The gold standard in knowledge is permanence. What can I know for certain? And what can I know that won’t change on me as time goes by? In short, we want timeless truths. The Ancient (Pre-Socratic) Greeks had been somewhat at a loss for this. The gods, they thought, had a nasty habit of messing with reality. Even the order of precedence among the gods might change, as when the Olympians (Zeus and children) overthrew the Titans (Chronos and children) who had in turn overthrown the first gods (Ouranos and children).
Some thinkers flirted with the idea of older, less personal, and more permanent gods. This might be Fortuna, who ruled chance, or the Fates, who ruled destiny, or Nyx, the endless night. You can see something similar in the Babylonian goddess, Tiamat, who represented the primordial chaos and darkness. In each case it was a personality who chose what would and would not be, often an inscrutable personality that had no care for the whims or humans…or gods. The background was not evil in any modern sense. It was not good or bad; it was indifferent. And it was unpredictable. [Fans of horror will recognize the Old Ones or Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft.]
Other thinkers spoke of an underlying order, a regularity to the universe. This order came not from a bigger or older god, but from an intrinsic harmony. The principle of harmony was not an external ruler or even an internal power who had achieved supremacy. It was that pattern that made the parts make sense and it was only appreciable in their relations. Harmony cannot be separated from the things it harmonizes, just as a tune cannot exist without a song (though it may be present in multiple songs) and a meter cannot exist without a poem. The harmonists saw the whole world as a single organism and frequently used biological metaphors.
At this point a little etymology – word history – will do a great deal of good. Universe comes from the Latin for turning as one (uni- together, –versus having turned). Cosmos comes from the Greek word to arrange, usually un a military sense. I am not committing the “etymological fallacy,” in claiming that these words now must mean these things. I am saying that they were coined with this intent. Pythagorus, many think, first applied cosmos to the joint movement of the stars in the sky and followers eventually extended it to include both earth and heavens and all therein.
The word “organism” has a similarly instructive history. The Greek organon was a tool, a thing with a purpose and an end. From this we get the modern concepts of erg (unit of work) and organ (instrument). To organize was to arrange things in a way that served a purpose and an organism was a set of things arranged for a common purpose. Indeed, this was how it was thought of in 18th century biology. We get our modern usage (an independent living thing) from Kant’s notion that animals are organized as means and ends of their own perpetuation/reproduction.
Greek philosophy developed a tension between those who saw the universe as fundamentally irregular and unpredictable and those who saw it as fundamentally ordered. Take a look at the picture. Is it a black chalice on a white background or two white faces on a black background? There’s no way, objectively to tell. You must interpret.
We have a similar problem of resolution for the world. Is it ordered with disordered patches, or chaotic with a few instances of order? But that’s not all. Those who see the world as fundamentally ordered can claim systematic (universal, cosmic) permanent knowledge exists – though it may be unattainable. Those who see the world as fundamentally chaotic can only claim contextual, local and provisional knowledge.
This divide will play out again and again in the history of Christian theology and the origins of modern science. I have mentioned elsewhere that there is a tension in Christianity between GOD as the ONE of Plato and the God of Israel/Jesus/Sophia as a god with whom we interact personally. The more relatable, the more immanent, the less conceivable as a fundamental harmony. Our belief that we can know permanent things will be intimately related to how ordered we think the universe is. In the Middle Ages, this will turn into a debate about the constraints on God: can God make a rock so heavy God can’t lift it? (Ockham v. Aquinas) At the beginning of the Enlightenment, the very same language turns to science: can God make a law so immutable God can’t break it? (Gassendi v. Descartes) By the end of the enlightenment, this turns into the question of miracles – can God break the laws of nature? (Hume) Even to the present day, it relates to a common distrust of probability – can processes truly be purposeless? Can we say the universe is just as it is without comment, or do we need to place its peculiarity within a context of a multiverse, so that the whole can be systematic? Underneath it all, lay questions of how regular the world is and how confident we can be in our knowledge of it.
In the next few posts, I hope to tackle the specific ideas of Gassendi and Descartes and how they shaped two competing views of modern science – each of which gives confident knowledge, but in very different ways.