And they say physics killed philosophy

I just came across a tantalizing little review of Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe in the London Review of Books.*

The short, doesn’t-nearly-do-it-justice upshot is that Smolin, a physicist, thinks that too many of his colleagues are beholden to a set of models that depend on abstract mathematical symmetries. I’m hardly qualified to discuss the specifics, but it does remind me of another book I found thanks to the LRB, Denys Turner’s biography of Thomas Aquinas.

During his life, Aquinas had to contend with the neo-Platonists, who believed that every person has an immortal soul connected to his body, and that this soul was what ascended to heaven (one would hope) upon dying. Aquinas believed that the soul was the organizing principle of the body, the form of man, and that the soul ceased to exist upon death.

Without getting into specifics (which would take too long to explain, and I might not do a very good job of it anyway—just read the Turner!), the Platonists had an easier time joining their philosophy with Christian teachings about the afterlife, but a harder time explaining what happened before people are born (If souls are immortal then where to they come from? Were they around forever before being joined to a person at birth? why would a soul bother teaming up with physical substance in the first place?). Thomas had a bit of an easier time explaining things around birth (well, a soul comes into play whenever a human being has a form that we can identify as human), but a harder time lining his philosophy up with the Catholic’s view of afterlife (so if the soul is the form of man, what happens to that soul after death? How can it go to heaven if the body stays put on Earth and starts to rot? If we get our bodies back at the resurrection, what happens in the interim? Does god reunite the substance that our bodies had with our souls? What if some of that substance has become a part of another person?).

And so the unfamiliar, academic logic around the debates that Thomas had in his lifetime have an echo in those circling around physics today. A neat little correspondence.


*Alas it’ll have to remain tantalizing to you too, reader, as this review is in the pay-to-view section of the periodical.

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