Saturday, January 09, 2021

Newton, Lewis, Stoppard - Part II

 I left off by mentioning that the ancients believed that reality must fit some sort of pattern which could be discerned.  I was thinking of Hecataeus of Miletus, who believed in a world disk a perfect circle, with oceans around the edges and the lands within. Similar pictures occur - 

(!! I suddenly break here to notice that I have been generalising from the "ancients" of the Mediterranean cultures, which were ocean-centric with many flat areas. There was much desert in all directions except north, where after a brief interval of mountains, flatness prevailed again on the steppe, the Hungarian Plains, and the lowland areas draining into the Baltic, insofar as they knew these things at all.  So the belief in a disk world and domed heavens may not have been as universal as I just claimed.  What the people of the prehistoric Andean Coast thought, with West going on in infinite flatness but East being short and vertical, I do not know. To the Indo-Europeans there was The Sky and The Earth, but I don't know if they put any further shape to that.  I will be thinking about this, and trying to relate it to what pictures and patterns people on the rest of the globe expected. Resume from above)

...Following that Plato, through the mouth of Timaeus tells us why this is

As things are, however, the visibility of day and night, of months and the circling years, of equinoxes and solstices, resulted in the invention of number, gave us the concept of time, and made it possible for us to inquire into the nature of the universe.  These in their turn have enabled us to equip ourselves with philosophy in general, and humankind never has been nor ever will be granted by the gods a greater good than philosophy.

That is, the gods wanted us to make a close study of the circular motions of the heavens, gain the ability to calculate them correctly in accordance with their nature, assimilate ours to the perfect evenness of the gods and so stabilize the wandering revolutions within us [the wandering movements of our minds].

Plato himself thought that the intervals of the planetary orbits corresponded to the intervals of musical notes - not for nothing "the music of the spheres" - and even well into the late Middle Ages, Kepler "found that each of the five Platonic solids could be inscribed and circumscribed by spherical orbs; nesting these solids, each encased in a sphere, within one another would produce six layers, corresponding to the six known planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  By ordering the solids selectively – octahedron, icosahedron, dodecahedron, tetrahedron, cube – Kepler found that the spheres could be placed at intervals corresponding to the relative sizes of each planet’s path, assuming the planets circle the Sun." (Wikipedia) That is late in the day for everyone to expect a discernible, even predictable superstructure to all that is. Yet that was what was expected, and why experimental data was still regarded with some suspicion.  Mankind was not supposed to understand the universe by this method, but by applying Aristotle or some other abstract thinking and seeing the underlying structure.  It was thought that anything else was not so much a form of cheating, but likely to lead to incorrect knowledge.  Even as what we would call the science of observation and experiment came in, one was supposed to hold such things lightly, as mere clues to the underlying realities so that we could return to our contemplations. The technicians and practical men might learn many good things, but only the university professors and the like could find the Real Answers. 

It is similar to our joke about economists today, that if they see something working in practice they excitedly run home to see if it works in theory.

Unsurprising then that Lewis, triply inclined via all the above -  a writer deeply informed by ancient and especially medieval philosophy, a religious thinker, and a creator of fantasy worlds - should hammer this theme of meanings which are real but denied so repeatedly and strongly. We'll come back to him eventually.

The overview of Newton's philosophy that I was taught was that he was religious though initially interested in science and math, but after he had changed our insights into those in one prodigious 18-month period as a young man, was increasingly drawn into strange religious and even occult studies, such as alchemy and biblical prophecy. His later scientific work was taken up with clarifying, synthesising, and deciding when to publish the earlier insights. All this is only partly so. I will not attempt even a brief biography of Isaac here, but will note that he believed in immanence, that the divine interpenetrated and inhabited this world (as contrasted with transcendence, that the divine and mundane are separate). He believed that God had put regularity into the universe for us to discover, as a way to know Him better apart from private revelation. Very much Plato, very much Aristotle, yes. Newton would likely refine that by saying that God had not put regularity into the world in some artificial way as a lesson book, but that this complicated regularity was his nature, and therefore a universe of that type is the only type which could exist. 

Newton believed that his "infinitesimals" (calculus), his discerning and describing the nature of light and motion, his alchemy, and his inquiries into biblical prophecy were all part of the same thing. God had set out a universe that could be understood, and it was our job to figure that out. If it looks ridiculous to us now that he could think he was ever going to succeed at alchemy when everyone else had failed*, or figure out Bible chronology for understanding the future, we have to remember that he had just solved a bunch of stuff that no one else had.  He was arrogant, yes, but not without reason. Newton believed that the Bible as received was intentionally dumbed down, even not quite accurate in some places so that most of mankind could get the basic ideas, but that it also contained within it an amazing complexity that could be cracked with intense application by minds such as his. He thought God had given us a Bible which had parts set at the outer limit of what man could understand and attain.  He did not believe he was the only one who understood such things, but that he would be able to make great progress to set other thinkers on their way, and mankind be the better for it.  He thought the end of the world was soon but not imminent - perhaps 2-3 centuries on.

If we would now say he overfitted the religious and alchemical data, seeing more pattern than was justified, it's hard to think we would all be better off if he had been less certain of this.  It was likely this same belief which drove his earlier discoveries.

*After a fashion. They did learn a lot of real chemistry along the way


james said...

"but that this complicated regularity was his nature, and therefore a universe of that type is the only type which could exist."

A number of physicists have been exploring string theory with an eye to proving that this is the only possible universe.

Boxty said...

"Newton believed that the Bible as received was intentionally dumbed down, even not quite accurate in some places so that most of mankind could get the basic ideas, but that it also contained within it an amazing complexity that could be cracked with intense application by minds such as his."

In other words, God speaks to us like Trump. And the same people that think the Bible is dumb think the same of Trump.

Grim said...

Newton probably encountered Maimonides, who framed a similar argument about religion and philosophy (Newton being of an age to consider his scientific work a branch of natural philosophy).

Earl Wajenberg said...

Based on his determinations of planetary velocities, Kepler tried to put the "music of the spheres" in actual musical notation by assigning pitches to the planets in proportion to their velocities. Unfortunately, the velocities vary so widely (Mercury moves much faster than Saturn), the result doesn't sound like any musical chord the human ear can take in, just various notes separated by several octaves.

dmoelling said...

I just finished a biography of Edmond Halley (Halley's comet) who worked with Newton on the Principia. The author spends a lot of time discussing AVI's notes on the immanence issues etc. All the early scientists of this era (Newton, Halley, Flamsteed, Leibnitz, Cassini and others) were predisposed to look for regularity and laws in nature by their religious backgrounds. Interestingly the center of science moved from Italy (Galileo etc.) to Paris then to England, Holland and North Germany due to the reformation and expulsion of Huegenots from France.

These were also immensely talented astounding people. Halley once was responsible for trying to salvage a sunken gold cargo. He designed new diving bells and personally spent a lot of time working out of a diving bell with improved diving outfits. No cloistered scholar he.