Yearnings for the Divine and the Natural Animation of Matter

by George Anastaplo

It has been said that there may be] found in the Pythagorean memoirs the following tenets as well. The principle of all things is the monad or unit; arising from this monad the undefined dyad or two serves as material substratum to the monad, which is cause; from the monad and the undefined dyad spring numbers; from numbers, points; from points, lines; from lines, plane figures; from plane figures, solid figures; from solid figures, sensible bodies, the elements of which are four, fire, water, earth and air; these elements interchange and turn into one another completely, and combine to produce a universe animate, intelligent, spherical, with the earth at its centre, the earth itself too being spherical and inhabited round about. —Diogenes Laertius


The points of departure for this Essay are the author’s observations, for decades now, of the language used by speakers in the weekly University of Chicago Physics Department Colloquia. That language routinely, if not “naturally,” seems to assume, if not even to intuit, an inherent disposition of matter to animation. The implications of such a disposition are offered for further consideration. Questions are suggested about the relation of al this to a pervasive human longing for the divine, as well as questions about the Meaning of Life. Related to such questions is the interest that human beings seem always to have had about the possible existence of life, perhaps even of other rational beings, elsewhere in the universe. Underlying all of these inquiries is what the author posited in 1974 about the ultron, which is recalled in this Essay. I. It can be wondered what the pervasive human longing for the Divine may mean – that longing evidently encountered always and everywhere, especially when a divinely-prescribed physical order seems to provide support for a proper social order. How is such a longing for the Divine connected to life itself, or at least to self-conscious life? The “Meaning of Life” seems thereby to be testified to – or it can be regarded as something to be sought for and to be guided by. That “Meaning” is sensed by many to be undermined today by, among other developments, the prevailing theory in the Western World of human evolution. Such a challenge can seem to be reinforced by ever more accounts of multitudes of complex galaxies said to be far too numerous to be counted. The origins of life, according to such theories and accounts, seem to be independent of any Earth-centered Divine Will, even prompting concerns in many about the meaningfulness of human life and hence of human communities. The social, political, and legal controversies resulting from such subordination, if not even the elimination, of any Divine concern about human affairs take a variety of forms, adapting as they do to constantly changing circumstances. These circumstances include what seem to many to be relentless assaults by Modern Science upon long-cherished understandings about the nature of human existence and social relations. In short, the very Meaning of Life, and especially of Human Life, can seem repeatedly to be called into question, especially when it is emphasized that life here and there in the Universe may be accidental.


I venture to offer in this Essay suggestions about how life itself tends to be regarded (usually “unconsciously”?) by arguably the most rigorous scientists among us, the physicists and astrophysicists of our day. My preliminary suggestions here draw upon my decades-long attendance at the weekly Physics Colloquia at the University of Chicago. The presenters on those occasions are usually top-notch scientists not only at the University of Chicago but also at other American and European research institutions. These are people who are generally considered to be as sophisticated about physics and related sciences as any such practitioners in the world today, people who are quite astute in observing and discussing “natural phenomena.” Among them is an occasional Nobel Laureate in physics or chemistry. Should it not be expected of such people, therefore, that they would have an instinctive and hence perhaps instructive “feel” for both the materials and the processes they study and are so familiar with? It can certainly be expected that I personally would not be able to grasp most of what these scientists say between 4:15 and 5:30 (as distinguished from the preceding Tea Time) every Thursday afternoon (during the academic year). But it may be that my obvious incompetence has itself “liberated” me, so to speak, to notice something that I have not seen commented on, in the materials I have studied (or by the experts I have consulted), about the methods and language of modern science. I have long been intrigued, that is, by the language of the hundreds of physicists I have been privileged to listen to, a language which (it seems to me) presupposes an animation or ensoulment (albeit a somewhat primitive ensoulment) of what these scientists would otherwise routinely regard as thoroughly inanimate matter.


I have, over the years, collected scores of instances of Physics Colloquia language which can be taken to “sense” something animate in the matter and processes being examined (many of which instances should be appended to my Reflections on Religion, the Divine, and Constitutuinalism). We may be tempted, of course, to dismiss such talk as merely a convenient way of making observations, if not even as no more than careless talk. But the pervasiveness of this kind of talk – it is a rare session during which I do not collect several instances – can encourage the outsider to wonder what may be revealed thus about the very nature of material things by men (and an occasional woman) who are regarded worldwide as among the most competent observers of the “phenomena” being observed and reported on. The “phenomena” dealt with here range from the most minute things studied by physicists to the most massive things studied by astrophysicists. Casual references can be made to “guys” (say, some electrons) “liking” this or that condition, so much so that the processes described can even sound somehow purposive. No doubt, most such scientists would rely on other (rigorously lifeless) language, in addition to the considerable mathematics they routinely use, if what is being said here by me should be called to their attention before they speak. But should we not try to learn what we can from the “feel” that quite intelligent and sensitive practitioners (both theorists and experimentalists) apparently do have for the materials they seem to “know” so well? Perhaps the most intriguing and suggestive expression long used by physicists (and others) is “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Another venerable example, of the kind I am commenting on here, is what is said about bodies either “attracting” or “repelling” each other.


The apparent purposiveness implicit in the language used by physicists can suggest an awareness being somehow exhibited by the very things studied. Such awareness of “others” by material things can (we are told) take apparently weird forms in quantum physics. It is even said that Albert Einstein, who could readily speak of “God” in his less-technical accounts of physical processes, was never comfortable with some of the relations and processes posited by quantum physics. A more conventional use of “God” can be seen in the work of our greatest physicist, Isaac Newton. But he considered himself limited, as a scientist, to describing the observed relations among the objects of his study as a physicist, most notably perhaps in his accounts of the attractions of bodies to one another throughout the observable universe. The workings of gravity could be measured and predicted by him, but the cause or source of gravitational attraction eluded him (as it still seems to elude his successors ever since). Newton’s accounts of these observable operations could be collected by him in “laws” that should be regarded as applicable everywhere and always. Indeed, the very term “law” treats the matter “governed” thereby as if it were somehow animate, providing still another instance (along with “force”?) of that routine enlivening language of physicists that I venture to suggest should be instructive for all of us. These laws are, of course, never “broken,” which may, oddly enough, even suggest to some the limits of whatever animating element may seem to be inherent in matter.


Critical to the development of Science in the West has been the emergence in our tradition of the idea of nature. This is an idea, or a sense of things, that evidently originated only in the Ancient Greek world, not in that part of the Western tradition grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Nor, it seems, was the idea of nature ever developed on their own by any of the great civilizations of Asia. Critical to the idea of nature, it seems, is the working of birth-and-growth (something intrinsic to the Greek term phusis, from which we get physics, physiology, etc.), with the development thereafter by the Romans of natura to convey the same sense in Latin. Nature means, among other things, a governing principle of order and change in things that is independent of any intelligent will. Intrinsic to nature, and its openness to birth-and-growth, seems also to be the prospect of death. The enlivening of matter in the casual vocabulary of physicists that I have noticed extends (naturally enough?) to how they can speak of “death” in describing things and processes that are usually regarded as inanimate. Thus, one hears again and again of such bodies as “young stars” and of such events as “the death of a star.” A particularly dramatic instance of this could be heard in response to recent observations by astronomers of a spectacular explosion (or death on a grand scale) of a supernova.


I have suggested that it seems to be “natural” for physicists to sense (if not even to defer to) life in “things,” and hence perhaps even to rely thereby upon an overall intelligence or purposiveness in the universe. It might be difficult otherwise for most people (including many physicists and their audiences) to grasp comprehensive governing principles. The way physicists talk, I have also suggested, reflects an awareness of what “makes sense” in “their world,” even if they should appear to be doing no more than using convenient metaphors available from everyday discourse. I have suggested as well that sophisticated scientists to whom these conjectures are offered about the language they use would be inclined to point out how limited the capacity is of most people to grasp what physics is really “all about.” Many scientists are accustomed, for example, to the obvious scientific incapacity of their parents, their spouses, and their children. Such incapacity has to be reckoned with as well in the academic administrators who authorize physics departments and in the government and other agencies that fund them. None of this is intended by me to disparage our most competent physicists, but rather to try to make use of what they may be particularly well-suited to notice, the capacity, if not even the inherent inclination, of matter for animation. That is, I have noticed in turn that there is, in the vocabulary of our most mechanistically-inclined scientists, an awareness of the possible tendency toward life in the “stuff” of the universe. But, I have also noticed, there comes with such an openness to life an awareness as well of the eventuality of death for whatever does manage to exploit that “openness” to life which may be intrinsic to the matter that our physicists have been so adept in subjecting to their remarkable discipline.


Particularly ominous is the talk we do hear from time to time about the “death” of our own sun, especially if such an end takes the form of a cataclysmic explosion that reduces our entire solar system to its constitutive elements. It may be a matter of chance whether the human species (if not already long extinct by then) will be able to anticipate such a development by having a few of our descendants migrate elsewhere, taking with them memories of human experiences here. Others, of course, are prepared (on the basis of Revelation) to offer a far less tentative form of salvation for every human soul – the “others” here ranging from the more inspired saints we have inherited to such adventurers as the “psychic archaeologists” cautioned against in the September/October 1984 issue of Archaeology. When the Divine is somehow or other derived from the things seen and said from time to time and from place to place, chance may determine what form the Divine will be believed to have. This variety includes the names relied on by peoples, which can even be quite different names here and there for the same divinity. Poets, much more than physicists and historians, may have to be relied on to account for these matters. Chance may also determine how one’s inability to accept the locally-prevailing account of the Divine should be regarded. Indeed, it may be difficult, if not impossible, ever to be a thorough atheist in these matters. That is, does the psychic makeup of human beings (and hence language itself) militate against any comprehensive atheism?


Thus, both the Avowed Atheist and the True Believer may assume more certainty than is available in the all-too-human effort to grasp (or to deny) the Divine. But the Physicist, too, may be in need of cautioning. I had occasion, in 1974 (in a recollection of Leo Strauss that drew on Enrico Fermi’s spectacular career), to make these suggestions to the physicists of that day:

What seems to be missing in the current scientific enterprise is a systematic inquiry into its presuppositions and purposes. That is, the limits of modern science do not seem to be properly recognized. Bertrand Russell has been quoted as saying, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” But the significance of this observation is not generally appreciated – as one learns upon trying to persuade competent physicists to join one in presenting a course devoted to a careful reading of Aristotle’s Physics [where, among other things, an extended examination of the meaning of cause can be found]. Is there any reason to doubt that physicists will, if they continue as they have in the Twentieth Century, achieve again and again “decisive breakthroughs” in dividing subatomic “particles”? But what future, or genuine understanding, is there in that? I believe it would be fruitful for physicists – that is, for a few of the more imaginative among them – to consider seriously the nature of what we can call the “ultron.” What must this ultimate particle be like (if, indeed, it is a particle and not an idea or a principle)? For is not an “ultron” implied by the endeavors of our physicists, by their recourse to more and more ingenious (and expensive) equipment and experiments? Or are we to assume an infinite regress (sometimes called progress) and no standing place or starting point? Or, to put this question still another way, what is it that permits the universe to be and to be (if it is) intelligible? [See Anastaplo, The Artist as Thinker (Ohio University Press, 1983), pp. 252-53, 474.]

The suggestion I made about the ultron, more than three decades ago (perhaps an echo of the Ancient Greek reliance on the atom), asked in effect whether physicists truly know what they are looking for (whether they reach for either the smallest things or the entire universe). The suggestions I now make, in this 2007 Essay, ask whether physicists recognize properly what they somehow seem to know, what they have grasped from their intense, indeed privileged, study of matter. That is, a reconsideration of the everyday (non-mathematical) language, and hence of the routine presuppositions and intuitions, of modern physicists may indeed be instructive. Such language (I have also suggested on this occasion) indicates that physicists, including the best among them, may have sensed (as do the everyday, perhaps naturally ensouling, metaphors they have inherited) that there is intrinsic to matter a tendency, or disposition, to animation. If so, it can even be wondered whether there might not be, throughout the universe, something that can be called a natural inclination for life. Indeed, the universe may be routinely revealed (to its most sensitive observers) as chockful of life, in various stages of both development and disintegration, so much so perhaps as even to provide somehow a check upon that deadly unending “expansion of the universe” posited by some observers.


It should not be surprising, however, that we have not had direct evidence here on Earth of life elsewhere, billions upon billions of miles away. After all, the peoples of Africa, Europe, and Asia evidently lived for thousands of years without any reliable awareness of the existence of the Western Hemisphere, only a few thousand miles away. It is highly unlikely, moreover, that we will ever have meaningful contact with civilizations elsewhere in the universe (unless there indeed is a Divine Agency at work to this end), especially considering how limited a time there would be in the development of each rational species (both here and “there”), to be able to “communicate” in what is called “real time.” The remarkable discoveries “we” have made, and can expect to continue to make, about both the grandest and the tiniest things, are discoveries that may be vital for what they can help us recognize about ourselves. Among the things to be recognized, of course, is that yearning for the Divine which has been virtually universal for millennia among the peoples of the Earth, that yearning for a meaningful Order which may be vital for an enduring Constitutionalism. It remains a challenge to determine what that yearning may be grounded in and what it is “really” looking for. This challenge has long been apparent to serious students of religion. Far less obvious (I have suggested in this Essay) may be the challenge to determine what our most gifted and accomplished physical scientists both somehow know and instinctively depend upon. However marvelous (as well as threatening) the things are which they have indeed discovered and sometimes harnessed, even more remarkable (and worthy of considerably more thought) is what they may have intuited (without personally recognizing it) about the nature and hence the deeply enlivening propensities of apparently inanimate matter throughout the Universe, that matter which Aristotle (Metaphysics 1036a9) evidently regarded as “unknowable in itself.”

ADDENDUM (February 14, 2008)

There has been called to my attention, by a reader of this “Yearnings” essay (Daniel T. Braithwaite), a passage in a book by J.C. Polkinghorne (a Cambridge University physics professor who became an Anglican priest). There are described in that passage the workings of “a quantum mechanical system” which include the apparent need for a “choice” to be made by the electrons in the physical process being considered. Dr. Polkinghorne then adds: “I hope you do not find this anthropomorphic language offensive. It is not to be taken seriously–of course, electrons to not ‘choose’–but it is somehow irresistible for physicists to talk in this way, at least informally when they are not writing grave papers for their colleagues. Perhaps it is simply a need to humanise what is, after all, rather an inhuman subject.” (The Quantum World [Princeton University Press, 1984], p. 31.) It has thus been called to my attention that a competent physicist has noted, if only in passing, the use of language that I have somewhat more systematically catalogued and that I discuss in my “Yearnings” essay. He called this “anthropomorphic language,” which goes much further than I have ventured to go. I speak only of “enlivening,” “ensoulment,” and “animation.” On the other hand, I have made of all this much more than Dr. Polkinghorne has ventured to do: I wonder, that is, whether physicists somehow sense something intrinsic to the very nature of matter and hence to the openness (if not even the inclination or tendency) throughout the universe to life. See, as perhaps bearing on these questions, George Anastaplo, The American Moralist: On Law, Ethics, and Government (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), pp. 341-44; Anastaplo, “Law & Literature and the Christian Heritage,” 40 Brandeis Law Journal 191, 407-25 (2001). _________________

This Essay was developed, in 2007, for George Anastaplo’s volume, Reflections on Religion, the Divine, and Constitutionalism (in course of preparation). His most recently published books are Reflections on Constitutional Law (University Press of Kentucky, 2006) and Reflections on Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment (University Press of Kentucky, 2007). This essay is also to be included in George Anastaplo’s volume, The Bible: Respectful Readings (to be published in 2008 by Lexington Books, pp. 327-34.) The epigraph is taken from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1925), II, 341 (viii, 24-25) (emphasis added). See George Anastaplo, “Thursday Afternoons,” in Kameshwar C. Wali, ed., S. Chandrasekhar: The Man Behind the Legend (London: Imperial College Press, 1997), pp. 122-29. See, also, Anastaplo, Book Review (of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s Newton’s “Principia” for the Common Reader), The Great Ideas Today (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1997), pp. 448-54. See, for an Anastaplo bibliography, John A. Murley, ed., Leo Strauss and His Legacy (Lexington Books, 2005), pp. 733-855. See, on the “besouled body,” Aristotle, De Anima, Book 2. See, on the ancient hypothesis held by some that “every atom was animated,” the Leucippus entry in Pierre Bayle’s Dictionary. The Addendum was prepared on February 14, 2008. George Anastaplo is Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago; Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University. His mailing address, at the Loyola University School of Law, is 25 East Pearson Street, Chicago, Illinois 60611. His law school telephone number is 312/915-7146. The School of Law fax number is 312/915-6911. (No e-mail reception by George Anastaplo.)

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5 Responses to Yearnings for the Divine and the Natural Animation of Matter

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