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Western Philosophy and How the World Works

This is a brief overview, a quick picture, of people across history changing their view on how the world works. We begin with Stone Age hunter-gatherers. They understood the world around them as best they could. They didn't imagine questioning as an instrument of progress. They saw their world as not changing, as permanent and a gift of the gods. Their gods were spirits who did magic. They saw their little societies as at center point of what was for them was the universe, and they called themselves the people. Those who invaded their territory weren't human the way they were human, or perhaps they were demons. Reality for them was embodied in stories told by story specialists who entertained, especially the young, with explanations about the world passed down from generation to generation, stories spiced with excitement in the form of dangerous demons.

They didn't attempt a penetrating analysis of their ideas, and their stories contained what to a modern observer are absurdities. There was no analysis that drew a difference between what they thought of as spirit and flesh. So they believed that when they ate the flesh of an animal or another human they were ingesting that creature's spirit. Failing to make another differentiation, they assumed that water cleansed their spirit as well as their body. And they believed that if they shaped an image in stone or wood a spirit would come to reside therein.

Agriculture, migrations and conquests disrupted tribal conformities in ideas. There were now gods who had to be appeased for the growing of crops. There was communication between the peoples of different societies and competition among stories as to exactly what was happening between gods and humans. People were trying to control waters for irrigation and they were dividing lands. Measurement, math and geometry came into being. A Greek engineer, Thales, born around 624 BCE into a family of wealth, had the leisure and the energy to pursue learning and travel. He benefited from the existence of literacy, trade and cultural diffusion, and he worked geometry into new mathematical principles. He thought that the world around him was understandable rather than just mystery and magic, and this encouraged curiosity.

Thales wanted to identify the basic ingredient that made the material world what it was – something apart from godly spirit, which he continued to believe in. Someone studying under him, a student named Anaximander (611-547 BCE), rejected the idea that the material world was united by a singularity. He saw wetness as a force contending with dryness, heat against cold, night against day and day against night, an endless cycle – and a confusion between abstractions and the concrete. He saw opposing pairs as governing the universe in an endless temporal succession, producing a harmony that derived from their having a common source, a primary source that was infinite and eternal.

Then came Xenophanes of Colophon, born around 570 BCE. He objected to mysticism and the divine. He denounced priests and ridiculed gods being seen as human-like.

Another Greek, Heraclitus of Euphesus (535-435 BCE), put a new emphasis on change. He is quoted as saying "You cannot step twice into the same river." Change, he believed was the product of conflict, of force and counter force. He saw conflict as a permanent and integral part of the physical world and in human society. Conflict, he believed, creates both development and decay. He said that the ever-presence of conflict made wars inevitable and that humans were unable to harmonize their differences through reason. He saw chance as an element in development and that beauty comes from things let loose by chance. He also believed in a single unchanging law that governs all change, and adhered to a traditional belief among the Greeks in a supreme god who presided over the universe and was the mover behind all things.

A generation later there was the Greek Anaxagoras (510-428 BCE). He lectured students and gave laboratory demonstrations. He is reported to have conducted experiments and to have tested hypotheses – an advance over merely applying one's imagination to the struggle to understand. Anaxagoras wrote theories on physics. And having learned about meteorites he described the sun and moon as fiery stones. He saw the moon as having mountains, and he attempted to describe scientifically the solar and lunar eclipses that for millennia had frightened people.

A contemporary of Anaxagoras, Leucippus, is credited with a theory of atoms. He founded a school, and his student, Democritus, is said to have systemized his theory. He labeled as an atom the smallest and the most dense of matter. Democritus moved beyond Anaxagoras' view of elements: he theorized that atoms collide and combine with each other and that in combining they create visible substance. Like Heraclitus, Democritus believed that some things are developing and other things decaying. He believed that heavenly bodies sometimes collide with each other and that the Milky Way consists of unresolved stars.

Born the same year as Democritus (460 BCE) was Hippocrates, the son of a priest-physician from the Greek island of Cos. Hippocrates revolted against medicine tied to religious dogma and medicine that tried to cure by use of charms, amulets and incantations. Diseases, he claimed, were subject to nature's laws. He wanted healthcare to be built upon observation. He sought to improve diagnoses by examining symptoms. Seeing the human body as influenced by materiality as opposed to spirit, he advocated principles of public health, including building a patient's strength by a good diet and by hygiene. And, recognizing the damage that could be done through acting on ignorance, his first rule was do no harm.

There was the philosopher Protagoras, a dissenter, ahead of his time. Limited by the age in which he lived, he was not much of a psychologist or epistemologist: he failed to distinguish between perception and knowledge, as if knowledge does not require organizing the impressions one gathers through one's senses. But drawing on observations during his travels, he took a position that was advanced for his time: he spoke of peoples from different areas of the world as sharing a common humanity. He created a modern political philosophy, claiming that by criticizing tradition a better society could be created. In the place of the rule of gods and their representatives, he advocated laws made by and for people. He lectured that people could become good citizens not by obedience to a supreme authority but by learning what is just and right.

There were also philosophers who thought change was an illusion. Pythagoras, Zeno of Elea and Plato were among them. They gave a permanent essence to ideas. Numbers were an essence rather than an empty abstraction applied to whatever. Zeno tried reducing matters not understood to paradoxes and reduced, as did Thales, reality to a single substance. With Plato, words were not changing conventions; they had a permanent essence, and with Plato there was behind the appearance of conflict a societal harmony, a utopia, which was real if men would only grab it.

Argumentation by one of Plato's students moved philosophy forward. The student was Aristotle. He rejected Plato's way of understanding how the world works. Aristotle believed in collecting facts and in intellectual progress through effort rather than revelation from the gods. He believed in reason and the spirituality of the heavens as did Plato, but he also believed in observation of the material world. His reasoning, however, was imperfect. He assumed, as many others did, that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and he saw what we now know as gravity as objects having a will to rush to this center. He believed that the natural state of all bodies was rest and that all bodies tended to return to rest and needed a mover (God) to keep them in motion. Aristotle justified Greeks holding non-Greeks as slaves because Greeks were inherently superior and non-Greeks needed masters.

Like Aristotle, the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270) spoke of apprehending reality through empiricism. He believed in a process of confirmation or disconfirmation through examination. He was not into God as much as Aristotle. He believed that humanity created its destiny without interference from capricious gods. Religion, he complained, unnecessarily frightened people by describing them at the mercy of gods and demons. The driving force in life he claimed was not the gods, but the avoidance of pain. He argued that life was worth living without consideration of the gods and advocated self-control to avoid painful consequences.

A contemporary of Epicurus, Zeno of Citium (334-262) was in conflict with the philosophy of Epicurus. Stoics tried to explain various gods as one god. And they attempted to explain the myths of various religions as representations of universal truths. From the one god, Zeno held, came all that exists in heaven and earth. He believed in a utopia with people living under divine laws to which everyone consented.

This Greek view of the world changing and known through the senses died in competition with early Christianity's worldly authorities, who acquired rule over the Roman Empire. Christianity adopted the philosophical perspective of Plato and the Stoics.

Plato, Aristotle and others had seen the earth as the center of the universe. The philosopher Claudius Ptolemy (90-168) believed this too. It was a view of astronomy to be known as Ptolemaic.

The Roman Empire disintegrated, but in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance came a renewed respect for the Greek philosophers. A monk named Copernicus interested in heavenly bodies abandoned the geocentric for the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, the heliocentric view. It would be centuries before scientists entertained the idea that they knew of no center at all.

The renewed belief in empiricism that came with respect for the Greeks produced William Harvey, who lived to 1657 and demonstrated the function of the heart and the circulation of blood. There was also Robert Boyle, another natural philosopher. Boyle, with careful observation and experimentation, elevated chemistry above the alchemy popular in his time. And another progressive was Isaac Newton, who revolutionized how the universe was viewed. Newton was influenced by the development of machines and a belief that matter was made up of tiny particles – an atomic theory similar to that of Democritus. Working with mathematics he concluded that the force of gravity between two bodies was relative to the differences in mass of those bodies reduced by the square of the distance between them. Newton would be known as having discovered gravity. Newton's theory included an explanation about objects moving with inertia and objects striking each other with equal force. It added to the views of change and conflict in nature that had been espoused by Anaximander and Heraclitus. The belief in the world working by magic diminished somewhat. Newton had been an opponent of belief in magic.

Some looked at Newton's theory of a mechanistic universe and accused him of trying to supplant the workings of God. Newton had developed his theory without giving up the tradition of Christianity into which he was born. He still saw story-telling Scripture as a source of human history.

After Newton's breakthrough in physics came a breakthrough in geology. In the early 1830s a British geologist, Charles Lyell, tried to make sense of what he was seeing in geological formations. Lyell proposed that volcanic activity, earthquakes and erosion had slowly been remodeling the earth's surface, and for this he supplied empirical evidence. Lyell's theory of geological change required an earth much older than that proposed by Scripture. It took 6,000 years for just one inch of limestone to build.

Then came Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution needed a world much older than 6,000 years. This was a theory about change and development. Evolutionists saw life as having appeared on earth in simple microbiological forms (microorganisms having been discovered in the 1670s by a Dutchman using a microscope). Plant life developed and then insects and other creatures, including fish and mammals. It was development toward greater complexity, and development within the realm of the possible: characteristics that contributed to the survival of creatures within certain environments. Darwin's theory of natural selection excluded the idea of creation suggested by the ancient storytellers: creation as sudden, complete and unchanging.

Darwin theorized about inherited characteristics, as had Hippocrates. The study of genes, including DNA, in the 1900s advanced our understanding of biological change, basically compatible with Darwin's theory of evolution. But as in ancient times, a creation by supernatural magic persisted. Into the twenty-first century in the United States, a third of the population rejected biological evolution applied to humans. They rejected the world of biological development in favor of the permanence believed by hunter-gatherers and by some philosophers, including Plato, after them. Those who didn't believe in evolution believed instead that humans were created in a short time frame by the device of godly magic, a device believed in since pre-history. Hunter-gatherers were conformists. They assumed that the stories told them about the supernatural were true. In modern times, variety in opinion led to self-consciousness about belief, and it led to questions. But those who believed the story of Adam's sin rather than food an energy challenge connected with evolution didn't wonder about innocent creatures who also had to busy themselves acquiring energy, as did humans. Or they described the story of Adam and Eve as allegory, a literary device that is supposed to represent reality through metaphor. Metaphor was in conflict with science, while adults continued to defend their beliefs in the supernatural with various arguments – one of the older and most simple of these being that God works in mysterious ways, and metaphors didn't challenge mystery.

Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church stopped defending Plato by its rejection of Aristotle and his 13th century follower Thomas Aquinas. In the 1500s, the scientist Francis Bacon rejected Aristotle, and in the 1600s the Catholic scientist Galileo was in conflict with Aristotelian professors. Aristotle's views, previously considered radical in Europe, had become the conservative point of view, while Galileo was the progressive scientist, representing the future.

In the 1600s, a mathematician-philosopher, René Descartes, tried to reconcile science with his Christianity. He acknowledged the importance of doubt. Then he split reality into two parts, the material and soul. He saw the human body as a biological machine housing a soul. For Descartes the supernatural was still a force. As the philosopher John Searle points out, Descartes failed to describe "an adequate or even coherent account of the relationship between the mind and the body."

Into the 21st century, those believing Descartes appear to be fewer in number than two or three centuries ago. Also, platonists appear to be less common than they were in early modern times. A few professional mathematicians and physicists have been described as platonists because of their view that the universe is essentially mathematics. As did Plato, they see abstractions (numbers and words) as real as opposed to being a creation of the person having imagined them, as one would when counting – as if the abstraction fatherhood is a reality by itself, without fathers, or there is a "three" apart from the objects being counted.

A rival philosophy sees error in trying to comprehend the world with abstract mental constructs disconnected from the specifics that make up the world they are trying to comprehend. And there are people who avoid belief in the supernatural as a force: people who limit their beliefs to the world of the senses and materialistic change that Plato thought illusory. Their rejection of the supernatural includes stories written in Scripture or passed along orally.

One of today's theist philosophers is Alvin Plantinga (born 1932) who has a PhD in philosophy from Yale and has been a professor at the University of Notre Dame. He has been described as an apologist for Christianity. He holds that his belief in God is more than faith. He belongs to the analytic school of philosophy – as do some non-believers – and he claims that his belief in God is just as rational as arguments on behalf of non-belief. The existence of God, he argues, explains much that non-believers are unable to explain. Argumentation has left academic philosophers in general not supporting Plantinga's signature positions, but Plantinga's theism is supported in the US by majority opinion – people less troubled by the philosophical issues posed in academia.

Some other believers in the supernatural accuse non-believers of working with assumptions no less than they. They accuse even agnostics of being metaphysical, while agnostics counter by pointing to the difference between a decision to believe and an admission of not knowing, including not having ultimate knowledge, absolute or final understanding what materiality or consciousness is. Non-believers admit their knowledge is limited. This is a part of their rationality. They are aware of scientific studies of the human nervous system and the brain. They are aware that chemicals affect consciousness, but they don't want to leap beyond these connections to any supernatural explanation as to what consciousness is. Nor do they want to assume as Plato and Descartes later did that consciousness is in no way joined to the material world.

Believers are satisfied with their assumptions and arguments about supernatural forces at work, and non-believers are satisfied with scientific explanations as to how the world works while they acknowledge their limitations in knowing.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.