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The Invention of Zero: How Ancient Mesopotamia Created the Mathematical Concept of Nought and Ancient India Gave It Symbolic Form

“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world.”

The Invention of Zero: How Ancient Mesopotamia Created the Mathematical Concept of Nought and Ancient India Gave It Symbolic Form

If the ancient Arab world had closed its gates to foreign travelers, we would have no medicine, no astronomy, and no mathematics — at least not as we know them today.

Central to humanity’s quest to grasp the nature of the universe and make sense of our own existence is zero, which began in Mesopotamia and spurred one of the most significant paradigm shifts in human consciousness — a concept first invented (or perhaps discovered) in pre-Arab Sumer, modern-day Iraq, and later given symbolic form in ancient India. This twining of meaning and symbol not only shaped mathematics, which underlies our best models of reality, but became woven into the very fabric of human life, from the works of Shakespeare, who famously winked at zero in King Lear by calling it “an O without a figure,” to the invention of the bit that gave us the 1s and 0s underpinning my ability to type these words and your ability to read them on this screen.

Mathematician Robert Kaplan chronicles nought’s revolutionary journey in The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero (public library). It is, in a sense, an archetypal story of scientific discovery, wherein an abstract concept derived from the observed laws of nature is named and given symbolic form. But it is also a kind of cross-cultural fairy tale that romances reason across time and space

Art by Paul Rand from Little 1 by Ann Rand, a vintage concept book about the numbers

Kaplan writes:

If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world. For zero brings into focus the great, organic sprawl of mathematics, and mathematics in turn the complex nature of things. From counting to calculating, from estimating the odds to knowing exactly when the tides in our affairs will crest, the shining tools of mathematics let us follow the tacking course everything takes through everything else – and all of their parts swing on the smallest of pivots, zero

With these mental devices we make visible the hidden laws controlling the objects around us in their cycles and swerves. Even the mind itself is mirrored in mathematics, its endless reflections now confusing, now clarifying insight.

[…]

As we follow the meanderings of zero’s symbols and meanings we’ll see along with it the making and doing of mathematics — by humans, for humans. No god gave it to us. Its muse speaks only to those who ardently pursue her.

With an eye to the eternal question of whether mathematics is discovered or invented — a question famously debated by Kurt Gödel and the Vienna Circle — Kaplan observes:

The disquieting question of whether zero is out there or a fiction will call up the perennial puzzle of whether we invent or discover the way of things, hence the yet deeper issue of where we are in the hierarchy. Are we creatures or creators, less than – or only a little less than — the angels in our power to appraise?

Art by Shel Silverstein from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O

Like all transformative inventions, zero began with necessity — the necessity for counting without getting bemired in the inelegance of increasingly large numbers. Kaplan writes:

Zero began its career as two wedges pressed into a wet lump of clay, in the days when a superb piece of mental engineering gave us the art of counting.

[…]

The story begins some 5,000 years ago with the Sumerians, those lively people who settled in Mesopotamia (part of what is now Iraq). When you read, on one of their clay tablets, this exchange between father and son: “Where did you go?” “Nowhere.” “Then why are you late?”, you realize that 5,000 years are like an evening gone.

The Sumerians counted by 1s and 10s but also by 60s. This may seem bizarre until you recall that we do too, using 60 for minutes in an hour (and 6 × 60 = 360 for degrees in a circle). Worse, we also count by 12 when it comes to months in a year, 7 for days in a week, 24 for hours in a day and 16 for ounces in a pound or a pint. Up until 1971 the British counted their pennies in heaps of 12 to a shilling but heaps of 20 shillings to a pound.

Tug on each of these different systems and you’ll unravel a history of customs and compromises, showing what you thought was quirky to be the most natural thing in the world. In the case of the Sumerians, a 60-base (sexagesimal) system most likely sprang from their dealings with another culture whose system of weights — and hence of monetary value — differed from their own.

Having to reconcile the decimal and sexagesimal counting systems was a source of growing confusion for the Sumerians, who wrote by pressing the tip of a hollow reed to create circles and semi-circles onto wet clay tablets solidified by baking. The reed eventually became a three-sided stylus, which made triangular cuneiform marks at varying angles to designate different numbers, amounts, and concepts. Kaplan demonstrates what the Sumerian numerical system looked like by 2000 BCE:

This cumbersome system lasted for thousands of years, until someone at some point between the sixth and third centuries BCE came up with a way to wedge accounting columns apart, effectively symbolizing “nothing in this column” — and so the concept of, if not the symbol for, zero was born. Kaplan writes:

In a tablet unearthed at Kish (dating from perhaps as far back as 700 BC), the scribe wrote his zeroes with three hooks, rather than two slanted wedges, as if they were thirties; and another scribe at about the same time made his with only one, so that they are indistinguishable from his tens. Carelessness? Or does this variety tell us that we are very near the earliest uses of the separation sign as zero, its meaning and form having yet to settle in?

But zero almost perished with the civilization that first imagined it. The story follows history’s arrow from Mesopotamia to ancient Greece, where the necessity of zero awakens anew. Kaplan turns to Archimedes and his system for naming large numbers, “myriad” being the largest of the Greek names for numbers, connoting 10,000. With his notion of orders of large numbers, the great Greek polymath came within inches of inventing the concept of powers, but he gave us something even more important — as Kaplan puts it, he showed us “how to think as concretely as we can about the very large, giving us a way of building up to it in stages rather than letting our thoughts diffuse in the face of immensity, so that we will be able to distinguish even such magnitudes as these from the infinite.”

“Archimedes Thoughtful” by Domenico Fetti, 1620

This concept of the infinite in a sense contoured the need for naming its mirror-image counterpart: nothingness. (Negative numbers were still a long way away.) And yet the Greeks had no word for zero, though they clearly recognized its spectral presence. Kaplan writes:

Haven’t we all an ancient sense that for something to exist it must have a name? Many a child refuses to accept the argument that the numbers go on forever (just add one to any candidate for the last) because names run out. For them a googol — 1 with 100 zeroes after it — is a large and living friend, as is a googolplex (10 to the googol power, in an Archimedean spirit).

[…]

By not using zero, but naming instead his myriad myriads, orders and periods, Archimedes has given a constructive vitality to this vastness — putting it just that much nearer our reach, if not our grasp.

Ordinarily, we know that naming is what gives meaning to existence. But names are given to things, and zero is not a thing — it is, in fact, a no-thing. Kaplan contemplates the paradox:

Names belong to things, but zero belongs to nothing. It counts the totality of what isn’t there. By this reasoning it must be everywhere with regard to this and that: with regard, for instance, to the number of humming-birds in that bowl with seven — or now six — apples. Then what does zero name? It looks like a smaller version of Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, having no there there.

Zero, still an unnamed figment of the mathematical imagination, continued its odyssey around the ancient world before it was given a name. After Babylon and Greece, it landed in India. The first surviving written appearance of zero as a symbol appeared there on a stone tablet dated 876 AD, inscribed with the measurements of a garden: 270 by 50, written as “27°” and “5°.” Kaplan notes that the same tiny zero appears on copper plates dating back to three centuries earlier, but because forgeries ran rampant in the eleventh century, their authenticity can’t be ascertained. He writes:

We can try pushing back the beginnings of zero in India before 876, if you are willing to strain your eyes to make out dim figures in a bright haze. Why trouble to do this? Because every story, like every dream, has a deep point, where all that is said sounds oracular, all that is seen, an omen. Interpretations seethe around these images like froth in a cauldron. This deep point for us is the cleft between the ancient world around the Mediterranean and the ancient world of India.

But if zero were to have a high priest in ancient India, it would undoubtedly be the mathematician and astronomer Āryabhata, whose identity is shrouded in as much mystery as Shakespeare’s. Nonetheless, his legacy — whether he was indeed one person or many — is an indelible part of zero’s story.

Āryabhata (art by K. Ganesh Acharya)

Kaplan writes:

Āryabhata wanted a concise way to store (not calculate with) large numbers, and hit on a strange scheme. If we hadn’t yet our positional notation, where the 8 in 9,871 means 800 because it stands in the hundreds place, we might have come up with writing it this way: 9T8H7Te1, where T stands for ‘thousand’, H for “hundred” and Te for “ten” (in fact, this is how we usually pronounce our numbers, and how monetary amounts have been expressed: £3.4s.2d). Āryabhata did something of this sort, only one degree more abstract.

He made up nonsense words whose syllables stood for digits in places, the digits being given by consonants, the places by the nine vowels in Sanskrit. Since the first three vowels are a, i and u, if you wanted to write 386 in his system (he wrote this as 6, then 8, then 3) you would want the sixth consonant, c, followed by a (showing that c was in the units place), the eighth consonant, j, followed by i, then the third consonant, g, followed by u: CAJIGU. The problem is that this system gives only 9 possible places, and being an astronomer, he had need of many more. His baroque solution was to double his system to 18 places by using the same nine vowels twice each: a, a, i, i, u, u and so on; and breaking the consonants up into two groups, using those from the first for the odd numbered places, those from the second for the even. So he would actually have written 386 this way: CASAGI (c being the sixth consonant of the first group, s in effect the eighth of the second group, g the third of the first group)…

There is clearly no zero in this system — but interestingly enough, in explaining it Āryabhata says: “The nine vowels are to be used in two nines of places” — and his word for “place” is “kha”. This kha later becomes one of the commonest Indian words for zero. It is as if we had here a slow-motion picture of an idea evolving: the shift from a “named” to a purely positional notation, from an empty place where a digit can lodge to “the empty number”: a number in its own right, that nudged other numbers along into their places.

Kaplan reflects on the multicultural intellectual heritage encircling the concept of zero:

While having a symbol for zero matters, having the notion matters more, and whether this came from the Babylonians directly or through the Greeks, what is hanging in the balance here in India is the character this notion will take: will it be the idea of the absence of any number — or the idea of a number for such absence? Is it to be the mark of the empty, or the empty mark? The first keeps it estranged from numbers, merely part of the landscape through which they move; the second puts it on a par with them.

In the remainder of the fascinating and lyrical The Nothing That Is, Kaplan goes on to explore how various other cultures, from the Mayans to the Romans, contributed to the trans-civilizational mosaic that is zero as it made its way to modern mathematics, and examines its profound impact on everything from philosophy to literature to his own domain of mathematics. Complement it with this Victorian love letter to mathematics and the illustrated story of how the Persian polymath Ibn Sina revolutionized modern science.

BP

Sociologist Anne Wortham on Authenticity, the Real Meaning of Individualism, and the Choice to Abstain from Activism

“A civilized society is one whose members expect that each will address at all times, as far as possible, the rational in man.”

“The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to pump up a front, to hide the facts, to play roles,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1940s as she reflected on the pariah’s plight for identity. But what, exactly, does it mean to inhabit an authentic identity within an existing society?

That’s what sociologist and writer Anne Wortham (b. November 26, 1941) explores in her conversation with Bill Moyers, published in A World of Ideas (public library) — the magnificent 1989 collection of Moyers’s interviews, which also gave us philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, Chinua Achebe on how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches, and Isaac Asimov on the role of science fiction in advancing society.

Anne Wortham

Wortham, who had grown up in the segregated South, became rather controversial as an African American academic who criticized certain aspects of the traditional Civil Rights movement’s contribution to reverse racism. In considering her opposition to these ideas, Wortham reflects on what she stands for as a way of contouring what she stands against. She tells Moyers:

I’m an individualist. I believe that life is a very important adventure that has to be carried out by individuals — in cooperation with other individuals, yes, but always lived by individuals.

Echoing Joan Didion’s timeless assertion that “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Wortham adds:

I take full responsibility for myself and for the kind of life I create and the relationships I have with other people. I believe very strongly in individual freedom, both internal freedom and external freedom… Freedom from the restraint of society and within that context, therefore, freedom to realize my highest potential but to take responsibility for any failures or lack of knowledge that I have.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

Individualism, Wortham cautions, is often confused with narcissism or self-centeredness. But it is something else entirely — something closer to Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance. She tells Moyers:

The kind of individualism that I espouse is self-responsible. Self-responsibility can never be transformed into self-centeredness.

She points to the Southern practice of good manners — which some misperceive as vacant vanity and thus a form of narcissism — as an example of such self-responsible relationship with society:

It is a statement of self-respect and respect for other human beings. It is a device for maintaining civility in human relations. The reason one would have allegiance to good manners and etiquette is because one values being human. And because one values being human, one values oneself and others. You would not want to give to another person more or less respect than you would yourself as a human being.

A quarter century later, Edie Windsor would come to echo this central pillar of the moral life as she won marriage equality for millions.

Moyers points to another misconception about individualism — that it grants the individual the right to do whatever he or she wants, which parallels our misconceptions about what free will really means. In a sentiment that calls to mind Simone Weil’s incisive wisdom on the crucial difference between our rights and our responsibilities, Wortham considers individualism as woven of both:

A civilized society is one whose members expect that each will address at all times, as far as possible, the rational in man; that even when I may want to bash you over the head, I will be checked by my awareness of you as a rational entity, and I will not resort to force as an expression of my disagreement with you or even my feeling that you have been unjust to me; that in my disagreements with you I will rely on the power of persuasion.

When Moyers asks how one is to handle those who behave irrationally and unjustly, Wortham responds:

I remind myself that this is an irrational person who is betraying rationality and therefore himself… Rationality has the capacity for betraying itself. Rational men have the capacity to be irrational and to institutionalize irrationality. We’ve seen that in Nazi Germany.

We see it, too, today.

In a sentiment evocative of Toni Morrison’s beautiful commencement address about how to be your own story, Wortham considers the sanctity of identity and what it takes to maintain “the truth of one’s identity within a larger society”:

It’s the authenticity that is sacred. It is the one thing that is yours… Your story, your life. It is the thing that you die for, ultimately, if you have to. It is the only thing that you die for.

A fidelity to this authenticity is what made Wortham choose not to participate in the traditional Civil Rights movement, which incurred the criticism of many of her peers. She tells Moyers:

I wanted them to understand that I had for myself a different life vocation, that my story was to be written differently. That doesn’t deny the validity of some of the things that were being done in the Civil Rights movement. But one doesn’t always have to be an activist to contribute to society or to have a good life.

[…]

They were asking me to condemn all white Americans. That’s what I felt at the time. And I couldn’t do it.

She reflects on her personal grounds for reluctance:

Not only did I disagree with the Black Power ideology, but I just don’t have it in my personality. So, in the most subtle relations, where certain tacit understandings are at work, the typical Northern Yankee wanted to be seen as being more understanding toward me than I required of him. All I required of him was his respect. I didn’t require his compassion. The Republicans haven’t understood that, you see… Conservative Republicans have thought that they had to show that they were as compassionate as liberals, Democrats, and other people on the left when they should have challenged the nature of the compassion. I’ve often found, having worked among Northern liberals a great deal, that their compassion lacks respect. An analogy is the abolitionist who really, deep down in his heart, thought that blacks were inferior, though he wanted them freed.

When Moyers probes for her definition of respect, Wortham offers:

Respect means that you leave me alone, that you don’t build up in your own mind scenarios for my salvation.

[…]

If we have to ask of any other human being that for us to love him, he must be something that is closer to our view of him or of our grand scheme of how human beings ought to be, then our own obligation to him is simply not to love him. That is the way to respect him… Don’t harm him, don’t force him to do anything — just walk away.

But there are some people who can’t keep their hands off of other people. They just won’t. It takes a lot of courage to leave other people alone, you see.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

Echoing James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s remarkable conversation about the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, Wortham reflects on what she experienced as white Americans’ expectation of her:

They were asking for my sanction. I was the altar before which they stood, and they were asking me to redeem them, which is what Martin Luther King promised them that I would give them… I can’t. Nobody can. We cannot give this to each other. I cannot give you a sense of the importance of your life. I can confirm it. I can nod my head and say yes, but I cannot make it so for you. That you must do for yourself. I can’t do it for you.

In a sentiment of extraordinary pertinence today, Wortham returns to the notion of self-reliance and reflects on the political structures that buoy our individual rights and codify our responsibilities:

One of the paradoxes of democracy and one of the gambles that we make is that citizens have the freedom to redefine their situation.

[…]

You would think, with a history such as ours, that we would have understood two things: first, that the government, while we need it, ultimately cannot be our friend, and also that we don’t need it to be our friend, really. It is just an instrument. If minorities broke their alliance with the government, the would depend more on themselves… You see, we would not be here were it not for our own efforts. Most of our history has been in relationship to a government that has not been very kind. Government is not a savior — the American federal government has not acted as a liberator.

Wortham returns to the question of self-responsible action as qualitatively different from activism and just as legitimate a choice:

If you tie your own personal destiny, the vocation of your life, to public events, then you ultimately end up burning yourself out in activism — or you get out of the picture altogether, you commit suicide, or you go and it in a corner somewhere and suck your thumb. So you have to reach a point at which you can say, “I am rational enough, I understand enough of life, and of myself as an individual human being, to know that I am limited in what I can do, and I am limited in what I know. My number one obligation is to fulfill my life’s purpose. I cannot save the world. Even if I wanted to, I can’t.” This is a very realistic statement, not a statement of defeat, or retreat. It is a reorientation.

There is difficult, necessary truth in Wortham’s words — especially as we confront the helpless-making disconnect between even our most spirited efforts toward justice and the utterly dispiriting political outcomes tarnishing the world today. But indeed, only when we acknowledge our limits can we begin to create within them and in that constructive act to gradually push them from the inside out so that our scope of possibility may continue to grow.

Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas is a trove of wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Eleanor Roosevelt on our individual responsibility in social change and James Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, then revisit Moyers’s stirring conversation with Maya Angelou about courage and facing evil.

BP

The Unity of the Universe: Nobel-Winning Physicist Steven Weinberg on Simplicity and Complexity, Science and Religion, and the Mother of All Questions

“We all bear conflicting needs within us. We want both, simplicity and abundance.”

The Unity of the Universe: Nobel-Winning Physicist Steven Weinberg on Simplicity and Complexity, Science and Religion, and the Mother of All Questions

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so,” philosopher Alan Watts, who popularized ancient Eastern teachings in the West, wrote in his classic 1951 meditation on how we wrest meaning from reality. “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” the great theoretical physicist, Nobel laureate, and prolific author Steven Weinberg (b. May 3, 1933) observed a generation later in his influential 1977 book The First Three Minutes.

A lazy literalist might miss the point, for this is more Zen koan of science than nihilistic defeatism. Just as acknowledging the illusoriness of free will — a tremendously difficult feat for a thinking, feeling human being — can liberate us rather than take away our freedom, acknowledging the impersonal and disinterested laws of nature governing the universe places on us the power and responsibility to synthesize our own sense of meaning. The “pointlessness” thus becomes the very wellspring of existential significance. (A generation later still, the physicist Sean Carroll would call this “poetic naturalism.”)

Just a few years before the publication of Weinberg’s classic, Hannah Arendt had contemplated this very question in her unforgettable Gifford Lecture on the life of the mind:

Men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.

Four decades after his famous proclamation, Weinberg explores the complexity of the question of meaning as it relates to science’s central search for simplicity in We Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our Existence (public library) — a collection of elegant and erudite interviews by Austrian physicist, essayist, and science journalist Stefan Klein.

Steven Weinberg

In his conversation with Klein, Weinberg considers the reach toward the beauty of simplicity as a core ideal of science:

We want to achieve a simpler understanding of nature. And the path to simplicity is unification. Think of Newton, who discovered that the planets follow the same laws as a stone falling to the ground. So there aren’t separate natural laws for the heavens and earth, as people had thought up to that point — only gravitation, which applies everywhere. That was a great step forward.

[…]

[A beautiful theory of nature is] one in which the connections arise inevitably. Everything fits together, and if you try to change even a tiny part, the whole edifice collapses. Such theories exist: Just think of quantum mechanics, which describes the dynamics of atoms and elementary particles.

The most beautiful theory possible, according to this standard, is that which synthesizes the greatest amount of truth about nature into the simplest, most elegant form. And yet Weinberg objects to the fashion of calling such a synthesis a “theory of everything.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Gödel’s insistence on the incompleteness of our logical understanding, he notes:

I don’t like that phrase. It implies that we would understand everything when we’ve reached that goal. But that won’t be the case. Think of phenomena like consciousness or even just turbulence in liquids and gases. We already know the physical and chemical laws underlying them today. And yet we’re far from having understood our consciousness or the weather. That’s why I prefer to call the goal of our search a “final theory.”

[…]

In our world we deal with accidents and principles. Accidents can’t be explained. It’s pointless to ask why a comet hit the earth sixty-five million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. It’s another thing to attempt to find out something about the rules of heredity among the dinosaurs and all other living things. Those involve underlying principles — to be precise, the principles of biochemistry. And the biochemical laws can be explained in turn by atomic physics. Then comes particle physics, and so on. Ultimately, it boils down to the final theory. That’s where all “why” questions end.

Echoing John Updike’s assertion that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain,” Weinberg adds:

Another question is whether our brains are powerful enough to even understand these increasingly comprehensive laws. In the end, dogs can’t be trained to solve the Schrödinger equation.

When asked about the seeming parallel between the quest for a unified theory and the central premise of monotheistic religions, Weinberg — himself an atheist of course — inverts the proposition and considers how that very quest, which is at the heart of science, may have also given rise to the religious impulse:

The desire for one God and for a theory of the whole cosmos might have the same cause. Monotheism developed because people found polytheism too complicated. And just as it’s less satisfying to pin storms on Zeus, plagues on Apollo, and the crop yield on Demeter, we physicists would rather have a unified explanation of the world than the complex standard model.

Copernicus’s revolutionary heliocentric model of the universe, one of 100 diagrams that changed the world

And yet, echoing Milton Glaser’s beautiful assertion that “everything exists at once with its opposite,” Weinberg notes that our human yearning for simplicity coexists with its counterpoint:

When you go to an opera, you’re not looking for simple explanations, but want to experience on the stage the whole diversity and complexity of life… We all bear conflicting needs within us. We want both, simplicity and abundance.

He reflects on his own experience of these polarities:

[Nature fills me with] a sense of beauty, of wonder and mystery. However far we come in the search for a final theory, we’ll never know why the laws of nature are the way they are. A mystery will always remain.

When Klein notes that many people call this sense of mystery and wonder “God,” Weinberg offers his sensitive rationale for why he refuses to use the word “out of respect for history”:

The word “God” has had a fairly clear-cut meaning for centuries in the West: It has meant a being of some sort, a creator concerned with questions of good and evil. I don’t believe in such a God. When Einstein calls a cosmic spirit of beauty and harmony “God,” he is lending the term an entirely new meaning. He seems to me to be doing violence to a well-established word. Ultimately, thinking about nature doesn’t fill me with anything even close to the emotions I would have toward a personal God. The laws of nature are impersonal; they’re not interested in us. How could I have warm feelings for them as I do for another human being or even for my Siamese cat?

[…]

We find nothing that gives our lives an objective meaning. There’s nothing in the laws of nature to suggest that we have a particular place in the universe. That doesn’t mean I find my life pointless. We can love each other and try to understand the world. But we have to give our lives that meaning ourselves.

And yet even illusory comfort is comfort, the disappearance of which — however rightful it may be and however rational our reasons for it — nonetheless aggrieves and disquiets us. Weinberg — whose testimony before the Texas Board of Education was instrumental in eradicating from the classroom the religious obstructionism to teaching evolution — considers the sense of loss which accompanies the dissolution of religious untruths:

Human beings regarded themselves as characters in a cosmic drama: We were created, we have sinned, we will be saved — a grand story. Now we realize that we’re more like actors standing around on a stage without direction and we have no choice but to improvise a little drama here, a little comedy there. I experience that as a loss… I feel a certain nostalgia for a bygone age of belief. I find myself attracted to religion. And my aversion to religion stems from the fact that I feel a longing for something I know isn’t true.

A 16th-century painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time by Michael Benson

But with an eye to the long history of religious wars, from militant Islamism today to the Christian crusades of the Middle Ages, Weinberg makes clear that no such sentimental nostalgia should be subservient to our moral responsibility to truth and its attendant grace of justice:

One of our most important tasks consists in weakening religious certainties.

When asked what could replace the losses of religion, particularly given that religious feelings have inspired much of humanity’s greatest art, Weinberg echoes philosopher Alain de Botton’s case for what secular culture world can borrow from faith and offers:

Great works of art can console us… We can go on enjoying cathedrals and Gregorian chants without believing. And many of the greatest pieces of literature manage without any religious background; just think of all the works of Shakespeare. And in the end we still have humor… We can be amused with ourselves — not with a sneering humor but with a kindhearted one. It’s the sort of humor we feel when we see a child taking its first steps. We laugh at all the child’s arduous efforts, but we do it full of sympathy. And if laughter ever fails us, we can still take a grim satisfaction in the fact that we are able to live without wishful thinking.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent We Are All Stardust — which includes conversations with icons like primatologist Jane Goodall, cosmologist Martin Rees, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and geographer Jared Diamond — with Freeman Dyson on the unanswerable questions that give meaning to the universe, Simone de Beauvoir on the spiritual rewards of atheism, and Richard Feynman science and religion.

BP

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