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"Rational Scientific Theories from Theism"


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2.1 Greek philosophical foundations

The Greek philosophers wanted to know how the changeable world they saw around them was related to the world of knowledge which contained immutable and eternal truths. Plato (c.27-347 BC) thought that what we knew truly were the forms of things, since these eternally existed whether or not physical objects existed to embody the forms. The contemplation of forms as such, Plato thought, was the proper intellectual activity. In particular, the contemplation of the ‘form of the good’, which he took as the ‘good itself’, was an experience akin to uplifting mystical insights. This kind of quasi-religious experience lead Plato to place greater emphasis on forms rather than on the physical world.

The result of Plato’s emphasis on the pure forms as being what were absolutely real was an implication that the physical world was a ‘poor shadow’ of what was real. This shadow is what we would see on a cave wall when we are not facing the light. The physical universe is perhaps created by a subsidiary god or demiurge, not by the Absolute itself. Our task in life, according to Plato, is to love wisdom in order to raise ourselves out of immersion with everyday concerns. Philosophy enables us to live properly in our souls, which are ‘self-moving’ and hence have life in themselves and are capable of perceiving rational and transcendent forms. Our souls are certainly not the ‘harmony of our body’, Plato insists, since sometimes they act contrary to bodily inclinations.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a student of Plato but took the opposite down-to-earth approach to philosophy and knowledge. He directly examined physical objects, biological creatures, and human beings, which are all beings with potentialities for change and function. He said that each of these has a ‘soul’ which enables it to function in its proper manner. Plants, for example, have vegetative souls, animals have animal souls, and humans have rational souls. All these souls, according to Aristotle, should be conceived as the form or essential function of their respective organisms. That form is the form of the matter of those creatures, and the matter is that material out of which they are made. He was insisting on the reality of the natural world as that which has its sources of change within itself. Forms themselves do not exist externally to the beings that embody them. They may be intellectually distinguished--in the mind of the knower--but this does not mean that we can ever (as Plato thought) see forms as existing in a world of their own. Aristotle did develop the idea of a Divine Intellect which we share when we perceive rational truths, but in general his emphasis was on particular existing beings, not on absolute forms in some kind of intellectual or ‘Platonic’ heaven.

Although neither Plato nor Aristotle was a theist as we now understand the term, their agreements and disagreements set the stage for many long-running debates. One tension has continued for millennia: the tension between emphasizing some eternal source (or ‘firsts’) as what is most real and active (as Plato did), in contrast to emphasizing everyday objects in our physical universe (or ‘lasts’) as what are most real and active (as Aristotle did). A full account of theism has to integrate these two approaches, I believe, so that both God and the world have significant roles.

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