Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

On the vice of using ancient thinkers as poster boys …


My attention was recently drawn to this critique of physicist Stephen Barr’s comments on church father Augustine (354-430 CE). Barr, a frequent critic of intelligent design, argues that Augustine did not take the Genesis account literally. This site argues, more plausibly in my view, that Augustine aged, he became more drawn to literal accounts of events in Scripture.

None of which would matter except that Augustine is often misused as a poster boy for bashing literalism, as Thomas Aquinas is misused by Catholic Darwinists as opposed to the idea that design can be detected in nature.

The point everyone seems to miss is this: We don’t know what Augustine or Aquinas (or Aristotle) “would have” thought, if they had been given the information available today. It’s the nature of history that they were not given it, and were reasoning from what they knew.

Recently, I was writing some science material for children, and found myself reflecting on this very subject. Before the advent of the microscope, who would have believed the germ theory of disease? The idea of “miasma” (bad air seeping around) would sound naturally more plausible and less hallucinatory) than “little bugs, too small to see”. What changed was that the little bugs were observed. After that, anyone making a decision about what to believe had to contend with new information.

New information can radically change debates, and invoking the old authorities as a talisman will not work.

"... regarding those things that have not changed much, those ancient philosophers can still be very enlightening." That would be due to the unbridgable gulf between actual truth and "scientific truth." Ilion
Denise, I think that this is a good point. I would add that regarding those things that have not changed much, those ancient philosophers can still be very enlightening. Collin
Thank you for the link. I wish to say that with figures such as Augustine and Aquinas, we seem to have a picture of them as "c" when in reality, many historical figures are a combination of "a," "b," "c," "d," and so on. Similar positions a thousand years after you or I are gone could be gleaned from our writings - that is, a rigid picture drawn that represents us in popular theologically that represents us in popular culture but doesn't take into effect that we all change a bit on our emphasis and positions over time. (One would hope towards a more "orthodox" position.) For instance, I read an article by R.J. Snell in a recent edition of Philosophia Christi ("Thomism and Noetic Sin, Transposed," vol. 12, num. 1 [2010]) where some pretty well laid out challenges to the majority view of Aquinas' view on such matters. Interesting article. While it ultimately has nothing to do with whether someone is saved by the precious blood of the lame we were purchased with (Acts 20:28), it goes a long way to show that this rigid picture of these men's works should be viewed as an evolution (pun intended) of thought that marks every persons life; and... I think... will continue to mark our lives in the "by-and-by." Learning and maturing in thought, that is. For we will still be finite creatures tapped into an infinite source - the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So the bottom line is that the mentioning of an Augustinian view "a" on "x" as this believer did is more of a red-herring than a statement of a historical fact or position that this great thinker truly held throughout his entire career of maturing in the Christian faith. Much thought and again thanks for posting a link to this site. I am a fan. Papa Giorgio Papa_Giorgio

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