Blog

Math and Science from Plato’s Timaeus

Science started when Christians thought hard about two books: the Bible, and a book that began:

SOCRATES: One, two, three –but where, my dear (17) Timaeus, is the fourth of my guests of yesterday who were to entertain me today?
TIMAEUS: He’s fallen sick, Socrates; otherwise he would never willingly have missed today’s discussion.
SOCRATES : Then if he’s away it is up to you and the others to play his part as well as your own.

This passage is the start of Timaeus by Plato, and if you love Lord of the Rings, then you owe the series to Plato’s work that introduced mythical Atlantis to the world.

Western Europe only had one Platonic dialog and not much Greek. The Eastern Romans (called Byzantines) helped as they could, but until the 13th century instability made education and progress hard. However, the Church in the West persisted, educating each new wave of barbarians in Christian civilization until real progress could be made.

There is a whole education in just these few lines. Dante wrote divinely as a result. C. S. Lewis echoes them in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Just the first fragment of the book, “One, two, three, where is the fourth . . . ” is worth a lifetime of study. The attention drawn to mathematics from them and the elevation of mathematics in the rest of the Timaeus made Western thinkers look to mathematics for truth.

This, by itself, would not have been enough to produce science, since mathematics does not have to connect to the material world.

St. John in his Gospel pointed out that the Word, which can mean mathematical logic, became flesh. Christians were forbidden to think matter was evil or bad. God created matter and came in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.

Word became flesh. Math and matter are in harmony. As a result, Christian thinkers such as Kepler combined a reverence for mathematical models and a knowledge that the material world was important. Once humankind understood both these truths then modern science was inevitable.

I am tempted to say, “Great. What can it do for me today?”

There is at least one simple message: if someone we need is sick, replace him.

There are a great many ideas about who it is that’s missing at the start of Timaeus.*

Plato’s most famous work is The Republic, and Timaeus starts where that books ends. The whole crew is not there and that is a problem if you care about community. After all, if you have had a discussion that would shape the nature of politics in the world for all time, it’s bad news if one of the key players is missing.

Somehow, despite the sad illness of this unnamed person, Timaeus limps on so effectively that the ideas in it created science. Imagine going to a play like Hamilton and discovering the lead is not singing, but then the understudy rocks the auditorium in a new way. The lead created politics, the understudy created science, and so the understudy was not so bad!

 


*I have discussed options at a technical level in my UPA book on Plato’s view of the human soul and more generally in When Athens Met Jerusalem.

**I dedicate this post to the father of my Logos, Al Geier. May his soul and the soul of all the faithful Rest In Peace.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.