Living in an Ordered Universe

Hortus_Deliciarum,_Die_Philosophie_mit_den_sieben_freien_KünstenAstrolabeThe De artibus liberalibus (On the Liberal Arts) has felt somewhat different from the three treatises that the Ordered Universe group had looked at before. Unlike the De colore, the De iride, the De luce and the De generatione sonorum, the De artibus liberalibus isn’t primarily aimed at elucidating a phenomenon of natural order – be this colour, the rainbow, the cosmos, or sound.[1] Instead of focusing on aspects of the natural world, the De artibus liberalibus offers a justification for the foundational structure of scholarship and education that was around at Grosseteste’s times: the seven Liberal Arts.

As Grosseteste says, the seven Liberal Arts are “the servants of natural and moral philosophy” [Hae septem naturali et moralis sunt ministrae], that is, they are tools enabling one to study nature and morality. Grammar, logic and rhetoric, forming the trivium, constitute a hierarchical progression from being able to say things rightly, to saying what’s right, and finally to convincingly communicating what one has to say. Complementary to this, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy make up the quadrivium, the mathematical arts.

Whilst at first sight, the De artibus liberalibus seemed so different from the more 20140719_162928nature-20140719_162934minded treatises we studied before, it now becomes apparent that there’s a common goal uniting this treatise with the other four. Shared by all these works is Grosseteste’s drive to map out an organisational scheme, a structural framework that was fundamental to the world as he conceptualised it. In the medieval universe, the Liberal Arts were as constitutional a metaphysical foundation as the cosmos, light and sound. This common denominator of the four treatises so far looked at by the Ordered Universe group is exactly what has given the project its name: Grosseteste saw a universe that was ordered and he wanted to explain how this order had come about, by uncovering its underlying universal principles.

IMG_1880For people like me whose knowledge of the medieval world is somewhat patchy at best, it’s good to be reminded in this context that Grosseteste was ‘scientifically’ interested not in spite of his religious beliefs (as in our times many would be inclined to assume), but rather because of his belief in God. The world Grosseteste lived in had unquestionably been created through God’s divine power, and from the nature of this power it followed that creation could only be good – and that is, ordered. Grosseteste’s project of making apparent the order and structure of the universe, in all its natural and intellectual aspects, was thereby nothing less than an act of glorifying his Creator-God.

The world we live in now seems in many ways more complicated than the medieval cosmos. When studying natural phenomena (including human beings), certainty and order have been replaced by statements about probabilities. Take for instance one of the psychologist’s favourite activities: making group comparisons. Let’s say, we want to know whether a certain cognitive training programme has an effect, and we therefore compare a group who underwent this training with a control group. Statistical analyses of outcome differences between these two groups allow us to say something like: “There’s probably a real difference in outcome between the two groups, as for all we know, it would have been highly unlikely to observe the data pattern we did observe, if it weren’t for a real underlying difference.” With such statements we are willing to take the risk that from time to time we might draw erroneous conclusions, that is, the risk that we might infer there to be a real difference when no difference exists. We comfort ourselves that such errors will be rare and, most of the time, that statistics and probability statements do tell us something about the nature of the phenomena we’re interested in.

Phase TransitionUnfortunately, things become more complicated when it comes to some areas of physics. For example, when physicists get to the quantum level, they tell us that it’s impossible to determine which position in space some particular quantum particle occupies at a given time. They say it has something to do with the probabilistic nature of wave functions, the probability amplitudes of which contain information on the particle’s position, momentum, and other physical properties. [Please ask a physicist if you’re interested in what this actually means.]

What I simply cannot get my head around, however, is the claim that there is no certainty regarding a quantum particle’s position in space. This goes far beyond simply saying that our experimental limitations prevent us from determining the position of the particle with certainty; it’s saying, rather, that the position is itself intrinsically indeterminate. Probabilities have thereby crept from the level of human uncertainty about the world to the level of what the world is really like. This is where my cognitive apparatus fails me – it seems as inconceivable as the claim that 2 + 2 = 5. That being said, I reassure myself that I do psychology and not physics; I don’t have to understand everything, and as long as quantum physicists have a way of conceptualising wave functions, that’s great and all I’d hope for.

Just like Grosseteste, modern science tries to uncover fundamental principles that explain why the world (including us) is as it is. Since the Middle Ages, many things have been learned and understood about the natural world. But with each answer we seem to find many more new questions, and some of these radically challenge the ways in which we’ve so far thought about the nature of the world. As a result, quite like Grosseteste, we’re still faced with a universe of phenomena for which we do not have satisfactory explanations as to how and why they come The Medieval Cosmosabout. Unlike Grosseteste, however, modern scientific thinking does without the axiom that the universe must be ordered because it’s been created by God. Unlike Grosseteste, we have to face apparent chaos without being able to revert to the rock-bottom conviction that underlying it all, there must be order, established by a being infinitely greater than us, who created it all for a reason. In this sense, Grosseteste had firm ground to stand on. He wasn’t worried that the world might be of a nature that, given the thought machine he was equipped with, would be in principle impenetrable for him. His Creator-God had designed the world in an orderly fashion at all levels of description, and this orderliness was on him to discover and explain.

I find it comforting to put myself into this medieval headspace. It offers the promise that there’s a clear structure to everything, even though we might not yet be able to see through it. It offers peace of mind underlying the intellectual struggle to understand what’s going on in this world. I think it’s good to from time to time think about how our fundamental assumptions about the world influence our emotional relationship with it. In many ways, I wouldn’t choose to live in Grosseteste’s days rather than ours. But sometimes, when the road to scientific understanding ends in overwhelming complexity or to me inconceivable indeterminism, I feel that living in an ordered universe would be quite appealing.

[1] Having said this, it was nice to find some passages in the De artibus liberalibus that had already been very familiar to us from the Mahfouz Conference in Oxford, as Grosseteste later reworked parts of this early treatise in his De generatione sonorum.

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