February 7, 2009

1. Culture Comets

Thousands of years ago, people saw a comet streak across the sky. Every 75 years, people saw a comet, but not until 1682 did someone realize that it was the same comet coming back around; it was dubbed “Halley’s Comet” in honor of the person who first explained it.

Thousands of years ago, people realized that the Age of Pericles was special. Later, people realized that the Age of Augustus was special, and the Italian Renaissance, and the Dutch Golden Age, etc., etc. My theory of history attempts to do for renaissance epochs what Halley did for comets — I try to show that these various renaissance epochs are the same thing coming back around, the life-instinct in society returning. As Halley made it possible to predict future appearances of the comet, so my theory should make it possible to predict future renaissances; I’ve predicted a renaissance in our time, the first in about half a millennium. Halley showed that the comet’s “orbital period” was about 75 years; I’ve argued that the orbital period of a renaissance is about 500 years.

2. Science Books

A. If you want to learn about science, you might want to look at Wikipedia’s article about a competition for Best Science Book Ever. It mentions classics like Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, as well as contemporary writers like Oliver Sacks, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker. The winner of the competition was Primo Levi’s Periodic Table, a book of short stories that deals with chemistry (among other subjects).

B. In my early years, one of the most well-known science writers was Isaac Asimov. Asimov may be the most prolific writer ever; he wrote more than 500 books. He wrote about general topics (A Short History of Chemistry, The Human Body, etc.) and also specialized topics (The Neutrino, Alpha Centauri: The Nearest Star, etc.). He wrote about various branches of science, and he wrote numerous science-fiction works. He even wrote historical works, such as The Egyptians and The Golden Door: The United States from 1865 to 1918. He did not, however, write travel books; Asimov was afraid of planes. He was fond of small, enclosed spaces; he was a “claustrophile.” As a youngster, he longed to operate a tiny magazine shop in a subway station.

C. Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die is a fine book, written in a straightforward, restrained style that is deeply touching. Nuland says that few patients accept death, and try to make the most of their remaining time. Most patients choose to attempt far-fetched cures, and thereby ruin their remaining time. Indeed, Nuland’s own brother attempted a far-fetched cure, on Nuland’s advice, and Nuland regrets giving that advice.1

Nuland praises a patient “who had found a new meaning in his life when he knew he was soon to die. He had taught me that hope can still exist even when rescue is impossible.... As early as their period of courting, Bob had told Carolyn (and to this day she does not know why) that he did not expect to see his fiftieth birthday, and his prophecy was about to be fulfilled.”2 Here we have another example of the occult creeping into a “scientific” book.

3. Bill Bryson and The Anecdotes

When I discussed Paul Johnson in my Realms of Gold, I said “Unfortunately, modern historians have discovered that their books will be bestsellers if they’re crammed with spicy anecdotes.” Now I realize that, in addition to historians, other writers have discovered the same thing.

I’m reading Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, which deals with the history of science. It’s a highly readable, hard-to-put-down introduction to science. Unfortunately, it has too much anecdote, and not enough explanation — candy for the mind. Writers from earlier eras didn’t serve up so many anecdotes, did they? A historian of literature should try to answer questions like, “When did The Invasion Of The Anecdotes begin? When did anecdotes cease to be used for illustrating one’s subject, and become the subject themselves?”

But if you’re a stranger to science, Bryson’s Short History might be the perfect book. The bibliography and footnotes are useful, and can lead you to further reading. The illustrated version is also useful; I suggest reading the text-only version first, then flipping through the illustrated version to review what you learned.

Bryson discusses Einstein’s famous remark about quantum physics: “God doesn’t play dice.” Einstein was uncomfortable with quantum physics, uncomfortable with an approach that didn’t predict events, but merely probabilities. According to quantum physics, we can’t predict when a given atom will decay, any more than we can predict the outcome of one roll of the dice.

Einstein was also uncomfortable with the occult aspect of quantum physics — the way distant particles seem to communicate with each other by a kind of telepathy. Bryson points out that “God doesn’t play dice” is an incomplete quotation. What Einstein said was, “It seems hard to sneak a look at God’s cards. But that He plays dice and uses ‘telepathic’ methods... is something that I cannot believe for a single moment.”3

Why was Einstein uncomfortable with an element of chance in the universe? Perhaps absolute predictability was more intellectually satisfying to him than uncertainty and probability. On an emotional level, though, I don’t see why a universe that is predictable is more hospitable than a universe that has an element of chance.

As for telepathy, Einstein’s discomfort with it is typical of a Western-scientific-rational thinker. Again, I would say telepathy may be intellectually troubling to a rational thinker (because it’s inexplicable, mysterious), but it isn’t troubling on an emotional level.

Einstein’s concept of God is also typical of a Western-rational thinker, insofar as he sees God behind things rather than identical with things.

Bryson notes that the mystery of particle communication (particle telepathy) has never been resolved, and physicists have decided not to think about it. But Bryson seems unaware of the occult, and he doesn’t treat particle telepathy as akin to human telepathy.

Feynman said “things on a small scale behave nothing like things on a large scale.”4 But if Feynman were familiar with the occult, he would have said, “things on a small scale behave in a way strikingly similar to things on a large scale.” Particle telepathy is strikingly similar to human telepathy, animal telepathy, etc.

Bryson says that once physicists began discovering new particles, there was no end to it: “Today the particle count is well over 150, with a further 100 or so suspected.... Some people think there are particles called tachyons, which can travel faster than the speed of light. Others long to find gravitons — the seat of gravity.”5

One aspect of particle telepathy that troubled Einstein and others is that it was instantaneous — faster than the speed of light (“superluminal”). But if certain particles (tachyons) are superluminal, perhaps telepathy can be explained by a scientific theory. As our scientific knowledge grows, we may find explanations for things that we now regard as occult, inexplicable.

The latest trend in particle physics is to view particles as strings (or “superstrings”). Bryson describes these strings as “vibrating strands of energy that oscillate in eleven dimensions, consisting of the three we know already plus time and seven other dimensions that are, well, unknowable to us.”6 Physics has become so obscure, so incomprehensible, that even physicists debate whether a new book in the field is “twaddle, a work of genius, or a hoax.”7 So if you read the history of physics, you may want to skip the chapter on contemporary physics.

If you’re looking for a general book about science, consider also The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier. John Gribbin has written several books about science in general:

One might describe Gribbin as the Asimov of our time.

4. Not 51

A. The yardstick for colon cancer is called the CEA number, as the yardstick for prostate cancer is called PSA. A healthy adult’s CEA should be under 2.5. Since the test for CEA is a simple blood test, it’s easier and cheaper than a colonoscopy, and while health-insurance companies probably won’t pay for a colonoscopy until you’re 50, a CEA might be possible at 46 or 48. A CEA isn’t as reliable as a colonoscopy, but it’s probably better than nothing.

B. In an earlier issue, we discussed the Human Genome Project. A similar project is the Cancer Genome Atlas, which is attempting to map all cancer genes. It is believed that knowing cancer genes will make cancer more treatable.

5. Digital Shorthand

In an earlier issue, I said, “I write in Microsoft Word, and I use the AutoCorrect feature (on the Tools menu) as a shorthand system.” I use Microsoft Outlook for e-mail because Outlook allows you to use Word to write e-mail; thus, I can use my shorthand system when writing e-mail.

Now, however, people are migrating from desktop applications to Internet applications, from Outlook to Gmail, from powerful PCs to cheap NetBooks, from desktop computing to “cloud computing”. Do I need to remain tethered to Outlook, and to a bulky PC, if I want to use my shorthand system?

Perhaps not. Several companies are offering software that allows AutoCorrect in any program, including Gmail. NCH sells a program called “FastFox Typing Expander”, and JitBit sells a program called AutoText. Both cost about $20, and JitBit’s AutoText allows you to import your own shorthand list. But I haven’t found any program that runs on Linux, which is often used by NetBooks.

6. Lovejoy on “The Great Chain of Being”

A. Plato

One of the main themes of this e-zine, and of what I call The Philosophy of Today, and of my “manifesto,” is a non-rational worldview. I try to show the advantages of a non-rational worldview, and the disadvantages of a rational worldview.

A non-rational worldview has two aspects, normative and descriptive. In its normative aspect, it argues that people should follow non-rational guides — feelings, intuitions, dreams, the unconscious. In its descriptive aspect, it argues that the world works in a non-rational way, that things occur which are occult, mysterious, baffling-to-reason.

One can argue for the non-rational worldview positively or negatively — positively by showing the virtues of Eastern philosophy, of Jungian psychology, etc., or negatively by showing the weaknesses of rational thinkers like Plato, Kant, Strauss, etc. In general, I’ve taken the positive approach, but in this issue, I’m going to discuss weaknesses in Plato and some of his successors.

The following remarks about Plato were inspired by a reading of A. O. Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being.8 I find Lovejoy’s approach to philosophy congenial. Lovejoy was one of the founding fathers of intellectual history. He says that academia erects fences between different departments, and one of the uses of intellectual history is to build gates in these fences — that is, to foster an inter-disciplinary approach. He says it’s particularly important for philosophy and modern literature to communicate. Doubtless he would approve of “Phlit: A Newsletter on Philosophy and Literature.”

Lovejoy says that the literature of a given age reflects prevailing philosophical ideas: “The ideas in serious reflective literature are, of course, in great part philosophical ideas in dilution.”9 Lovejoy says that perhaps we shouldn’t have professors of English and German Literature, but rather professors of The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, etc. He says that we should pay particular attention to second-rate writers, since they reflect the outlook of an epoch most faithfully, while the greatest thinkers are more universal, more timeless.

Turning first to Greek philosophy, Lovejoy says that Plato is both worldly and other-worldly. Plato is worldly insofar as his Ideas aren’t detached from things; rather, everything has a place in his World of Ideas. “The sensible world was never for Plato a mere illusion or a mere evil.”10 Furthermore, his theory of Ideas had practical moral and political consequences.

On the other hand, Plato is other-worldly insofar as his Ultimate Idea, the Idea of Ideas, the Idea of the Good, is remote from the everyday world. One might say that Plato’s Idea of the Good is akin to God, if not identical with God, just as Jung’s Archetype of the Self is akin to God. The other-worldly approach triumphed with Christianity and, according to Lovejoy, became “the dominant official philosophy of the larger part of civilized mankind through most of its history.”11

Lovejoy seems unfamiliar with Eastern thought. The other-worldly tendency wasn’t dominant in Chinese and Japanese philosophy. At any rate, Lovejoy is probably correct when he says that the other-worldly tendency was dominant in the West. It’s this other-worldly tendency that Nietzsche rebelled against. Nietzsche rebelled against Plato and against Christianity, which he called “Platonism for the masses.” Nietzsche championed this world in opposition to the other world.

According to Lovejoy, the Idea of the Good entails “an optimistic faith in the control of this world’s temporal course by a benevolent providence.”12 Plato had this faith, as do most Christians. The Idea of the Good also entails “the objective validity of moral judgments.”13 This, too, Plato believed, as do Christians and Straussians.

Nietzscheans, on the other hand, don’t believe in the objective validity of moral judgments or in a benevolent providence guiding the world. So on one side we have Plato, Christianity, and Strauss, and on the other side we have Nietzsche. Perhaps you’re wondering, “Where does that leave Zen and Jung and your ‘Philosophy of Today’?” We’re closer to Nietzsche, but we prefer not to take sides in this quarrel, we don’t want to argue about traditional Western morality and religion — it doesn’t interest us.

In sum, Plato’s Idea of the Good is remote from the things of this world, is akin to God, and leads to an other-worldly philosophy. This philosophy says that God is self-sufficient, has no need of created beings, and has nothing in common with created beings: “Deity, if Deity exists, must be a non-human value, whose significance consists in his very unlikeness to the life that aspires to Him.... If He is to be an object worthy of our adoration [God] must be kept unspotted from the world that adores him.”14 This other-worldly philosophy is the opposite of the Philosophy of Today, which finds God in man, in the unconscious, and in the energy that is in all things, even inanimate things (though the Philosophy of Today may not choose to use the word “God”).

So far, we’ve concentrated on the other-worldly tendency in Plato. But we said above that, according to Lovejoy, Plato is both worldly and other-worldly. Now we’re going to discuss the worldly side of Plato’s philosophy, and the concept of a “Great Chain of Being.” The other-worldly tendency is apparent in the Republic, which discusses the Idea of the Good, and presents the famous Cave Metaphor, which says that worldly things are just shadows. In the Timaeus, Plato presents a different side, a worldly side.

The Timaeus isn’t often studied today; one commentator (Jowett) said that modern readers find it “obscure and repulsive.”15 Lovejoy says, however, that the Timaeus “had for two millennia by far the greatest influence of all the Platonic writings.”16 Perhaps this influence is due to the fact that it presents the important idea of the Great Chain of Being.

The Timaeus answers two questions:

  1. Why is there a world? Why would a perfect and self-sufficient God bother to create a world?
  2. Why are there so many species, so many kinds of being? What was God thinking when he created such diversity?
Lovejoy points out that these questions imply that there is a reason for the world, and for the diversity of life; in other words, these questions imply that the world is rational. Lovejoy says that in the late 1700s, philosophers stopped asking these questions; they no longer believed that the world is rational, they began to see the world as “a whim or an accident.”17 But for two thousand years, philosophers asked these questions, and they generally answered them as Plato had.

Since I don’t regard the world as rational, I regard the Two Big Questions as the wrong questions. Since I don’t believe that God created the world, there’s no point asking “Why did God create the world? Why did God create so many species?” The world grew and developed and evolved by itself, according to its own tendency, its own order, its own energy. If you want to call this tendency/order/energy “God,” I have no objection.

Now let’s look at the twisted, sophistical answers that Plato gives to the wrong questions. Plato says that God created this diverse world because, being a perfect being, he lacks envy, and only envy would deny existence to anything that could possibly have it. Furthermore, if God didn’t create this diverse world, something would be lacking to his own perfection, his own completeness; a God living alone, without a universe, would be incomplete, imperfect. “The concept of Self-Sufficing Perfection, by a bold logical inversion, [was] converted into the concept of a Self-Transcending Fecundity.”18

When Lovejoy speaks of “a bold logical inversion,” one can almost see him smiling at Plato’s sleight-of-hand. Lovejoy speaks of

a divine completion which was yet not complete in itself.... The dialectic by which Plato arrives at this combination may seem to many modern ears unconvincing and essentially verbal, and its outcome no better than a contradiction; but we shall fail to understand a large and important part of the subsequent history of ideas in the West if we ignore the fact that just this dual dialectic dominated the thought of many generations, and even more potently in medieval and modern than in ancient times.19

I regard it as an argument in favor of the non-rational philosophy that Plato, a leading rational philosopher, resorts to arguments that are “unconvincing and essentially verbal.” Lovejoy’s mockery carries all the more weight insofar as he isn’t a partisan, he isn’t trying to build a case for non-rational philosophy, he’s an intellectual historian.

According to Plato, every being that could possibly exist must exist, because God has no envy, and because if anything that could exist didn’t exist, its absence would be a flaw in Creation; a complete world must contain all possible kinds of beings. Every link in the Great Chain of Being must be filled, there must be no missing links. We now know, however, that there are countless missing links, numerous extinct species — indeed, entire classes of animals have gone extinct. Plato asked the wrong questions, answered these questions with sophistry, and reached false conclusions.

Lovejoy concludes his discussion of Plato by saying that the argument of the Timaeus reverses the other-worldly argument of the Republic. The things of this world are no longer mere shadows on a cave wall, they’re a necessary part of Creation. Now it’s only a short step to the view that the things of this world are real and true, and the Eternal Ideas are just... well, shadows.

Furthermore, the argument of the Timaeus implies Necessity, implies that God had to create the world because He was perfect, complete, and un-envious, and God had to fill the world with all possible beings. Lovejoy says that Spinoza drew the logical conclusions, and accepted Necessity, but many other philosophers rebelled against Necessity, and tried to squeeze in some Freedom. This is a story for another day.

B. Aristotle

Aristotle rejects the principle of plenitude — that is, he rejects the notion that the world must be completely full, that everything that can exist must exist.20 He introduces, however, a related principle, the principle of continuity, which says that nature doesn’t make leaps, the ladder of creation is continuous. For example, instead of a leap from animal to bird, we have an intermediate species, bats; instead of a leap from fish to animal, we have an intermediate form, frogs; instead of a leap from plant to animal, we have an intermediate form, sponges. Lovejoy says that, just as Plato was the father of two contrasting tendencies in Western thought, worldly and other-worldly, so Aristotle was the father of two contrasting tendencies, the logical tendency to divide and classify, and the tendency to question classifications, and call attention to intermediate forms, forms that defy classification.

In addition to the principle of continuity, Aristotle is the source of another important principle, the principle of grades of being — that is, the idea that there’s a ladder of Creation from the lowest beings to the highest beings. Now the idea of a Great Chain of Being is fully mature. The Great Chain fuses Plato’s principle of plenitude (the fullness of being — everything that can exist does exist), with the principle of continuity (Creation is continuous, gaps are filled by intermediate forms), and the principle of gradation or hierarchy (beings are arranged on a ladder from lower forms to higher forms). This is the idea of the Great Chain of Being “which, through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century, many philosophers, most men of science, and, indeed, most educated men, were to accept without question.”21

C. Plotinus

Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists discussed the idea of the Great Chain, and made it an organized system. As Plato had said that God produced all possible beings because he lacked envy, so Plotinus said that all things “emanated” from God because God was so full of power, and so devoid of envy, that he couldn’t remain shut up in himself. God’s perfection overflowed into an Other. The Creation was full of all possible beings, including every possible kind of deficiency or evil, and because it had everything, it was the best of all possible worlds. Plotinus is the source of the optimistic philosophy of Leibniz, which Voltaire satirized in Candide. Voltaire’s satire resembles Lovejoy’s scornful attitude toward rational philosophy.22

But while Creation was full (according to Plotinus), it wasn’t infinite.

Like most Greek philosophers, [Plotinus] feels an aesthetic aversion to the notion of infinity.... Plotinus’s position is essentially equivocal; the number of beings is at once finite and greater than any finite number can be. It is to precisely the same evasion that we shall see many others resorting.23

The story of rational philosophy is a story of equivocation and evasion, a story of arguments that are “unconvincing and essentially verbal” — a fit subject for satire.24

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. Ch. 11 back
2. Ch. 11 back
3. Ch. 9, p. 146, footnote back
4. Ch. 9, p. 145 back
5. Ch. 11, p. 164 back
6. Ch. 11, p. 166 back
7. Ch. 11, p. 168 back
8. I read Lovejoy about four years ago, and ever since then, I’ve meant to jot down some notes/quotes/thoughts on his stimulating book. back
9. Ch. 1, p. 16 back
10. Ch. 2, p. 38 back
11. Ch. 2, p. 26 back
12. Ch. 2, p. 40 back
13. Ch. 2, p. 40 back
14. Ch. 2, p. 44. Lovejoy is quoting C. E. M. Joad. back
15. Quoted in Lovejoy, ch. 2, p. 46 back
16. Ch. 2, p. 46. “It is the Timaeus that Plato holds in his hand in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens.’” (Ch. 2, footnote 31, p. 339) back
17. Ch. 2, p. 47 back
18. Ch. 2, p. 49 back
19. Ch. 2, p. 50 back
20. Ch. 2, p. 55 back
21. Ch. 2, p. 59 back
22. In an earlier issue, I said that the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer may have been influenced by Plotinus and the Florentine Neo-Platonists. Plotinus was popular in Germany in Schopenhauer’s day.

Plotinus and Neo-Platonism can foster both optimism and pessimism, both Leibniz and Schopenhauer. As Lovejoy wrote, “Both later Platonism and the accepted philosophy of the Church combined otherworldliness [with] optimism. Both were equally committed to the two contradictory theses that ‘this’ world is an essentially evil thing to be escaped from, and that its existence, with precisely the attributes it has, is a good so great that in the production of it the divinest of all the attributes of deity was manifested.” back

23. Ch. 2, p. 66 back
24. I don’t deny that rational philosophers like Plato and Leibniz were great thinkers, whose writings have considerable value. My quarrel is with the rational approach, not with the individuals who took that approach. back