Exo-Vaticana: Plato, Aristotle, Epicureans and the Apostle Paul


By Cris D. Putnam (continued from part 1)
Exo-VaticanaPlato (428–348 BC) and his student Aristotle (384–322 BC) stood in opposition to the atomists and their otherworldly doctrines. Plato solved the metaphysical problem of change by arguing a theory of forms. This system posits a transcendent reality beyond the ever changing experiential world. It consists of eternal, unchanging forms which are perceived intellectually but not by the senses.[1] For example, there may be many kinds of chairs, but in Plato’s thought, there is an ethereal form that defines chairness. While Christian philosophers typically reject Platonism because it undermines the doctrine of creation ex nihilo by positing uncreated self-existent forms, much of Plato’s thought is consistent with theism.

Plato believed the world was unique because it was a representation of a single creator. He conceived of the demiurge, a Greek term for an artisan or craftsman responsible for the creation and maintenance of the material universe. His student, Aristotle, carried this line of thinking forward in his notion of a “prime mover” seen in book twelve of his Metaphysics which employed the phrase, “something which moves other things without being moved by anything,”[2] giving rise to the popular term, “unmoved mover.” It is from this Aristotelian idea that the cosmological argument for the existence of God derives. He further suggests that because this prime mover set the celestial realm in motion, it follows that there is only one heaven. This necessitates a brief discussion of ancient cosmology.

The ancient Greek word often translated “world” is kosmos,which generally meant “order.” It carried the idea of bringing order from chaos and, beg your pardon ladies, this is the idea behind the English term “cosmetics.” Over time, it came to represent the creation order, the observable universe. A Greek lexicon offers discussion:

The spatial sense of κόσμος and its identification with the universe are found in Plato, though the older idea of world order is still present. For Plato the cosmos is the universe…inasmuch as in it all individual things and creatures, heaven and earth, gods and men, are brought into unity by a universal order.[3]

Thus, a cosmos is orderly because it obeys physical laws. Yet, apart from God, this seems unlikely. It follows that, if reality were ultimately chaotic as the atomists believed, science would not be possible. Accordingly, when Carl Sagan began his classic television show with “The cosmos is all there is…” he was mistaken. The order observed by science needs an explanation not provided in nature. It must indeed originate from super-nature. The universe follows discernible laws and chaos cannot account for such behavior. Thus, when Plato and Aristotle argued against a plurality of worlds it entailed an argument against the chaotic randomness of the atomists. They were appropriately arguing for lawful order and design, albeit with an incorrect understanding of physics.

Aristotle believed that the Earth was the geographical center of the cosmos and, therefore, the Earth was exceptional as a life-supporting planet. Interestingly, he was opposed by a Greek astronomer, Aristarchus of Samos (310–230 BC) who placed the sun at the center long before Copernicus. Nevertheless, because the stars are so much further away than anyone then imagined, their expected movement relative to each other as the Earth moves around the sun (parallax) was undetectable. Thus, Aristarchus’ speculation, although accurate, was not demonstrable and Aristotle’s geocentrism won the day. In fact, Aristotle’s errant cosmology would hold sway for nearly two thousand years, most likely because it accounted for the observed order better than the chaos associated with the competition.

Aristotle also believed that all matter consists of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. One of the basic tenets of his cosmology was the doctrine of natural motion and place. This meant that earth (as in soil or matter) moved toward the Earth, water flowed toward the sea, fire moved away from the Earth, and air occupied the space in between. From this he reasoned that, by natural law, all earth is concentrated into our spherical planet, thus no other worlds could exist. Aristotle wrote:

Either, therefore, the initial assumptions must be rejected, or there must be only one center and one circumference; and given this latter fact, it follows from the same evidence and by the same compulsion, that the world must be unique. There cannot be several worlds.[4]

He thought unity demanded it. In his classic text, On the Heavens,he devotes two entire chapters to the refutation of the existence of other worlds. Of course, we now know that the universe is much bigger than he ever imagined but, even so, his idea of singular uncaused cause has gained traction given the standard model of Big Bang cosmology. This uncreated creator idea is used in the New Testament in precisely this context.

In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul delivered his famous sermon on the Areopagus in Athens to a group of Epicureans and Stoics who were curious about his strange new teachings. They called Paul a “babbler,” which in the Greek text reads spermologos, an Athenian slang word meaning “one who picks up seeds.” The insult suggested a person who pecks at ideas like a bird pecks at seeds and then spouts them off without fully comprehending what he is saying. Jeering aside, Paul skillfully quoted Greek poets and declared the identity of their “unknown god” as the “God that made the world [kosmos] and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth”(Acts 17:24). In other words, Paul is arguing for the unmoved mover, the one God who created the entire universe and everything within. Of course, this idea and his preaching of the resurrection of the dead surely brought scorn from the atomist Epicureans. Accordingly, some mocked, others wanted another hearing, and a few came to saving faith in Christ. As Christianity grew, Epicureanism with its many inhabited worlds waned. However, even today, Epicurean ideas appeal to humanists.

Epicureans and Christians maintain a timeless clash of worldview. It is from the pen of a third-century AD Christian, Lactantius, that the “Riddle of Epicurus,” a famous argument against the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent, and providential God (or gods), was preserved:

God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak—and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful—which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?[5]

This challenge, broadly known as the problem of evil, inspired two thousand years of apologetics. While an exhaustive answer is beyond the scope of this book, it is enough to say that it is logically possible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil. Furthermore, the book of Revelation promises that God will, indeed, one day vanquish evil (Rev. 21:4). It is also important to note that, despite many uninformed skeptics, it is agreed in academia, atheists included, that the logical or deductive problem of evil has been answered decisively by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga in his famous book, God, Freedom, and Evil (1974).

In retrospect, we must acknowledge the astonishing prescience of the early atomist thinkers in that modern science has confirmed some of their physical reasoning. These ideas inspired modern atomic theory in the hands of scientists with a Christian worldview like Robert Boyle. Nevertheless, the atomists are the philosophical ancestors of material reductionism, the dominant metaphysic associated with atheism. Even so, we want to avoid the genetic fallacy, the logical error of dismissing a proposition solely on the basis of its source. Even so, Christians who believe in inhabited extraterrestrial worlds should be cognizant that, given its lineage, such a disposition makes for extremely strange bedfellows.

 

See: http://www.exovaticana.com/



[1] Daniel Devereux, “Plato: Metaphysics” in The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy, ed. Christopher Shields (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 78 .

[2] Aristotle, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, ed. W. D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), Perseus Collection, last accessed January 9, 2013, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0051:book=12:section=1072a. Translation Putnam.

[3]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vols. 5–9, edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin., ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, electronic ed., 3:871 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976).

[4] Aristotle, On the Heavens, book 1, chapter 8, lines 11–13; as quoted in Steven J. Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 6.

[5] Lactantius, “On the Anger of God, 13.19,” under U374, last accessed January 9, 2013, http://www.epicurus.info/etexts/epicurea.html.

About Cris Putnam
Logos Apologia is the ministry of Cris D. Putnam. The mission of Logos Apologia is to show that logic, science, history and faith are complementary, not contradictory and to bring that life-changing truth to everybody who wants to know.

Comments

  1. Ursula Leo says:

    Cris,

    Just heard the pope has announced his retirement. The end of March.

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