479. A Gleaming Mirror in the Sky

April 9, 2015

What intrigues me about Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is how hard it is to reconcile the observable order of the universe with human understanding of that same order. The problem is much like our modern struggle to fit our experience of our own minds with our understanding of the brain that is thought to be largely responsible for those minds in the first place.

In the Timaeus,

  1. First, there is Plato who authored the dialogue to explain his understanding of the cosmos as essentially harmonious.
  2. Second, there is the narrator, Timaeus, in whose words the cosmos is presented and explained.
  3. Third, there is the mythical craftsman, Timaeus’ agent for creating the stars, planets, and Earth as one coherent system.
  4. Followed by the mechanical (and problematic) model of the cosmos from which the craftsman works as a kind of armillary sphere, a model derived from human study of the cosmos itself.
  5. And of course the several translators of the Timaeus, each of whom applies his own perspective and familiarity with Plato’s use of the ancient Greek language.

Taken together with the cosmologies of other ancient philosophers, all leading to the confusion in my mind resulting from my effort to fit Plato into my discussion of what our engagements with the stars reveal about our impulse to find meaning in the stars, whether we know anything about them or not.

And now I have to consider the effects on any of my readers who might try to make sense of the ongoing engagement between human minds and the stars.

The central problem comes down to a glitch in Timaeus’ presentation of the relationship between stars, planets, Earth, and human’s viewing the stars overhead.

  1. The thrust of Timaeus’ argument is that the stars and constellations as mapped onto the cosmos all share in the same coherent system as demonstrated by their harmonious, circular motions.
  2. Except that Earth rotates west-to-east on its axis, while the stars seem to pass east-to-west about the celestial pole.
  3. The two motions in opposite directions cancelling out any need to explain the apparent motion of the stars. Earth’s rotation explains the illusion.
  4. While exactly that explanation is the essential point of the whole cosmic structure that Timaeus presents on Plato’s behalf in insisting on a world soul that unifies the so-called universe as one coherent system driven from the center by godly force.

The celestial craftsman takes pains to create a system in which stars-planets-Earth all move in rational order in conformity with the idea of circular motion in the same direction being the only proof and criterion for the system as a divine whole.

But that isn’t how the universe works. The stars appear to move one way, while Earth rotates in the opposite direction. Plato and his creator-craftsman can’t have it both ways. That wouldn’t fit with Plato’s idea of the world-soul uniting stars-planets-Earth into one perfect system.

So what did he do, the greatest philosopher of all time? He had his cake and ate it too. He let the discrepancy ride for what it was. He shrugged and walked away. That is, he left behind him the unsubstantiated faith that everything would work out all right.

Which is consistent with his belief in men and women forming two mutually exclusive orders of society despite all evidence to the contrary. He doesn’t quibble about both men and women being necessary parts of a unified system. He just settles for a duality as how society is structured in his day with women on a lower level than men.

The moral of this tale is that the more elaborate philosophical systems become, the more likely they are to be inconsistent within themselves, the more prone to error, the more apt to be wrong. And the philosopher more apt to muddle through vaguely because having gotten in over his head, he has no choice but to become an apologist for his own way of thinking.

Even the greatest philosophers are fallible human beings. Particularly when trying to prop-up the foundations of false or dubious beliefs. Beliefs so perfect they ought to be true. It is far easier to believe that the apparent motion of the stars along circular routes through the heavens is due to observers on Earth moving counter to those routes, making the harmonious motion of the stars an illusion projected by human minds onto the heavens.

It was an illusion for the Sumerians, an illusion for the Greeks, and is today an illusion for us, even though we take photographs of star trails by putting cameras on tripods pointed upwards while leaving the shutter open for hours on end.

But it was not an illusion for the priests and philosophers whose livelihoods depended on a cosmological system maintained by adherence to that mistaken belief. Adherence to an idea in their minds being projected onto the stars because it suited the stories they told about a prime mover driving the stars through the heavens, about stars forming the retinue of such a divine being, about planets being angelic messengers bearing commands and prophecies straight from the prime mover to his faithful flock below, and about members of that flock having an obligation to discover profound meaning in precisely the appearances of those relative motions as seen from below.

Whoee! what a ride it is to go to such lengths to devote your one life to such wrong beliefs. And to defend such beliefs against all who doubt them. Or even to burn them as heretics at the stake, as we nowadays kill them with bursts of fire from AK-47s or drone-fired rockets.

Would those who so earnestly instruct us believe in an untruth or out-and-out lie? Unthinkable. Heretical. Grounds for doing battle to stamp out all such contrary beliefs. The rest is the history of the world as told by-and-to gullible human minds.

The stars are a gleaming mirror in the sky giving us back a reflection of our own enticing yet mistaken ideas and beliefs.

 

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