I am retired from my career in theoretical quantum physics, but still am active in research as an Emeritus Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute of NIST and the University of Maryland Physics Department. I also have long-standing interests in culture, history, philosophy, theology, photography, and the arts. This site will explore such matters.
The opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics tells us :
All human beings by nature desire to know.
Aristotle’s remarkably simple statement tells us that there is a class of beings, “human beings,” about which the qualifier “all” can be predicated. Furthermore, such beings have a “nature” that gives them a desire, a love, that stretches them out “to know.” “Stretching out” is natural to our existence in space and time. “Science” emerges as human beings go about enacting their nature of seeking to know.
Why do I choose to call this site Word and Fire? It is related to my passion to know and understand Reality so I can participate in it well. More significantly, “Word” and “Fire” touch the essence of Reality itself. “Word” points to order, knowing, being. “Fire” points to dynamics, participation, becoming. Both point to that which transcends subjectivity. I chose these two words as the titles of two essays I wrote in 2014 for BioLogos.
Science opens one path–but not the only path–towards grasping the intelligibility of the world. ‘Word” speaks of language, an ordered articulation of that intelligibility. I love science and I love language. “Fire” speaks of love, desire that seeks fulfillment. Is not human life an intertwining of word and fire, knowledge and desire? Either of the two may be ordered rightly or wrongly to Reality. One should seek a right ordering of both in order to live well according to the truth of being, the truth of Reality.
Words have intensity, fire, that is not linear and rule-based. Language transcends capture by algorithm. Both poetic and political words posses fire, as do even “scientific” ones. Their fire can be constructive of insight and beauty. Their fire can also inflame the passions to destructive and unharmonious ends. Words themselves shimmer with meaning, embody fire, for good or for ill. Therefore, we must seek to use words well such that they give light and truth and not destruction.
Science, from Latin scientia, knowledge, has come to signify a particular kind of knowing. But there is more than one way to know. I am mindful of Paul of Tarsus’s words to the Ephesians, that they “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.“ What does it mean to know something that surpasses knowledge? Yet, Paul affirms its reality for a collective body of individuals. How do we come to that kind of knowing? Can different kinds of knowing really be separated from one another within the unity of a single mind?
Perhaps the deepest mystery of the cosmos is its being, that there is something rather than nothing. The second deepest mystery is that the human mind renders the world intelligible: all things are accessible to our self-transcending minds. As Aristotle put it, and Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed, “in a sense the psyche (soul, ψυχὴ, anima) is all existing things.“ Einstein said it differently: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility … The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle [German: “ein Wunder“].” Our human minds and Reality are attuned to one another; we truly grasp the world in all its vastness, even if incompletely. That causes me to ask: how can that be; what does it mean?
Some of that wonderful comprehension is captured by the science of carbon and carbon-containing “organic” molecules that make up our bodies. I described this in two essays in 2014 for BioLogos:, entitled “Word“ (on the Logos, carbon chemistry, and the genome) and “Fire” (on carbon formation in dying stars). Our embodied minds and the whole of the cosmos are linked in remarkable ways to enable our participation in being as the kind of beings that we actually find ourselves to be. That indeed is a wonder, precisely because the Word, Logos, comes before the fire, participation.
1. The translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics by J. Sachs (Green Lion Press, 2002) renders this closer to the original Greek (πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει) as “All human beings by nature stretch themselves out towards knowing.” The Greek rendered as “knowing” (εἰδέναι) carries the sense of “seeing that becomes knowing,” “perceiving,” “mentally seeing,” “grasping the form of things through sight.” There is an act of transduction between the world and our mind whereby we come to know the world. This is Einstein’s Wunder, miracle: after all, we do comprehend the world, even if never fully (see 4 below).
2. Letter to the Ephesians 3:19, English Standard Version of The Bible. Paul also affirms that in Christ “all things hold together” (Letter to the Colossians, 1:17). This raises the question: what might this mean with respect to the intelligibility of the world?
3. Aristotle’s words, ἡ ψυχὴ τὰ ὄντα πώς ἐστι πάντα, are given in his On the Soul (De Anima), Book 3, Section 8, 431b21, Loeb Classics Library (1957). Aristotle is quoted on this by Thomas Aquinas in On Truth (De Veritate), Question 1, Article 1, Reply: the soul (anima) agrees with (convenire) every being (omni ente), and “in some way is all things.” (quae quodammodo est omnia). I find this to be a most remarkable and fruitful insight into the transcendent reach of the embodied human mind: we are meant to know the world and the things in it. It coheres with Einstein’s thought concerning the wondrous nature of human comprehension.
4. The English translation of Einstein’s article appears along with his original German, in the March, 1936, edition of the Journal of the Franklin Institute under the title “Physics and Reality.” Einstein’s original sentence is, “Das ewig Unbegreifliche an der Welt ist ihre Begreiflichkeit,” which can better be rendered “The eternally incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensibility.” The German verb greifen (a root of Begreiflichkeit) means to grab, to grasp, to take hold of. Our minds “take hold of” Reality in an active and wondrous way.