In 480 BC, Heroditus tells us, the Persian King Xerxes prepared to invade Greece.
He had an army of half-a-million men to move across the Bosphorus, so he had his engineers build a massive, kilometre-long bridge.
In the night a huge storm blew up and the sea destroyed the bridge.
Xerxes was so furious he decided to teach the Bosphorus a lesson.
He lined up his most powerful warriors and had them lash the sea with whips, 300 times.
Then they thrust red-hot pokers into it the sea.
Then they threw leg irons and shackles into it.
All the time chanting:
“Bitter water, your master is imposing this penalty on you for wronging him even though you have suffered no injustice from him.
Xerxes the King will pass over you whether you desire it or not.
In accordance with justice no offers or sacrifices will be made to you for you are merely a turbid and briny river.”
Two and a half thousand years ago, all that made perfect sense.
Xerxes was the most powerful ruler the world had seen, he controlled everything on earth.
The sea had disobeyed him and must be taught a lesson, so it was all logical.
That was the way things were, and no one questioned the way things were.
People simply learned the way things were and accepted it.
Right through history, until the middle ages, superstition and religion ruled everything.
Nowadays it seems silly to accept things like that without question.
But all they had were answers , there were no such things as questions.
In those days, you started with an accepted truth, and worked backwards from there.
The accepted truth was that Xerxes was all-powerful so everything on earth must obey him.
This is how thinking worked until the beginning of what’s called ‘the Enlightenment’.
It seems obvious today but until then there was no such thing as science, so superstition and consequently religion ruled all thought.
There wasn’t even a word for ‘science’; scientific thinking was originally called ‘natural philosophy’, a way of examining the world.
Scientific thinking began when people started to question the way things were.
The two governing principles were empiricism and scepticism.
Empiricism: accepting only what we actually observed and experienced.
Scepticism: doubting anything until it could be proved.
The most famous proponent of the scientific method was Francis Bacon.
He advocated experimentation above all.
Don’t just blindly accept anything just because everyone else accepts it.
Question it and, most importantly, use experiments to test and uncover new knowledge.
Come at life out of a question, not out of an answer.
Today we take the scientific method for granted.
Science is based on asking questions, religion is based on not asking questions.
From the distance of time, we laugh at how silly Xerxes and his followers were.
We laugh because we say we’d never behave like that.
But that’s exactly how we do behave: we learn and accept existing thinking because we want to be accepted by the herd.
We’re afraid that if we ask too many questions we won’t be accepted.
So we follow the herd, and learn whatever the latest version of whatever the accepted wisdom is.
And we live our lives out of an answer, not out of a question.
And that’s how we get to behave like Xerxes’ followers, by not asking questions.