Physics is Only a Likely Story:
Being Some Comments on Plato's Timaeus
by Rita Atkins
Natural Science IV Lecture,
Shimer College, Spring, 1969.
(First published in QUEST, Vol. X, No. 1)
I. Introductory Remarks
Francis M. Cornford (whose translation we rely on throughout this lecture) said that "the Timaeus is not easy reading." One may disagree with some of his comments, but surely not with this one! This is not an attempt to "defend" Plato as scientist by proving his science "as good as" ours. It is not. On the other hand, this is not an attempt, either, to show how we have advanced in philosophical thought about science; I do not see that we have.
Plato is far too profound a philosopher and far too great a writer for us to want to analyze his "contributions to science", that is, cut out from the context of his opus the fragments of physical theory and flashes of archaic knowledge that he deals out... in the guise of myth.
- Giorgio de Santillana
The comparative truce we witness today...was not reached by setting in harmony with one another the two kinds of outlook, the strictly scientific and the metaphysical, but rather by a resolve to ignore each other, little short of contempt....It is pathetically amusing to observe how on the one side, only scientific information is taken seriously, while the other side ranges science among man's worldly activities whose findings are less momentous....One regrets to see mankind strive towards the same goal along two different and difficult winding paths, with blinkers and separating walls...the walls, separating two paths, that of the heart and...of science. We look back along the wall...has it always been there? We scan its windings over hills and vales back in history: we behold a land far, far away at a space of over two thousand years back, where the wall flattens and disappears and the path...was only one...never before or since, anywhere in the world, has anything like the Greek's highly advanced and articulated system of knowledge and speculation been established...without the fateful division...which has become unendurable in our days.
_ Erwin Schrödinger
Well, that one should clearly yet intelligently say: one can't see how consciousness evolves is quite natural. But then that he glues his eyes upon a microscope and stares and looks and stares -- and still he can't see how -- is asinine. And it's all the more silly when we are asked to take this sort of play seriously...If natural science had been advanced in Socrates' day as in ours, all the Sophists would have become master scientists. They would have hung giant microscopes by their shopdoors to get business. And then painted a sign "See through an ultra-super-microscope how man thinks." (And when he saw this, Socrates would say "that is only for men who do not truly think at all, that is how they must act") A great subject for Aristophanes: best if he let Socrates himself peer through the microscope.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Journal, 1840
...no man of sense will ever try to commit to language his thoughts; particularly is this true of language which is unalterable, as in the case of writing.
_ Plato's Epistle VII
If physics is only a likely story, what is biology? An unlikely story.
- Rita Atkins, 1969
Some Comments on the
Timaeus among Plato's Works
This was his only specifically scientific document. The first 2/3 was continuously preserved through the Dark Ages. Hence its influence on early science _ alchemy and astronomy. On another level today it lives in the work of Whitehead and his school.
II. Why Back To Plato?
After 2000 years of metaphysical discussion, the question stands much as Plato left it in the Timaeus; the growth of scientific knowledge has done little more than negative the speculations of intervening philosophers.
- Sir James Jeans
on Plato's concept of space
According to a recent Time magazine advertisement, everything since has been only footnotes to Plato. I happen to recall that it was Whitehead who said that - in Process and Reality, Part 2, ch. 1, sec. 1 - though Time, of course, did not credit it. Even if one does not entirely agree, I feel that such a statement is needed as an antidote to the opposite idea: Plato has nothing to say to us today. He has long been outmoded, and a good thing too.
One might say, and I have seen it said, that one goes back to Plato to start at the beginning. A good place to start, as the King of Hearts reminded Alice.
Perhaps there should be a prior question. What are we going back for? For philosophy of science? For science? For philosophy? This is a question of little meaning in Plato's time. The dichotomy (almost the cold war?) between two cultures, did not exist.
But it does now. Mr. Weller of Harvard made an acute observation: philosophy of science attracts scientists who get interested in philosophy and philosophers who get interested in science. When you get into their bibliographies they are completely different....As if there were two subjects both called "Philosophy of Science"...So the dichotomy extends even there, where least expected.
There is a type of scientific thought, which unfortunately passes for the scientific verdict among most of the public, even many of the educated public. To paraphrase it:
Science is exact. It knows. It proves. It progresses. It gets results. It is universal. It is unarguable. It represents nature. This is its age. In contrast philosophy is merely a step above religion and that merely a step from superstition. Now that we have science we don't need these more primitive modes. Even if these do have some value they must stay outside science. Even there, it has too much vagueness, it is unverifiable, unquantifiable; it does not progress or get results, it cannot prove; and it foists its useless imaginings upon nature, hence blurring scientific progress.
Yes, I have caricatured to some extent.
Others take a milder view. They recognize that man needs these things. Some even grant truth, even a deeper truth than science, to these. But please don't dabble with it in connection with science. Never the twain shall meet. Nor shall the scientist's science obtrude upon his non-scientific areas. There is no conflict, just departmentalization.
This too is exaggeration to show my points. Both positions in practice are fuzzier than that, with all gradations. Often they are partly unconscious and would even be denied.
The attitude of the anti-science philosopher in extreme goes like this:
Science is materialistic, mechanistic, deterministic. It lacks soul, beauty, creativity, warmth. Its products are weapons, consumer goods _ often trashy _ and a civilization of even greater ugliness. Its workers lack liberal or humanistic wisdom; they are smug and conceited about their successes. They are narrow specialists. They have done nothing to improve man's ultimate happiness or worth and never will, as they study superficial matters by clever but not profound means.
Part of this is confusion between technology and pure science. Actually some of the arguments above would have been true say forty years ago, or about the time when the old modern science was not being "replaced" sufficiently by the new modern science. The deepest and most modern science may not draw a mechanistic, deterministic, materialistic picture. Pure science, also, can be creative, full of beauty and value, as art. Though our science has progressed in its works, it has scarcely, until very recently, moved in its thought; for scope and depth we have not greatly surpassed the past. Perhaps in this regard we have even deteriorated. Perhaps as Medieval man lived in a scientific Dark Age, perhaps we live in, philosophically, even a Darker Age?
III. The Purpose of the Timaeus
Was not _ "Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry"
A modern cosmology might be written simply to describe. It might be written to put forth a new theory or theories to predict or control better, but it would surely not be written, as the Timaeus, for the prologue to a story of a "good state". It would not be assumed, as it is assumed in the Timaeus, that it is studied so that whatever reason and justice and order we find in the cosmos we can bring into personal or social life. It would not be written as the Timaeus, because one would find truth, beauty, and the good involved and because to study these draws the soul upward. Nor would it be told as the Timaeus, as a mythos or likely story.
Science had purpose then, and it has a main purpose now. But now it is to control, to predict, to manipulate, to invent. Then it was to know for the sake of the soul and of justice and order among men. Further, science's goal then was beneath or behind or beyond nature (Becoming); nature was studied as image for the sake of the reality unseen. Now the goal is in the patterns of nature itself, in and for itself after all, that is all we need to predict and control: perhaps that is all we can do; surely it is all we can do by empirical methods. Then the Being was to serve man's soul. Now the Becoming is to be manipulated, for weapons or healing, or for whatever practical purpose society may designate. Oh, some seek pure understanding, pure science. But it is for the sake of seeing pattern in nature as Becoming.
Plato's Cosmology seeks to understand Becoming, as far as that is possible, for the sake of Being. Our cosmology seeks to understand Becoming (nature) either for its own sake or for pragmatic progress.
We find what we seek, do we not? Plato found wisdom, beauty, the good. The hardhead finds weapons, rockets, medicines, and progress, computers. Perhaps (except for the weapons) we could do with both purposes? Perhaps, if we had both we would be less apt to remain forever personal and social savages dwelling among powerful scientific achievements.
IV. Physics A Likely Story
In real science a hypothesis can never be proved true...A science which confines itself to correlating phenomena can never learn anything about the reality underlying the phenomena, while a science which goes further than this and introduces hypotheses about reality, can never acquire certain knowledge of a positive kind about reality; in whatever way we proceed, this is forever denied us.
_ Sir James Jeans
Well, Plato may have thought Physics could only be a likely story, but surely after 2,000 years we have improved on that! Do we not now have proof of such? Do we not have more advanced mathematical proofs besides? Do we not, at least potentially, approach certainty _ with our instruments so costly and complex? We have thinking machines, radio-telescopes and electron microscopes, we have generations of progress to build on, we have hordes of competent specialists. We have libraries groaning with weight. We have atom smashers and space ships. Surely our physics has improved on Plato's definition of a likely story? Let us recall what our own best modern physicist, who ought to know _ said _ summed:
"If it is certain, it is not physics.
If it is physics, it is not certain."
_ Einstein (in Santillana)
Why does Plato say his cosmology is a likely story and all cosmologies must always be so? Not because he had come to the end of the line, as our physicists have done, but because, at the start of the line, he felt that the nature of the universe was such that only likely accounts could ever be given. An account can be no truer than its object. The object of the natural sciences is the natural world. To Plato this was a world of Becoming. True knowledge could only be possible in connection with true Being. Since this is only imperfectly embodied or in-mirrored in Becoming, our best hope is the likely story.
Notice that here he does not mention a favorite modern reason _ the limits of our intellect and its tools. He would agree that the scientific methods of today applied to nature could never scale reality, but not because of man or his method, but because reality is not to be grasped by studying its imperfect, dependent world. The philosopher could approach nearer in thought, but never seize reality as like knows like, and man himself is part of Becoming. Only in this sense is the limit man's nature.
V. A Partly Created Universe
"It's significant that their attempt to take the words of Timaeus literally gets them into very grave difficulties."
_ A. E. Taylor, re Plutarch and Atticus
There is another question about the likely character of the work. In what sense is the entire writing a myth? I do not know. On the whole I tend to feel a writer means more or less what he says, unless I have good reason to judge otherwise. Now that we have come to the factor variously translated as the god, God, the Maker, and the Demiurge, it is time to think on the question: How far can we take the Demiurge, and the entire dialogue, as myth?
Plato, as quoted already from his Seventh Letter and as he said to Phaedrus, denied he wrote down or could write "his philosophy". He says here that he does not know the Maker, and if he did he could not declare him to all mankind. Just as truth is difficult to seize or approach, it is even more so to communicate. Especially in writing. Always one must turn to something to represent truth _ poetry, literature, art, drama, myth, _ science.
So in one sense, in the above sense, the Timaeus is a myth. It is not, however, in my opinion, pure fantasy or allegory, fairy-tale symbolism. I can best express what I mean by paraphrasing Søren Kierkegaard: that God is said to shield us under his wing does not mean God is a very large bird with wings. It means God shields us under his wing.
The Demiurge is not at all our God. He is not omnipotent; he must persuade Necessity. Necessity is given. The materials are given. Space, the receptacle is given. Forms are given. So the universe is only partly created. These givens are not all of the same nature. Forms are eternal models. Space is the eternal receptacle. The material was in chaos under errant cause, Necessity.
Some of the Greeks (e.g., Empedocles) had the modern idea: That the universe originated or always was by chance, and that it evolves and changes by chance. Any order or laws that emerge must have emerged by chance. The apotheosis of this appears in my field, Biology; in neo-Darwinism, evolution is based on chance mutation as the source of variation. Anyone who believes all that would believe anything. Biology is especially addicted to this because it is so eager to prove it is as scientific as physics. If mutation isn't chance, then you might have telos, vitalism, and all sorts of things verboten in Biology. Besides, chance is "subject to the law of" (!!?) probability.
Plato believed in chance as the errant cause: Necessity. But in his cosmology no order or pattern, life or rule, came by chance. It came only through the Demiurge or something like it to persuade Necessity to yield to reason, and to purpose. Nor could the Demiurge have had a pattern or model without the Forms; these, being perfect and eternal, were outside chance. A form is not, I hope you know, a cosmic cookie-cutter.
Cornford feels that it is not a question of first chaos and then at some given time or point the Demiurge fashions an orderly world. Rather he feels that the universe always has had two factors, chaos and order, Necessity and reason. On the one hand, Forms, space, and unformed material. On the other, a fashioning and ordering factor, who impacts Forms on space through material. Hence using Form as patterns and reason to imitate the Forms in space; persuading chaos, ever-present, to sustain an order in Time.
VI. The World Body and the World Soul
That the universe has a body the materialistic science would well agree. That it had a soul would be regarded as quaint.
Why did Plato regard the world-body as having soul? First, because the best _ at which the Demiurge aimed _ must have reason and reason is of the soul.
Taking thought, therefore, he found that, among things that are by nature visible, no work that is without intelligence will ever be better than one that has intelligence, and moreover that intelligence cannot be present in anything apart from soul. In virtue of this reasoning, when he framed the universe, he fashioned reason within soul and soul within body, to the end that the work he accomplished might be by nature as excellent and perfect as possible. This then, is how we must say, that this work came to be, in very truth, a living creature with soul and reason.
- Timaeus 30b
The cosmos is an ensouled animal as David Grene put it; or as a Biologist I might say an inspirited organism. A great super-organism.
Even in the unlikely event that science were to accept that the universe is in some sense organismic or even alive, this would not necessarily imply soul. Organisms, even man, either are credited with no soul in mechanistic biology, or "souls have nothing to do with science." We do speak of mind, but it is regarded as a result (harmony) of the brain's chemistry. So even if we accept the cosmos as creature and even endowed it with reason (mind), this would still not be what Plato meant. To him the soul was not a resultant, but immortal and prior.
Another reason for soul's presence is to explain motion. Self-motion requires life and soul, said Plato. The universe _ macrocosm and microcosm alike _ exhibits self-motion, according to him. Therefore soul must inhere.
We did not explain motion with Newton, and we do not explain it now under Relativity. Words like inertia, gravity, fields of force, geodesic paths in space-time, or indeterminate quantum jumps explain nothing. They describe and define, predict and formularize. For example, force has been dropped by some as too animistic! As for inertia, for example, things keep going because that is their nature; not much better than saying because that is the nature of their soul. Most will say, when challenged, that why does not belong in science, only how.
To a biologist, an interesting aspect of this is the old vitalist conflict. In the last century the mechanists won _ they succeeded in making biology as mechanistic as chemistry and physics. The only trouble is that now physics has moved on. The vitalist argued that living things had, by emergent evolution, become a resultant more than the sum of the parts. The mechanist said living things were simply their chemistry, the same chemistry as in rocks or sands; more complex but not essentially different. This was supposed to banish telos from biology, and base it on particulate fact operating by determination, or later by chance.
Plato might agree in one way with the anti-vitalists, who now represent dogma. That is, that a plant or animal is not different, essentially, than a rock or stream. However, he would agree on all the wrong grounds for the anti-vitalists. He would agree that all nature is alike, but it is all informed with reason, life, and soul. That is, Plato was a cosmological vitalist.
VII. Time, the Moving Image of Eternity
In his dealing with Time, Plato holds one of his great visions:
When the father who had made it saw it set in motion and alive, a shrine brought into being for the everlasting gods, he rejoiced and being well pleased he took thought to make it yet more like its pattern. So as that pattern is the Living Being that is for ever existent, he sought to make this universe also like it, so far as that might be...Now the nature of that Living Being was eternal, and this character it was impossible to confer in full completeness on the generated thing. But he took thought to make, as it were, a moving likeness of eternity; an everlasting likeness moving according to number _ that to which we have given the name Time.
For there were no days and nights, months and years, before the heavens came into being, but he planned that they should now come to be at the same time that heavens were framed. All these are parts of Time, and "was" and "shall be" are forms of time that have come to be. We are wrong to transfer them unthinkingly to eternal being..."was" and "shall be" are properly used of Becoming which proceeds in time for they are motions. But that which is for ever in the same state immovably, cannot be becoming older or younger by lapse of time;...the moving things of sense have come into being as forms of time, which images eternity and revolves according to number.
- Timaeus 37c-38a
Time is created, not part of Being but of Becoming. Or rather, Becoming and Time are alike imaged. Time images the eternal, in which there is no past or future.
In one sense this is very modern. Time is not absolute but secondary and derived. In another sense this is not relativity however, as space in Plato is not here involved with Time. However, if I were allowed to carry his thought on I would say:
1. Space is the receptacle of Becoming. (Plato)
2. Becoming is in Time. (Plato)
3. Hence space is in a sense also the receptacle of Time. (Myself)
4. And this idea does have some similarity to relativity. (Myself)
What are the purposes of the celestial motions, as Plato sees them?
1. To approach the perfection of the model insofar as possible. The circle and sphere are as close to perfection as geometricals can be. Further, ceaseless thought always the same about the Same would revolve or circle about itself, returning upon itself eternally.
2. To recall for man the divine and best.
3. To teach man number, which has purity itself.
4. To mark and encompass time, to be guardians of day and night, the cycling seasons; to show Time as an ever-turning mirror of eternity.
5. To sustain the thought of the cosmos itself. Through its motion in the soul, it is essential to intelligent and ceaseless life. That this thought can know the best it must, like it, have some unity; so it revolves...
Both physical motion and thought motion inhere in soul. So indeed the motions of the heavenly bodies recall the soul to her self her apprehension of Being.
Now what about the cause(s) of this motion? To Newton the planets moved by inertia and gravity. These some now regard as almost animistic. Now planets move by the fact that it is their nature to economize time and energy by taking the shortest time/distance path, a geodesic, through the curved space/time continuum. No more gravity but fields of force. No more inertia by their nature, but geodesics by their nature. Now Einstein believed in some sense in cause. Others have gone further and said we do not need to concern ourselves with cause, if, indeed there be any such thing, which they rather doubt. Let us just predict, describe.
Plato, however, sought true causes. Immediate causes were those of the order Socrates described when he talked of his muscles and joints. To explain his remaining to drink hemlock we needed a further cause than the mechanical one.
On what nature is soul? Substitute "Mind" for "soul" and you have a question of epistemological significance admitted by science today. Science is a product of human minds. I am aware that when I substitute "mind" I am not using a synonym for "soul." Mind is considered more scientifically acceptable. This must mean it has a narrower connotation. The religious and philosophical implications of soul have been toned down or out. The biologist can then say "brain action" for mind. Then he can call this function "brain", a "solid" physiological/mechanical entity. Now, they feel, we are on scientific grounds and have gotten rid of "metaphysical hot air."
The soul, according to Plato, knows like by like. She must know both Being and Becoming, and hence partakes of both. She has her immortal aspect, yet is tied for existence to mortality and change. Hence she shares in the qualities of her objects of thought; her motions are like those of the celestial bodies, a compound; a mixture of the motions of the Same and the motions of the different.
Our very minds' thought and knowledge, her motions, are deeply akin to the motions and thought of the world body and the world soul; we are sharers of the cosmos' very life; we are part of what we know or try to know. Both directly, and by using Becoming's many beautiful things, we move toward the Reality which partly inheres in our own soul.
VIII. The Errant Cause: Necessity
There is an odd ambiguity in modern thought re chance and determined cause/effect. Biologists insist on chance as "ruling" mutation _ they also insist on organism as an orderly, determined mechanism...
When Plato speaks of necessity he means errant cause, not the order which the Demiurge set up. Orderly development _ as our evolution would be to Plato _ would never be due to errant cause. Instead it would be due to reason and purpose, and to soul.
It is interesting that much thought has felt that either nature is permeated by order (whatever its source, even chance) or it has no real order (we read order into it.) The latter seems more logical for a chance world...but why do our chance minds read order into disorder? Until very recently the order idea prevailed, the only arguments were as to its source. The new science finds ultimate particles and energy in a sense indeterminate and unpredictable. Some bring order back by appealing to statistical laws of probability which can predict the behavior of large numbers. So now order becomes a mathematical function of large numbers!
If one accepts Cornford's idea that the work of the Demiurge did not end chaos and start the cosmos at some beginning, but that this work represents the constant persistence of two factors, reason and chaos, as always with us, then this contrasts with the either/or division: The essence is that errant cause never reaches orderly law in nature by chance of numbers but by the "persuasion" of soul.
IX. Space, the Receptacle
It is interesting how Plato discusses space, paragraph after paragraph, without once mentioning the word. There is a reason for this: While we can comprehend Time as a part of our own process, space we must approach very indirectly. The word "space" appears in the climax of his argument; after reviewing the nature of Form and of Image, then,
Third is Space which is everlasting, not admitting destruction; providing a situation for all things that come into being, but itself apprehended without the senses by a sort of bastard reasoning, and hardly an object of belief.
- Timaeus 52b
In that recent modern science which has been replaced by super modern science (but that is still taught in many high schools), Plato's geometries and processes and qualities would be laughed at. Yet they are solemnly taught of neat little atoms, perfect little solar systems, going about their orderly and well explained business. The picture is just about as crude and archaic as Plato's. Perhaps more so, because at least Plato's model had meaning. Both models were "false"; ours was very pretty and it worked.
I am not going into technical details and draw pictures of triangles. Modern instructors often think these triangles are somehow funny; so are the little wooden balls or wire circles, or balloons with which they demonstrate how matter is! I am getting tired of hearing remarks about "Plato's four elements". He makes clear in several places that they are not even as low as syllables in his scheme, that they have components, etc.
What are the salient ideas in Plato's model?
1. The Demiurge persuades order upon chaos by giving geometrical and then stereometrical structure to the qualities and powers preexisting. Since geometries can be expressed mathematically, this imposes number order also.
2. The power and qualities before enclosure and structure _ and to a lesser degree after _ move according to necessity, errant cause. They do have some element of soul, albeit the irrational element of soul. If they did not, they could not have self movement, and move each other, have powers, impact qualities upon sensoria, relate or interact.
3. They are not hard little atoms in a void. They are geometric structures of qualities and powers. They combine, separate, move, and are in flux. The Demiurge persuades law and reason upon this random process, using the forms as models and making chaos image the forms. He uses space as the receptacle of extension and structure, and time as orderly progression of process. So the structure imitates the form, and the process in Time imitates, in its cycles, the eternal...
X. Body and Perception
Birds were made by transformation: growing feathers instead of hair, they came from harmless but light-headed men, who studied the heavens, but imagined in their simplicity that the surest evidence in these matters came from the eye.
- Timaeus 91e
Some became so enraptured with their own humour when they came to Plato's physiology and ideas of sense perception that they completely lose sight of what is important here. Biology was a backward science in Plato's time. It is still science's own retarded child. Darwin gave it a good shaking up, but...
What were Plato's basic ideas? Let us take vision as an example. The important thought is not his error of a visual ray from the eyes meeting the light rays from the object. The important thing is why he made this error and what it means.
I think he thought this way because he felt that as like knows like, then like must sense like. There must be kinship between known and knower, perceived and perceiver. Visual rays would exemplify this. He also knew that the sensation did not bear any one to one qualitative similarity, as color. He also knew that we sense with the mind, not with the sense organ; and with thought, not just with simple feeling.
What the modern perceptualist leaves out, Plato emphasises:
We must speak of both kinds of cause, but distinguish causes that work with intelligence to produce what is good and desirable, from those which, being destitute of reason, produce their sundry effects at random and without order. Enough, then of the secondary causes that have contributed to give the eyes the power that they now possess; we must next speak of their highest function for our benefit...Sight, then, in my judgement is the cause of highest benefits to us in that no word of our present discourse about the universe could ever have been spoken, had we never seen stars, sun, and sky. But, as it is, the sight of day and night, of months and the revolving years, of equinox and solstice, has caused the invention of number and bestowed on us the notion of time and the study of the nature of the world; whence we have derived all philosophy....
- Timaeus 46e-47b
So just as the body of the world is studied as to Telos, so is the body of man. Sensoria are vehicles for contact with Becoming, and through Becoming with Being.
Knowledge and true science depend hence on our senses and body, but only if our observations are aimed at what lies beyond. Otherwise we are stopped at empirical science, which at best is only true opinion....
The moderns, by their exclusion of Telos and all that is like it, limit themselves to empirical science. They say this is essential to the pragmatic progress of science, that science (what we mean by science _ what predicts and works) made no progress until we had excluded Telos. Historically this is true, and perhaps temporarily it was or even is necessary. I feel that in the end we should widen science out.
Space, though not a Form, is given the Demiurge and is eternal. It is the matrix of Becoming. In this matrix the images have a kind of existence, to which they cling, in space. The forms have no extension; they are the true objects of knowing. Space is not in the Forms nor are they any place. Becoming vanishes out of space as it comes to be in it; even while in space it has apparent reality to us.
Since things cling into space and vanish, in Time, I related Time to Space as also being matrix and process. Though close to relativity this is not relativity, in which time/space are a continuum. Here Space receives the moving image Time, which as a created thing is not eternal and given as is Space. (Here, eternity and existence, [Becoming] meet _ In the Kierkegaardian moment or the Whiteheadian event.)
XI. Primary Geometricals and Processes
Plato on Chemistry
"When a man, for the sake of recreation lays aside a discourse about serious and eternal things and gains an innocent amusement from such plausible accounts of mere becoming he will add to his life a sober and sensible pastime."
XII. Final Words
"But the plain fact is that there are no conclusions"
- Sir James Jeans
What are my thoughts after re-reading Plato, and especially Timaeus after so many years? As far as the earlier Socratic dialogues are concerned, it is partly the same as the old feeling _ that indeed some kind of spell had been cast. But now I do not say "beautiful, but all lies". Content and style in writing cannot be so separated. Even noble lies would betray themselves. So one is not enchanted by a fine style carrying falsehood; one is enchanted by writing carrying greatness.
As for the Timaeus, as a whole and in certain parts, especially the physiology, there is much so foreign to my modern thought and my personal feelings that I am almost repelled. Yet at the same time I am gripped by some kind of power. The cosmos a great lone creature needing no arms or legs nor eyes nor friend, holding its ceaseless discourse, intelligent and alive!
One catches here almost a mad verity. In the old sense of madness as having special access to the divine. Sanity is an orderly mirror which distorts the nature of the cosmos and man's place in it. Distorts it until it is safe, understandable, easy, and above all, bearable. In the phantasma of the Timaeus, we are aware of a more terrible and frightening reality. It is not serene and lovely as earlier Plato. This is an old Plato; in the late Platonic works we catch much of a sense of death, failure, tragedy. It is not here he talks of man as a thing to gawp at, but lets him be worthy if you wish. It is not here he says we may be toys for the Gods, to what purpose he does not know. It is not here he says human affairs are on the whole not worth attention. It is not here he says he would vote for forms! But this is part of that time of his life. Perhaps a man of such unique mind must in the end come to some almost dreadful vision. Does not a cold wind blow from the circles in the world of soul?
We are at the edge of meaning, of an abyss, here. So is modern science. Hence I carry away with me some sense of even scientific truth, from the Timaeus...almost in spite of myself.
This is more than I can get from modern scientific thought. Here at the very fringe it seems to fail. Different models and theories all work and fit the facts. We do not disprove old errors and get closer and closer and closer to the truth, which, someday, like a marksman perfecting his aim, we hit dead center. Not at all. As our tools, observations, and skills sharpen and improve, our aim at nature and what is the reality of nature finds the target receding, fading, changing, like a mirage. The closer our shots to the center, the more it fades like the Cheshire Cat; finally we are left with a disembodied grin; and indeed as they told the Queen of Hearts, you cannot behead something that has no body.
We are no longer aiming at Dalton's hard little atoms, and all that went with them. We are aiming at matter without substance, time without validity, space misshapen, fields unexplained, quantum jumps almost unpredictable. We speak of probabilities and waves of knowledge. In the end we have some interesting statistics. That is all: we neither hit the target or know what it is. We describe, predict, and control what? Our target practice.
Here at last let us say that our discourse concerning the world has come to the end. For having received in full its complement of living creatures this whole has become a visible living creature, embracing all that are visible; an image of the intelligible, and perceptible divine being supreme in greatness and excellence, in beauty and perfection. This universe unique, and alone.
- Timaeus 92c
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