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Austin Cline

Platonism and Western Religion

By April 17, 2004

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Many people think that a fundamental disagreement between religion and irreligion involves the concept of gods - but they are wrong. Much more fundamental than that are basic metaphysical positions about the nature of humanity and the nature of the universe. These separate people much more than theism or atheism do.

Edward Feser writes for TCS:

The assumptions central and indispensable to the traditional Western religious view of the world are in fact not the origins of human beings qua organisms, nor the position of the earth relative to other heavenly bodies, nor any other matter of purely scientific concern. They are rather metaphysical in nature, and their truth must accordingly be determined, ultimately, by philosophical argument rather than empirical investigation. The immateriality of the human mind -- or the soul, to use the more traditional language -- is but one of these assumptions (an assumption usually referred to as dualism). Another is the existence of a Necessary Being who serves as the ultimate explanation or First Cause of the world of our experience and of the scientific laws that govern it: the existence, that is to say, of God (belief in whom is referred to by philosophers as theism). A third is the reality of a realm of abstract entities (mathematical truths, Plato's Forms, and the like), i.e. of objectively existing, immaterial, unchanging essences or natures of things, of which everyday material objects and organisms are merely imperfect realizations (an idea known as Platonism).
If each of these assumptions were established, the Judeo-Christian religious worldview would be largely vindicated, whatever empirical science might discover; and if each of them were refuted, that worldview would itself be decisively refuted, even if the biologists all got de-converted from Darwinism tomorrow. So the findings of science per se are in fact irrelevant. Have these crucial assumptions been refuted by philosophers, though, if not by scientists? No contemporary philosopher could honestly say so; quite the contrary. Each of these assumptions is, among philosophers, as much a living issue today as it ever was.

I wouldn't bother reading the rest of Feser's - he likes to go on at length about "the modern intellectual's hatred for the traditional morality" in a manner that doesn't really make most of what he has to say worthy of much consideration. It's a hack political piece, not a serious philosophical exploration.

Nevertheless, in the above two paragraphs he manages to capture some important ideas which merit consideration. He's right, I think, that the existence of a soul, the need for a "Necessary Being/First Cause" and the reality of "abstract entities" are fundamental to Western religion - so fundamental that doubts about them necessarily lead to doubts about religion.

Feser thinks that they are reasonably secure premises, but he really doesn't have any justification for that. There's a lot of scientific evidence that points away from dualism, but no evidence that really supports it. That alone is enough to call Western religion into serious question - he may think that philosophers' debating it means that it is a "living issue," but it's not given a lot of time by the people who actually have to work with bodies. You won't find doctors worrying about how this medication or that procedure will affect a person's soul - just their brain, hear, liver, etc. Why? Because the concept of "soul" is so vacuous and irrelevant that there is no point.

Things aren't much better for the rest, either. Platonism isn't much of a "life" idea, at least not in its fullest sense. I don't think that many people still walk around thinking that individual chairs are but imperfect material representations of a "perfect" chair-form that exists eternally, perfectly, and unchangingly. The existence of a Necessary Being doesn't seem very necessary and it isn't clear that the idea of a First Cause, preceding the very existence of causation, is coherent.

In short, Feser doesn't do anything to seriously defend those three principles and he certainly doesn't manage to make any of them plausible - but it was nice for him to make sure we remembered that they are key issues when debating the validity of Western religion.

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December 14, 2007 at 11:33 am
(1) JohnnyD. says:

HI there, I’m writing as an interested observer and – as a Christian – very much an “outsider”. I think the connection of Platonism and Western Religion merits a short answer. As a Christian, I can confirm that we DO believe in God as the First Cause (note: ’cause’ here is used in an analogous sense. God does not cause as natural entities cause, and can never therefore be seen merely as the first in a sequence of movements. Rather, the whole causal chain depends eternally upon him for its very being, the most radical causality of all). We also hold that man is indeed a spiritual creature, having a spiritual soul. But let me clear up one or two things. Firstly, belief in the spiritual soul does NOT imply dualism: this statement only manifests the myopia of contemporary philosophy in the English speaking world. It DOES imply a certain duality of principles – but that is not the same thing, and can be interpreted such that the unity of the human person is left undamaged: this is precisely what the Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages did. Secondly, it is by no means necessary for Christian faith to believe in Platonic forms, or in an intelligible world which acts as an exemplar for our terrestrial, material one! In many ways (which I can’t go into now) this view is inimical to Christianity.
The link between Platonism and Christianity is an interesting and very complex one, with some areas of significant overlap, and some of great divergence. The biggest difference, I think, is that one is the product of the human mind striving towards the absolute, whereas the other (even if one disbelieves the claim) sees itself as based on the free self-gift of a Personal Absolute, and therefore in no way reducible to a system.

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