“The good Christian should beware of mathematicians, and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of Hell.” – Saint Augustine
On Nov. 7, the University of Wisconsin – Platteville College of Liberal Arts and Education hosted a faculty forum entitled: “Einstein’s ‘theory of everything’ in Elizabethan England: John Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad.” Dr. Nancy Turner, a history professor at UW-Platteville, spoke about English mathematician John Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad as a “theory of everything,” much like Albert Einstein’s attempt at a grand, unified theory of physics. The hieroglyphic monad was the symbol which Dee said embodied a universal theory of everything.
Turner began her presentation by placing Dee in the historical setting of Platonic and neo-Platonic thought. She explained that, while Aristotle’s works were generally well-known, the writings of Plato were seldom read until the Italian Renaissance, specifically until the year 1450, when they were translated by Ficino.
Turner shared that Christianity adopted a distorted version of Platonism, called neo-Platonism. Those who study Plato are familiar with his ideas on idea forms, and that all emanations come from one Prime Mover, or first creator. For Christian neo-Platonists, this Prime Mover becomes the Mind of God.
As Plato’s God (or the God of Christian neo-Platonists) withdraws, the demiurge is left. The demiurge creates order from chaos. According to Turner, neo-Platonists find order by finding logic in the universe. They assign said logic to the universe by becoming one with the Mind of God.
That being established, Turner introduced Dee’s Monad, his “key to everything,” as a mathematical principle connecting mathematics to geometry and celestial order. To understand it, or to understand any knowledge and assign order to chaos, you must establish contact with the creator. By contemplating the Monad, one should feel the oneness of God’s Mind.
The Monad also incorporates ideas from the Corpus Hermeticum’s “Emerald Tablet”, “as above, so below.” The “Emerald Tablet” was essentially said to be a guide on how to control all the forces in the universe, and is treated as a foundational text by Dee, Turner said.
Turner explained how later scientists, such as Johannes Kepler, who believed his discoveries about the planets showed the “splendid harmonies” of the universe, followed in the same tradition.
Turner didn’t get the chance to speak on Einstein, except to say that his general relativity theory was another attempt at such a “theory of everything,” and was in the same tradition of neo-Platonism; “God does not play dice.”
“Einstein’s idea of the divine was following a line of thought that could be traced back to Plato, or forward to neo-Platonists and mathematicians and scientists like Dee, Kepler and Newton,” Turner said.
Following Turner’s presentation, Dr. James Swenson, a mathematics professor at UW-Platteville, discussed truth claims in mathematics. Swenson shed some light on mathematicians’ belief that mathematical knowledge has a special status in respect to truth. Views on mathematical truth have changed throughout history, just as the effectiveness of mathematics in describing physical reality has been called into question.
Swenson’s very organized response relied on multiple quotes from multiple thinkers. He spoke about the mathematical search for universal law in the western tradition. Swenson pointed out that, not long after Dee, mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes famously decided that, rather than basing things on the Mind of God, he would base things on empiricism. This decision led to Descartes’ famous conclusion that the only thing he could be sure of was that he thought, so he knew he existed: “I think therefore I am.”
Swenson connected this to Descartes’ use of numbers and pointed out that the Cartesian coordinate system we all use in mathematics comes from this.
“Descartes unified physics by proposing that celestial and terrestrial objects followed the same natural laws,” Swenson said.
In continuation of that thought, he said that Descartes also “unified mathematics by revealing a deep correspondence between geometry and arithmetic.”
Swenson shared that, instead of approaching geometry through shapes, like Dee, people slowly began to approach it through numbers. Yet, the axioms these numbers were based upon were not provable.
“To avoid infinite regress, mathematics requires a set of axioms, started using undefined terms. These can’t be justified within the scope of mathematics itself,” Swenson said.
Nonetheless, today, instead of a Mind of God or Prime Mover, we tend to look at mathematical axioms. Quantum physics disrupted Newtonian and Einsteinian physics, not only because what you looked for determined what you found (the classic Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle), but because it assumed that sub-atomic particles act differently than other things. Measuring them involves more than empirical measurement.
By the 20th century, it became unclear whether mathematics linked directly to the empirical world in the way people assumed it did or not. Swenson provided the famous hypothesis of dark matter to explain this. One is left with either hypothesizing reasons why what is empirically measured does not match mathematical equations, or throwing out the equations.