Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pre-Socratic natural theology

Western philosophy begins with the Pre-Socratics. So too did my own interest in philosophy, which was sparked by an encounter with Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides and company in a course on Greek literature I took as an undergraduate, over twenty years ago now. These thinkers are endlessly fascinating. I am currently teaching a course on ancient philosophy and will have significantly fallen behind schedule by the time we move on to Socrates himself, loath as I am to rush too quickly through the ideas of his predecessors.

It is a commonplace that the defining characteristics of Western philosophy and science can be found in embryo in the Pre-Socratics. Thales and other Ionian monists give us the first attempts to reduce all the diverse phenomena of nature to a single material principle, and their methods (so far as we can determine on the basis of usually scanty evidence) seem to have been largely empirical. Pythagoras and his followers inaugurate the emphasis on mathematical structure as the key to unlocking nature’s secrets. In Parmenides and Zeno we see the first attempts to provide rigorous demonstrations of far-reaching metaphysical theses. The distinction between appearance and reality, the tension between rationalist and empiricist tendencies of thought, and the rational analysis and critique of received ideas are all evident throughout the Pre-Socratic period. It would go too far (to say the very least) to suggest that we go Alfred North Whitehead one better by making all of Western philosophy out to be a footnote to the Pre-Socratics rather than Plato. But it might not be too much of a stretch to say that at least the seeds of what was to come during the next two and a half millennia can all be found in their work.

What is perhaps less widely remarked upon is the extent to which the Pre-Socratics set the stage for the later development of natural theology. To be sure, that Xenophanes criticized the anthropomorphism of Greek polytheism and that Anaxagoras got into trouble for characterizing the sun as a hot stone rather than a god are widely regarded as great advances in human thought. But the usual reason they are so regarded seems to be because these moves are considered steps along the way to a completely atheistic, or at least non-theistic, account of the world. That Xenophanes wanted to replace polytheism, not with atheism, but with monotheism, and that Anaxagoras regarded Mind as necessary to an explanation of the world, are often considered less significant – as if these ideas were not as essential to their thought as the skeptical elements, and as if these thinkers, and the Pre-Socratics generally, lacked the courage of their convictions, and could not bring themselves completely to let go of superstition. This is certainly the impression that Christopher Hitchens (for example) leaves in his brief and characteristically amateurish discussion of early Greek philosophy in God is not Great, which assures us that the early atomists’ ignoring (rather than explicitly denying) the gods for explanatory purposes was “at the time… as far as any mind could reasonably go.” Had the Greeks been able politically and psychologically to push their rationalism through to its logical conclusion, then (so we are to believe) they would all have been atheists.

The truth, though, is that the advances made by the Pre-Socratics, when consistently worked out, no more point in the direction of atheism than they point in the direction of skepticism about the external, physical world. If you want to talk the way Paul Churchland and other eliminative materialists do (something you should not want to do, but never mind), you might say that what the Pre-Socratic thinkers (or some of them, anyway) saw is that in the light of reason, “folk physics” – our crude, commonsense understanding of the workings of the physical world – ought to give way, not to no physics at all, but rather to scientific physics. Similarly, “folk theology” – the crude anthropomorphisms of polytheism and superstition – ought to give way, not to no theology at all, but rather to rational theology, to what has since come to be known as natural theology. Indeed, as was once common knowledge among Western philosophers, as David Conway has recently reminded us in his The Rediscovery of Wisdom, and as Lloyd Gerson documents at length in God and Greek Philosophy, the great Greek thinkers, including many of the Pre-Socratics, regarded theism as essential to a complete scientific account of the world.

Those vulgar atheists (“new” and otherwise) who purport to find in the Greeks the seeds of their own position fail to perceive the centrality of theism to the Greek tradition for several reasons. First, they quite stupidly assume (there is no way to put it that is both kinder and still accurate) that monotheism is just like polytheism only more economical, as if the God of classical philosophical theology (and of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for that matter) were just like Zeus or Odin, minus the entourage. Since polytheistic gods are typically conceived of in crudely anthropomorphic terms, it is concluded that the God of classical philosophical theology must at bottom be just the same sort of being – stripped of some of the more blatant anthropomorphisms, perhaps, but essentially like the other “gods” except for there being only one of him. Thus does Sam Harris assure us that for the President of the United States to appeal in public to God should strike us as just as outrageous and absurd as a presidential invocation of Zeus or Apollo would be.

Of course, one has to be extremely ignorant of the history of religion, theology, and philosophy to think that philosophical theism, or theism in general, is in any way comparable to crude polytheism; and culpably ignorant too, for the New Atheists, who style themselves as well-educated and sophisticated enlighteners of the ignorant masses, could easily apprise themselves of the facts if they really wanted to. Yet Harris, Hitchens, and Co., in an amazing feat of intellectual Jiu-Jitsu, have somehow made their opponents out to be the ignorant and dishonest ones. In any event, if one really thinks that to regard theism as essential to science is like regarding belief in Pan or the Tooth Fairy as essential to science, then it is not surprising that one will fail to see how the great Greek philosophers, brilliant as they were, could possibly have regarded theism as the capstone of the scientific enterprise.

Then there is the crude scientism of vulgar atheists, according to which “scientific method” as they learned it in high school constitutes the only true route to knowledge – notwithstanding that such a claim is itself a philosophical one and not scientific (by their own standards, anyway) at all, and that what counts as “scientific method” is itself a philosophically complex and controversial subject. Beholden as they are to a cartoonish just-the-observable-facts-ma’am picture of what science involves, they cannot fathom how anyone could regard anything super-empirical as within the range of scientific knowledge. Hence they cannot understand how the theological tendencies of the Greek philosophers could have been part and parcel of their scientific advances, rather than a deviation from them.

As Christopher Martin shows in Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, you cannot fully understand Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence (or their Aristotelian precursors) unless you understand how they fit in to the Aristotelian conception of what science is, and that they are intended to be (and indeed are) perfectly respectable scientific arguments given that (still perfectly defensible) conception. (Note that I am saying that it is the Aristotelian conception of what a science is that is still defensible – not this or that specific scientific claim made by Aristotle, many of which have of course been refuted.) Regardless of whether the Aristotelian conception of what counts as science is correct, though, empirical science as practiced today is only possible given certain philosophical assumptions, especially about the nature of causation. As I argue at length in The Last Superstition, these assumptions entail, when worked out consistently, the existence of a divine First Cause. And I mean entail: The classical tradition in natural theology does not suggest, after the fashion of William Paley and his successors in the “Intelligent Design” movement, that something kinda-sorta like the God of traditional theism is “probably” behind this or that specific complex feature of the world. It holds that the existence of the God of traditional theism is necessary, and rationally unavoidable, given the existence of any causation at all in the world, even of the most simple sort. And as Gerson shows, it is evident from what we know of at least some of the Pre-Socratics that they had more than an inkling of this. That is to say, they saw (or some of them did) that it is theism rather than atheism that is the logical outcome of a rationalist approach to the world.

That some of them were as willing as they were to thumb their noses at Greek polytheism, even to the point of suffering persecution, only reinforces the point. As Gerson emphasizes, there is nothing whatsoever of the apologetic motive in the thinking of philosophers like Xenophanes and Anaxagoras. They were not rationalizing some prejudice or received idea, for they rather loudly rejected the received ideas, and their theism (or proto-theism) was itself a novelty. They thereby give the lie to one of the favorite slanders of the vulgar atheist, to the effect that philosophical arguments for God’s existence are only ever dishonest attempts to bolster comforting illusions rather than reflective of a sincere pursuit of the truth.

In the work of the Pre-Socratics we find precursors of some of the key elements of the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. In Anaximander’s notion of the apeiron or “unbounded” we have an anticipation of the insight that that which ultimately explains the diverse phenomena of the world cannot itself be characterized in terms that apply to that world (or at least not univocally, as the Thomist would add). From Parmenides we get the principle that ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing comes nothing), which foreshadows the Scholastics’ “principle of causality” and the argument to the First Cause that rests on it. We derive from him too the discovery that ultimate reality must be Being Itself rather than a being among other beings, unchanging and unchangeable, and necessarily one rather than many. In Anaxagoras we find the realization that the cause of things must be a Mind rather than an impersonal absolute. It would take the work of later thinkers – Plato to some extent, Aristotle to a great extent, and the Scholastics to a greater extent still, culminating in Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic tradition deriving from him – to work these insights out in a thorough and systematic way. But as with Western science and philosophy more generally, the seeds are there already in the Pre-Socratics; in particular, they made the decisive break with anthropomorphism in thinking about God.

The New Atheists, then, with their crude straw man conception of God, are less advanced intellectually than those pioneers of two and a half millennia ago. But to be fair to them, this is not entirely their fault. For contemporary popular apologetics, and even some contemporary philosophy of religion, has been infected with an anthropomorphism which, while less crude than that of ancient polytheism, nevertheless opens its adherents up to objections that have no force against the likes of Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, or Aquinas, not to mention their Pre-Socratic precursors.

Brian Davies has usefully distinguished between classical theism – which dominates the great mainstream tradition in natural theology, as represented by figures like those just mentioned – and “theistic personalism,” which he detects in the thinking of contemporary philosophers of religion like Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga, and which I think can also clearly be found in William Paley (who models God on human designers), in the contemporary “Intelligent Design” movement, among adherents of a currently fashionable view known as “open theism,” and in countless works of popular apologetics. Classical theism’s conception of God begins with the idea that God is the sustaining cause of the world and thus utterly distinct from it. “Theistic personalism” (also known as “Neo-theism”) begins with the idea that God is “a person” alongside other persons, only without the limitations characteristic of the persons we are most familiar with (namely us). Whereas classical theism typically arrives at a detailed conception of God by determining what such a cause of the world would have to be like – and famously arrives at a God who is very radically different from us indeed (outside time and space, pure actuality, being itself, etc.) – “theistic personalism” develops its conception of God by progressively abstracting away the characteristics typical of us as finite persons. Hence it makes God out to be a person sort of like us, only without a body, without our moral weaknesses, without the barriers to knowledge and power we have, and so forth. The conception of God that results is, to be sure, very different from Zeus, Apollo, or Pan. But it is also clearly anthropomorphic, even if somewhat rarefied.

As Davies points out, many of the objections leveled by skeptics at theism and at the traditional theistic arguments really have force only against “theistic personalism,” and not against classical theism. (Davies has developed this idea most fully in relation to the problem of evil. See his book The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil.) Given the New Atheists’ bizarre obsession with Paley (as if he were the only person ever to give an argument for God’s existence), and that their acquaintance with other thinkers probably extends no further than a quick thumbing-through of some popular apologetics tract, it is perhaps not surprising that they would think that theism is essentially more-or-less anthropomorphist. Again, this does not excuse them: Anyone evincing the sense of moral and intellectual superiority that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens do had better damn well do his homework and grapple seriously with the mainstream theistic tradition represented by Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Leibniz, just to name a few; and (as I demonstrate in The Last Superstition) none of the New Atheists comes anywhere close to doing this. Still, the explicit or implicit “theistic personalism” of Paley and his successors and of certain contemporary philosophers of religion has muddied the intellectual waters considerably and (in my view) unwittingly given aid and comfort to the enemy.

Here as elsewhere in human life, the remedy is to return to and learn from our forbears, including those fathers of philosophy, science, and natural theology, the Pre-Socratics.

Postscript 1: For those interested in Pre-Socratic philosophy, Raymond Tallis’s new book on Parmenides looks very interesting indeed. Unfortunately, it is also frightfully expensive. But a free prĂ©cis can be found here.

Postscript 2: My reference to “vulgar atheists” naturally raises the question of whether I would acknowledge that there are non-vulgar atheists. The answer, of course, is yes. I would like to think that my former self would be one example. (I was an atheist for many years, before I became convinced that the traditional theistic arguments, when properly understood – that is to say, when the stupid caricatures and worthless objections peddled by the New Atheists and their ilk are swept aside – are compelling. People who say that philosophical arguments never lead anyone to God don’t know what they’re talking about.) More important examples of serious or non-vulgar atheists are J. L. Mackie, J. J. C. Smart, and Quentin Smith.


  1. As someone who is something less that a dilettante in matters philosophical I appreciate the clarity of the post, if not its length.

  2. I just ordered your new book and am looking forward to it.

    If what Amazon says is true, it is available before its actual pubication date, which is unusual.

  3. Edward,

    Though this is a very old post, hopefully you will still be notified of my comment. I am new to your work and have been reading through a lot of your older posts.

    I am not too familiar with Richard Swineburn, except that he is commonly known as one of the foremost Christian philosophers of today. I am familiar with Plantiga, however, and am therefore confused with your characterizations of them because they both seem to be advocates of Natural Theology and also fairly brilliant thinkers.

    What about Plantinga makes him a "neo-Theist?" What do you think of his work as a whole (can you respect any of it)? Do Thomistic Catholics such as yourself not hold that the First Cause has any personal attributes? Do you not offer personal prayers? If not, what do you take of the many Bible passages which speak of God as having some personal attributes?

    Promise I'm not leveling accusations or trying to stump you-- simply trying to learn!

    Thanks in advance!

  4. Great! And there's that book, "The Theology of Early Greek Philosophers" by Werner Jaeger.