Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Realms of inquiry

I was reading a book about the early middle ages (around the time of Justinian) called "Justinian's Flea" -- great book, incidentally -- and the author noted that while early medieval architects and engineers were extraordinary geometers, able to calculate and measure complex shapes, etc, they were very poor at the physical aspects of engineering -- e.g. managing stress, torque, etc. That reminded me of the classical Greeks and their mastery of, and indeed obsession with, geometry.

And it got me thinking, that maybe human inquiry can be broken into three phases:

In the first phase, extending from the beginning of human history to the Renaissance, we investigated primarily the abstract -- geometry, the "forms," numbers, and abstract theology. We had no particular interest in, much less mastery of, the physical. In fact, many explicitly despised the flesh, epitomized in neoplatonism.

In the second phase, extending from the renaissance until today, we have investigated primarily the objects within our environment -- biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, medicine -- all are increasingly detailed investigation of the things within our environment. Our ability to conduct these inquiries is in fact dependent upon our mastery of abstractions -- in other words, without the ability to think that was developed during the age of abstraction, we would be unable to grasp the physical universe, so as to understand it.

But we still do not understand the environment itself. What I mean is this: we don't know what gravity "is" -- we don't know why the physical constants are what they are -- we don't understand the relationship between space and time -- we don't understand the "origins" or lack thereof -- of the universe.

And perhaps the next stage of inquiry could (will?) be into the nature of the universe itself. Einstein made some real headway into it -- but the contradictions between relativity and quantum mechanics seem to indicate that there is something deeper -- more fundamental -- about the universe than we as yet understand.

Maybe, just as our mastery of the abstract gave us the ability to grasp the physical, so our (impending?) mastery of the physical will give us the ability to grasp the nature of the universe itself?

Of course, such an understanding would be predicated upon mastery of abstraction and the physical -- something many cosmologists, materialists, and theists aren't much interested in. They preach hypothesis and speculation as somehow "science."

But understanding the universe itself would require a much deeper, more nuanced mode of thinking -- because unlike logic (in which propositions can be tested against rules) or physical reality (in which propositions can be tested against experiment) there is as yet no way to "test" propositions about the environment itself, because we have nothing to test them against.

Maybe someday?

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