The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

432. Our Cultural Philosophy

February 13, 2015

Regarding impediments to our personal journeys, in an increasingly globalized culture, of our many concerns, commerce has come to dominate our attention and engagement. Trading in goods. Shopping, buying what we need and selling what we don’t. Money changing hands all the while. The point being to get a good price; good from buyers’ perspective, good from sellers’.

In the U.S., commerce is now what we are primarily conscious of, every day of our lives. Making a profit from the sale of material goods and services. Most other facets of our culture—art, education, governance, justice, technology, sports, healthcare, food and energy production, personal freedom, fairness, environmental protection—are glossed over by the arch value of making a monetary profit.

In the world of films, for example, box office eclipses excellence as a criterion of success. On our national journey, profit leads the way. Wherever we pay attention with alert minds, trade is involved.

We are out to make, if not a killing, a better life for ourselves. Which we see primarily in terms of money and goods, not engagement with the mysterious or the unknown, not self-improvement, not beauty, not world peace, not equality, not civil rights, not freedom and justice for all (including Native Americans, Blacks, Latin-Americans, Asians, women, children, immigrants, and animals).

The whole story of mind is told by what we are interested in, pay attention to, notice, discover, and engage with every day of our lives. That is, by what we have in mind, what we are mindful of, what we think and talk about, what captivates us, what excites us, what is important to us, what is at the core of our existence as cultural beings.

Because of the way our minds operate, these peak engagements are told by their polarity, the way they strike us on an either/or scale of polar opposition. That is, by what pleases us or displeases us. What we like or don’t like, want or don’t want, seek or avoid, love or deplore.

After all, we can’t pay attention to every gradation. Our bandwidth is too small. So we focus sharply on what strikes us as good or bad, pleasant or painful, beautiful or ugly, healthy or unhealthy, wise or stupid, enriching or debasing, fun or serious.

If we have too many choices, we get confused. Too much email to respond to, too many friends on Facebook, too many films to see, books to read, games to play, people to meet, glasses of beer to drink—we have to draw the line sharply just to stay sane. Enough, already! Simplify. Prioritize. Being starkly clear lets us act fast and stay on top of things.

Reflecting the conscious concerns of every one of its members, each culture is hugely complex. Living with others, particularly those we don’t know, can be stressful. We can’t be all things to all people. If we try, that leads to overload. Our minds have limited capacities for dealing with what cries out for our attention. We have to cut back to the essentials we need to deal with and chuck the rest.

So in the U.S., we put first things first in paying attention to money and commercial affairs because, as we see it, everything else depends on that. With money in the bank, we claim to lead the good life. Poverty and deprivation—even sufficiency—are thought degrading. Everything takes money; without it, we can’t do what we want. Or be who we want.

It’s the economy, stupid! In black and white, Bill Clinton has given us a bumper-sticker slogan to serve as America’s cultural philosophy.

403. Number People

January 12, 2015

Some of us are music people or food people. Others are visual arts people, TV people, sports people, booze people, film people, word people. This is not simply a matter of choice but more a matter of experience. We get good at what we do most often and with greatest concentration.

Number people use numbers a lot because they find them meaningful. They understand numbers, and use them to express themselves on important subjects. Scientists, statisticians, financiers, mathematicians, sportscasters, astrologers, and many others build worlds around themselves by relying on numbers in everyday life.

Numbers, that is, are one of the ways people engage with the world around them. We are born to cultures having a heritage of numbers, and we have the option of immersing ourselves in that or some other heritage as our primary means of expression and understanding.

In that sense, numbers are one of the ways we use to fit into and anchor ourselves to a world of our personal choosing. Our aptitude with numbers affects our making such a choice. So does our exposure to numbers, our education, our job, our early childhood experience with numbers, and so on. As we count on our fingers, so do we become—finger counters, who grow professionally into some of the fields I have mentioned above.

Numbers are an aspect of the language we are born to. They allow us to make meaningful sounds and gestures in situations where we want to tally a set of separate items or perform some mathematical feat such as measuring, adding, subtracting, and so on.

The genius of numbers is that each one has a unique but memorable name as part of a system we carry with us wherever we go. A system that serves as a kind of lens we use in viewing the world. We can speak or write those names in referring to the purely quantitative aspect of whatever we are directing our attention to in a given situation.

The sounds and symbols of numbers differ from language to language, but their numerical value remains in the same sequence in each language. As long as the sequence is unbroken, the concept of numbers is limited only by the the practical needs of its users. No number is too large or too small to imagine as long as it keeps its place in the number series embodied in our everyday usage.

Infinity seems to be a number, but being beyond the farthest reach of the number series, it is a concept that violates the concept of numbers as forming an unbroken series. Infinity is a supposition, not an actual number. In being beyond reach, it is a contradiction in terms, not an actual number that has a particular place in a sequence.

Zero, too, seems to be a number, but we use it as an imaginary threshold between nothing and something, or the dimensionless divide between positive and negative somethings as a kind of placeholder to remind us of the break or discontinuity we are inserting into our conventional system. The letter n stands for any real number that might occur beyond zero in the direction of or toward, but not including, infinity.

Numbers originate in the human mind as immersed in one culture or another. That mind is based on activated and inhibited pathways for conducting neural impulses, which allow for sequence, addition, multiplication, integration, subtraction, division, differentiation, and other numerical operations.

Too, the mind is based on comparison between signals in different parts of the neural network. Numbers, that is, are not so much in the world as they are in the mind as products of the same neural capabilities for engagement as allow for the production of gestures and speech.

Numbers are abstractions from primary experiences having their characterizing qualities deleted—qualities such as redness, coldness, roughness, motion, size, direction, and so on—leaving a residuum of purified quantity devoid of particular qualities.

Numbers play a prominent role in our many engagements with aspects of our natural environment. Our poise during those engagements depends on the feedback we get in comparing our sensory impressions with past impressions or with our intentions in acting as we do. Did we hit the target or are we low and to the left? By how much? How much thrust do we need to launch a million-ton rocket toward Mars? What is the Earth’s population of ants?

In the practical use of mathematics, we must consider the instrument that employs numbers in a particular situation. Invariably, that instrument is the human mind (not the so-called mind of God or of the universe) which depends largely on memory and the flow of sensory energy from perception to judgment and on to action as key portions of our engagements with the world.

The power of numbers is not in the order of the universe we discover in using them as a tool of our minds; that power is in the educated, dedicated, and systematic workings of our own minds. The laws of physical motion are laws of our perceiving, not of discovery. Of description, not causation. Saying that the universe is inherently based on mathematical principles is like saying the Creator must speak English because his work is so aptly described by our English poets.

More wonderfully, we should applaud ourselves for learning how to use both numbers and our minds to advance our personal grasp of the world around us. When our species dies off, that grasp will go with us, leaving an undescribed universe behind on its own.