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‘That’s not real’

Today I’d like us to talk about the nature of nature and the myths in which we live.  By ‘nature’ I mean what we consider as being natural or real.  Let’s begin with a potted, and no doubt inaccurate, history…

To the early medieval mind, the universe of Augustine was static and unchanging. The world had been made for our edification in order to bring us closer to God. It had no other purpose. Nature was inscrutable and there was nothing to be gained from its study. Objects of everyday reality were meaningless except as symbols of God’s design.

Universities emerged around the beginning of the 13th Century with curricula influenced by the rediscovered teachings of Aristotle as well as the wisdom of Muslim philosophers.  Students were encouraged to examine nature textually in the trivium and through the use of mathematics and reason in the quadrivium.  All this new-fangled learning posed fundamental problems for the Church. If a student were to analyse the workings of the universe they might come close enough to the mechanism of Creation to ask awkward questions about just what this God person was up to.

To cut a long story short, battle lines were drawn.  One side marched under the banner  ‘Credo ut intelligam’ (understanding can only come through belief), the other ‘Intelligo ut credam’ (belief can only come through understanding).  And before you could say “we are what we do”, the nature of nature and how we come to relate to reality became a battleground between faith and reason.  To my mind, we’re still in the business of dodging the slings and arrows of this outrageous battle.

Currently at the Academy of Tiffin, the year 7s are being taught about ‘Myths’. Myths are the way we see the world, as de Mello puts it, “the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.”  The Year 10s are being introduced to the ideas of Romanticism and the Year 13s are dealing with ideas of the sublime.  Mythology, Romanticism and the sublime all inhere in the profound connection between reality and the individual.  We are connected to the world, not separated from it. Books are ways of revealing the connection.

There are myths which hold us captive in the modern world.  One of the peskiest of these is that the world is made of matter and that matter is very small lumps of hard stuff.  Now physics began dismissing that myth over a century ago and yet it still holds the average Tiffinian in its grasp.  This myth makes us see the world as ‘out there’, perceived by something ‘in here’ (the Director points at head).  And thus the business of knowing stuff is the result of passive observation and applying labels.  Any story teller will tell you that just isn’t so. There’s something unnatural if learning is all about being taught to recognise eyes and noses and mouths whilst not knowing what a face is.

Permit me to sign off our little sojourn into the natural world with this from Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers which I happened to be reading this week.  As a bonus, it refers to one of my favourite philosophers:

Meeting a friend in a corridor, Wittgenstein said: “Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?” His friend said, “Well, obviously, because it just looks as if the sun is going round the earth.” To which the philosopher replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?”

Until next time:  Happy Rotating/Reading!

Mr Liddy

Director of Literacy