Not long ago I developed and taught a class on the so-called New Atheists, a group of thinkers who put out books around the same time (2004 – 2007) arguing against Western religion.

I only taught the class twice, and two unexpected things happened in the course of my delving deeply into these authors and their arguments and then teaching them to undergrads. First, contrary to my expectation and fears, the majority of the students (perhaps the vast majority) bought the arguments, accepted them, and were quite ready to say “to hell with religion!” The second unexpected thing that happened—and this was a real surprise, one that had profound reverberations for me—was that I went down a rabbit hole—a deep, dark empiricist rabbit hole in which the world stopped making any kind of sense to me.

I came out of that confusion thanks to the writings of the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He helped me make sense of the world again, and in a way that revolutionized the way I think about human beings, our fundamental nature, and our place in the universe.

You can read the first parts of this tale:

Part I: The New Atheists

Part II: The (IL)liberal college student

Part III: The Greeks discover the cosmos

This series has become a longer meditation on the development of philosophy and science out of myth than I had planned, and so it well-illustrates the fact that I love going on tangents about interesting ideas. I promise, though, that I’ll bring everything back to the class and Nagel soon (well, soon-ish).


Science, Mind, and God. Part IV: Plato

In the last segment in this series, I discussed the beginnings of philosophical and scientific thought in the ancient world amongst the naturalist philosophers, or Pre-Socratics. In contrast to their contemporaries, who saw the workings of fickle gods throughout nature, these thinkers conceived of the universe as a true cosmos—an ordered whole operating according to necessary laws. In addition, I discussed the worldview of Pythagoras, one of those Pre-Socratics, who is credited with first thinking of the world as mathematical or mathematically-describable.

In this offering, I want to talk about Plato, the father of Western philosophy, who continued and expanded this conversation dramatically. My reading and interpretation draw from Gregory Vlastos’s fascinating and invaluable work, Plato’s Universe; and also from Charles Kahn’s excellent book, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans.

Because Pythagoras himself never wrote anything, and because his immediate followers were sworn to secrecy, it’s difficult to know with any precision what he said or taught. There is very good scholarship, however, arguing that much of the picture of Pythagoras adopted by late antiquity and lasting through the Middle Ages and into the modern period was invented by Plato. This is the picture of Pythagoras, on the one hand, as a great mathematician who believed that everything was number; and, on the other hand, as a mystic who believed in reincarnation.


There are several Platonic dialogues containing distinctly Pythagorean elements. The two most dramatic examples of these are the Phaedo and the Timaeus. Kahn says: “The Phaedo and the Timaeus may serve as emblems for what is most vital and lasting in the Pythagorean contribution to Western thought: on the one hand, a mathematical understanding of the world of nature; on the other hand, a conception of human destiny that points beyond the visible world and beyond the mortal body to a higher form of life.” (4)

The Phaedo contains the death scene, Socrates’s execution by hemlock poisoning, and the conversation leading up to that event. In the face of his impending death, Socrates and his friends turn their attention to the question of immortality. Further, the dialogue discusses reincarnation. Again, this is all very Pythagorean (as we came to understand that term). It’s never been completely clear to me what Plato is up to in this dialogue. The arguments for immortality are poor, perhaps obviously so, and I have a working theory that the dialogue isn’t really about immortality or reincarnation at all, that these are a surface discussion about something else (specifically, about the intersection of logic and metaphysics). But this is a topic for another post.

Atomic Theory

The other very Pythagorean dialogue, the Timaeus, contains Plato’s creation myth. Here, he tells a story of the beginning of the cosmos at the hand of a craftsman god, the Demiurge. There are two very interesting and significant things going on here that I want to point out. The first of these has its roots in the Pre-Socratics, specifically in the thinking of Anaximander and the atomists, Democritus and Leucippus.

As I mentioned in the last post, the Pre-Socratics attempted to explain the phenomena of the world as caused by or evolving out of some primary element. Many of them chose one of the four basic elements, earth, air, fire, or water as the original stuff. However, Anaximander took an intellectual step forward by claiming that the primary element was the “apeiron” or “the indefinite.” That is, the basic material or component out of which everything else arises has no sensible properties of its own. This is significant because it supposes that the sensible characteristics of everyday objects we experience are caused by and reducible to elements at the basic level which do not possess those characteristics. This is exactly what modern atomic theory tells us; that properties at the macro level (the solidity of wood, the wetness of water) are caused by the interaction of microscopic elements that do not possess those properties. E.g., individual water molecules are not wet, the individual molecules making up this table are not solid.

The atomists said something similar, but they argued that everything was reducible at the micro level to a smallest unit that itself couldn’t be perceived. “Atom” in Greek means that which can no longer be divided or cut. These are not the familiar atoms from our table of elements (hydrogen, helium, oxygen, etc.). Rather, they are the smallest, indivisible, indestructible, and imperceptible material elements that make up everything.

Vlastos says: “Why should we assume that if X is red, each of the Ys that make it up must be red, and if not red, then of some other color?” He adds: “This liberation of the theoretical imagination was the finest legacy of the Greek atomists to modern science.” (69) That is, if you don’t assume that the elementary particles must possess the same properties as the everyday objects, your thinking is freed in immeasurable ways to imagine and theorize.

[For those without any background in philosophy, Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason makes a good primer on these ideas.]

Plato, in the Timaeus, pushes this further. In his creation myth, he claims—like the atomists—that everything is ultimately made up of primary elements, but unlike the atomists, he claims that the basic components are geometrical shapes. Earth, air, fire, and water are all made up of various equilateral, scalene, and right triangles. This allows for the inter-transformability of these basic elements. That is, how is it that water evaporates when it’s heated—how does it turn into steam, which is air or gas? The triangles making up the elemental shape of water break down and reconfigure into air atoms.

I’ll note in passing that Plato makes it clear that this is to be taken as a myth. He’s well-aware that there is no observable data of what goes on at the microscopic level to work with. This is an educated guess, a story, about what things might be like at the elemental level in order to explain what goes on in the world around us.

Thus Plato is offering an alternative to Democritean atomic theory. The latter gives us an infinitude of atoms of innumerable shapes. The former offers a far more elegant picture. Vlastos says: “If we were satisfied that the choice between the unordered polymorphic infinity of Democritean atoms and the elegantly patterned order of Plato’s polyhedral was incapable of empirical adjudication and could only be settled by asking how a divine, geometrically minded artificer would have made the choice, we wouldn’t hesitate about the answer.” (94) Clearly, the Craftsman, being purely rational and good, would have created the more elegant system. (And if he’s driven by reason, why not make things out of geometrical shapes?)

Celestial Movement

The second very interesting thread in the Timaeus has to do with what we observe in the night sky. As opposed to the issue of the underlying nature of material reality, for which there was no observational data whatsoever available to the Greeks, there was a good deal of such data regarding the movements of the celestial bodies. That’s not only because the planets and stars are directly observable, but also because the positions and movements of those heavenly bodies were of great interest to the ancients. The phases of the moon, the positions of the constellations, the daily overhead course of the sun—all these were of great practical use for navigation and for agriculture, to take two examples.

But the movements of the heavenly bodies also represented an interesting puzzle. The stars move completely uniformly, and the sun and moon have their regular patterns with an occasional eclipse to freak everyone out. But the five observable planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) do not move uniformly in regular arcs across the sky. Plus, their periods of rotation have wide variations among them without any obvious justification. The word “planet,” in fact, means “wanderer.”

[From our vantage point, the planets traverse the night sky, do an odd retrograde motion, then continue on their way. This is of course because the Earth isn’t the center of the solar system. The ancients didn’t know this—though some theorized a sun-centered system.]

I won’t dwell on these issues overly long; I just wanted to note again that for Plato the universe is indeed a cosmos—it’s orderly and rational. His Demiurge isn’t subject to the whims of the typical Greek gods. Consequently, Plato provides a reason-based explanation for the regular and orderly movements of the stars, the sun, and the moon. (Vlastos provides an excellent and detailed description of this in his chapter 2.) However, this did leave the motions of the five planets as a real problem for Plato.

As Vlastos notes, Plato could have said, “Well, if the observational data doesn’t fit into my metaphysics, then forget the data.” However, and to his credit, this isn’t what Plato did. He explained what he could given his theory about how the cosmos worked, but then left the unanswered issues as puzzles to be solved by his successors. This may seem like an abdication of his intellectual responsibility, but it in fact represents profound courage in resisting the old ways of explaining natural phenomena as the chaotic and disorderly effects of various divine wills. “For while Plato’s cosmology fully acknowledges a supernatural power in the universe, it does so with a built-in guarantee that such power will never be exercised to disturb the regularities of nature,” says Vlastos. That is, Plato makes room for a divinity in his cosmology, but it’s a god who would never interfere in the lawful orderliness of the world. Vlastos goes on to say, “How could the Craftsman’s unenvying nature subsequently disrupt the order he put into the world to make it the beautiful thing it is?” (61)

This picture of a rational and orderly universe is what survives from these beginnings of philosophy and science amongst the ancients into the modern period during and after the scientific revolution. However, the belief that it’s our observations that guide and should be preserved by our theories begins to be called into question amongst the moderns. For an explanation why this is so, I turn next to Descartes, one of the most original thinkers of the early modern, or indeed any, age.

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