The Heritage of Heraclitus & The Itch to Speculate

The Heritage of Heraclitus & The Itch to Speculate

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Metanexus: Views. 2002.02.12. 1405 words

We continue our special series on the VIEWS list in anticipation of theScience & Ultimate Reality Symposium in Princeton. This symposium in honorof the 90th year of John Archibald Wheeler–a great physicist and teacher ofphysicists–runs from March 15-18, 2002.

But before we come to today’s column The Heritage of Heraclitus: JohnArchibald Wheeler and the Itch to Speculate by Jaroslav Pelikan, SterlingProfessor Emeritus of History at Yale University where he served on thefaculty from 1962-96, a past president of the American Academy of Arts andSciences, and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at The Library of Congress,let me share three little words with you: ti to on.

ti to on? you say?

Now what exactly is that? Lost lyrics, perhaps, from that Sound of Musicsong Do-re-mi? The refrain of some child’s game or nursery rhyme? Or, morelikely, the chorus to some rock or pop ballad?

What is it, this ti to on?

And that question is precisely the answer as well. What is it. Or, even moreprecisely, what is or that which is. It is the Aristotelian Greek termfor Being as found in his discussion of Being as being in Book 4 (or gamma)of his Metaphysics–that which lies beyond (and perhaps also includes)physics or the physico-material realm.

And, according to guest editor Paul Davies, it was in the asking of thesequestions, both physical and metaphyscial, that physicist John A. Wheelerexcelled:

A colleague once expressed Wheeler’s style of speculative exploration bysaying that he begins with an accepted and unexceptional concept fromphysical theory, and extrapolates and extrapolates to the ultimate, to seewhat gives. Thus in his work on gravitational collapse, Wheeler follows theequations of general relativity to the singular end point, and encounters anapparent absurdity. The equations urge us to go on, but their solutions saywe can’t go on. Something – maybe spacetime, maybe the laws of classicalrelativity, maybe even the concept of law itself – must break down.

In this we see that Wheeler is a man after Aristotle’s own heart, for as theStagirite says elsewhere in his Metaphysics: All men by nature desire toknow. So let us proceed on with Davies and Pelikan and Wheeler in pursuitof this desire.

And, to get more information or to register for the Science & UltimateReality Symposium at Princeton, go to<http://www.templeton.org/ultimate_reality>. We hope to see many of youthere. You can also subscribe to this list independently of VIEWS by goingto <http://listserv.metanexus.net/metanexus/archives/wheeler.html>. Youcan reply to this message or send a new message for distribution on theconference list to <[email protected]>. This is a moderatedemail distribution list, so all messages will be approved by Davies torestrict the quantity and maintain the quality of the discussion, and wewill be cross posting many of the messages here on Metanexus: VIEWS.

— Stacey Ake

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Dear Colleagues,

Science & Ultimate Reality

John Wheeler’s scientific career has encompassed most of the fields offundamental physics, from nuclear theory to gravitation, from quantummechanics to astrophysics. Impressive though his contributions to mainstreamscience are, Wheeler’s truly distinctive quality is his ability to drawsweeping philosophical conclusions from his work. Not content merely todiscover how this or that aspect of nature may work, Wheeler cannot resistasking Why?

A colleague once expressed Wheeler’s style of speculative exploration bysaying that he begins with an accepted and unexceptional concept fromphysical theory, and extrapolates and extrapolates to the ultimate, to seewhat gives. Thus in his work on gravitational collapse, Wheeler follows theequations of general relativity to the singular end point, and encounters anapparent absurdity. The equations urge us to go on, but their solutions saywe can’t go on. Something – maybe spacetime, maybe the laws of classicalrelativity, maybe even the concept of law itself – must break down.

Physicists tend to divide into two camps when it comes to theirphilosophical stance: bottom-up and top-down. The former is exemplified byNiels Bohr, who rooted his philosophy in individual physical phenomena,rejecting speculation about reality in favor of that which can be directlyobserved, and discussed among human beings. The latter camp is bestrepresented by Einstein, who believed that if one could identify grandoverarching principles that commend themselves to us on grounds ofphilosophical elegance, then nature might be expected to make use of them.His notion of general covariance – that physics ought never to include thecircumstances of the observer in its basic description of phenomena – is onesuch principle.

It seems to me that Wheeler has drawn inspiration from both traditions. Hedisplays an almost tactile sense for the workings of physical phenomenathemselves, and is masterly at designing thought experiments to home in onspecifics, but on the other hand he is drawn to posit deep hidden principlesthat interweave disparate phenomena into some meaningful unity.

History will judge Wheeler’s value as a philosopher, when many of hisunfinished ideas are carried to their fruition. Meanwhile we are fortunateto have Jaroslav Pelikan, Emeritus Professor of History at Yale University,to place Wheeler’s many distinctive contributions to philosophy intohistorical context. Pelikan finds parallels between Wheeler’s style and thework of the pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus. A summary of his paper follows.

Paul Davies

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Title: The Heritage of Heraclitus: John Archibald Wheeler and the Itch toSpeculate

Author: Jaroslav Pelikan

Summary

Of all the thinkers to whom John Archibald Wheeler might becompared-Aristotle and Newton are obvious candidates-none provides morefascinating parallels than the Pre-Socratic scientist and philosopherHeraclitus (Weber 1976; Waterfield 2000; Jaeger 1947). All the way fromEinstein to Heidegger (Maly and Emad 1996), which is a long distancephilosophically if not chronologically, the 20th-century itch to speculatehas been inspired by Heraclitus (Jacobs 1999). Wheeler’s search for links(1991) manifests a distinctly Heraclitean movement of thought: frominformation to knowledge to wisdom (Huber 1996) This includes a curiosityabout analogy (Juengel 1964), but also a confidence (restrained though itis) in intuition (Sournia 1982). It was Heraclitus and the Pre-Socratics,with their reflections about arche and aion, who emphasized, as Wheeler hasagain, the primacy (no pun intended) of considerations about time and firstthings (Ambronn 1996). By entitling his massive festschrift of 1988 BetweenQuantum and Cosmos, Wheeler’s colleagues and students have put him into thesuccession of the speculations of Heraclitus about the One and the Many(Hammer 1991). As Aristotle made clear in continuity with Heraclitus, threeGreek monosyllables ti to on, ask the first and the last question of all,the nature of Being (Axelos 1968). When Goethe said that as scientists weare pantheists, as artists we are polytheists, and as moralists we aremonotheists (Pelikan 1995), he was asking, but by no means answering, thequestion of how to be at home in the universe, which is raised by thisConference-and by the scientific and speculative ouvre of John ArchibaldWheeler (Wheeler 1994).

Bibliography

Ambronn, Heinz. Apeiron-eon~kenon: Zum Arche-Begriff bei den Vorsokratern.Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1996

Axelos, Kostas. Heraclite et la philosophie: la premiere saisie de l’etre endevenir de la totalite. Paris, 1968.

Hammer, Thomas. Einheit und Vielheit bei Heraklit von Ephesus. Wurzburg,1991.

Huber, Martina Stemich. Heraklit: Der Werdegang des Weisen. Amsterdam andPhiladelphia, 1996.

Jacobs, David C., ed. The Presocratics after Heidegger. Albany, N.Y., 1999.

Jaeger, Werner. The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers. GiffordLectures. Oxford, 1947.

Juengel, Eberhard. Zum Ursprung der Analogie bei Parmenides und Heraklit.Berlin, 1964.

Klauder John R., ed. Magic Without Magic: John Archibald Wheeler: ACollection of Essays In Honor of his Sixtieth Birthday. San Francisco, 1972.

Maly, Kenneth, and Parvis Emad, eds. Heidegger on Heraclitus; A New Reading.Lewiston, N.Y., 1986.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Faust the Theologian. New Haven, 1995.

Soumia, Alain. Heraclite, ou, L’intuition de la science. Paris, 1982.

Waterfield, Robin, ed. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and SophistsTranslated with Commentary, Oxford, 2000.

Weber, Franz Josef. Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Text und Kommentar.Paderborn 1976.

Wheeler, John Archibald. Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search forLinks. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

—. At Home in the Universe. New York, 1994.

Zurek, Wojciech Hubert, Alwyn van der Merwe, and Warner Allen Miller, eds.Between Quantum and Cosmos: Studies and Essays in Honor of John ArchibaldWheeler. Princeton, 1988.

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