July 1993

A History Of The Laws Of Nature

Modern science, for reasons that are only dimly understood, appears to have had its origins in Europe and the Middle East although it is now totally international in character. It is surely Europe’s most enduring and universal contribution to world culture–more than any of our religions, our arts, our music, our political systems, or even our languages. In the history of western thought it looms as perhaps the largest theme.

Nothing like the scientific revolution of the European Renaissance occurred anywhere else at any time, a cause for much baffled scratching of the head and a puzzle to which I want to return at the end of my remarks when I will say a little about what people have learned in studying comparisons between the history of science and technology in Europe and in China.

Einstein was once asked his opinion on why modern science began in Europe instead of in China or India. He said that this wasn’t the real question. The real question is how it is that so arduous and unlikely an undertaking as science arose anywhere, not why it failed to be developed somewhere in particular. It is arduous and unlikely and the long story of its tortured development is one of the most interesting histories I know. There is nothing obvious or linear or inevitable or upward about the tale. It has produced some extremely strange and unexpected concepts. One of these is the concept of “The Laws of Nature”.

To sophisticated thinkers such as the Chinese encountering the Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea that “Nature” had “Laws” was incomprehensible. The missionaries tried to prove the existence of God using the traditional argument that there must be a Creator since the universe shows so wonderful a regularity and that it must be governed by divine laws–hence the existence of God, creator and law giver. To those Chinese this whole argument was meaningless and it is interesting now to read their description just how absurd it seemed to them. It would take us too far a field to look into that right now.

What I would like to do in the short time that I have is to try to emphasize the oddness of the very idea of “The Laws of Nature” and give a little flavor of the enduringly weird character of those laws that have been discovered.

The ideas and the questions which were being persistently asked in the Greek Ionian city states in the sixth century BC are surely older, but that century was a time of astonishing ferment and speculation not only in the Mediterranean but all over the parts of the world for which we have written history of that time. It was the century of the Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, Zoraster, and of the group that have come to be known as the Pre-Socratic Ionian philosophers. If ever there was an inappropriate and unjust label, this is it. Socrates disapproved of much that these so-called Pre-Socratics stood for so there is more than a little irony in their being named for their eventual critic and repudiator.

For us, as we do a quick survey of the development of the idea of Laws of Nature, the questions they asked are interesting. They wondered how to reconcile the notion of the unity and regularity of nature, which they could see evidenced in the motions of the stars and planets, with the equally evident observations of ceaseless change and variety. They believed with considerable tenacity that there was a unity, that this unity was material and not mystical, and that mankind had the ability to know it. Brash. Unwarranted. It’s almost as if these Ionian philosophers had the list of forbidden questions which are enumerated by the voice in the whirlwind in the Book of Job and proceeded to throw them back defiantly at that discouraging speaker.

With many of these philosophers, their way of trying to imagine how, behind the shifting facades of change and seeming chaos, there could nonetheless be a deeper unity was to argue that everything was made of water. They had euphonious names and startling hypotheses: Anaximander taught that all is Air; Heraclitus the Obscure taught a paradoxical doctrine in which change itself was somehow the unity; Heraclitus of Ephesus opted for fire as the fundamental substance; Empedocles believed in four elements–Earth, Air, Fire, and Water; and about a century later Democritus was to teach that all was composed of atoms and the void. None, or practically none, of any of this was based on any evidence whatsoever. The idea that controlled experiment might be involved in efforts to answer questions about the world hadn’t yet become part of such speculations. I have left out one of the most peculiar of the speculators, and in the end one of the most prescient: Pythagoras. Pythagoras taught that everything was made of numbers, almost literally of numbers. The arguments were vague, mystical, and much influenced by the discovery of the relationship between the length of lyre strings and heard harmony. Pythagoras taught the wonderful doctrine of the music of the spheres whereby the planets and stars in their motions emit beautiful sounds, sounds which we no longer hear because we have been bathed in them from birth. The nature–harmony–numbers–mathematics metaphor or idea was to haunt thought for thousands of years and to prove to be astonishingly fruitful.

A crucial development or invention in Greek, and hence “western” thought, was that of axiomatic geometry. The ancient Greeks became obsessed with mathematics, geometry in particular, and with chains of logical inference. This led to that shining body of thought called Euclidean geometry, named for the man who troubled himself to write down the work of many others. Though there was much sophistication of calculation and notation developed by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Indians, and Chinese there is no evidence that anyone other than the Greeks invented the chains of “theorem–proof, theorem–proof” that can seem, on the other hand, so barren, and on the other, so magical a way to discover eternal truths.

Inevitably the speculations of the Pre-Socratics and the preoccupations of the mathematical thinkers would become intertwined. Let me mention just two examples among many: one strange, eccentric, and almost clairvoyant; the other ambitious practical, and enormously productive.

The strange one is Plato’s so-called dialogue called the Timaeus. This is a sort of a dream of an axiomatic theory of the entire universe full of mathematical apparatus and purporting to account for everything from the stars to fingernails and hair. Earth, Air, Fire, and Water are composed of a subset of the so-called Platonic solids, regular polyhedra bounded by isosceles triangles and squares which assemble and disassemble from the solids in a sort of snowstorm of change and unity.

It’s a beautiful, poetic, and very obscure work. It was read in Europe right through the Dark Ages when most of Plato’s other works were not known. It fired the imaginations of those who knew it. It fueled a fascination with numerology and the association of mathematics and natural phenomena.

The practical example is Ptolemaic Astronomy. This is the contraption, the imagined geometrical model mechanism involving crystalline spheres, epicycles and deferents which was able to account for and predict the motions of the sun and the planets against the majestically rotating celestial sphere of the fixed stars. It was a model that called on the full sophistication of ancient engineering and of Euclidean geometry. It worked, giving predicted positions of heavenly bodies precise enough for calendar making to use in civil and agricultural affairs as well as in astrology and its application to medicine. Eventually the model had to be abandoned as the observations became more accurate and the practical needs more demanding but it was, in its way, a success. Here is where the idea of the universe as a machine governed by mathematical rules comes from.

Note the word “governed”. Gradually the notion of “law” became intertwined with the idea of the orderly unfolding and recurrences of nature. Scholars who study such matters point out that, as the Roman Empire became more far-reaching and diverse, the distinction between local customs and practices and the body of law that should apply to all people in the Empire led to the idea of “natural law”–the sort of law that applied to all. Also contributing to the notion of Laws of Nature were the teachings of the Stoics who urged their disciples to live according to the laws of nature so as to achieve serenity and balance in a basically hostile world. “Go along or be dragged”. Thinking about the laws promulgated by imperial authority and the Stoic’s laws of nature led, as Christianity developed, to the idea of God’s laws and to the rather novel idea that His laws extended not just to mankind but to nature and nature’s creatures as well. In the medieval imagination these laws of nature could be violated and the violators punished. In 1474 a cock was sentenced to be burned alive for the “heinous and unnatural crime” of laying an egg, at Basel.

These many ideas and strands of thought began to be gathered together as Europe began to be transformed by what we now call the Renaissance. Galileo discovered and publicized the power of controlled experiments. He also pointed out explicitly and bluntly that the book of nature was written in a mathematical language–God is a Geometer. Kepler, enthralled both by Platonic numerology and a reverence for carefully measured data, discovered regularities that came to be known as “Laws of Planetary Motion”. The medieval idea that nature was a book (now in mathematical language) in which the Laws of Nature (and hence something of the character of God) could be learned by humans became a research agenda rather than a lovely metaphorical thought.

It was Newton, of course, who astonished the world with his translation of this book of nature. In what was to become the future pattern for scientific thought, he managed to summarize a wide variety of observation and experiment in the statement of a very few Laws (four) expressed in mathematical form from which, by mathematical deduction, a staggering list of new predictions could be made as well as the explanation, in the form of relating to the Laws and hence to one another of many previously apparently unrelated phenomena.

Many of the details and basic features of Newton’s world picture have been modified, abandoned, or superseded. His absolute space and time proved not to be adequate, his laws of mechanics and gravitation have had to be modified, his mechanical universe in which rigidly causal playing out of initial conditions (Laplace’s Boast) has proved to be far from the experimentally discovered quantum nature of things. The boundary between order and chaos has been confused both by the biology of evolution through natural selection and by modern investigations of unadorned Newtonian mechanical systems themselves. The idea of the world as a mechanical contrivance has been challenged by the rise of field theories with Maxwell’s synthesis of electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetic radiation leading the way.

Still the idea that one can fashion an axiomatic mathematical map of a wide variety of natural phenomena has proved to be very powerful indeed. Why the map should so appropriately be one which relates physical phenomena (out there) with that play thing of the human mind, mathematics (in here), remains a mystery. Why should mathematics be the uniquely suitable human tool for the study of nature?

An extremely striking feature of the actual laws of nature which have emerged is their elegant parsimony. Consider the world of “classical physics” a version of the laws of nature which reigned briefly about 100 years ago having to bow out with the advent of quantum mechanics and relativity and the new range of phenomena which they treat. Classical physics can be summarized in just 8 statements which, in the compact notion invented for the purpose of expressing them succinctly, appear as:

The first three represent Newton’s three laws of motion; the second is his universal law of gravitation, and the last four encapsulate electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetic radiation. The process of mapping these mathematical statements and their symbols onto physical phenomena is, of course, not contained in these bare prescriptions and is also where most of the content lies. Still, as a starkly beautiful account of the action of the solar system, the world of light and color, electromagnetic technology, the foundation for much engineering, the rhythm of the tides, and the flow of fluids, it is astonishingly economical and extremely explicit in its manner of use.

I have talked very briefly about some of the familiar episodes in the epic called the history of science and tried to indicate just a little how unlikely and unusual this epic has been. I said at the outset that I would make a few remarks on the contrast between this European epic and the parallel and different experience of China.

Joseph Needham, a legendary scholar and scientist of this century, has spent a lifetime trying to understand why modern science developed only in the Western world. In particular he has been a great instructor to both East and West in what he has called the “…triumphs and poverties of the Chinese scientific tradition…” Why, he has repeatedly asked, did the scientific discoveries and inventions of the European Renaissance not occur in some way in China which for many centuries was far more technologically advanced than Europe; which had observed the heavens for just as long and with more precision and thoroughness than the Greeks, the Babylonians, Europeans, or the Arabs, and which never went through the collapse and recovery that Europe had to endure during the Dark Ages.

There is an intriguing parallelism between the astronomical, chemical, mechanical, and technological challenges that were being explored, often almost contemporaneously but in long lasting mutual isolation in China and in the West. This pair of histories present themselves as one of the rare cases when one can confront “if history” with two examples rather than the usual single and unique one. It is as if you had subsequent developments both for Caesar crossing and Caesar not crossing the Rubicon. Needham and others, in trying to understand why it might have been that science did arise in Europe but not in China, have come up with a wide variety of intriguing contrasts in society, government, language, religion, traditions of thought, economic considerations, social position of craftsmen and astronomers, and in legal theories.

To me, Needham’s most convincing case rests on the observation that for some reason, the Chinese never developed an axiomatic mathematics such as Euclidean geometry, and their practical concern with human society and technological problems acted as a barrier to the sort of wildly impractical speculation that led to the construction of an imagined mechanical model of the heavens.

Confucius is often compared with Socrates as a thinker about human societies. The Pre-Socratics have had their anticipatory revenge on both Socrates and Confucius. Or maybe Socrates and Confucius, both of whom could be called profoundly anti-scientific, were wiser than we yet understand.

–B. Gale Dick, Ph.D.
Professor of Physics at the University of Utah

The Creed Of A Liberal

There is a creed which the untired and undaunted liberals of all time have lived by.

It is this:

We believe in man–
in his slow ascendant progress,
in the autonomy of his spirit
and the primacy of his claims over the claims of all forms of human organization.

We believe in freedom–
the fullest measure of freedom compatible with the fullest measure of responsibility.

We believe in authority–
but only in authority sanctioned by reason and consent.

We believe that the only tools of social progress
are education, experimentation, and cooperation.

We believe that to be well governed is not as important as to be self-governed, that values bestowed are not as valuable as values achieved.

Hence, we reject all manner of millenniums proffered to us at the spear-point of dictatorship.

We believe that all truth is made manifest through the contact and clash of diverse opinions and that the very motive power of progress is the free exchange of ideas and the exercised privilege of non-conformity.

We believe in tolerance but not in indifference,
in enthusiasm but not in fanaticism,
in convictions, but not in obsessions,
in independence but not in isolation,
in conflict but not in hate.

–Richard Henry, DD
Adapted from Rabbi Abba H. Silver

A Joyful Humanism

Dare I say it? I want a human humanism. I want a humanism, not of the philosophers–the abstract thinkers, those sheltered in ivory towers, those trapped in the brilliance of their own minds issuing pronunciamentos and manifestos–but a humanism for the people, the man and woman in the streets, the poor who live in villages all over the world. I want a democratic humanism, a creatively democratic humanism.

I want a humanism that is joyful and a little messy. I want a humanism that is funny, full of jokes, stories, and tales. I want a humanism that is relaxed, friendly, helpful, not one that is full of bile, criticism, and always whining about how stupid it is to believe in God or religion.

I want a humanism that puts the head back on the body, that recognizes we have bodies–bodies that leak, smell, are awkward, and, though they may be beautiful, ultimately fail. The humanism of the mind is the humanism of the perfect idea, the principle, the system that issues a list of impregnable right positions. This humanism should retreat for a while; it should rest up, then wake up and smell the corpses of ideologies’ inhumanity.

I want a humanism that sees the human, not at the pinnacle of an evolutionary chain of being, but as part of this natural world. I want a humanism that loves this Earth, our home. I want a humanism full of rhyme and poetry, unafraid to play. All thought and no play makes humanism exceedingly dull. I want a humanism that can be stated in terms of caring, loving, promoting, building, doing, and being. What does the humanist love? The record suggests that the humanist loves abstractions.

Let abstractions be damned! I want a humanism that is about men and women, about the struggle to live decently in this world. I want a humanism that gives us a road map for the future, that points us towards a planetary perspective; that fosters, not correct thinking, but joy in living; that encourages the creative power of every human being; that affirms life in all its expressions; that elicits possibilities for a humane future; that has no argument with the world.

I want a humanism that loves differences, that is joyful, that celebrates this life and this world.

–W. Edward Harris, Unitarian Minister
Published inĀ Religious Humanism, Vol. XXVI, No. 3

The Future Of American Liberalism

The liberal temper is above all a faith in enlightenment, a faith in a process, rather than in a set of doctrines, a faith instilled with pride in the achievements of the human mind, and yet colored with a deep humility before the vision of a world so much larger than our human hopes and thoughts. If there are those who have no use for the word ‘faith,’ they may fairly define liberalism as a rationalism that is rational enough to envisage the limitations of mere reasoning.

Liberalism is too often misconceived as a new set of dogmas taught by a newer and better set of priests called ‘liberals.’ Liberalism is an attitude rather than a set of dogmas–an attitude that insists upon questioning all plausible and self-evident propositions, seeking not to reject them but to find out what evidence there is to support them rather than their possible alternatives…Liberalism regards life as an adventure in which we must take risks in new situations, in which there is no guarantee that the new will always be the good or the true, in which progress is a precarious achievement rather than an inevitability.

It enables us to see that most of the ‘yes or no’ questions on which political debate centers at any given time involve false alternatives and unduly narrow assumptions that unnecessarily limit the scope of possible solutions. Thus the liberal, while generally provoking the hostility of both sides in any current dispute, sometimes develops a solution which shows that the dispute was a mistake.

Liberalism is therefore a reaction against all views which favor repression or which regard the denial of natural desires as in itself good.

“Liberalism so conceived is concerned with the liberation of the mind from the restraint of authoritarianism and fanaticism. As opposed to the policies of fear and suppression, based on the principle that nature is sin and intellect the devil, the aim of liberalism is to liberate the energies of human nature by the free and fearless use of reason.

Liberal civilization…is based upon…the Greek motto: ‘What is important is not life, but the good life’…The real liberal believes that life is important only as the condition or opportunity for the good life, and prefers not to live at all if he must live as a slave or in degradation.

–Morris R. Cohen

Why I Am A Humanist

Humanism is a [human]-centered religion or philosophy. In ancient Greece, Protagoras (5th Century B.C.) proclaimed that he could not know whether or not the gods exist, but that “Man is the measure of all things…” I take this to mean not that the cosmos does not exist apart from [human beings], but rather–the only knowing, value center that we know anything about is [the human]. This is the starting point of humanism. As Alexander Pope put it in his Essay on Man: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.”

Certain ages in the history of [humankind] provide the historical roots of humanism. One of the reasons that I characterize myself as a humanist is that these ages are the most productive and most interesting periods of human history. Classical Greece, the Renaissance, the 18th Century (the age of enlightenment), the 19th and 20th Centuries (ages of science)–are to me the most important historical periods. Developments in these ages centered around [the human being], [the] understanding of [themselves] and the world, and the development of [their] potential. This history cannot be reviewed in this short statement, but a most important trend in these key periods is the emergence of the humanist view of [humankind].

In studying the different religions of the world I find that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism–the three humanistic religions–appeal to me much more than the others. Christianity, incidentally, in some ways represented a humanistic emphasis to the world of pre-Christian Judaism. The concept of incarnation was an attempt to bring God close to [humankind], and to emphasize the divinity in [the human being]. Many sayings of Jesus, like “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath,” contain a very healthy humanism. This reemphasized a humanistic tendency in the Jewish religion which grew out of the fact that [each person] was made in the image of God and hence cannot be all bad…

Perhaps the next most important support for modern humanism is evolutionary theory. The humanist in effect says, “Given a hot mass circling the sun and gradually cooling, then everything else follows: the emergence of life out of inorganic matter, the proliferation of life to fill every ecological niche, the development of animals with highly complex nervous systems, and finally the emergence of a higher primate who transcends biological evolution by the development of language which makes psycho-social (or cultural) evolution possible.” Now, says the humanist, “we must take responsibility for our further evolution on this planet. For the first time [we] are conscious of how [we] became what [we] are, and of how [our] decisions may affect the human race of the future.” Evolution has become potentially self-conscious in [the human being]…

Here is the main reason why I am a humanist. Please imagine an intelligent [person] (perhaps a genius), who has no personal history or religious upbringing, and no preconceived ideas. What if you could take such a [person], transport [this person] to a good university…to study every field in that university for a ten year period. [This would include] biology, literature, chemistry, physics, archaeology, zoology, ethnology, psychology, sociology, geology, and all the other disciplines. Now when [the study was] completed what if you said, “What single word might be used to characterize a religious stance that could best try to bring all of these disciplines together?” How could [this student] say anything else but humanism!

This hypothetical example is another way of saying that humanism is the best framework for integrating modern knowledge. My presupposition is that traditional words and concepts like God, or Jesus as the Christ, are kept because they are an emotional heritage in our culture and can provide a satisfying religion for some people although I do not think that in the long run they can serve as the best basis for integrating modern knowledge…

It may be that humanism could turn out to be an ideological framework capable of global acceptance…For the first time in the modern era (since the Renaissance) there is now a philosophy which is capable of unifying the world around an under-standing of [humankind’s] cultural heritage in all its diversity; with our scientific understanding.

–Paul H. Beattie, Unitarian Minister
Adapted fromĀ Religious HumanismVolume VI, No. 4

Human Values Need To Change

Sex as a competitive sport, gang violence, murder and beatings, child abuse and spouse abuse! These current daily events should make us realize we humans haven’t made much social progress since the barbarians invaded the Roman Empire almost two-thousand years ago. At some point in the human experience we must evaluate the human potential and determine how to teach people self-respect and community pride.

Entertainers, athletes, politicians, and educators must share some of the blame for the low level of humanness that dominates the world social standards. Movies, television, and video games glorify violence and in sensitize us to the pain suffered by the victims of mayhem, rape, and torture. Players and spectators in the major sports glorify physical violence promoting acceptance of the goal of winning at all costs. Political hyperbole glorifies character assassination and gives the impression that there is nothing unethical about maligning another person. Education has shifted the goal of learning for enhancement of the human condition to the goal of getting a competitive edge in the work force.

Decreasing self-respect, increasing greed, excessive pride, and too little social conscience indicate a dramatic need for a change of attitude. We need to emphasize the higher qualities of being human; that promote the moral and ethical values that glamorize respect for self and others; that teach us how to solve conflicts without destructive acts; that teach us the value of sharing, giving rather than receiving; being equal rather than superior.

Tribal superiority is an attitude that needs addressing. Races, religions and nations have historically bolstered their members’ patriotism by instilling a ‘tribal pride’ of being the chosen people, being better than other races, religions, or nations. Such attitudes of superiority encourage confrontation, hostility, and anti-human actions. Such attitudes have caused terrible violence to millions of people for thousands of years. Tribalism, a belief that your tribe is superior to another tribe, is the basis of all racism. Racial leaders, religious leaders, and national leaders have a responsibility to teach the equality of the entire human race. No race, no religion, no nation has a monopoly on truth. No race, no religion, no nation has been chosen, appointed nor anointed to rule this world. Any tyrant claiming otherwise is appealing to the fears, the ignorance, and the prejudice of people to gain their support.

All human beings alike share the desire for peace, adequate food, appropriate shelter, and meaningful work.

We must support leaders–racial, religious, political–who will inspire us to feel equal, not seek our favor by telling us we are superior or that others are inferior. We need to be free of tribal oriented leadership. We need leadership for humanity.

We, the people of the world, in order to form a more perfect society, must unite as equals to honor, respect, and support each other in the quest for the good life. We must join together to encourage rational thinking and responsible behavior among ourselves and demand it of our leaders.

–Flo Wineriter