Friday, May 31, 2013

"On the Nature of Things" [Books I-IV]: A Mortal Soul and An Immortal Universe

The first thing that struck me about On the Nature of Things was the fact that it is a scientific poem. Science and poetry are two things that I've long thought of as polar opposites, but it worked here surprisingly well. Lucretius' images of eternal, colliding atoms had an odd poetic beauty to it (though it is perhaps telling that the part that tugged my heartstrings the most was Lucretius' description of the "superstitious" belief in Satyrs and Nymphs causing echoes).

Lucretius' main ideas were that the universe is composed of body (and bodies are composed of atoms) and void. These atoms are eternal (can be neither created from nothing nor destroyed) and are in continuous motion, colliding with other atoms and creating larger structures (e.g. trees, rocks, birds, stars, humans). This world of colliding atoms is free from the interference of the gods. It was unclear to me whether or not Lucretius was what we would call an atheist, but the important point is that the gods, if they exist, are completely unrelated and unconcerned with the universe. Rather, the universe is locked in an eternal cause and effect chain. From these points it follows that the universe is eternal, without beginning or end (the universe didn't have a beginning because the gods, being disinterested in the universe, didn't create it and, if atoms are eternal, obviously they can't be created or destroyed). Lucretius also asserted that the universe infinite in space as well as in time.

Lucretius drew these ideas from an earlier Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Although the description of the Satyrs and Nymphs set my heart longing like none of the Epicurean lines could, my favourite lines were probably Lucretius' description of Epicurus, unafraid in the face of the "fame of gods" and "lightning stroke", lifting the curtain and discovering the nature of things. It was pretty epic.

Epicureanism is a really elegant philosophy, but I have a couple questions/objections. The first thing I wonder about is the idea that the universe had no beginning and no end. It seems that Epicureanism is dependent on this idea (because matter cannot be created or destroyed) and yet our current model of the Universe has a beginning (the Big Bang) and an end (the Big Crunch, the Big Freeze, the Big Rip etc.). I have said on numerous occasions that science isn't my forte, but I wonder how Epicurean/atheist scientists account for this. I remember reading that the Big Bang theory was initially scoffed at by atheist scientists (the term "Big Bang" was a term of ridicule) when Catholic priest/physics professor
Georges LemaƮtre came up with the idea. If anyone reading this knows anything about this topic, post in the comments. I'm curious.

The other objections are how a self-sustained interlocked universe doesn't interfere with reason and free-will.

In the third book Lucretius outlines why he thinks that the mind and soul are mortal like the body and why we shouldn't fear death. Lucretius reasoning for a mortal soul were very convincing. His best point, I thought, was that if the mind can get sick or injured like and/or with the body, how can it be immortal? It got me thinking about what I actually believe concerning the mortality/immortality of the soul. I believed in the immortality of the soul at a young age, because I didn't think what I called "I" or "Me" could die. I didn't have a logical reason for believing this, I just had a very strong conviction (however, it seems to be a common belief among children that they cannot die). As I identified myself with the Christian faith, my conviction grew. My question now is: does Christianity actually teach the immortality of the soul? Several branches (including Medieval Christianity) do, but what is truly orthodox? I've recently read a few books by New Testament scholar N. T. Wright and he has some really interesting things to say about eschatology. He argues that the idea of "dying and going to Heaven esp. in a bodiless existence" is not orthodox Christianity, but Gnosticism (a heresy in the early Church). Orthodox Christianity drew on the Jewish idea of bodily resurrection and Gnosticism drew on Greek philosophic ideas of abandoning the body and the world for bodiless existence in Heaven. The implications of this distinction are huge and I won't get further into it here, but the more I read the Bible the more I see just how right N. T. Wright is (Wright is right!).

I apologize for what might seem like a religious rabbit trail, but this is my blog and these are the thoughts bouncing around my brain right now. If we don't "shuffle off this mortal coil" and "go to Heaven when we die", but get resurrected with new bodies in a renewed earth, why shouldn't we, body and soul, die first? I've long suspected that what we call "hell" is closer to the Jewish Sheol  (which is very similar to the Greek Hades) of fading nonexistence than to the Medieval Hell of eternal suffering. Here's even more reason to do so.

Finally, Lucretius wrote that because the soul is mortal (and thus there is no afterlife) there is nothing to fear, as Hamlet did as he considered suicide, as far as punishment goes. Lucretius also said that we shouldn't be worried about never eating, drinking, or seeing our loved ones again, because when we are dead we will no longer desire those things. Honestly death doesn't give me fear so much as sadness. Okay, I won't long to see my loved ones after I've ceased to exist. There's nothing to fear, but isn't that sad? Every one of us is completely unique and if death is the end, the universe will never know another of our kind. All of our memories, experiences, relationships, dreams, hopes, fears, and desires will be "lost in time... like tears in rain" (high five if you get the reference). The world will never know that unique fire again. Honestly, the sadness of this idea totally overwhelms any fear I might have.

On the Nature of Things has been one of the most thought-provoking of the Great Books thus far and I'm really glad to have read it.

Note: I really want to get on to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, but my school summatives/exam prep is keeping my mind busy, so I probably won't get around to reading it until late next month.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"Introduction to Arithmetic": Math As Evidence of Natural Laws

 It's been longer than usual since I've posted on this blog. Part of the reason is that my library didn't have Introduction to Arithmetic and I had to read it as a PDF file. I much prefer reading an actual book than reading on a screen, so consequently I wasn't as motivated to keep reading as I normally am. That, and I recently went through an emotionally painful experience, and honestly learning about abstract arithmetic didn't always seem all that important to me.

Overall I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would and I also found it easier to understand than I thought it would. Nicomachus is always careful to repeat statements and give examples.
The thing that struck me the most about the Introduction to Arithmetic was the elegance of mathematics. The way numbers fit together into patterns is really amazing… and none of it is man-made. The patterns are inherent! It’s darn good evidence for an ordered, lawful universe. It was interesting how Nicomachus sometimes took a “mystical” (for lack of a better word) approach to mathematics. It seems strange coming from what is basically from a math textbook, but given the inherent elegance of mathematics, it’s easy to see why he would.
I've disliked math from an early age (and have struggled with it due to my math block i.e. my inability to calculate in my head), but I remember having one teacher in Grade 11 who actually made math interesting for me. Like Nicomachus, he emphasized the patterns and elegance of math. Nicomachus brought me back to that interest.