Sunday, September 06, 2009

Does the Life of the Mind Require a Platonic Cosmology?

Over the past two months, I have written a series of posts on the moral and intellectual implications of Platonic cosmology, its dominance of Western culture for almost two millenia, and the overturning of that cosmology by modern science, especially Darwinian science. As most elaborately stated in the Timaeus, that Platonic cosmology presents a cosmic model of divine intelligent design in which there is an eternal and purposeful order that constitutes the cosmic standards of moral and intellectual perfection.

The fundamental claim of that Platonic cosmology is that Mind (nous) governs everything, and that this cosmic Mind has designed everything for what is best. By contrast, the fundamental claim of Darwinian science is that the design of the universe arises by a natural evolutionary process that does not require a cosmic Mind.

What difference does this make for the intellectual life of human beings? Sometimes, it seems that the Platonic/Socratic argument for the supremacy of the philosophic life as the best human life depends on the principle of "mind rules all"--so that the life of the mind can be understood as an erotic striving to contemplate the eternal ideas of that noetic cosmic order. But, then, sometimes it seems that the Socratic life of philosophy can be justified as satisfying the deepest human needs and desires, regardless of whether this is grounded in any kind of cosmic Mind.

Some of the critics of evolutionary science have warned that any denial of divine intelligent design is self-defeating, or self-referentially incoherent, because this would deny the grounds for any confidence in human reason, and thus deny the rationality of science or philosophy. If our human minds are products of an irrational evolutionary process, then we have no reason to believe our cognitive faculties are reliable. But if this is the case, then we have no reason to trust our belief in evolutionary science. So we are caught in a self-denying position. Those like C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga would say that the only escape from this confusion is to conclude that our confidence in human reason--and in the claims of the philosophic or scientific life--presupposes a theistic cosmology in which Mind has created the universe with noetic order and created our human minds to discover that order. (This argument that evolutionary naturalism without theism is self-refuting can be traced back at least as far as the writings of Arthur Balfour and G. K. Chesterton.)

Much of the writing of Plato seems to point in the same direction, and yet there is also evidence in the dialogues of a Socratic skepticism about any cosmology of intelligent design, and thus an openness to the thought that cosmic order might have arisen by a natural process that does not require cosmic intelligence or intentionality.

I am inclined to believe that we can account for the reliability of the human mind, and thus support the claims of philosophy or science, through an evolutionary explanation for the origins of the human mind. But sustaining that position will require some future posts.

1 comment:

Tony said...

I missed this post somehow when I commented on your later posts above. I've really enjoyed this latest series of posts and look forward to reading more of your thoughts on these subjects.
Again, however, I wish to ask a point of clarification. Are you really considering an expansion of the Darwinian concept to the level of cosmology? Did Darwin do that himself? It would be the first I've heard of it if that is so.