Saturday, June 27, 2009

Catherine Zuckert, Remi Brague, and Platonic Cosmology

Was Plato the first intelligent design theorist?

It is clear that the basic arguments for intelligent design are stated in Book 10 of Plato's Laws. In that dialogue, the Athenian Stranger warns against the dangerous atheism of natural philosophers who explain the universe as a product of purely natural causes. Against them, he argues that lawmakers must persuade their people that the complex, functional order of the universe shows the intelligent design of a divine mind that is benevolent in supporting human morality and law. This intelligent design reasoning provides cosmic support for human moral and political order.

Similarly, in the Timaeus, Timaeus argues that Socrates "city in speech" can be supported by a rational theology of cosmic order, in which the intelligible order of the cosmos manifests the intelligent design of the cosmic craftsman. The moral and political order of human life can then be judged by how well it conforms to this cosmic order of the omnipotent and benevolent craftsman.

Remi Brague--in his book The Wisdom of the World--shows how this conception of a cosmos ordered by Divine Intellect provided a cosmic pattern for human life to imitate, and how this idea runs through much of the history of the Western world until it was challenged by modern thinkers. Brague also shows how the biblical teaching of God as providential creator was assimilated to this Platonic cosmology.

The modern "disenchantment of the world"--based on the claim that the natural universe is indifferent to human moral concerns--means that human life must take its moral bearings from human experience itself rather than from some transcendent order of the universe. For Brague, this denial of cosmic moral order leads to moral confusion if not nihilism.

Many conservatives and Straussians have adopted Brague's reasoning in denying my argument for "Darwinian natural right." The only possible ground for natural right, they claim, is a cosmic moral teleology. Without such a teleology of the universe, any appeal to a moral sense as rooted in evolved human nature will collapse into moral relativism.

But is this really Plato's position, as Brague and others suggest? Brague acknowledges that Timaeus's cosmology reverses the move of Socrates in the Phaedo in turning towards the study of human things separated from the study of cosmic order. Moreover, Brague admits that some readers of the Timaeus have found Timaeus's reasoning so ridiculously implausible that they wonder whether Plato is being ironic. But having noted this possibility (p. 32), Brague moves on without considering its implications. Furthermore, Brague never really explains why anyone should accept this anthropological cosmology--in either its Platonic or Biblical form--as true.

A very different way of reading Plato on this issue is laid out in Catherine Zuckert's new book Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues. This massive study of all of the Platonic dialogues (888 pages long!) is organized around the dramatic dating of the dialogues rather than the dating of their writing by Plato. Her insight is that each dialogue fits into a dramatic context in which the strengths and weaknesses of Socrates' philosophic approach are assessed in comparison with four other philosophers prominent in the dialogues--the Athenian Stranger, Parmenides, Timaeus, and the Eleatic Stranger.

Zuckert suggests that Socrates distances himself from the cosmological reasoning of the Athenian Stranger and Timaeus. Socrates is skeptical about any claim that human beings can attain full knowledge of the whole, she claims. Furthermore, Socrates also doubts that the order of human life can be governed by the order of cosmic intelligibility. Socratic philosophy, she concludes, will be a search for wisdom that never ends in complete knowledge; and although we will never understand completely the order of the universe, we can understand something about the order of human desires as a guide for human action and thought.

In contrast to Brague's reading of Plato, Zuckert stresses Socrates' quest for understanding human nature on its own terms and his skepticism about appeals to cosmic design. If Zuckert is right--as I think she is--then Socrates is not that far from the skeptical naturalism of David Hume and Charles Darwin.

For some other posts related to this topic, go here, here, here, and .here.


John S. Wilkins said...

I cannot too strongly recommend this book:

Sedley, David N. 2007. Creationism and its critics in antiquity, Sather classical lectures. Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press.

It makes just that claim (or rather, that Socrates is being correctly reported here and is the originator of that view), and does so in a beautifully erudite manner.

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree with you that Sedley's book is an excellent study of this subject.

But Sedley's reading of the TIMAEUS depends on the assumption that even the most comic features of Timaeus's myth were meant by Plato to be taken seriously.

For example, when Sedley comments on Timaeus's claim that animals descended from humans by a kind of reincarnation, Sedley admits: "It is hard to mistake a light-hearted element of aetiological fable" (129). But then he insists that "the presence of humor does not entail the absence of seriousness."

Sedley concludes: "Timaeus's creation story is a myth, but one subject to constant shifts of register and even of genre. This often leaves his exposition without a determinate cash value in terms of literal truth-claims. Nevertheless, a finding that has repeatedly emerged from the foregoing chapter is that the greatest risks arise from underestimating the serious content of his discourse. Even at its most mythical or its most comic, it is a profound guide to Plato's own views on the world's teleological origin, purpose, and structure" (132).

If Plato were endorsing Timaeus's cosmology as literally true--as Sedley believes--then why would Plato present it as a myth in such a way as to create doubt about its "literal truth-claims"?