Monday, November 19, 2012

New philosophy -- 1

It is one of Albert Einstein's most-often quoted quotes: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible."

Is the world comprehensible? Apparently at least partially so. Consider the NASA solar eclipse atlas I referenced the other day. It is possible to calculate the precise locations and times for solar eclipses thousands of years into the future and past. That's comprehensibility for you.

Of course, there are still things we do not comprehend, such as consciousness or the development of organisms, but there is no good reason to suppose those things are intrinsically beyond human understanding.

The whole of modern technological civilization and medicine is a monument to comprehensibility.

Why? Why this strange consonance between the world and the human mind?

For centuries the answer was simple. God created a world of space and time, a finite mirror, so to speak, of his own intelligence. He created humans in his own likeness. Human intelligence partook of the intelligibility of God. Everything in the closed, human-centered cosmos was ordered in his likeness. The world was comprehensible because it was made that way -- for us to comprehend.

Then, in the 16th and 17th centuries, came the great disruption, which Alexandre Koryé described in his seminal 1957 book From the Closed World To the Infinite Universe. Daring thinkers resurrected the Greek idea that the universe might be infinite in extent and eternal in duration -- no boundaries in space, no beginning or end in time. It was a radical thought, heretical really, but it meshed well with what the astronomers and physicists were learning about the world we live in. As the poet John Donne wrote:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th' earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation.
Of course, it wasn't as bad as all that. Galileo and Newton provided a new coherence. The physical world itself took on two characteristics of the Godhead -- omnipresence and everlasting life. Everything unfolded not in accordance with the divine will, but according to eternal and immutable laws of nature. The Divine Artifex, master craftsman, in Koyré's words, was replaced by the Dieu fainéant, a lazybones God with nothing to do. And the comprehensibility of the world became -- well, as Einstein said -- incomprehensible.

But...things were about to get more complicated. More tomorrow.