Not long ago I developed and taught a class on the so-called New Atheists, a group of thinkers who put out books around the same time (2004 – 2007) arguing against Western religion.

I only taught the class twice, and two unexpected things happened in the course of my delving deeply into these authors and their arguments and then teaching them to undergrads. First, contrary to my expectation and fears, the majority of the students (perhaps the vast majority) bought the arguments, accepted them, and were quite ready to say “to hell with religion!” The second unexpected thing that happened—and this was a real surprise, one that had profound reverberations for me—was that I went down a rabbit hole—a deep, dark empiricist rabbit hole in which the world stopped making any kind of sense to me.

I came out of that confusion thanks to the writings of the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He helped me make sense of the world again, and in a way that revolutionized the way I think about human beings, our fundamental nature, and our place in the universe.

You can read the first two installments of this tale: Part I: The New Atheists and Part II: The (IL)liberal college student.

Science, Mind, and God. Part III: The Greeks discover the cosmos

I’m going to stretch out this story a bit and go back to the beginning of natural science and philosophy in the Western world. I’m particularly fascinated by this history, so much so that I developed a class focusing particularly on Pythagoras and Plato that covers this transition from myth to scientific and philosophical thinking. That transition takes place amongst a group of philosophers who lived in the 5th and 6th Century B.C. in what is now Greece and Turkey, and who are known as the “Pre-Socratics”—as in those philosophers who came before Socrates. They’re also known as the “naturalists,” in Greek, the physiologoi, those who give the “logos,” the account/description/argument of “physis” or nature.

Recall that the gods of the ancient Greeks—Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, etc.—were very human-like, with desires, jealousies, hatreds, and so on. Any early (and typically polytheistic) religious system can partly be explained as an attempt to make sense out of an unknown and frightening world. Why did my crops flood? Why did the barn burn down? Why did the ship sink? Because Father Zeus was angry, or because I hadn’t sacrificed properly to Poseidon. The causal mechanisms of many natural events were completely unknown to the ancients, so to put a human face on those causes, to make those events the product of human-like motivation was to make them much more understandable. Note also that this gives us some (but only some) measure of control over events. If we do in fact pray and sacrifice in the right kind of way, then those fickle gods may look favorably upon us. But, of course, there’s no guarantee. (I’m being facetious: there’s no causal connection at all between praying and natural events.)

Then, in the 5th and 6th Centuries, the Pre-Socratics, the physiologoi appeared. I’m borrowing my interpretation and reading of these thinkers from the great Gregory Vlastos in his Plato’s Universe.

Vlastos Plato's Universe

What characterizes these Pre-Socratics, and the reason we call them “naturalists” is that, rather than pointing to supernatural forces, they attempted to explain nature in a systematic way, using arguments, and referencing the material components of things in the world. Recall that the ancients had a general belief that all things were made of four material elements—earth, air, fire, and water. So, several of these thinkers tried to explain the universe by reducing these elements to some one principle out of which everything else developed. That one principle might be one of the four elements (everything is derived ultimately from fire or air, say) or it might be something else—Anaximander’s apeiron, or “the indefinite,” out of which the other, definite material elements flow.

The specific details and content of their cosmologies are crude and only of historical interest. Modern atomic theory sent the theory of the four elements to the intellectual scrap heap. However, and here’s what’s truly monumental and in a sense unsurpassed, the physiologoi were the first to think of nature as not only operating according to lawlike regularities, but also to think of it as being inviolable by any outside (that is, supernatural) forces.

Vlastos takes the example of an eclipse. While earlier Greeks (and of course many contemporaries of the Pre-Socratics) thought such an event was due to divine intervention, the physiologoi agreed that: “1) Solar regularities are either themselves absolutely unbreachable or else any given breach of them will admit of a natural explanation as a special case of some other, still more general, regularity which is itself absolutely unbreachable.” (9) That is, the daily path of the sun from east to west is an inviolable occurrence of nature; and if it ever is violated—as apparently in the case of an eclipse—then that violation must itself be due to some other lawlike regularity that is itself inviolable (e.g., the moon in its orbit passing in front of the sun).

And the physiologoi likewise agreed that: “2) What makes the world a cosmos is the existence of such highest-level, absolutely unbreachable, regularities.” (10) That is, the physiologoi were the first truly to conceive of the universe as a “cosmos,” or an orderly, regular whole in which everything that happens, happens according to necessary, natural laws. As Vlastos says, “for all of them, nature remains the inviolate all-inclusive principle of explanation.” (22)

This, as I said, is the beginning of scientific and philosophical thinking in the Western world: the conception of the world as an orderly whole, and the rejection of supernatural explanation in favor of explanations that make use solely of the material constituents of things and the natural, inviolable laws according to which those materials and those things act. (This gets complicated in the case of the explanation of mind and mental states, as we’ll see; but that’s a story for another day.)

Pythagoras: Mysticism and Mathematics

Pythagoras lived in the same period as the other Pre-Socratics, though he’s a bit of an outlier and even more of a mystery. The big problem is that he was the head of a cult, never wrote anything down, and demanded secrecy from his followers. So, of everything attributed to Pythagoras, it’s impossible to say with any certainty what ideas are original to the actual historical figure, which came from his later followers, and which were invented by Plato in his reinvention of Pythagoras. For example, Pythagoras almost certainly didn’t invent the geometrical theorem that bears his name.


The cult Pythagoras led was a mystical one, and one of the things about him that seems certain is that he believed in reincarnation. One of the other major ideas attributed to him is that everything is number or mathematical in nature. It’s not clear what this might have meant. However, the discovery that is said to have led to this metaphysical claim, which might well have been original to Pythagoras himself, was quite profound. This was the realization that the musical consonances (the musical third, the musical fifth, the octave) can be expressed as perfect mathematical ratios.

The great significance of this discovery is that it lays the groundwork for the idea at the core of modern science: the idea that everything in nature is mathematically calculable and describable. Quite simply, without the invention of calculus in the 17th Century, and the coupling of natural science with mathematics, there is no modern physics or chemistry, and following them, modern life sciences.

Let me pause to note that, the first inklings of science and philosophy (the two weren’t distinguished at all at this time and wouldn’t be for over two millennia) derive naturally from our desire to understand the world and control our environment. We’re obviously part of this world, and our bodily senses help us navigate our way through that world, help us not just survive but, hopefully, thrive. At some point, then, we started using our minds to understand what we were sensing, the reasons for it, the causes of the phenomena around us.

To put it in a phrase: The whole project from the beginning was concerned with making sense of the world. When, at some point, we came up with the notion of truth and the distinction between truth and falsity, these ideas were intimately bound up with our perceptions of things. What’s true is what accords with what we perceive in the world (particularly with what we perceive regularly); and that which doesn’t accord with our perceptions—deviates from what we see, hear, feel, etc.—is false.

All that might sound obvious, but in at least some branches of contemporary science it is no longer the case that science is at its core a sense-making enterprise or that truth accords with our perceptions of things. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,  epigraph)

I hope you find that statement as shocking as I do.

In early modern scientific thought, at the time of the scientific revolution, the divorce between science and sense-making begins. But before I get to that part of the story, I want to talk a bit about Plato. That will be in my next post in this series.



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