Prometheus’s dream: the comprehension of nature – talk by Sergi Grau Torras at ‘The golden thread of the free mind’

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Classical mythology recounts that Prometheus, son of the god Iapetus and the nymph Clymene, created humankind from clay in order to repopulate the Earth. Having done this, he realised that humanity was defenceless against nature and wild animals, so he decided to climb Mount Olympus to steal fire from the gods and to give it to the human population so that this population might reap its benefits. His act, however, aroused the wrath of Zeus, who punished Prometheus by chaining him up forevermore; he was nevertheless set free by Heracles.

The versions of the myth transmitted by ancient witnesses, from those of Hesiod to Aesop and Aeschylus, for instance, contain significant variants though share certain characteristics. Thus, in one of the most famous Greek tragedies from the fifth century BC, namely, Prometheus Bound, a work attributed to Aeschylus, Prometheus becomes an intrepid hero who, using fire, assists humanity in its journey from darkness to light by way of progress and civilisation.

In our own day, the Prometheus myth lends itself to a completely up-to-date interpretation because it addresses one of the fundamental questions by which modern societies are governed, that is to say, our dominion over nature. The boldness associated with being a Prometheus, from Faust as far as Frankenstein passing via Gustave Moreau, has laid deep roots within the collective Western imagination and has contributed decisively towards reaffirming the commonplace that science can succeed in limitlessly apprehending, transforming and dominating nature, without concern for the consequences its actions may entail.

The English philosopher Francis Bacon, in the seventeenth century, was the first person concisely to develop the notion that the need to dominate nature constituted the very basis of modern societies. Bacon was the prime mover behind a programme of experimentation founded on technology, and he put forward a methodology that systematised the process of scientific knowledge. From that time on, the lives of societies have been obsessed with technology and the application thereof for the purpose of exercising dominion over nature, one of the fundamental features governing the modern view of progress. Contemporary society now takes it completely for granted that a significant achievement of this kind pertains to science and technology alone, and it seems as if no place at all is reserved for the Arts and Humanities therein.

Francis Bacon, on the other hand, was fully aware of the important role played by such Arts and Humanities and, as a consequence, mounted forceful arguments in favour of the Classics as a route towards the teaching of scientific truths, as well as advocating the need to establish a society which was underpinned by a form of science that did not come into conflict with religion. Thus his New Atlantic, the utopia – that indeterminate location – which he left unfinished, portrays a society founded upon two pillars that are fully compatible, namely, science and religion.

This link that Bacon forges within his view of modern societies is identical to that which other authors have emphasised with respect to the human person, authors, that is, such as Antonin Gadal. In this regard, Gadal has insisted on the need to establish a comprehensive and organic outlook in order to address the relations between science and religion, and more specifically between faith and reason, if we wish to attain knowledge. Gadal cites the example of the novel manner of interpreting nature that appeared during the Renaissance, a method which combined intuitive vision with a consciousness founded upon reason.

Such was one of the distinctive features of the period, features which prompted a new way of understanding the world, nature and the spiritual dimensions of human beings.

The journey towards the discovery of the nature of consciousness as defined in modern terms began in France when René Descartes decided to explore the human mind. According to Descartes, who made known his celebrated aphorism ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), the conscious mind was of crucial importance if one wished to argue, as he did, that people could only possess certainty regarding their existence in virtue of their own personal consciousness.

Descartes introduced the notion of a duality between the mind and the body: he reasoned that the mind constituted an immaterial substance that interacted with a physical body, which latter followed the laws of mechanics. This conception gave rise, within the framework of rationalism and empiricism, to various opposing theories vis-à-vis consciousness and the reality attaching to the senses. In certain cases, the discussion was taken to extremes, even to that of attempting to explain the human mind in purely mechanical terms.

The most prominent representative of this last trend was the Enlightenment philosopher Julien Offray de la Mettrie, who, in 1747, published his L’Homme machine in Leiden. De la Mettrie was obliged to go into exile as a result of the impact his theories had, since he reduced the question of the mind to an altogether mechanical aspect pertaining to the realm of physics. In doing so, he took human beings to be complex machines, within which thought was just another result of those beings’ mechanisation, and he therefore considered the human soul not to exist over and above matter. This treatise likewise possessed the great merit of bringing together Catholics, Calvinists and Lutherans in a united front of condemnation.

At all events, Descartes’ formulation created a framework within which to conceive and to reflect on human consciousness in a manner that went beyond the Classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, placing it within the conceptual structures characteristic of modern European thought. From that time on, a number of highly noteworthy contributions have appeared which attempt to provide an explanation of consciousness, contributions, that is, not only within the realms of philosophy and religion, but also in that of science.

One of the scientists to have addressed this question was Francis Crick, known universally for his discovery of DNA (i.e., the double helix) alongside James D. Watson and Maurice Wilkins, an achievement for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1962. Crick, however, also devoted himself to neuroscience, and, using scientific methods, engaged in research activities concerning consciousness by way of that area of molecular biological knowledge which concentrated on the brain. From such research arose Crick’s essay The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, published in 1994, a work in which he sought to come to grips with the biological functioning of the human mind, specifically via study of the behaviour of brain cells towards visual stimuli.

The act of locating the central point of consciousness within the brain was not, by itself, new, however. The underlying idea has as its own basis the words of Hippocrates, who states in his treatise On the Sacred Disease: ‘People ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations.’ Brain science 63 has opened the door to an understanding of the human being on the basis of the behaviour of brain cells, a fact which, in the final analysis, has situated consciousness within the realms of science. Crick’s hypothesis was extremely revolutionary and, as might be expected, his theses gave rise to all kinds of doubts within the scientific community, although now this same community admits that processes occur in the brain that are directly linked with consciousness.

Crick’s idea, however, has philosophical roots for which a very strong case has already been made. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, for instance, in his Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order (published posthumously in Latin in 1677), addresses the nature of the emotions and feelings, as well as the relation between the mind and the body, though does so within certain parameters which anticipate the solutions adopted by a number of present-day scientists. In this respect, Spinoza not only holds that organisms are programmed with the capacity to react emotionally to different objects and events, but also presents with exceptional acuity an entire and complex set of arguments concerning the operation of this process, while focusing his reader’s attention on the relation that establishes itself between the mind (not to mention the brain) and the body.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio should have laid emphasis on the fact that Spinoza not only anticipated certain aspects of modern biology but that he also deployed a wholly present-day manner of thinking towards the mind and body which itself anticipates aspects of equally present-day neurobiology. Nor is it surprising that in 1930, when Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he replied that he only believed in the God of Spinoza, since he considered the latter to be the first modern philosopher – so as not to go back to Aristotle – who had treated the soul and the body as if they were one and the same thing, rather than two separate such things.

At a congress held in New York in 1941, the central theme of which was the relation between science, philosophy and religion within democratic societies, Einstein made a highly revealing statement: ‘When asking myself what religion is, I cannot think of the answer so easily [….] At first, then, instead of asking what religion is I should prefer to ask what characterises the aspirations of a person who has given me the impression of being religious.

A person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to which he clings because of their suprapersonal value.’ Einstein’s religiosity, therefore, was in harmony with his life as a scientist. As a result of his theory of relativity, Einstein, in fact, became the most famous scientist of the twentieth century. Less well known, perhaps, are his religiosity, the great passion he felt for music and the considerable talent he showed in playing the violin, this latter being a matter he touched on in various interviews. The most extraordinary thing is that he did not play this instrument for amusement nor as a means of distracting himself, but rather did so as an active part of his capacity to produce knowledge.

There is an anecdote which illustrates precisely this fact. In 1929, when the writer George Sylvester Viereck travelled to Einstein’s home to interview him for The Saturday Evening Post, he gained the impression that the latter resembled a musician rather than a mathematician. Einstein explained to Viereck that he saw his own life in terms of music to the extent that, he confessed with a smile playing across his lips, had he not been a physicist, he would undoubtedly have been a musician. Einstein presents us with an example of an eminent scientist who was utterly devoted to the Arts and who wrote on the topic of religion.

A further example from the realms of the history of physics is Isaac Newton, made famous by his discovery of the Law of Universal Gravitation. Newton, however, did not limit himself to scientific inquiry alone, but rather combined the study of natural philosophy with that of theology as well as of alchemy. Despite Newton’s never having published his alchemical writings, a fact which has contributed to the situation whereby this facet of his work has received relatively little attention, the traditional image of Newton has excluded both alchemy and theology from his achievements, for the reason that this part thereof fails to fall within the parameters defined by modern science; how could it be – the question goes – that an eminent and respectable scientist should have devoted himself so assiduously to the search for the Philosopher’s Stone?

Scholars have ascertained that Newton wrote over a million words on the subject of alchemy, which is to say approximately the same amount he committed to writing in connection with matters that today we would define as belonging to the realms of science. Newton, therefore, wrote a great deal of alchemy, much more than alchemists of renown such as Paracelsus, and in his laboratory he confirmed many alchemical formulas, especially those of George Starkey which sought to attain the Philosopher’s Stone.

Newton failed to publish his experiments; however, one of his contemporaries, namely, Robert Boyle – a further point of reference from within the scientific sphere, in this instance from the realm of chemistry – did precisely that. On the 21st of February 1675, at London, Boyle published in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions an article in which he asserted that he had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone.

In his experiments, Boyle had succeeded in finding a substance that grew hot while also emitting heat in an unusual manner. Such amalgams of gold and purified mercury did not customarily emit heat and this peculiarity led him to believe that he held in his hands the key to the Philosopher’s Stone, so he decided to publicise the results of his experiment, despite not offering many further details in its regard so that it might be replicated. He also, without doubt, published it pseudonymously, even though it would not have been at all hard to work out the true identity of the treatise’s author given that he had signed it using his own initials, albeit in reverse order, namely, B. R.

In any case, both Newton and Boyle diligently devoted themselves to practices such as alchemy and theology, practices which exerted a clear influence upon the attainment of their theories within the scientific sphere. We know that Newton wrote his treatise on gravity with his gaze turned towards the principles of the Divinity for the simple reason that he found the latter to be of use in such an undertaking. His belief in the Divinity, therefore, served as the undeniable inspiration for those most important laws of physics that he went on to make known. Documentary evidence also reveals that alchemy had a very significant impact on his theories within the realms of optics, the corpuscular theory of matter (developed by the alchemists Richard Sennet and George Starkey), the study of the Earth’s internal processes as well as of organic life.

All the above examples highlight the importance of the Arts, alchemy and religion to the achievements we nowadays call scientific. Many of the great names that today predominate in the history of modern science, in fact, took note of the experiments performed and conceptual innovations devised by the alchemists, corroborated them in the laboratory and offered their own formulations based on the experimental evidence drawn from the practice of alchemy. From this perspective, therefore, the role of alchemy in the so-called Scientific Revolution ‒ if, indeed, after the works of Steven Shapin one can even assert that such a scientific revolution took place – gains a different dimension. Perhaps the Philosopher’s Stone played a much more active and transcendent role than it may seem at first glance, and functioned as what it was, namely, a genuine catalyst.

From the standpoint of this historiographical renewal which has taken place in recent years, a renewal wherein the aforementioned practices are reinterpreted in a novel manner, an increasing number of authors have highlighted additional elements that feature prominently within the production of scientific knowledge – the imagination and intuition, for instance.

In 1950, the Australian pathologist William Beveridge published
The Art of Scientific Investigation, an essay on creativity in science wherein he offered numerous examples of and quotations from scientists in order to illustrate the importance of the imagination in scientific discoveries. Viewed this way, it is not surprising that Einstein, when referring to the scientist’s task in discovering the most general elementary laws from which one can logically deduce the cosmos, should have affirmed that ‘there is no logical path to discovering these elementary laws. There is only the path of intuition, which is assisted by a feeling for the order underlying the appearance’. So much was it so that Einstein himself stated, more than once, that the theory of relativity had occurred to him intuitively, and that music had been the motive force behind such an intuition. When, therefore, George Sylvester Viereck asked Einstein whether he had more faith in his imagination than he did in his knowledge, the latter replied that ‘imagination is more important than knowledge.

Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world’. One should not underestimate the capacity of the imagination and of intuition to discover such elementary laws, as obtains in the case of the idea of ‘equiparation’, whereby, to cite an example, Leonardo da Vinci developed the systematic application of an analogical principle. Leonardo entertained a world-view based on a comparative – or ‘equiparative’ – methodology which, time and again, evoked the relations between the universe and the human being or, in other words, between the macrocosm and the microcosm.

Within this paradigm, human beings and nature were considered to have been created in the image and after the likeness of the cosmos and the Divinity. Using this idea as his starting point, Leonardo systematically applied an analogical principle, and when he applied it using all his imaginative abilities, he was able to provide innovative answers to many of the technical problems that faced him.

The imagination, side by side with intuition, illustrate clearly to us that, in the final analysis, the scientific enterprise not only consists in understanding how the theories of universal gravitation, relativity or quantum mechanics work – understanding for which pecialised training is required –, but rather also has an effect upon the very process needed to arrive at such formulations. It is this latter aspect, perhaps, that is the least well-known, the most intimate and the most personal.

We could mention many other scientists whose views run along the very same lines: the work of the chemist Robert Burns Woodward (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1965), for instance, not only for its implications regarding the field of creativity, but also because he represents one of the figures who has brought into the public sphere the sensorial and artistic dimensions involved in his scientific methodology, as also in the production of chemical knowledge (specifically with respect to chemical synthesis). The same could also be said of the chemist Robert Root-Bernstein, who has acknowledged the profound resemblance that obtains between all creative thought, whether artistic or scientific, and who considers sensorial experience to be crucial to chemical aesthetics.

For all the foregoing reasons, when one analyses the importance
of the above aspects, aspects traditionally considered to fall outside the scientific sphere, one becomes aware that they nevertheless frequently end up having a connection with that very sphere. The English physician William H. George used to say that, in itself, scientific research was not a science, but rather an art; or, in other words, that the process whereby scientists reach their conclusions does not, strictly speaking, constitute science, although it does, however, have a direct effect upon their scientific results.

This process, which ranges from observation to study, from reflection to conclusions, does not consist in one that is mechanical, nor one that is logical either; rather, it is an internal process involving the highest levels of creativity, a process wherein the imagination and intuition play a fundamental role. Nor should one be surprised at the fact that the eminent physicist Max Planck, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918 and who proved the hypothesis that energy was quantifiable, thus giving rise to the field of quantum mechanics, should have said that, in this respect, there was no place for pure rationalism, but that, instead, an imaginative outlook was essential.

None of the above examples entails replacing the scientific ethos with a creative such, nor of forgetting the social and cultural context within which scientific theories emerge; they entail, rather, attaching greater weight to the aforementioned aspects, traditions and beliefs in relation to the production of knowledge. Until recently, many people believed that the scientific method guaranteed objectivity and that science produced data in a manner that was progressive and constant. It was assumed that the world consisted of conceivable truths and that, if scientific procedures were adhered to, science might be able to approach these truths in a systematic fashion.

As long ago as the 1960s, however, Thomas Kuhn demonstrated in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that the scientific enterprise constitutes a purely subjective activityand that social and cultural components play a crucial part in the construction of scientific knowledge. Kuhn introduced the concept of the ‘paradigm’, a term he used to refer to a widely accepted viewpoint; in the event that certain scientists accept a paradigm, the latter comes to represent the means by which they understand and analyse all those elements of which their science consists. Paradigms tend to shift, however; and they do so abruptly (hence the term ‘Revolutions’); as was the case, for example, between the paradigm espoused by Aristotle and that offered by Copernicus/Galileo, and between those for which Newton, on the one hand, and Einstein, on the other, are known.

By appealing to the notion of paradigms, Kuhn opened the door to the concept of ‘incommensurability’, a concept signifying the impossibility of comparing two scientific theories should a common theoretical language be lacking. The latter circumstance is what causes scientists to be unaware of different phenomena or explanations that exist beyond their own paradigm, phenomena and explanations which might be of greater use as regards what they are in the process of studying; unaware, that is, until the paradigm shifts, of course, in which case the earlier paradigm (the Newtonian such, for example) is transcended.

It is for all of the above reasons that the aforementioned Antonin Gadal reminds us of the need to establish a comprehensive outlook that takes into account both the realm of science and that of religion if one wishes to understand nature. More specifically, we should accept the need to establish a connection between reason and intuition, or rather, to ensure that our intuitive outlook combines itself with a consciousness based on reason.

Such was the dream of Prometheus, if any he had in that regard. Such is true dominion over nature, a dominion which is able to draw us closer to the spiritual dimensions of being human and which provides us with the keys whereby to comprehend the deepest meaning of humankind’s journey from darkness to light, guided along our way by fire.

Sergi Grau Torras, doctor of Philosophy, historian and professor of History of Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), author of Cátaros and Inquisición en los reinos Hispánicos, ss. xii-xiv (Cathars and Inquisition in the Hispanic kingdoms in the 12th-14th century), 2012

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