9600830713_f25edda963_bWhen Bertrand Russell was eleven he craved certainty. Because he had heard that geometry proved things beyond doubt, he asked his brother to teach him Euclid. His brother began with the usual self-evident axioms but young Bertrand quite properly refused to accept them. He demanded to know their proofs. His brother firmly told him that there are some things in life you have to accept without any proof, and if Bertrand didn’t go along with it, the lesson would have to end. “At these words my hopes crumbled”, Russell recalled.

Russell’s youthful search for mathematical certainty led him to his collaboration with Whitehead. But Principia Mathematica begins, as every logical scheme must, with unproven axioms. And if logic itself relies on brute assertions based on intuition alone, then so must metaphysics. Therefore we have to grasp the ultimate notions of philosophy without proof. The ultimate notions are like Euclid’s axioms: self-evident but unproven. We can’t know the roots of the world by reason; but only through our aesthetic sense. As the late Richard Feynman put it, physical science comes down to a question, not of logic, but of taste. Whitehead’s cosmology rests on an aesthetic set-up beyond reason, which makes sense of everything else.

He said:

“In all philosophic theory there is an ultimate which is capable of characterization only through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality. In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident”.

(In philosophy an ‘accident’ is a property or quality of a substance which is not essential to our conception of it).

I’ve posted excerpts from this essay before, but here is another one from Richard Lubbock’s great essay on Whitehead.

Image credit: Monzle on flickr

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