the first question we can start with ourselves. Thus what are our personal great (at least for us) achievements is a quest we can easily answer.

Thankfully the meaning of great achievements does not prevent us from taking our personal achievements even though others might not think our achievements are that great. After all, every human had the greatest of achievements which was winning the race for life. Winning a race against some 39-928 million fellow competitors (1) is no mean feat! Then for females being able to give birth to each and every human being is no doubt an individual great achievement for each mother and for womankind.

But most great achievements involved groups of people cooperating and working together. Of course, some works that we recognize as exceptional achievement might have been a good idea someone had, but even still it takes others to create the right environment for the individual to succeed. Sure Mozart and Beethoven individually achieved great works of art and music, but let’s not forget the instrument makers, the paper makers to write down the scores and of course the farmers who provided the food to keep these great men alive.

The “who” in our topic also requires a “how” and “why” to make sense of the “what”. The “when”, I would argue, is equally a necessary condition for our value judgments. As human beings we need a context to understand what is going on around us today. Maybe this wasn’t always the case but it is certainly the case now. In other words we need a “model of achievement” to ascertain what is an achievement and then what is a great achievement. The “when” factor might render an achievement as a normal event or a great event. For example obtaining a PhD degree at the age of seventeen is certainly a great achievement but not necessarily at the age of thirty.

But there is a discrepancy with the model idea of achievement. The further back in time we go the more disjointed these five conditions (who, what, why, when and how) become. To understand great monuments sometimes we need the help of historians, geologists and archaeologists to help us make sense of what we are seeing. For example the great aqueduct in Segovia in Spain is without doubt a great achievement but even today we still don’t know for sure (check article in Wikipedia) about certain details of the monument. Even the idea of calling a construction to deliver water to a city a monument is a bit strange: the Romans knew how to do monuments as much as they knew how to build aqueducts. And yet for us in the 21st century we elevated this construction to the great status of a historical monument. I would argue that we are prepared to call this aqueduct a monument because we are awed by what we see and yet we know very little on how it was built and its history. What was it like to go to work every day on the aqueduct? Who did the calculations? And so on……

We seem to have a bias of calling something a monument the older it becomes. The aqueduct in Segovia is certainly a monument but not the Autopista M30 around Madrid. Many might even curse this motorway as a disaster road; like all city ring motorways in the world.

It seems to me that we need two necessary conditions to establish something as a great achievement. Whatever is the object of this greatness it must not only be different but grandiose in conception. The other condition is that irrespective of our opinions and prejudices we still accept that this object is a great achievement. One might not like Mozart but one can still agree that Mozart was a great master of music. But is this true? How can we judge something if we don’t know anything about it?

Surely, one need not be an expert to appreciate great achievements; however, must one be conversant with the culture of the object in question to appreciate the achievement? For example, can someone who is not familiar with football (soccer) appreciate the greatness of Pele? Indeed those who are familiar with football today and at the time of Pele might say that today football is no longer the great game.

I started by asking “where is the philosophy?” in great achievements. Since we attribute great achievements to people our philosophical investigation must focus on the people who are responsible the achievement. An issue is the value of cooperation and team work. The workers of the aqueduct or the family and friends of Mozart, each of these “supporting” casts performed their work and role to make the endeavour a success.  Some might have been coerced by fear while others out of duty but what seems to be necessary is that achievements are the product of some cooperation.

What is clear is that great achievements require great thinking. Maybe this is the most mysterious part of all; how do we go from reasonable competent thinking to great thinking? This might even take us back to the duality of mind and brain. If we are only a material brain that should be fixed and determined, how can we increase knowledge by leaps and bounds into the unknown? The agent of knowledge must be more than just grey matter of the brain. And yet the brain does not seem to expand as a function of our level of knowledge. If this was the case then surely some politicians would have a brain not much larger than a peanut.

How we retain and apply knowledge is no doubt a mystery, but just because something is a mystery it is no reason to assume that this mystery can be explained by what we already accept as not being a mystery. Thus great thinking is not an achievement caused by a non material brain, it’s just maybe we still do not understand the brain or better still our thinking process. Indeed we do have a respectable model on how something new can happen from something that does not have the means to achieve that new thing. Quantum tunnelling in effect is a material world phenomenon when a subatomic particle passes through a barrier which by known classical science cannot happen.

An important philosophical aspect for us is that we might misinterpret the facts we perceive, i.e. great achievements, so that they fit into a context we already can understand. Thus we ought to avoid changing the facts to fit our present state of knowledge when we should be changing our opinion when the facts change.

(1)  What Is a Normal Sperm Count?
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best Lawrence JC Baron

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