I still remember the first time I read Plato’s Timaeus; indeed I shall never forget it. It was a bewildering experience. Timaeus and Socrates, discussing with each other the nature of the cosmos, convince themselves that there is no scientific account of the nature of the cosmos, because, they think, it is too enmeshed in the messiness of matter to have any such account given it. And so, Timaeus says, the best that one can hope for is what he calls a “likely story,” which he proceeds to conjure up. His “likely story” is bizarre; the universe is made out of “the same” and “the other” impressed with the ratios of musical consonances, folded around on themselves after the manner, apparently, of a piece of pastry….
To my consciousness as a young man, this was almost too strange to contemplate. It was simply beyond me why anyone would think to describe in such terms the most noble order of material reality which we call the cosmos. I assumed rather that this cosmos of ours ought to be described in absolutely scientific terms, which meant we should be seeking absolute precision about every aspect of the cosmos. Forget “likely stories” — that seemed like nonsense!
–And yet, after many years and much thought, I have now come to see all this in a very different way; and perhaps before long some of my readers will find themselves as surprised as I once was by what I am going to call “the Timaeus principle.” But whereas I was surprised by it because it thought it was wrong, I hope that my readers will be surprised when they see that it is not only true, but absolutely fundamental. This principle is, indeed, one of those principles described in traditional philosophy as “small in bulk,” but great in consequence. It also happens, though, to be a principle which most traditional philosophers have not seen; in fact many of them refuse, rather steadfastly, to recognize it. Some scientists, however — though not all — , have recognized it at least to some extent. Strictly speaking it is a principle which it belongs to natural philosophy to understand; it belongs to science rather to receive it, and follow out its implications.
So what is “the Timaeus principle”? Perhaps I should first offer reassurance; I am not going to propose that Timaeus was right, unqualifiedly. But there is an extremely important element of truth in what he said. The reader may have to pardon me for speaking this emphatically: this element of truth is a decisive key to understanding the relation between science and natural philosophy. If that relation has, until now, been either badly understood or not understood, it is because this key has not been found by most traditional philosophers….
… To be continued…