Sunday, March 28, 2010

John Banville, The Infinities (2009)

In The Beginnings of Western Science (March 24, 2010 post), David Lindberg states that the Sixth Century (B.C.) Milesians of antiquity posed a question that had never been previously asked in either Greek or Middle Eastern culture: "what is the material origin of things---the single and simple underlying reality that can take on a variety of forms to produce the diversity and order behind chaos?" And importantly, Lindberg adds, "in the answers offered by these Milesians we find no personification or deification of nature; a conceptual chasm [that] separates their worldview from the mythological world of Homer and Hesiod. The Milesians left the gods out of the story. What they may have thought about the Olympian gods we do not (in most cases) know; but they did not invoke the gods to explain the origin, nature or cause of things." And while the idea of a god as a creator or prime mover later found a place in the ideas of Plato (Timaeus) and Aristotle in subsequent centuries, these were not anthropomorphic gods that meddled in earthly affairs. Similarly, Yahweh gradually abandoned its personal intermeddling in the history of the Hebrew people over these centuries as well. Only later in Christian mythology, with its story of a miraculous virgin birth, do we come close to a story, now about 2000 years old, of divine intermeddling that some people to this day believe is part of human history.

Occasionally, a novelist brings to life mythological dieties who intervene in human affairs to tell a story. Jose Saramago brought the god of the Jewish people to Galil to the bedroom of Mary and Joseph in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and behold, Mary, was with child. That other Christian demiurge --- the devil ---also enters an appearance in the Saramago story. Greek mythological gods are central to John Barth's Chimera, with the objective of showing that these gods are real human beings with all the characteristic foibles of humanity. And so it is with John Banville in The Infinities, where Hermes, Zeus, and Pan lurk over and intermingle in the life of the Godley family as their patriarch, Adam Godley, sits in a coma facing his last day of life.

Early in The Infinities, Zeus slides into bed with dying man, Adam Godley's daughter-in-law for sexual intercourse. This is not new to storytelling. Even in the early chapters of Genesis (6:4), heavenly gods came down to earth, in the Greek tradition, and impregnated women who bore their children. The miracle of Jesus' divine paternity merely repeats this storytelling technique, as do other parts of the Gospel that seek to build on the Hebrew stories to form a continuous history.

The term "infinities" has multiple meanings for this playful, amusing tale, which could have been titled, with apologies to Shakespeare, A Midsummer Day's Coma. Facially, the Infinities refers to the mythological gods of Greek lore, who, without apparent conspiracy, find their way to the home of a dying mathematician as he lifelessly waits out the final day of his life. But equally, it refers to the conundrum that has plagued quantum physicists and string theorists who have pursued the theory of everything that will mathematically unite quantum mechanics and general relativity, only to find failure in the mathematical equations that produce bedeviling infinities. The dying mathematician has purportedly solved the problem (although we are not told how). The closest we come to learning of Adam's stunning achievement is the statement of Pan, in the guise of the dying man's long-time friend Benny, who says, "you see, the infinities, the infinities that cropped up in everyone else's equations and made them null, and which cropped up in his, too, he saw as exactly what----an infinity of infinities, all crossing and breaking into each other, all here and invisible, a complex of worlds beyond what anyone before him had imagined ever was there---well, you can imagine the effect. . .Well, well, you can imagine." Pan appears to be saying that the dying mathematician simply accepted the infinities and their inherent contradictions for what they are and posited the existence of multiverses, a subject addressed by Charles Seife in Decoding The Universe (August 23, 2009 post). Inquiring minds, however, would like to know more.

In this novel, the dying man in a coma can still think, and for a chapter the reader is treated to his memories and thoughts, including one glimpse of the infinities that he stared in the face and understood. "My equations spanned a multitude of universes yet they posited a single world of unity and ultimate order. Perhaps there is such a world, but if there is we do not live in it, and cannot know how things would be there." An admission that countless authors and religious leaders have contemplated for millenia: human limits in the face of a universe (and perhaps an infinite number of universes) that seem(s) to be without limit. Echoing Pan, humans can imagine multiple universes and infinity, but the limitations that make us "human" mean that we will never know the infinite how things really are in those other universes that we cannot live in.
Each of the characters in this novel seems to be coexisting in their separate universes. They notice each other and talk to each other, but they don't appear to be truly intersecting. They are almost invisible to each other.

Banville closes his treat with this observation from Zeus: "This is the mortal world. It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved; a world where they may live, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed forever in a luminous, unending instant." These are themes that return us to information theory, described by Seth Lloyd and Charles Seife (August 2009 posts). As Seife noted, while the universe may be infinite, information processing cannot go on forever --- and at some point information processing will stop and the gezillions of bits of information that life has stored and preserved will be dissipated (not destroyed) so it is useless and life in the visible universe (not just human life) will become extinct. That is a universe where "nothing is lost," but in contrast to Banville, all cannot be accounted for because of entropy. Banville does not contemplate entropy or the dissipation of information, and if he did the mildly upbeat ending would likely turn out to be more pessimistic instead.

This is a deep novel, probably one people can afford to read more than once. And a dose of Greek mythology in your academic background could make it enjoyable on another level.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (2d ed. 2007)

Following footnotes, I fear, is not a passion of many students today. Lawyers understand the importance of following footnotes, because the footnote or citation in a judicial opinion is just as important to understanding how the court arrived at its decision as the text of the opinion itself. Footnotes and citations document the development of the common law --- the precedent, rationale, and history on which the court relied.

A footnote in Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind (2005) brought my attention to the 1992 edition of David Lindberg's book, The Beginnings of Western Science, several years ago. I put the book on my Amazon wish list. Freeman also cited Edward Grant's The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, which I subsequently read. The subject here is the history of science from the classical period up the period preceding the Enlightenment, and the extent to which cultures and institutions either encouraged or restrained scientific inquiry during this period. Freeman's thesis is that the unification of Roman state authority and Christian faith by Constantine stifled, if not suppressed the Greek intellectual tradition that relied on mental reasoning, a thesis that fits well with the nomenclature used to describe these times: the "dark" ages, and the "medieval" period. Not so fast, warns Lindberg. While not denying that much of Western Europe lost touch with Aristotelian philosophy and Greek mathematics. medicine, and science from the classical era, and observing that Aristotle and Greek mathematics, medicine, and science became a foundation for scientific progress in the Arab and Muslim world that ultimately found its way to Spain, Lindberg documents that there remained at some, scattered level an awareness of Aristotle and Greek math, medicine and scientific research that was not entirely lost to the Western world and certainly enough for Lindberg to claim that the history of western science from the classical era had some degree of continuity.

Throughout this treatise, Lindberg reminds his reader that it is error to appreciate (or critique) scientific inquiry in the Dark Ages or the Medieval Period based on our modern vantage point, and essential that scientific inquiry during these periods be examined in light of the the culture, institutions, and scientific knowledge then existing. Lindberg's focus, in contrast to Freeman, is less on the influence that Christian institutions had on scientific inquiry and more on the actual historical record of scientific investigation and research. His ultimate goal is to identify what, if anything, in the history of science was revolutionary about the Enlightenment. And to this end, Lindberg concludes, contrary to what most of us have believed or surmised, that the Enlightenment was not revolutionary because faith and magic was replaced by experimental methodology testing reasoned hypotheses with empirical research. Examples of testing reasoned hypotheses about nature, the cosmos, and medicine with experimental investigation can be found across the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period. The revolution of the Enlightenment, Lindberg says, was "metaphysical and cosmological." Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics, which had "skirmished" throughout the medieval period, came to be replaced by another Greek tradition: Epicurean atomism, which describes "a mechanistic universe of lifeless, indivisible atoms moving randomly in an infinite void." At the core of the difference between these Greek traditions (Plato and Aristotle on the one hand, and atomists on the other) are differences in viewpoints toward a teleological principle, which has meaning for both religious institutions and science to this day.

Teleology. The principle that physical phenomena are explained by a purpose or design has been debtated since antiquity, and it continues to be debated today under the rubric of "intelligent design." Teleology implies that creation is an act of foresight and planning. I first read about teleological principle nearly 30 years ago in Jacques Monod's book, Chance and Necessity. Monod denied that a teleological force was behind the creation of life, and instead subscribed to a teleonomical principle, whereby a non-purposeful evolutionary process that relies on hindsight and the acquisition of information that allows life to cope with the future. Richard Dawkins, the author of The Blind Watchmaker, is a natural ally for this view. Ironically, a teleonomical approach fits comfortably within Hebrew literature, whose "prophets" did not actually foretell the demise of the ancient Jewish state, but in hindsight explained that demise. I mention this not specifically to support Monod's argument, but to demonstrate that the creative human mind finds a way of defining purpose not on the intentionality of some one or thing in the past, but on what it discerns in the design of things as they already exist, and then confusing the two.

Plato and Aristotle both fell victim to this confusion. Plato concluded, based on his view of the structure of the world and its a priori order in the world of forms that some intelligent god was behind the creation of the universe. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw the hand of an intelligent unmoved mover, not a creator, behind the moving forces in the cosmos, but this view was based on the orderliness of the world as he observed it. Teleology embodies an anthropomorphic bias, which ascribes to non-human spirits the same purpose that human actors would ascribe to something they had created. There is no reason to believe this bias is objectively warranted, especially if the non-human spirit is an omniscient deity for which anything is possible.

Lindberg is on to something when he says the Enlightenment is more about a change in metaphysical views than it is about a revolution in scientific inquiry. To be sure, the rate in which experimentation and empirical knowledge was employed by the scientific community accelerated during and after the Enlightenment, and perhaps Lindberg does not give enough weight to this fact, but the revolution in metaphysical orientation meant that atheism, deism, and theism all found opportunity to claim the new science for themselves. Atomism replaced the Aristotelian concept of teleology that prevailed by the end of the Medieval Period and enabled theists and deists to claim that there was an intelligent creator whose initial design of the universe set in motion the evolution that we now witness in hindsight (with some theists believing that a god can still intervene in earthly matters), and it enabled atheists to deny any initial or continuing design or purpose to nature and to appreciate the successes and failures in nature over time, as well as the chaos and order of nature, as some combination of both chance and necessity.