Faith, reason and ancient philosophy

Ali asked:

If the methodology of ancient philosophy was so potentially at odds with faith, why didn’t European thinkers simply ignore it? What does their determination to grapple and reconcile philosophy and reason reveal?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The idea that Ancient philosophy was ‘at odds with faith’ contains a serious misunderstanding. The way of reason, championed by the Presocratic philosophers, and by Socrates and Plato — for the purpose of this question, I’m assuming we’re talking about philosophy in the West — is a very different thing from contemporary scientism and anti-theism.

I have little to say about the history of montheistic religion, whether it be Judaism, Christianity or Islam. I’m tempted to respond: why wouldn’t the rabbis, monks and theologians want to claim that their views were rationally based, and who better to appeal to than the Greeks? More importantly, you only have to read these works of ancient philosophy to realize just how compelling they are, to anyone with a shred of intelligence. (That may be bias!)

The foundation of Greek thinking was faith in reason. Talk of ‘faith’ isn’t just word play. At the time of Thales, the idea that you could discover truths through the use of reason was a breathtaking discovery. It was also controversial. ‘Theory’ was a novel concept, the notion that by means of reasoning, one could achieve a reliable view of the cosmos and our place in it which was not derived from religious tradition.

Even then, and despite their evident enthusiasm, the Greeks knew that their hold on reason and theory was fragile. The Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes argued for a sceptical approach: even the most strongly supported theory cannot claim to be indubitable truth. Only God knows the truth about the cosmos while mere humans can only make their most reasonable guess.

Possibly the best, and also most moving, defence of reason is in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, which recounts the last day of Socrates’ life. Socrates puts forward arguments for the existence of the soul, while his friends raise various objections. If the existence of the soul could be rationally proved, you wouldn’t need more than one argument! But as Socrates makes clear, this is a topic where certainty is not to be had. He had proved his own faith by refusing the opportunity to escape execution (see the dialogue Crito) and drinking the hemlock without a word of protest.

All the Presocratics, barring the atomists, held that the most reasonable theory of the cosmos was one which hypothesised an intelligent principle (‘Nous’). Plato in the Republic argued that the Forms are arranged hierarchically under the Form of the Good. Aristotle in the Metaphysics argued for an Unmoved Mover. However, as you will rightly point out, none of these god-like principles were conceived as a personal deity: a God who speaks to Moses from a burning bush, or who takes up human form and calls out from the cross, ‘Oh God! Why have you forsaken me?’

What about the atomists? Atomism was based on a metaphysical principle of the unchangeability of Being, derived from Parmenides. So it is a very different thing from contemporary physics and chemistry. However, what the atomists discovered was that there is, in principle, a way to derive order from random motion of atoms — as counterintuitive as this might first have seemed. A simple example would be an avalanche, where smaller rocks fall into a crevice and larger rocks reach the bottom of the mountain. Or panning for gold, where the heavier particles naturally gravitate towards the centre of the dish.

A contemporary version of this is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The only difference (really!) is in the degree of sophistication. What is required in both cases, the Ancient and contemporary, is a willingness to take a leap — I won’t call it a ‘leap of faith’ — the determined view that, barring any other explanation, this must be the correct model for the way our ordered universe, our human world, arose through a series of stages from disordered chaos.

I am an atheist, and I hold to that view as a matter of philosophical faith. If a ‘God’ does exist, then He ought not to. The notion that the ultimate explanation of everything is some ‘family story’ about a ‘loving father’ strikes me as bizarre and offensive. (See my 2014 article, Philosophy, Ethics and Dialogue.) In my recent book Philosophizer, I compare ‘true believers’ to a zombie plague. It makes me angry that so-called ‘religious’ people think they have a monopoly on faith. Read the ancient philosophers, study them, and you will come to a very different conclusion.

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