René Descartes, who died in 1650, and whom you remember from high school Cartesian coordinates, points the way to the modern intellectual assumption that everything should be explained by means of the mathematical sciences which then eventually gives us the Steven Hawking sense of reality (i.e., science will yield final certitude and thus we’ll know “the mind of God.”)
Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time concludes explicitly with a rousing vision of science as the ultimate triumph of the rational mind eventually revealing “the mind of God.”
To get our bearings on this set of beliefs, go back to Descartes’ masterpiece from 1641/42, Meditations on First Philosophy, one of the world’s great books. “Meditation 2” of this book starts with:
“So serious are the doubts into which I have been thrown as a result of yesterday’s meditation that I can neither put them out of my mind nor see any way of resolving them. It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top. Nevertheless, I will make an effort and once more make an effort and once more attempt the same path which I started on yesterday.
Anything which admits of the slightest doubt I will set aside just as if I had found it to be wholly false; and I will proceed in this way until I recognize something certain, or, if nothing else, until I at least recognize for certain that there is no certainty. Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable.
I will suppose then, that everything i see is spurious. I will believe that my memory tells me lies, and that none of the things that it reports ever happened.
I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are chimeras. So what remains true? Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain.”
The reader will sense a radical vision of infinite doubt looking for an “Archimedean point” of one certain item. The reader can easily see why mathematical constants such as the ubiquitous pi would be something to cling to since one assumes that 22/7 or pi will be the same forever. What else could it be, one thinks.
What we are doing in this book doesn’t look for any “Archimedean point” of final certainty at all. What we want to do is to introduce exercises in holism, giving a more wide-angle view of a field, course, topic, lecture, book, educational experience. We are not in Descartes-type “new certainty” business and don’t look for eternal truths or axioms.
In fact, let’s use Descartes own words here to “extract” some connectedness on the spot:
He says: “I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the doubt.”
Let’s call this a kind of “knowledge vertigo.” The reader might sense that there is a “family” of such dizziness. You think of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. That some psychological panic attack which he tries to explain in the movie. Kim Novak, the female protagonist in the movie, has her own kind of dizziness and falls into the ocean. You can have dizziness from hunger, overtiredness, inner ear infection, salmonella, anxiety, etc. Kierkegaard (1813-1855) discusses a dizziness and vertigo of a person “lost in the world” like a sailor lost at sea with no direction.
In other words, one can use Descartes description of his own “certainty chasing” panic to build a taxonomy of dizzy feelings and get a more holistic sense of such phenomena without insisting on any “eye in the sky” perspective on everything based on a rebuilt version of certainty.
In other words, these Cartesian quests could block the reader from connecting things at a more intermediate or “meso” level, neither micro (too small) nor macro (too far away).