Friday, June 19, 2009

The Worldview of the Metaphysical Dualist

This post is one in a series on the Epistemology and Worldview Throughout History.

Previously in this series: The Worldview of the Physiologos

The physiologos explained all phenomena in the universe according to the interplay of individual objects moving about according to their varying natures (which, in the Aristotelean sense, is an endogenous drive for change or rest).  Any arrangement in the universe was simply the end result of these movements.  Any kind of apparent order in the universe was bottom-up, or emergent: not imposed from above by gods.  Man was alone in a swirling profusion of matter.  And there was no higher purpose than his own.  And obviously there is no room for an afterlife in such a materialist conception of things.

The notion of this kind of a universe terrifies some men, and it must have been especially terrifying to the first people who ever gave ear to it: the auditors of Thales, Anaximander, and their followers in the 6th century before Christ.  One such auditor, Pythagoras of Samos, was every bit as brilliant as the physiologi.  But he rejected the universe of the physiologi.  Instead he constructed his own, with overarching purpose reinstalled on its throne in the universe, but with a more sophisticated logos (account) of things than that of the theologi.

Like Thales and Anaximander, Pythagoras was a geometer.  Like many geometers to follow, Pythagoras was fascinated, and perhaps even stirred, by the internally consistent truths of geometry.  He was particularly fascinated with proportionality. 

So it was probably a life-changing experience when, as is supposed by some, Pythagoras discovered proportionality in nature.  Pythagoras may have noticed that strings on a lyre which created beautiful harmonies together were commensurable.  For example the musical harmony called the perfect fifth is created by plucking strings whose lengths have the ratio of 3:2.  Why should that be?  Why are pleasant sounding harmonies only made by strings of lengths with commensurable ratios?  The relationship could have just as easily been incommensurable, like a ratio of the value of pi to 1.  But it's not.  And man does not choose to find those harmonies pleasant; they just are.  This may have indicated to Pythagoras that there was an overarching and meaningful pattern and order to the universe after all: a method to the madness discoverable by the mind of man.  This must have been infinitely comforting.

So Pythagoras and his followers built a cult of commensurability.  They tried to find commensurability in the stars and even in human nature.  Any discovery of incommensurability was terrifying to them.  So irrational numbers, like pi (the ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference, which cannot be expressed as a ratio of whole numbers) were actually considered a religious secret, which was only allowed to be discussed by the inner circle of Pythagoreans!

Of course, outside of pure math and music, the place he found the most order was in the heavens.  He allegedly learned astronomy from the Babylonians, who for centuries had diligently tracked the orderly motions of the heavenly bodies.  He believed the stars emitted sounds (inaudible to us mortals, of course) of particular pitches according to their orbits, and he believed that these notes were in perfect harmony with each other.  What seemed to strike Pythagoras about the stars was not only their order, but their eternity.

Order, the reasoning power of man to discern order, and eternity all combined in the Pythagorean doctrine of metaphysical dualism.

One myth latched onto by the Pythagoreans is that of Dionysus.  Dionysus was the son of Zeus.  When he was a baby, he was eaten by the evil Titans.  The baby's heart was saved, and used to resurrect him.  And Zeus retaliated against the Titans by incinerating them with his lightning.  The race of man was then created out of the mixed ashes of the Titans and the ingested Dionysus.  Man therefore has a dual nature: an evil body, derived from the Titans, and a divine, perfect soul, derived Dionysus.  For Pythagoreans, the soul was not just an animating force: it was the seat of consciousness and reason, somewhat analogous to our conception of "mind".

Pythagoreans derived from this myth that our divine souls are sullied by our wretched bodies.  When our bodies die, our soul passes on to other bodies, perhaps even to the bodies of beasts.  Of course not all bodies are created equal.  The goal is to be reincarnated as a higher being (a body in which the soul is more dominant) than before.  The great chain of being ascends from dumb beasts whose souls are simply matters of sensation, up toward higher animals capable of reason, and finally up to true divinity.  How does one ascend this great chain of being?  By focusing one's life on affairs of the soul, and not on affairs of the body.  A sex-addled frat boy, falling out a window in a drunken stupor would probably be reincarnated as a slug or cuttlefish.  The life of an architect who applies geometry to his craft might end up as a wash, and he will be reincarnated as another future architect, since although he used his powers of reason, he did so for mundane purposes.  But a mathematician who studies numbers and geometry purely for their own sake might have a shot at attaining divinity in the next life.

Pythagoras created a doctrine that mixed matter with mind, order with chaos, randomness with purpose, and mumbojumbo with sound observation.  In doing so he created a distinctive compromise between the worldviews of the physiologos and the theologos, and started a strand of thought which extends to the present day.

Next in this series: Induction in Ancient Greek Thought

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