Monday, October 1, 2012

Harmony of the Spheres?

One of the lovelier ideas of the Western world is the “the harmony of the spheres” -- an idea, which has its roots in Pythagoras, that unites mathematics and music with the idea of a cosmic order.

The idea of a cosmic order is one of humanities most valued ideas. Dharma , the Tao, Maat, and God’s Law are among the ancient articulations of it. The idea of a unified theory of physics is a modern articulation.

We humans live in a world characterized by deep uncertainties — war and misrule, natural disasters and disease are constants in human affairs. The idea that there is an order behind all this apparent chaos is a deeply attractive idea and has been so down the ages. For the ancients, the tangible evidence of that order was often found in the movement of the sun, planets and stars. Structures such as Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon were aligned in such a way that they provided a demonstration of the predictability and regularity of the movements of the heavenly bodies; the elaborate effort that people put into these structures testifies to how they were valued.

The prestige of the idea of cosmic order was not based simply on the discovery of order. It also was based on the idea that this order had something to do with our lives. It was a purposive order, and human live was a part of that purposiveness. Traditions as geographically disparate as Taoism and Stoicism both advocated living a life in accordance with Nature.

In these traditions, there was an idea of a continuity that extended from the way an individual governed his own soul, to the governance of a family by a parent, the governance of the state by the chief or king, and the governance of the heavens by God or the Tao. (This idea is key to an understanding of the Tao Te Ching.) Through the contemplation and emulation of cosmic order, one could find a model for the ordering of one’s life. To live in accordance with Nature, was to discover and live within an abiding sense of equilibrium – the equilibrium of the divine cosmos.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Darwin added an important understanding of our idea of the order of the world. He recognized that underlying the great diversity of all life on earth there was a unifying principle, the principle of evolution by natural selection. While a tremendous achievement for our understanding of the world, it also drove a stake into the idea that the cosmic order was a purposive order. Life, on this view, was a matter of random chance and mechanical necessity.

The triumph of the idea of cosmic order, however, continued – Maxwell and Faraday united magnetism and electricity, Einstein unified matter and energy, wave and particle, space and time. But for most people this triumph of the cosmic order brought no inspiration. This attitude can be  summed up in a quote from Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

I think that the attempt to find spirituality or the sacred or anything remotely religious in Nature is an attempt to find some way out of the Weinberg’s conclusion.  We seek some kind of purpose to this great cosmic order that has been revealed to us. I think many of us feel in our bones that conscious existence is not some accident – but articulating a cogent, defensible statement of this feeling is not so easy to do.

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