A Lucretian piety—"Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking."

Alchemist following Nature, Michael Maier
Readings: "Man shall not live by bread alone." (Matthew 4:4)

An extract from the seventh lesson of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (Penguin Books, 2015, pp. 66-67)

When we talk about the big bang or the fabric of space, what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories which humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thou-sands of years. It is the continuation of something else: of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah—scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something which we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. This is the nature of science. 
     The confusion between these two diverse human activities—inventing stories and following traces in order to find something—is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture. The separation is a subtle one: the antelope hunted at dawn is not for removed from the antelope deity in that night’s storytelling.
     The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains. If we find the antelope we can eat.

From Book II of De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things) by Lucretius translated by David R. Slavitt (University of California Press, 2008, pp. 86-88):

    The whole idea is absurd of atoms that can feel,
which some assume the precondition for having feelings.
Can you imagine the atoms laughing together at jokes?
Do they have high-minded conversations on learned questions?
Do they, perhaps, wonder where they themselves came from?
And since, in this view, they resemble the whole mortal, do they
consist of smaller elements that also chat and discuss?
It keeps on going backwards, and smaller and smaller, I say,
if you tell me whatever has sense, must be made up of smaller
parts that also laugh and cry and are wise, I answer
that this is madness, not a theory but rather a nightmare.
Surely we can laugh without being made of laughing 
elements, or reason without being made of smart 
and clever seeds. And if that is the case, then it must follow
that what we see in the world that is capable of feeling
is made up of smaller parts that do not have feelings at all.
But this is how it is: we are all the children of heaven
and earth, the same father who pours down drops of rain
to our mother, the earth whose  teeming brings forth the life of crops,
of trees, of farmyard beasts and birds, and of wild as well,
and of man, and she feeds us all so that we may survive and breed
our kind, which is why in reverence we call her our dear mother.
Whatever comes from earth returns to earth,
and what falls from the sky's ether evaporates back to the sky
where heaven welcomes it home. So death does not destroy matter
but only disperses abroad the atoms of which things were made,
which it may well conjoin anew in some different arrangement.

—o0o—

The motto of my old Oxford college, Harris Manchester College, or to give it its proper name, Manchester Academy and Harris College, is: “Veritas, Libertas, Pietas” — truth, liberty and piety. The college shield incorporates the image of two crossed, flaming torches, which I was told symbolised truth and liberty and which are reproduced in bronze on the lectern from which I am speaking (see picture on the right).  This morning I want to say something about what I take this motto might mean for us today.

To get there it is helpful to begin with a few words about the early history of the college. It began life in 1757 as the Warrington Academy, where one of its teachers included the Unitarian, chemist and discoverer of oxygen, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) but, thirty odd years later, it was re-founded in Manchester 1786 as the Manchester Academy. It was one of a number of dissenting academies that were set up to offer nonconformists with some form of higher education because, at the time, the only two universities in England, i.e. Oxford and Cambridge, were open only to those who could affirm the thirty-nine articles of religion held by the Anglicans. The courses taught at Manchester Academy included theology, science, modern languages, history and the classics. In addition to Priestley, perhaps its most famous teacher was John Dalton (1766–1844), a key figure in the development of atomic theory.

Before eventually finding a permanent home in Oxford in 1893 the college moved five more times, twice in Manchester, thence to York, back to Manchester, and then, between 1853 and 1889, it found a home in London at University Hall, Gordon Square. A influential figure in the college during it’s time in York was the Unitarian minister, Charles Wellbeloved (1769-1858). Wellbeloved is interesting for many reasons but, today, I simply want to point to the fact that he refused to allow the college to be called “Unitarian” because he was concerned to encourage in his students the development of genuinely open minds and wanted then to discover truth for themselves. In a letter of 1809 he wrote:

“I do not and will not teach Unitarianism or any ism but Christianism. I will endeavour to teach the students how to study the Scripture — nice if they find Unitarianism there — well if animism — well if Trinitarianism — well, only let them find something for themselves.”

His words reveal two attitudes that seem to me to be of increasing importance to us today. The first is that Wellbeloved felt he was able to adopt some kind of strong but, relatively speaking, non-sectarian way of being in the world from out of which he could work with reasonable confidence; he called his way of being “Christianism”. What I think it is for us today I will come to later. The second is that, for all his confidence in his own way of being he knew that it had to be one capable of remaining radically open to new light and truth that may well eventually persuade him to change his way of being, and to change it radically.

Joseph Priestley put the consequences of this open attitude quite starkly:

“But should free inquiry lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, [free inquiry] ought not, on that account, to be discontinued; for we can only wish for the prevalence of Christianity on the supposition of its being true; and if it fall before the influence of free inquiry, it can only do so in consequence of its not being true.” (Joseph Priestley, ‘The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion: A Sermon’, in P.Miller (ed.), Joseph Priestley: Political Writings, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, p. xxiv)

In Priestley and Wellbeloved’s brief words we see in action the basic shape/structure of our own religious tradition today; namely, the desire for truth (veritas) combined with and an associated liberty (liberatas) to seek it unhindered by any arbitrary external human authority so that a genuinely truthful, free-religious life might be lived (pietas). Living in this fashion today, some two-hundred years later, we are, of course, in a very different place to that occupied by Priestley and Wellbeloved. As a consequence of it not being true (about the ways things are) Christianity is no longer prevalent and we have also, I hope, finally left behind the desire to adopt any kind of “-ism" (including, of course, anything called "Unitarianism"). All in all, to paraphrase Foucault’s felicitous phrase with which he finishes his influential 1984 essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, it seems to me that, at our best, our work has been “a patient labour giving form to our impatience for liberty [and truth].”

In this patient labour we have throughout continued to operate with a basic idea — Aristotle’s idea really — that we are only speaking the truth when we have succeed in saying **how things really are**. This has meant that throughout our history we have always been concerned freely to seek and act out of the way things really are rather than to remain enforceably resting in and acting out of either inherited “myth” or it’s more problematic cousin, “superstition.”

It is this dynamic that has always led us to take, with utmost seriousness, the world as it has shown up with the help of the natural sciences.

But, as the contemporary French particle-physicist, Bernard d’Espagnat (1921-2015), gently reminds us, we must be careful not to over-estimate the reach and power of the natural sciences and that “the information science yields serves to limit possible options, rather than put forward the allegedly correct one” (On Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2006, p.1). However, having said that, d’Espagnat continues by noting,

“. . . while Nature — in the broadest possible sense — refuses to explicitly tell us what she is, she sometimes condescends, when we press her tenaciously enough, to let us know a little about what she is not” (ibid. p.2).

And what she has condescended to tell us, amongst other things, is that when taken as descriptions of the way the world is, our religious myths are false. We can certainly keep them in play learn from them all kinds of social, political, poetic, literary, and anthropological things, but they cannot continue to function for us as stories about the way things fundamentally are in the world. Connected with this, nature, when pressed, has also begun to touch upon rather more abstract matters and, as d’Espagnat notes, “some elements of present-day scientific knowledge casts serious doubts on such and such Platonic intuitions” (ibid. p.1). This is important because until recently much of liberal religious thought was highly Platonic in flavour.

So, in our own age we can say that nature, being pressed, is strongly suggesting to us that certain, once central, aspects of our ancient religions and philosophies are today highly doubtful, doubtful enough that with good conscience we should seriously consider letting them go.

And it is here that I can to turn to the recent book, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli (b. 1956). Rovelli’s little book is written in the same spirit expressed by d’Espagnat, i.e. although Rovelli acknowledges science is for the most part concerned to limit possible options rather than put forward the allegedly correct one it has, however, gifted us with a confident way of being in the world that is very different from that confident way of being our old religious myths once gifted us.

So what is this different way of being? Well, I think that looking back over our free-religious movement's long, four and a half century unfolding we can see that what we are doing today is no longer “a continuation of the free and fantastic stories which humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years” (ibid. p. 67). It is clear that much of conventional religion (whether old or new-age) still, alas, stands firmly in this tradition.

It seems that, particularly following the Enlightenment period, we became part of a very different tradition, one which  Rovelli describes as being a continuation

“ . . . of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah — scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something which we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. This is the nature of science” (ibid. p. 67)

The nature of science indeed — and in embracing this nature I think we find our own age’s basic, strong, but non-sectarian way of being in the world. But Rovelli’s scientific attitude, — actually the same attitude as the first century Roman poet and follower of Epicurus, Lucretius — doesn’t require him entirely throw away all our older myths because, as Rovelli is acutely aware, “the border is porous: myths nourish science and science nourishes myth.” But, for all this, he is clear that “the value of knowledge remains. If we find antelope we eat” (ibid. p. 67).

In attractive, poetic, Lucretian inspired prose, Rovelli’s first six brief lessons on physics look at Einstein’s theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe, elementary particles and gravity. But, in Lesson Seven he turns to us as human creatures. In so doing Rovelli further reveals his Lucretian credentials because having freely followed truth in his scientific enquiry — veritas and libertas — Rovelli concludes by offering us a naturalistic pietas that remains genuinely open to new light and truth.

Rovelli reveals throughout the book, to paraphrase Jesus, that he understands “man shall not live by antelope alone” (Matthew 4:4) and that nature doing what nature does in this tiny part of the universe has enabled human thought and poetry to emerge and with it human openness, poetic wonder and awe. Rovelli's final words of lesson seven express this naturalistic piety more beautifully than I can and so, with them, I conclude:

Nature is our home, and in nature we are at home. This strange, multicoloured and astonishing world which we explore — where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere —is not something that estranges us from our true selves, for this is only what our natural curiosity reveals to us about the place of our dwelling. About the stuff of which we ourselves are made. We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made, and when we are immersed in suffering or when we are experiencing intense joy we are being nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world. 

Lucretius expresses this, wonderfully: 

. . . we are all born from the same celestial seed; 
all of us have the same father, 
from which the earth, the mother who feeds us, 
receives clear drops of rain, 
producing from them bright wheat 
and lush trees, 
and the human race, 
and the species of beasts, 
offering up the foods with which all bodies are nourished, 
to lead a sweet life 
and generate offspring . . . (II, 991-7)

It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn. Our knowledge of the world continues to grow. 

There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking (pp. 77-79).
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