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The Significant Difference in Chinese and Greek Thoughts

The universe is knowable, the ancients argued, because it exhibits an internal order: there are regularities in Nature that permit its secrets to be uncovered. Nature is not entirely unpredictable; there are rules even she must obey (Sagan 175).

The Ionian revolution "made Cosmos out of Chaos" (Sagan 175). Thus "free inquiry"--plus refinement of the Phoenician alphabet--emerged, though by no means did it dispose of superstition (Socrates was condemned as an atheist). What survived vis- -vis superstition was what Whitehead calls curiosity, or "the craving of reason that the facts discriminated in experience be understood" (Whitehead 141).

Sagan cites the view (175) that although in 500 BC China had "an astronomical tradition millennia old [and] . . . invented paper and printing, rockets, clocks, silk, porcelain, and ocean-going navies . . . it was nevertheless too traditionalist a society, too unwilling to adopt innovations." But the thought of Confucius and Laotse, who lived about 100 years before Plato, suggest serious Chinese engagement with the cosmos. Confucius, who had a more practical approach than Laotse, "conceived an ideal of a better government and a better life" by way of education of noble and disinterested public servants toward wisdom (Wells 489). His objective was never achieved, but his Analects survive as a cornerstone of traditional Chinese moral and civic philosophy. Laotse, says Wells (490), "was much more mystical and vague and elusive" than Confucius. Indeed, Laotse's discourse of the atom as a particle of matter does not aim at explanation in the manner of the Greek Democritus but at articulation of an imponderable:

"We have chased the solid substance from the continuous liquid to the atom, from the atom to the electron, and there we have lost it." What the electron is doing inside the atom is summarized in the following line: "Something unknown is doing we don't know what." Somewhere in the quantum of light...

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