Practicing Discipline in Scientific Endeavor

In 518 BC, the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, founded a school in which the topics of mathematics, music and philosophy were studied with great discipline and secrecy. Men and women were welcome to live in community and study together, and eventually this group of individuals would contribute much to the subject of mathematics, including:

  1. The sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles.
  2. The theorem of Pythagoras - for a right-angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. The Babylonians understood this 1000 years earlier, but Pythagoras proved it.
  3. Constructing figures of a given area and geometrical algebra. For example they solved various equations by geometrical means.
  4. The discovery of irrational numbers is attributed to the Pythagoreans, but seems unlikely to have been the idea of Pythagoras because it does not align with his philosophy the all things are numbers, since number to him meant the ratio of two whole numbers.
  5. The five regular solids (tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, icosahedron, dodecahedron). It is believed that Pythagoras knew how to construct the first three but not last two.
  6. Pythagoras taught that Earth was a sphere in the center of the Cosmos (Universe), that the planets, stars, and the universe were spherical because the sphere was the most perfect solid figure. He also taught that the paths of the planets were circular. Pythagoras recognized that the morning star was the same as the evening star, Venus.  (Source)
Most mathematicians would agree that the work of Pythagoras and his followers changed the subject forever. When looking at his school and the pedagogy, it’s obvious that the schooling was about more than math. Music and art, especially geometry in art, were very important. Pythagoras felt that these subjects were intimately linked to mathematics, and to study one meant to study all three.

Most peculiar were the philosophical aspects to this training. The School maintained that every human had a soul and that through math and music, the soul could be purified. In addition, strict procedures were in place to facilitate the growth of each person’s soul, from giving up their possessions to being vegetarian, to regular meditative practices. All of these things were part of the curriculum.

Of course, this spiritual aspect of the school’s training is often seen as religious, and rightly so. For the ancients, God and Science were one. This remained up through the Reformation and Enlightenment, when Science finally broke free from superstition and set about to conquer the world and take it from God. Overall, we have countless reasons to give thanks for this—from the Inquisition, to the discrediting of Galileo, to the burning of libraries, to the witch hunts—religious dogma has proven itself dangerous, not only to science, but humanity in general.

Yet here we are, about three hundred years into Science without God, and I sense that we might have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. While superstitious beliefs often stand in the way of progress, the “spiritual” discipline that religion brought to the scientist was not without its merits. We may teach that we are just a bunch of atoms and molecules randomly bopping around in the universe, but it doesn’t take a PhD to see that something else exists within us—call it consciousness if we must. Or the observer. That part of our system that decides what to do. That part of humanity, and many other animals as well, that lives and is obviously not there at death. This could just be energy, but it’s a force none-the-less and when left unchecked, can wreak havoc on those around it.

Angry children are annoying. Angry adults are terrifying. When we maintain that our physical bodies are the only real part of us, we run the risk of letting that emotional, conscious part of us, run amok. The “soulful” practices in Pythagoras’ curriculum made sure that each scientist took the time to understand themselves, their deepest selves. To know their weaknesses, to see their instincts of fear and domination, and overcome them. Discipline is the way towards “knowing thyself” and in many ways the lack of this practice in our scientific pedagogy is partially to blame for the various negative ways we’ve used technology over the centuries. It’s easy to use our inventions to dominate others if we have no control over our own greed, anger, fear and frustration.

I believe that the heart of Pythagoras’ curriculum was to first see yourself for who you really are, identify your threat to others, and overcome that, all while studying the wonders of mathematics, astronomy, architecture and music. He believed that studying these subjects, when coupled with fasting, the giving up of belongings and living in community, would create the ideal school from which new innovation and ideas would come forth. Ideas that would change the world for the better.

We now hold in the palm of our hand the ability to modify our genes, create super-children in labs, nuke an entire city and blow a hole in the atmosphere. We also hold the keys to solving global hunger, sheltering every human being, and extending life while curing most disease. When our scientific training is devoid of any hint at truly knowing thyself, and actually denies the importance of practices such as meditation, exercise, eating well and serving others as key to any good pedagogy, what sort of direction will our scientific innovation take?

We don’t have to go to church, or believe in Jesus, Allah or God to know that within us lies a power beyond mere atoms. Call it what you will—consciousness, soul, spirit or, for those of you who have read my eHuman novels, the Lux—there’s a part of each human making decisions. It’s the part we hope to download into computers someday. That part of us is every bit as important as our memory or ability to learn advanced technological concepts. Modern practices such as learning a new instrument, meditating every day, exercising, and serving in the community at large helps to discipline our nature and get us in touch with who we really are. Life is more than getting a good degree at our top universities. As scientists, we owe it to the world to take the time to invest in getting to know our deeper nature, and ask the questions that are so hard for science to answer.

“Who am I?”

“Why am I here?”

“What is my purpose?”

“How might I serve?”

In Defense of Work

“When I retire from work, I will finally live the life I’ve always wanted.”

Employment. Earning a living. Our life’s work. Career. Vocation.

Retirement. Freedom. Doing what I really want. Finally free.

What’s the deal with our relationship to work? When I was young, I was told to get a good job, earn a living, then retire and live a life free of work. I would listen to the adults around me and wonder what it meant. As if the only work we do is for another in order to receive money. Where does this idea come from? For if it’s true, then the human being doesn’t do a lick of work before getting that good job, and then after sixty, doesn’t work again.

Anyone who thinks paid work is the only work to be done in life has never been a homemaker. Or a child. Because homemakers and children know, being alive is work.

For children, work looks like play. It begins with learning to walk, talk and think. For three years after birth we work, work, work. Never still, moving, tasting, touching, smelling and yelling! The idea that being alive is just a nine-to-five effort is unthinkable to a growing child. Sleep is the only time that work doesn’t happen. After age three, children play in order to gain social and intellectual skills. Build it up, break it down. Climb the trees and throw the apples. Chase butterflies and jump rope. All of it is work. Granted, it’s not drudgery, but why does pain have to be a part of the definition of “real work?”

But we don’t let children remain in this state for long. As soon as they’re old enough, it’s time to stop playing and start working! Welcome to the adult world—doing what you hate until you’re 65. Then you get to play again.

But do you? Just because you no longer go into the office, doesn’t mean work is no longer necessary. As a homemaker, I haven’t gone into the office for 16 years. But I’m busy from sun up to sun down. 24-7. Raising children is work. Cleaning the house is work. Managing the family schedule is work. Paying the bills is work. All of it is work. Unpaid, but work none-the-less. And the only part that I’ll ever retire from is the raising of the children. It seems that if I follow conventional wisdom, I’ll need to get a 9-to-5 job in order to retire from homemaking!

The point here is that work for some reason has become a dirty word. In addition, so has play. We resent those who don’t do enough work, and we resent those who make us work. We dream of the day when we’re free from work, yet the work of life never ceases.

Life is work. And work isn’t evil.

Labor is a part of the human condition. If that weren’t true, we’d all be Harry Potter. Magic would take care of everything. Even if we automate most of our work, we will not find ourselves free from the work of the body. We need to eat, sleep and exercise. Our immune systems depend on all three. Thus work is required to prepare and acquire food, to keep a safe place to sleep, and to move our bodies. This work doesn’t go away, until we die.

I don’t believe I’ll ever retire, whatever that means. My life has been a constant stream of work, and I feel blessed by it. Some is paid, most isn’t. But all of it is work. I can’t escape it, the only thing I could do is ignore it. But I don’t fear work. Actually, I love it. I’m happy to clean, cook, write novels, manage schedules, write code, raise my children, love my husband, keep in touch with friends, help out at school, build community, read up on current events, shop for healthy food, do the laundry, care for our pets, garden, spin, learn new things, plan vacations, and work hard at keeping my body fit.

Many would look at that list and say, “Yes, but you chose it. You don’t have to do any of it, the way a career demands.” To that I say, wrong. My choice at eighteen years of age had actually been to work fulltime as a software engineer until I couldn’t get out of bed as an old woman. Eventually though, I left the office and stayed home with the kids to balance our lives and provide quality childcare. The work of the home then is something that felt thrust upon me at first. But now it is the rhythm of life.

The work of life must be done, just like a career. Sure we can pay others to do some of it (cook, clean, baby sit, etc.) and we can ignore eating well, sleeping and exercise. But eventually, our bodies and relationships catch up with us and that work we’ve been ignoring can no longer be ignored.

In the end I’ve decided to love the word, WORK. To work is to be alive. To be alive is to be blessed. I see no beginning or end to this. The time to live the lives we love is always only now. To wait until we no longer have to work, is to wait until the moment of death to finally begin to live.

Seems strange to me.