Monday, July 8, 2013

Leonhard Euler


Ghent University organizes all these interesting events. Just now, I have returned from a conference on Leonhard Euler, the 18th-century mathematician and physicist. Enlightenment philosophy and the early history of science are not my field, but I was intrigued by Euler’s combining the scientific outlook with a serious commitment to the Christian religion. He polemicized a lot with the encyclopédistes and other deists and atheists in defence of his old-time religion.

My suspicion, fostered by the sight of contemporary polemic between the “new atheists” and the diehard Christians, is that the exact sciences don’t foster critical thinking about human topics such as religion. The humanities, starting with philological criticism of the Bible, then psychology (Sigmund Freud: Religion, the Future of an Illusion) and sociology, reduce religion to a human artifact. They really deconstruct actually practiced religion. By contrast, till today, the faculties of science comprise numerous professors who have compartmentalized their thinking: critical when doing science, naïve when doing religion. All the time, you see Evangelical polemicists bring up the names of scientists who were also, after hours, believing Christians. Thus, Isaac Newton was a great aficionado of Biblical chronology, predicting the time of the Second Coming (he reassured his contemporaries that they would not live to see it; if anything, it was only for the 21st century). Among contemporary scientists, we hear of neo-Darwinian atheists like Richard Dawkins, but many more of his colleagues line up on the side of his Christian opponents.

In his time, Leonhard Euler defended religion against a rising tide of skepticism and was derided by icons of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Frederick the Great. These incidents in his admittedly weird biography gave me the impression that, in spite of his sophistication in science, he was very rustic in matters of religion. At the same time, his Briefe an eine deutsche Prinzessin (“Letters to a German Princess”) show that he was also an anti-fundamentalist: the only way to do science after Copernicus was to interpret the Biblical passages about nature symbolically, e.g. about the sun moving and the earth standing still. No special pleading to save the letter of the Bible from the challenge of science. His Protestant outlook on the Bible also made him less respectful of the elements of Greek philosophy that had entered Catholic theology. Thus, a rare case of that overrated influence of theology on physics is how he could criticize the notion of “emanation” (stemming from Neoplatonic philosophy, which greatly influenced Christian thought) when encountering it as a proposed explanation of the phenomenon of light.

Euler set the precedent of how modern believers could reconcile their religion with the findings of science. Till today, Christian apologetic works keep on reproducing his approach: sacrifice the elements from the Bible that cannot be saved, but stand fully by the core of the Christian religion and declare it off limits to science.  Some Christians go all the way and try to defend a literal reading of the Bible (with the world created in six days), but they don’t follow Euler’s approach. He, at any rate, did not see science as a real challenge to the truth of the Bible, moderately interpreted.

It had seemed to me, until this conference, that Euler was a prototype of the believing scientist. However, the debates he waged against the ideas he encountered were far better informed than the naïve religious discourse you hear from the token Christian scientists today. Whereas nowadays you can build an academic career as a scientist without ever having to deal with the great questions of metaphysics and religion, back then it was the done thing for fledgling science to address these fundamental questions. The basic concepts of science still had a theological component. Thus, Newton brought God into His creation by understanding space as an emanation of God.

It is said that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, ca. 1700 (or Johann Wolfgang Goethe, ca. 1800), was “the last man who knew everything”, i.e. who had a command of the state of the art in all sciences of his day. Today, this has become impossible. In this age of specialization, it is even frowned upon if you speak out on a matter outside your competence. That is another reason for the naïveté of today’s scientists: a physicist is not supposed to “meddle” in a metaphysical debate. Back then, it was still possible to be at the forefront of natural science and be competent on the ultimate questions of being as well.

There is also a simple fact that helps explain the religious naïveté of most contemporary scientists as well as the sophistication of the scientists in Euler’s day. Now, scientists are immediately thrown into a bath of nothing but science, in which they can develop and show their proficiency. They have to master Euler’s theorems but also the findings of Albert Einstein, of the quantum physicists and so much else that has been developed since. By contrast, in Euler’s day, science was far more limited and left more leisure for other pursuits. Moreover, students of science first had to study philosophy, typically for two years, often after they had had a religious upbringing far more thorough than anything we are used to now. So, they were far more aware of the extra dimensions of their scientific discoveries.


Bruce Graeme said...

Fourier: "The Theory of the Four Movements"
This remarkable book, written soon after the French Revolution, has traditionally been considered one of the founding documents in the history of socialism. It introduces the best known and most extraordinary Utopia written in the past two centuries. Charles Fourier was among the first to formulate a right to a minimum standard of life. His radical approach involved a systematic critique of work, marriage and patriarchy, together with a parallel right to a "sexual minimum."

Bruce Graeme said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Graeme said...

Fourier has written several very long chapters, in his theory of universal unity, published in 1822, on what he terms " the Laws of Simple and Compound Immortality." His ideas of poetical justice are explained in a theory of metempsychosis, or the periodical migration and transmigration of souls.

He supposes that our souls descend from heaven into this world at birth, and leave this natural state at death, to return into the world of spirits. This alternating passage from the visible into the invisible world, and vice versa, commenced with the existence of humanity upon this globe, and will continue to the end of time ; that is, until the decline of this planet Earth, and the final transmigration of humanity en masse unto another planet.

He supposes therefore, that our souls existed before they were located on this planet, and that they will live on other globes when this earth has been exhausted and destroyed. This is what he means by past and future immortality.

In his theory of poetical justice, by which he attempts to justify the ways of God to man, in accounting for the happiness of some few favored persons in society, while multitudes are suflering from poverty and general privation, he supposes that our present kings and queens, beautiful persons and favored classes, have been cripples, beggars, criminals and sufferers in many of their past existences on this or other globes, and that our paupers, criminals and cripples of the present age, have been already, in past ages of humanity or will become in future ages, beautiful in person, favored in condition, gifted in genius, exalted in rank, and otherwise more happy than the princes and grandees of present times.

The cripples and the beggars of the present day, and all who are unfavored in personal attractions or in fortune, are thus called upon to look with complacency on those who now possess the pleasures of existence in the shape of beauty, talent, wealth and rank ; for they themselves, the poorest beggars, have been kings and queens and heroes and beauties in their former lifetimes on this earth.

According to these views of alternation and migration, the spirit of man lives twice as long in the invisible world as on this earth. If a man live fifty years in this natural life, he will live one hundred years in heaven before returning to this natural world. If he die at twenty, or in infancy, he will be born again after an absence equal to twice the period of his short career. If he live to be one hundred years of age, he will live two hundred years in the invisible world before returning to this visible existence.

The invisible and the visible abodes of spirits are on this globe, but he believes it possible for spirits to migrate from one globe to another, in the spiritual or invisible state of existence, where the body is composed of an ethereal substance more elastic and dilatable than atmospheric air.

He compares the two states of existence to those of sleeping and waking in this natural state. One is more active and conscious than the other, and lasts twice as long.

desicontrarian said...

In Dance of the Wu-Li Masters, Gary Zukav talks about two levels of scientists - The technicians and the philosophers. One sees the trees and the other the forest. The European renaissance pioneers (Francis Bacon, Euler,Descartès, Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Mendel and so on) were both. Now we have huge number of technicians and few philosophers.

For philosophers, the question of God is not related to discoveries in Science. The fact is that Science only accepts sensory evidence.

Inference is by a mind that has a 3-dimensional structure.
If a 2-dimensional mind was perceiving things, it would always reject anything to do with height. If a set of blind sentient beings lived and worked for a few decades, they would scoff at words like red, white and black.

Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and followers have pioneered truly new horizons that bridge these two realms.

I liked the word extra dimensions. The link shows how to start thinking about them.