From Quarks to Black Holes and Back

Marcus de Sautoy: Ce que nous ne saurons jamais (English title: What We Cannot Know, translation by Raymond Clarinard) ISBN 978-2-35087-405-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Warning: If you don’t like abstract thinking, don’t buy this book. If you cringe at the sight of an even simple mathematical formula, don’t start reading this book. If you think an electron is a weapon from “Star Wars”, stick to science fiction and don’t loose you time pretending to read this book. Nobody will believe you anyway. However, if none of the above is true and if you are interested in the limits of human knowledge, in questions about the (in)finity of the universe, the place of God in cosmology or the prelude to the Big Bang, then and only then, do read this book.

The book is well written. It is well researched. It does not shy away from controversial discussions, absurd conclusions and highly hypothetical models of what was, is and will be. It offers a contradicting look into the past and a fuzzy view of the future slong with a disputed assessment of the present. It is full of facts about theories, theories about so-called facts, formulas and though experiments and entertaining jokes.

“What We Cannot Know” is written by a mathematician, who plays the trumpet (rather well it would appear) and the cello (not so well, if we believe de Sautoy). De Sautoy is an official atheist obsessed by his dice and the question of God. This alone sounds promising and makes it worthwhile to hear what he has to say. I shall not attempt to write a synopsis of this book. I would have to rewrite it, which would make no sense at all, would it? I will just enumerate a few topics from a scientist’s everyday life about which humanity knows little and about which it will perhaps never know everything.

The subdivision of the atom for instance: protons, neutrons, electrons and, one level deeper, the quarks. Easy stuff. Unknown and unimaginable some 100 years ago. Can we go deeper and divide matter even further? Can we smash the quark and “look” inside to see what’s in there and what holds it together? We don’t quite know how much we (don’t) know. Space is next. It expands with unequal speed. Why? For how long already? Will it contract at some point? We can’t say. Is it infinite? Some say humanity is inherently unable to answer that question.

What about time? Since we cannot prove it, we BELIEVE that time started to come into existence at some point, but will it ever end? And how exactly did it come into existence? Some respected researchers believe that time is an illusion, just as others believe that any form of “confirmed” knowledge is an illusion. Science is what happens after we have proved that one theory is wrong and before we publish a new one. Or so it would seem.

How about aliens – should we look for them? If there is some kind of intelligent life in outer space different from ours, we should expect it to be more developed. SETI might be a risky bet. Do we really want to meet something more clever than us? Finally conscience. What is it? Where is it located in the brain? How does it start? Can it transcend death? Or be emulated by Artificial Intelligence? We don’t know. In a more general way, our brain and the way it works are one of the biggest mysteries of all. I think, therefore I am, you may say with René Descartes. Really? But who is I? Think about it. Cogito, sed sum?

We know so little despite 10,000 years of scientific research, religious experiences and philosophical debates. We strive to gain insight, instead we discover the dimension of our ignorance, the limits of our thinking. De Sautoy takes the reader on an exciting trip through the history of science and into its possible future, showing us the known unknowns and trying to figure out ways to identify unknown unknowns.

“What We Cannot Know” is one of those books that I had been looking for for a long time, and it was not me who found it. The book rather found me, since I did buy it initially not for myself. Once I had started to read it, I had a hard time to put it down. Understanding how knowledge grows and why in certain areas we fail, is truly fascinating. Realizing that this question cannot be dissociated from the question of God (or any other supposed Creator) makes it even more interesting. A delight for an armchair philosopher like me!

De Sautoy was once asked which piece of music he would like to be able to play, and he chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites. An excellent choice since Bach’s music is full of intricate maths:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry

A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice

A Revolutionary Thinker Guiding Us towards Enlightenment

Frédéric Lenoir: Le miracle Spinoza. Une philosophie pour éclairer notre vie. ISBN 978-2-213-70070-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Baruch de Spinoza – the name alone was enough to spark my curiosity at school. A Jewish philosopher of Portugueuse origin, living and teaching in Amsterdam in the 17th century. At the age of 23, the young intellectual genius had already been banned by the Jewish community because of his revolutionary ideas. If I were to sum his credo up I would say: Reason can explain the universe. Going one step further I would have to admit with Spinoza: God is a man-made fiction. What I specifically appreciate is Spinoza’s lifelong endeavour to reconcile theory and practice and to put rational behaviour at the center of socio-economic and political question. Don’t make fun of anybody, don’t lament, don’t detest, think!

The French writer and philosophy teacher Frédéric Lenoir has written an excellent introduction into Spinoza’s world. I wish I had had it when I still was at school. Our teacher did his best to explain to his students Spinoza’s basic ideas, but the 17th century was way too far from my everyday life and I did not understand much, if anything at all. Lenoir puts the philosopher’s ideas not only into a historic context, he also tries to explain their relevance for our contemporary world. Applied philosophy – I love that!

Spinoza gave a lot of thought to the highly controversial subject of religion, and Lenoir’s way to present this subject alone gave me a lot of satisfaction. Spinoza does not deny the existence of God as many of his critics have said, instead he says that religions – any of the three monotheistic religions – have become an instrument of monarchs, bishops, muftis and rabbis to keep people ignorant and to rule them by fear – fear of punishment by God if they do not obey laws made by men. He opposes this view to a view that sees religion – any of the three monotheistic religions – as the quest for justice and peace, the ultimate Good being intellectual enlightment, control of human passions and science-based judgment in all affairs, a goal that admittedly, only few can reach.

For Spinoza religion, dealing with faith, and philosophy, dealing with the pursuit of truth via rational thought, do not exclude eachother but need to co-exist, covering two distinct aspects of human life, following to different types of logic. He fights for the right to free expression and condemns the interference of religion into politics, which according to Spinoza, need to be guided by scientific analysis and good judgment. Naturally – and quite ahead if his time – he favours democracy over monarchies and aristocracies. The logic corollary to the right to free expression is the right to freely choose a political representative.

With his heavy criticism of some of the foundations of Judaism and Christian faith and central aspects of the political reality of his time, Spinoza made himself a lot of enemies, which led him to publish several of his books under a pen name and some only after his death. Apparently someone even attempted to murder him.

He was conscious about the scandal his claims in the field of teligion would trigger, and I will just mention two provocations Lenoir explains: a) The Torah (or the Pentateuch, five books included in what Christians call the Old Testament) was not written by Moses b) With the fall of the first Jewish state more than 2500 years ago, the Jews cannot claim any longer to be the chosen people, the bond has been severed. To prove his point he produces a systematical critical analysis of the Torah, an interpretation in the light of historical facts. Can you do this in the 17th century? Not if you like a peaceful life.

Christians did not fare much better. Spinoza rejects the idea of the Holy Trinity and Jesus being a human incarnation of God – two ideas that split the Christian church. Spinoza hit a vulnerable spot and he did not stop here. According to him, God cannot be external to this world since human understanding alone can come up with anything called God. God is a concept, made by men. He also objects to a literal interpretation of the Old and New Testament and claims that religions purpose are to give people a set of ethical rules to live more or less in peace together – a manmade system to guarantee a certain social order, convenient for rulers and open to misuse. And yes, Spinoza had read Machiavelli’s treatise “The Prince”. In his time, the ethical framework was set by religion, however, as Lenoir does not fail to mention, there could be alternatives, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Provinces, part of which would become today’s Netherlands, may have been a liberal state, however time was not yet ripe for such attacks on central pillars of the established order and the power that seemed to guarantee social and political stability. Along with the French René Descartes, Spinoza certainly was one of the most important prophets of what would later be called the age of Enlightenment. It’s a shame it took me so long to find that out. I find him a fascinating man with fascinating ideas. What’s more, Lenoir’s introduction to Spinoza’s world is a useful reminder about the origin of the scientific, economic and political framework that rules our everyday life today. I couldn’t think of a better book to read on a Dutch beach.

Just for the fun of it, let’s pitch Spinoza against Johann Sebastian Bach, who reached out to God in his music, for instance in his “Brandenburg Concertos”:

Bach appeals to our sense of beauty

Catching a Glimpse of God or Descending into Hell


Johanna Prader: Der gnostische Wahn. Eric Voegelin und die Zerstörung menschlicher Ordnung in der Moderne ISBN 978-3-85165-725-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Michael Henkel: Eric Voegelin. Eine Einführung. ISBN 978-3-88506-976-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The rise of autocratic politicians to power, the mobilization of masses for openly xenophobic or racist ideas, the radicalization of young people through extremism – this is something that deeply troubles me. My country was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940. Jews started to disappear soon afterwards. A few Luxembourg citizen openly supported the Nazi party. Some helped to implement the antisemitic ideology simply by turning a blind eye to what was happening. Few had the courage to actually do something about it. For me it is clear where the rise of autocratic and discriminating ideologies can lead to. We have been there before. In Germany, in the Soviet Union. In South Africa. In Ruanda.

But what are the mechanisms behind the mobilization of masses for extremist ideas? Why doesn’t mankind learn from history? I found answers in the works of a philosopher and political scientist who stood at the very beginning of the scientific institute where I studied political science: Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), the founder of the Institut für Politische Wissenschaften at the University of Munich. Voegelin’s works focus on the parallels between religion – creed would be the better word – and political ideologies. He left Germany in 1938 after he had spoken out against any ideology, be it based on race biology or on the struggle of classes, and made himself an enemy of the Nazis. He moved to the United States and came back after World War II to found the said scientific institute where I spent many hours between 1989 and 1994.

“God is dead”

Voegelin has become known as a virulent critic of modernity. “God is dead”, Zarathustra says in Friedrich Nietzsche’s monumental work “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, and that is part of the problem. According to Voegelin, humanity has gradually weakened the link between its political reality and the transcendental element, the concept of God. Humanity has since the Enlightenment tried to put man in the center of its world and tried to ignore that rationality can not give an answer to existential questions like the purpose of life. According to Voegelin however, man always has a longing for a transcendental idea, a longing for a creed, and at the beginning of the 20th century it has found it in communism, fascism and – to some degree – in liberalism.

Voeglin’s world where religion, philosophy and political science become interdependent disciplines is a fascinating one, although his works request some background knowledge of Europe’s history of ideas and of Europe’s philosophy. And that’s why I wanted to present here two books that are a short-cut into Voegelin’s world. Michael Henkel’s book is as much a biography as it is an introduction to the different concepts that Voeglin explores in his books: Austria’s autocratic constitution of 1934, religion and politics, the need for a new type of political sciences, gnostic sects as precursors of modern extremist ideologies, themselves necessary and sufficient condition for political system resulting in the violent oppression of non-believers.

Johanna Prader’s book focuses on the one concept at the center of Voegelin’s thinking: the gnosis. This concept has its origin in sects that saw the light at the same time as Christianism started to spread. It is characterized by a dualistic view of the world, a world divided into good and bad. The bad world being the one we live it at a given moment in time, the good world is an ideal construction that adherents to gnostic ideas want to build. They believe in a necessary apocalypse that must occur before the good world becomes a reality and they see themselves as the driving force behind an evolution towards this final battle.

St John, Marx, Hitler

And if this seems familiar, you are right. Such views are expressed in the Gospel of St John. Such views are expressed in Karl Marx’ “Das Kapital”. Such views are expressed in Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. While the Bible acknowledges the existential link between Man and God, the later two ideologies are anthropocentric and have replaced God by an idealized and inflated concept of man’s abilities.

Voegelin’s works have captured my interest, and I will dig my way through some of his works over the next months, without bothering the readers of this blog however. It is interesting to speculate about what Voegelin would think about political Islam, the rise to power of Donald Trump, a person – not even a politician – standing exclusively for his own, personal interests. Philosophy takes an ironic twist here. Voegelin assessed the British and the American society as the only modern societies having maintained the link to the transcendental element. If Voegelin could study Theresa May’s Not-so-United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s Even-less-United States, he would probably have been terrorized and scraped parts of his theory.

It’s all rather depressive, isn’t it? Relief is at hand. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially his Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, allows me to catch a glimpse of God (if he exists!) and keep the spectre of apocalypse at bay:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry

Essays on luck – a tough nut

Heinrich Meier (Hg.): Über das Glück. Ein Symposion.
ISBN 978-3-492-25304-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ A collection of scientific essays on luck and happiness. Aspects from literature, psychology and philosophy. Interesting, but very hard to read for a tired mind. I did not finish it which almost never happens. However I do not rule out to take it up again – with a more alert mind.

However I know how to find happiness. With works from the Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach:

Souvenirs of cozyness triggered by a Bach sonata

Bach appeals to our sense of beauty