Thursday, February 11, 2010

How the Greeks Lost Their Groove (redux)

An Alert Reader writes to ask regarding the earlier post:
You say that according to the ancient Greeks, there was intention in nature. But didn't Greece's intellectuals disavow this worldview?

If Greek philosophers didn't believe that the pantheon of gods animated the world around them, what did they think caused motion in the universe, and how did Christianity "fix" their misconception?

1. There was no single ancient Greek view of nature. Some, like Parmenides, accounted for motion by denying that there was any. The senses are deceptive and things only "appear" to be in motion. This was Parmenides' answer to Heraclitus. The realist philosophers - Plato and Aristotle - were retorts to Parmenides. One of the reasons why Early Moderns could make no sense of Aristotle was that he consisted of answers to questions they had forgotten. But in addition to the Four Schools, there was also the great mass of Greek civilization. We forget how irrational Greek civilization was because the medievals preferentially copied and preserved their rationalist writings.

2. What goes around comes around. Dawkins, Dennett, and others have resurrected Heraclitus' old conundrum of the world as being in constant flux. Can the post-modern Parmenides be far behind?

3. Greek society failed to invent science in our modern sense because they never embedded the study of nature into society. It remained the hobby of a few gentlemen of leisure. Science does not depend on the existence of this-or-that Great Man. Brilliant and creative individuals have adorned every culture. Abelard and al Ghazali were contemporaries. So were John of Salisbury and ibn Rushd; al-Tusi and Aquinas; ibn Taymiyya and William of Ockham. In China, we need only think of Wang Chhung, Shen Kua, or Chu Hsi. Clearly, there is no shortage of powerful intellects in any culture. But only in the Latin West was the study of nature institutionalized and systematically taught from a standard curriculum, even to those who did not make it their life's work.

4. Aristotle did not disavow intentionality in nature. He called it final cause. He observed that nature worked "always or for the most part" toward an end. "End" does not mean "purpose," although it may. And end may simply be a point of cessation, as when a falling rock reaches the minimum achievable gravitational potential; or it may mean perfection of a potential, as when a tiger cub matures into an adult tiger; it may mean unconscious purpose, as when a robin gathers materials for a nest. In any case, without finality, there would be no reason why A->B "always or for the most part." Thus, there had to be something in A which "directs it toward" B, and not to C or D or nothing at all. Moderns suppose that demonstrating teleology is hard, but once you have getting to God is an easy step. But to Aquinas, demonstrating teleology in nature was easy; but it was not obvious how to get from there to God. Aristotle saw the telos, but did not reason his way from it to the First Mover.

5. Aristotle did reason his way from motion in the world (i.e., from change) to a First Mover (i.e., First Changer) and derived all motion from that first unmoved mover. Parmenides had declared motion to be impossible -- everything comes from its contrary; but the contrary of "being" is "non-being" and non-being, since it does not exist by definition, is incapable of causing being. Aristotle's answer was that being consisted of potentiality and actuality. A big blue bouncy ball is actually blue but potentially red. (It could be painted.) It is actually round, but potentially flat. (It could be melted.) And so on. These are all trans-form-ations, since the body is moved from one form to another. Through melting, the ball loses the form of roundness and takes on the form of flatness. In doing so, it ceases to be a "ball." (Being painted red does not deprive it of its roundness, so we call that an accidental, rather than an essential form of the ball.) Thus, Aristotle refuted Parmenides by introducing potential being in between non-being and being.

[Potential does not mean "anything goes." A big blue bouncy ball is not potentially a steel ingot or a ground squirrel. Although in topology, a donut is potentially a coffee cup, the matter on which the form is imposed also "matters."] 

6. The Christians viewed the world through Genesis -- though not indeed through modernist scientific literalism, but as a "polemic against pagan superstition."
For example, whereas the sun and moon were the objects of worship in pagan religion, the Book of Genesis taught that they were nothing but lamps set in the heavens to give light to day and night: not gods, but mere things, creatures of the one true God. Nor were animals and the forces of nature to be bowed down to by man as in pagan religion...

The Bible’s supernaturalism is concentrated in a God who is outside of Nature, and radically distinguished from the world He has made. Therefore the world of nature is no longer seen as populated by capricious supernatural beings, by fates and furies, dryads and naiads, gods of war or goddesses of sex and fertility. The natural world has been “disenchanted.”
-- Stephen Barr

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