Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pi, etc.

We recently lost the internet at my house for several days. One realizes just how much it has become a part of everyday life when it is gone. Rather than listing all the things I could not do, suffice it to say I found something I could: watch movies. So I did.

Darren Aronofsky’s Pi is a story about the search for meaning in the universe. It tells the tale of Max Cohen, a mathematician obsessed with finding patterns to explain phenomena around him. More to the point, he is interested in finding the pattern which will explain, well, everything. In the course of the story we encounter Wall Street types who are interested in such patterns primarily for the ability to predict the stock market, but we also meet kabbalists who seek to decode the Torah and find the long-lost name of God which will help usher in the messianic age.

The film reminded me of Eric Foner’s Story of American Freedom, a text I had to teach this past semester. Foner’s objective seems simple enough: to explain the changing definition of freedom from the time of the American Founding to the present day. However, as I tried to point out to my students, implicit in his presentation was another message. To help them tease that out, I gave a (very, very, very!) quick-and-dirty history of western philosophy, since such courses are not required at A&M.

Plato argued that there were such things as forms, things in heaven which embody ideas. Or rather, more to the point, are ideas, which are imperfectly embodied in particular occurrences. There is the form of the Tree, in which all trees participate, and by that participation they have something in common. There is the form of the Cat as well, along with abstract – but no less real – concepts such as Justice, Truth and Freedom.

Aristotle, though he spoke of substance and accidents, rather than forms, broadly agreed with Plato that there are fundamental categories at work in the cosmos, categories which transcend physical characteristics and abide in the very fiber of a thing’s being. But in the Middle Ages a fellow named William of Ockham denied that there were categories at all. Yes, he said, we can point to this fuzzy thing with whiskers and that fuzzy thing with whiskers, and we can call them both cats, because that would be a very useful thing to say. But in the end, Ockham argued, each is a unique object without anything fundamentally in common with the other. We apply labels for our convenience, but they do not correspond to any deeper meaning in reality.

Some centuries later Immanuel Kant tried to steer a middle course between these two positions, contending that there may be categories to the cosmos, but we cannot know them. Thus, in practice, he was an Ockhamite, arguing that the labels we affix may be handy, but may not actually correspond to the fundamental being of things. Finally, the nihilists – most famous among them being Friedrich Nietzsche – contended that there is no meaning to the cosmos at all, categorical or otherwise, a far cry from the ancients.

How did all this connect to Eric Foner and American history? While charting the changing meanings of “freedom” over the years, I would submit that Foner assumes – and implicitly argues – that there is no meaning to the term “freedom”; it does not really exist. Yes, Foner is willing to talk about it as a label we place on things, even a very convenient label, but in the end, does it correspond to anything in reality? Is there a right answer to the question, “What is freedom?” Foner demurs and – I would argue – ultimately denies.

Returning then to Mr. Aronofsky’s film and the pressing question it asks: Is there meaning to the cosmos? And if there is, what is it, and what does that meaning demand of me?

Agnosticism, exceedingly vogue in the ivory tower of academia, seeks to avoid these questions. Perhaps the answers simply are unknowable, though I doubt most have ever truly sought them. And if the point of all our academic endeavors is to know the truth, what does it say about us that we have abdicated any responsibility for knowing the highest truths?

This post first appeared yesterday on True. Good. Beautiful., a forum about entertainment and the film industry.

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