By Hunter Liguore
There was a time in history when there was no such thing as a scientist, a writer, a doctor, or an inventor. There were no words or specific titles that today can isolate individuals into one specific identity. Once you get an endorsed skillset you are that one thing and that one thing alone. Today, a lawyer can only be a lawyer and professional athletes can’t voice an opinion about society without being told to just stay in their lane. Although marrying of skills is permitted, like a scientist might also write, she is still perceived first as a scientist, but most ordinary people learn to stay in their established place in society. For instance, a plumber is someone who perhaps inherited the business from his father, and has worked in pipes his whole life. But can a plumber also be a scientist or an archaeologist? Would this be acceptable today?
Long ago, there was a point in time people weren’t quite exactly sure how the world operated, a time when something as simple as the concept of air seemed foreign and frightening, and the idea of the Earth being round seemed just as scandalous. But someone began to work the ideas out—and if they weren’t scientists, then who were they? How did the information become known, disseminated, or expanded upon? It started when the first line of thinkers, everyday citizens, ordinary people looked at the world inquisitively and thought to remark about it. In fact, they tended to be the ones not part of the establishment, but rather those who stepped away from it.
Thales of Miletus, who lived in Greece between 624 and 545 BCE, is usually credited as the first scientist. Thales is one of the first people to actively enroll in the process of experiments. Of his known accomplishments, he correctly predicted a solar eclipse using the measured height of a pyramid. A friend of his, Anaximander, made the first sundial, mapped the known world and first constellation patterns. Theodorus, a Greek engineer, invented the key, the ruler, the lathe, carpenter’s square, and devised a method to install central heating. Empedocles, one of the first physicians, conducted the first experiments to suggest that air existed. All of these firsts happened because an ordinary person asked a question and sought an answer. Each of them thought it was in their realm of being to inquire, to study, to consider and postulate.
And though Pythagoras, a mathematician and philosopher, is rarely credited with the discovery that the Earth was a sphere, his student, Aristarchus, one of the last scientists before the age of Socrates, expanded on the ideas of his teacher. He argued that the sun had to be bigger than the Earth, which he asserted based on the Earth’s shadow on the moon. It was his work raised more questions that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of the universe and that the Earth was rotating around it. It is from this information, that centuries later, Copernicus (often credited with the Earth-is-round theory) revived the hypothesis, leading further to his own experiments, which changed the history of how we see the world forever.
When we view the historical past, we can see a pattern; one person sharing information and then discussing and expanding on the ideas to formulate a new theory or invention. This is a process that continued throughout history. Though Henry Ford was credited with the invention of the assembly line (in fact is was Ransom Olds), and Thomas Edison with providing electricity to homes, what is often overlooked is the fact both were working in concert with other inventors and hundreds of tinkerers that helped and assisted the whole endeavor. In the past, knowing someone willing to share knowledge allowed the ordinary person to vet questions and understand how an idea could be made into something more. They too could invent, philosophize, experiment, and create for the benefit of society. In other words, everybody benefited.
But herein also lies one of the obstacles for today’s tinkerer. If each profession and title is bound up within an organized group, how can the everyday person access those realms of thought? Even in ancient Greece, there were closed clubs for the learned. Pythagoras, although a teacher of knowledge, which we might think of as a free giver of such knowledge, kept his work secret and left no written records. Carl Sagan, in his book, Cosmos, writes: “Even today there are scientists opposed to the popularization of science: the sacred knowledge is to be kept within the cult, unsullied by public understanding.” It begs to consider that someone without higher education or special title will never get into the club. Can a sensible, intelligent thinker still be an important asset to the collective knowing? Or have we limited ourselves with titles, degrees, and clubs, which essentially exclude a portion of the public?
We can consider for a moment where our knowledge of the world would be if Albert Einstein, not exactly known for fitting in, allowed his critics to hold him back. Einstein had original ideas. He speculated, questioned, and didn’t except the norm. As a schoolboy in Germany, his teachers considered him unruly, a boy that wouldn’t amount to anything. His questions often stirring up the classroom—or as we can assume, far-exceeded the teacher’s knowledge. Einstein’s life is evidence of the individual-thinker who cast aside the naysayers, fearlessly asserting his own sense of worth. Had he been a weaker person, or perhaps a different race, class, economic level, and so forth, he might not have pursued his un-average or ‘abnormal’ thoughts.
In Notes from the Underground, Russian writer Dostoevsky presents a character that is very ordinary, a civil service worker who has taken up residence in a reclusive abode. As the story opens, the reader is unsure if the narrator is sick or mad, but later, we find that the worker is someone who no longer wishes to fight against the established norms, or the “stone walls,” that society esteems, that essentially put everything in order. In other words, shut up and dribble. The character argues:
“You shout at me … that no one wants to deprive me of my free will, that all they are concerned with is to arrange things in such a way that my will should of itself, of its own will, coincide with my normal interests, with the laws of nature..”
Imagine Dostoevsky reacting to social media, which gives the false impression that everyone has a voice. But if an ordinary person steps out of the arranged order, or has a lapse in judgment and post an opinion about a topic they don’t have a title or credentials for, they may find themselves experiencing a modern-day dystopian novel.
How can we have free will if everything is already organized, if one’s place is already established? To move out of what is ordered would mean to delineate or move away from society’s norms, which leads to ostracizing and ridicule, if not misunderstanding. It’s not just titles and education that are cause for ostracizing, but also class, appearance, dress, and race, which dictates how a person is treated and the false sense of superiority that accompanies it. Herein lies the foundational problem facing our society, where the everyday, intelligent thinker capable of great achievements (no matter what their day job is) is pushed aside or gives up, or most tragically, leaves it for someone else to do. Who loses out but society?
These are society’s “stone walls,” the predictable nature of order and public opinion that makes people feel inferior. Somebody working a blue-collar job might consider the dynamics and possibilities of alternate universes, but is hardly going to be taken seriously by the scientific establishment. Nor would they readily believe enough in the idea to take it further (though there could be a few subreddits they could raise it to, at their own risk). Why? Because there is an invisible presence that keeps people in a particular category, ascribed with titles that further shackles freewill. While social media might’ve fooled everyone that it was a community platform for sharing ideas, we have learned the hard way it is not the case. Instead, it often creates repetition, parroting, and consensual mob-mind mentality where the loudest, most absurd, and sometimes algorithmic, voice wins.
Looking deeper into the past, we can see in Colonial American that titles weren’t the soul and breadth of a person, but rather, there was a presence of multitalented people. Ben Franklin, in particular, was known as a writer, journalist, inventor, scientist, politician, and more. A reading of his autobiography shows someone who didn’t doubt for a second that if something was required it was in his capable powers to make it happen. He juggled his own business affairs, ran a newspaper, and still made time to be active in the community. He was aware of his surroundings and things that worked and didn’t. And when they didn’t work, like a local constable that didn’t walk the beat and was routinely drunk, he aired his opinions about it, printed it, discussed it with people, and crafted changes. His early ideas went on to fuel a law that made the constable position more credible and responsible.
Franklin’s firsts are inspiring: he believed in the dissemination of knowledge and began a ‘lending of books by subscription,’ which led to the first library in Philadelphia. He assisted in implementing the post office. In Franklin’s time, it would have been out of the realm of possibility to think the way we do today; that someone else can fix it, think it, write it, or invent it. He saw the need for a philosophical society, for people to engage mentally, and he created it.
Part of what made Franklin prosper past the confines of one title was the fact he was in a ‘new world,’ which offered the unique opportunity to create and do whatever needed to be done. He invented many items that were for the betterment of the public, like the lightning rod and Franklin stove. He didn’t even seek a patent, even though others profited from his ideas. Profit wasn’t the goal, sharing the knowledge was. We should never stop reminding ourselves that with the development of 21st century technology, we too could have these same opportunities: learn what you can about everything and create, design, and share when you can. Welcome to the New Enlightened society.
Ben Franklin himself is proof that titles could once again be less important. Like Leonardo Da Vinci before him, if you were skilled in one arena, you could also be skilled in another. Today, however, Franklin would’ve been limited the moment he was pressured to sign up for LinkedIn, in order to showcase his endorsements and skills, skills that are limited by pre-selected choices the company provides. With LinkedIn, our participation and success are determined on how well we use the technology, which often censors our unique talents, while once again lulling us toward waiting around for ‘connections’ to come our way. Why are we waiting for opportunity, rather than asserting our own capable intelligent course of action? Because the platforms won’t let us.
Today, very few people actually think they can make a difference, and when they do, when they actually invent or postulate, they first have to check with the masses to weigh in. If they get enough ‘likes,’ ‘hearts,’ or ‘claps,’ then they might have enough courage to actually act on their idea. Is there a balance that can be reached, where the everyday person can simply believe that they are responsible for effecting change—be it a new idea, a new invention, a new outlook—or are we too subservient to our new world order to try? Can we create a new philosophy to stop expecting things will get done around us and for us if we’re too busy swiping left and filtering our selfies?
At the end of the day, most of us don’t want to just go to work and back home and feel like we can’t impact our neighborhoods and cities with ideas for change. We sit in church, school, or prison with other ordinary people. We ride the bus and drink our coffee beside other ordinary people. And every once in a while, we hear about an exception, somebody that wasn’t afraid to step forward and be the doer. People that believed in their own ideas, their own inventions, and their own sense of inquiry enough to bring it out into the world.
We need more of that everywhere. We need to reevaluate the way technology controls how we engage with each other and open up our circles past our titles and past the celebrities and sycophants who aren’t leading us anywhere. We have to not be willing to accept the stone walls marshaling the daily order and to stop allowing others to limit us as ordinary people. We need to encourage the plumber to also be an artist, or the insurance broker to also use their gifts as a solve for climate change.
Together, we can let go of the limited view of being isolated by titles or what the mob-mind thinks, and reclaim our ability to inquire, study, consider and postulate, in order to step out and forward into a new way, where thinking rules and capable powers are the norm to make things happen.