Sunday, October 31, 2004

Plato and the Planets

Human fascination with heavenly bodies extends to prehistoric times. Probably today the interest is the least that it has ever been. We have some practical reasons for studying the planets and stars but it is a collective endeavor of specialists and is not important on a day to day or month to month basis to an average individual. Few of us need to observe moon and stars in order to know when to plant or when to move camp and what to hunt. Whereas today we perceive these to be physical objects, the ancient world believed the lights were somehow connected to the divine. Plato acknowledged that the trajectories taken by the planets was a mystery that needed to be explained. (The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas). The ancients spent a lot of time trying to solve this mystery. Despite their considerable efforts, the answer required about two thousand years from the time of Plato. It was not due to ignorance or lack of virtue on their part. They lacked the mathematical tools and astronomical equipment and a surrounding thought infrastructure. Now, if I put myself into the place of Plato, what problems do we have today that are like that? This calls me to humility. Despite the fantastic changes in my lifetime due to the advances of science and technology, there are still mysteries for us and things we cannot know. And there are theories about which we must certainly be wrong, even with our best efforts.

To Plato, solving the puzzle of these astronomical phenomena was a task of religious significance. It was a spiritual task. Perhaps science and religion have been at odds with each other in the past 150 years, but I still believe pursuing science is a spiritual activity.

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