Sunday, August 9, 2009

De Rerum Natura

One of the things I would love to have time to do in life is sit down and actually write something about every book I read.  Given that it only takes a quick glance at the impromptu window sill/bookcase I have looking out over 8th Ave to see how far behind I am on this, it is probably a pipe dream.  But hey, you have to start somewhere ...

Today's reflections are brought to you by Lucretius.  A little background.  Titus Lucretius Carus wrote The Way Things Are about 50 years before Christ got himself strung up.  It's an epic poem of sorts, though a strange one because there are no gods or heroes or battles.  It's an epic philosophical poem, a sort of jazz odyssey of epic poems.  It's also a bit weird because it ends with a long and terrifically anti-climactic description of the Athenian plague of 429 BC.  Not precisely Disney, though one assumes he got his funding abruptly cut, or something of the sort.

At any rate, I'll work my way around to a sort of summary of the poem, but first, let me explain why I read the thing to begin with.  You see, I was looking for something fairly specific here -- I was looking for science fiction.  It actually all started with this offhand comment from an overly erudite physics prof:

My favorite poststructuralist is Gilles Deleuze (with or without Guattari). I like to think that he was really writing an elaborate series of works of science fiction, in a non-fictional format (much as Stanislaw Lem did in Imaginary Magnitude and A Perfect Vacuum), only without letting anyone in on the joke.

Clearly, calling Deleuze a science fiction writer is meant dismissively (though only partly, as elsewhere he states that he thinks Lem is one of the 20th century's great thinkers, full stop).  I don't actually think Deleuze would feel all put out by this description though, and the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to think that all really creative philosophy is just a form of science fiction.  Consider how Robert Nozick put it in The Examined Life:

Do philosophical thought and questioning, by their very nature, though, eventuate not in novels by James or Proust but in something more like the intelligent Martian's primer of human life?

There's something about philosophical thinking that consists in trying to think beyond our human confines.  This has always been true, and of course is one of the reasons that philosophy has historically been so tied up with religion.  The more modern version of this idea places philosophy alongside mathematics as the study of the logical foundations that govern not just humans, but all of existence.  In either case, the point is to reach conclusions that go beyond our mortal limits, so to speak.  While I don't really agree with the theological or mathematical hijacking of this enterprise, I do agree with the basic idea; philosophy is there to help us think our way out of the wet paper bag of early 21st century flesh and culture -- as far out of it as possible.  Philosophical thinking should clearly run in both directions then, towards explaining how things came into being to begin with, as well as towards illuminating how they might evolve in the future.  So in relating it to science fiction, I don't mean to limit philosophy to a sort of futurism, committing an inverse error to the way its obsessions with foundations has often limited it to the past.  My point is just that the whole enterprise is meant to help us see our place in existence as a bridge between past and future, as a brief passing moment in the evolution of the planet and the universe.

Anyhow, since reading Deleuze, seeing the web evolve in tandem with capitalism, and watching 2001 and Solaris too many times, I have become obsessed with this idea of philosophy as a type of science fiction, and have started thinking about how you would try to communicate with whatever passes for intelligent life 5000 years hence.  In fact, in some sense, I would almost define 'philosophical thought' as something that this future intelligence could relate to.  To put it most succinctly, can we write anything that Google will want to read?  We have evolved and we will continue to evolve, and there's is no guarantee, given sufficient time, that our progeny will look any more like us than we look like the primordial ooze (certain persons excepted).  Is there any way to send a missive across this vast spiritual distance? 

When I first began to consider these questions, I thought that I had stumbled onto something uniquely modern.  I was phrasing everything in terms of the computer, in terms of artificial intelligence and an extension of biological evolution.  Without either of those concepts, how could you conceive of humanity as a bridge from ape to superman, as Nietzsche put it?  But I also began to wonder, quite naturally, given the way I was trying to project forward my own consciousness of this issue, whether this idea might actually have occurred to philosophers in the past.  Was there anybody who wrote something on this topic 5000 years ago that I was interested in reading?  We always imagine these guys as pre-scientific morons who couldn't possibly have grasped the idea that humanity had at some point come into being and would at some point pass out of it. 

But then I read Spinoza, and found him remarkably modern.  And I started thinking that self-organized computational systems which use humans as circuit elements have been around for a while.  The social/economic/political machines that built the great pyramids, sailed across the Atlantic to discover the new world, and erected the Empire State building, are not any dumber than Google, though we may find it more difficult to speak their language because they move so slowly.  Humans have had a chance to observe these processes for a long time though, and it may be that science fiction philosophy only rediscovers an ancient insight wrapped in modern form. In other words, why wouldn't people have been able to look around and see their continuity with the world around them and to see how their intelligence may only be one aspect of the intelligence of nature?  And then I wanted to know how far back this might have gone.  Who was the first person I could find who was able to articulate this vision of humanity?  Who was the first science fiction thinker?

So I checked out Lucretius.  You can judge for yourself whether he was on the bus.

There is no end,
No limit to the cosmos, above, below,
Around, about, stretching on every side.
This I have proven, but the fact itself
Cries loud in proclamation, nature's deep
Is luminous with proof.  The universe
Is infinitely wide; its vastness holds
Innumerable seeds, beyond all count,
Beyond all possibility of number,
Flying along their everlasting ways.
So it must be unthinkable that our sky
And our round world are precious and unique
While all those other motes of matter flit
In idleness, achieve, accomplish nothing,
Especially since this world of our was made
By natural process, as the atoms came
Together, willy-nilly, quite by chance,
Quite casually and quite intentionless
Knocking against each other, massed, or spaced
So as to colander other through, and cause
Such combinations an conglomerates
As form the origin of mighty things,
Earth, sea and sky, and animals and men.
Face up to this, acknowledge it.  I tell you
Over and over -- out beyond our world
There are, elsewhere, other assemblages
Of matter, making other worlds.  Oh, ours
Is not the only one in air's embrace.

With infinite matter available, infinite space,
And infinite lack of any interference,
Things certainly ought to happen.  If we have
More seeds, right now, than any man can count,
More than all men of all time past could reckon,
And if we have, in nature, the same power
To cast them anywhere at all, as once
They were cast here together, let's admit --
We really have to -- there are other worlds,
More than one race of men, and many kinds
Of animal generations.

Pretty spectacular confirmation of what I went looking for -- more science fiction than this one could hardly desire from a Roman. 


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