Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Path of Certainty

Part 12 of Prisoners of the Real

As a young man, Plato studied the number theory of Pythagoras, who in turn described a dualism of body and soul. In order to refine the soul, Pythagoras' secret brotherhood pursued the study of science and mathematics, observing the numerical relations of lengths of string and the harmonious sounds given off by their vibrations. Numbers, Pythagoras concluded, were the essence and basis of the qualities of things; his research also led to the formulation of an early astronomical theory in which the earth and other bodies revolved around a central fire. Despite his interest in science, however, Pythagoras remained essentially a religious mystic who believed that mathematics demonstrated mystical principles, facts that "reflect bits of heaven like broken shards of a mirror."

When rationalism finally swept across Europe more than a thousand years later the Platonic model was revived by Rene Descartes, who saw and developed its mathematical implications. But Descartes wasn't concerned with matters mystical. Rather, he believed that his "universal mathematics" was "a more powerful method of knowing than any handed down to us by human agency...indeed the source from which those older disciplines have sprung."

Continuing the cultural transformation that had begun with the revival of heliocentrism a century earlier, Descartes used the study of anatomy, botany, medicine and mechanics to combine the new world picture created by astronomy with two added phenomena – the behavior of clockwork automatons and the claims of monarchical absolutism.

In reviving the heliocentric theory of the universe, Copernicus had re-established the sun as humanity's central reference point, firming up the analogy of cosmic and mechanical order. The sun god, Atum-Re – the self-created Sun – once more assumed the status of centralized power. This alliance of scientific determinism and authoritarian control eased the ascent of rational science. Human energy was concentrated on the mastery of life, exploration, invention, conquest, and colonization through the discovery of ordered relationships and the creation of intelligible symbolic structures that revealed causal sequences and emergent patterns. In the "century of genius" attention shifted away from theology, letters and the arts, and toward observation and experimentation concerning the "facts" of the physical universe. Science became an institution. Academies and journals proliferated.

For 17th century "thinking men," science was the key to human progress. Copernicus' theory – actually an inspired idea that was unsupported by "objective" evidence at the time – was ultimately verified by Galileo and Francis Bacon. Systematic description of space, time, motion, mass and gravitation by Leibnitz and Newton soon led to a preoccupation with mechanical invention and production.

As the son of a French medical practitioner, Descartes stepped confidently into the developing renaissance world of astronomy, celestial mechanics and mathematics. Comfortable in the new kingdom of the sun god, he naturally favored the kind of order which could be reached by a single mind:

"Among the first thoughts that came to me was this, that often there is less perfection in works composed of several parts and the product of several different hands than in those due to a single master-workman."

His emphasis of absolutism as a means of creating order reinforced the growing acceptance of unqualified power, and set the tone not only for subsequent scientific attempts to harness organic complexity but also for the rise of the centralized state.

The Cartesian method had two basic requirements, both drawn from mathematics: begin from what is so simple and evident as to be indubitable, and advance from the simple to the complex by taking no step that is not similarly unquestionable. His view of science as "sure and evident knowledge" demanded the rejection of "all modes of knowledge that are merely probable." Dedicated to certainty as the only valid basis for knowledge, he concluded that only the "perfectly known" could be believed. He also presumed that his physical principles could account for animate as well as inanimate nature, and that, with the sole exception of the human being – thanks to his ability to reason – animals were non-conscious automata.

If a "rationally deduced" sequence of consequences was followed, Descartes was certain that arithmetic and geometry would someday make men "lords and possessors of nature." After all, complete mastery of the world seemed a reasonable extension of his discovery:

"Nothing can be so complex or so wide-ranging that we need fail, on applying our prescribed method of enumeration, to confine it within limits and to order it under a few headings."

In describing the 14 rules that lay at the basis of his method, he referred more than once to the need to "intuit clearly." But his definition of intuition, central to his rational vision of humanity, described it as "that non-dubious apprehension of a pure and attentive mind which is born in the sole light of reason." It was a conception free of doubt, one mode of natural reason, resting upon memory and, along with deduction, "the most certain of the paths to knowledge." The idea of intuition as "relative" perception, Plato's "sensations which reach the soul," was replaced by the notion that it was part of each person's "power of judging well and of distinguishing between the true and the false...what is called good sense, or reason."

Descartes clearly voiced the emerging aim of rational science: to make all behavior as predictable as the movement of heavenly bodies or man-made mechanical devices. An orderly, coherent and fully intelligible world could not be achieved, however, if feelings, emotions and other forms of conjecture were permitted to interfere with the process of investigation. Opinion, undisciplined imagination and, perhaps most of all, dreams threatened certainty:

"Because our reasonings are never so clear or complete during sleep as when we are awake, though sometimes the acts of imagination are lively and distinct, if not more so, than in our waking moments, reason further dictates that, since all our thoughts cannot be true because of our partial imperfections, those possessing truth must infallibly be founded in the experience of our waking moments rather than in that of our dreams."

The Cartesian Revolution produced profound and lasting consequences. As the definitive expression of mechanism, grafting the language of mathematics onto the approach of the ancient materialists and reinforcing the division of mind and body, it promoted a preoccupation with abstract thinking and the operations of machines. Although Descartes himself eventually confessed that, in matter and mind, there are "several properties of which we have no idea," his embarrassed revision wasn't adopted by the countless successors who applied mechanical order as the main criterion of reality and the source of all values.

The fascination with automatons led easily to the image of the human being as "a machine made of earth," and later paved the way for the militarization of science. The automatic figure was a model citizen, full respectful of the necessity for order, obedient and self-controlled. Although Descartes recognized the "subjective" aspect of life, his writings proposed mastery of infinite diversity through clear-cut arithmetical analysis. Science and the state were united as citizens began to bow to the "laws" of rational science.

Spirituality, already cowed by the combined force of the Protestant reformation and the rapid diffusion of scientific doctrines through the printing press, was about to be enveloped by the tide of mathematical thought and indubitable fact.

Next: Man the Brute

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

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