Intelligent Design

Did Plato influence Charles Darwin?

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Following previous discussion on the influence that Plato’s Timaeus may have had on David Hume and Erasmus Darwin’s work, I thought it would be interesting to compare a well known paragraph of Charles Darwin’s work On the Origin of Species with a passage in the Timaeus. Spot the allusion to ‘forms’ and the phrase ‘most beautiful.’ Having attended a lecture in the Ian Ramsey conference on Design and Nature at Oxford last year, it was pointed out by Stephen Snobelen that Newton had used similar phrases from Plato in his writing such as ‘form’ and ‘most beautiful.’ It is possible that Darwin was referencing Plato through Newton (hence reference to gravity), but also that it stems from Hume and E.Darwin. Leaving aside the question of how Plato ought to be interpreted I would appreciate comments about how people think Charles Darwin used it.  

1st ed. of Origin. “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed [‘by the Creator’ 2nd ed onwards] into a few ‘forms,’ or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless ‘forms’ ‘most beautiful’ and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” [Emphasis added].
Timaeus “And on the one hand, even before this, all things were in a state without reason and measure, but when on the other hand the whole ordering was taken in hand, mastered, fire first, and water and earth and air, holding some trace of themselves, were altogether in truth in a state just as would be expected in the absense of a god; and in so far as this was their nature, he first pattered them with ‘form’ and number. According to his power, god composed them to be ‘most beautiful’ and best from that which they were not – such an account must always be granted by us above all else.” Plato Timaeus 53B trans. Emanuela Bianchi (2006) [Emphasis added].

As noted there is a very strong allusion to the demiurge of the Timaeus in the concluding paragraph of Erasmus Darwin’s work Zoonomia, taken from Hume.

“The late Mr. David Hume, in his posthumous works [Dialogues], places the powers of generation much above those of our boasted reason; and adds, that reason can only make a machine, as a clock or a ship, but the power of generation makes the maker of the machine; and probably from having observed, that the greatest [401] part of the earth has been formed out of organic recrements; as the immense beds of limestone, chalk, marble, from the shells of fish; and the extensive provinces of clay, sandstone, ironstone, coals, from decomposed vegetables; all which have been first produced by generation, or by the secretions or organic life; he concludes that the world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by Almighty fiat. What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of THE GREAT ARCHITECT! THE CAUSE OF CAUSES! PARENT OF PARENTS! ENS ENTIUM!” E.Darwin – Zoonomia.

20 Replies to “Did Plato influence Charles Darwin?

  1. 1
    allanius says:

    Every sensitive reader who has ever read Plato has been influenced by him. I am referring to the poetic and inspired passages; e.g., Diotima’s hymn, which influenced countless imitators from Boethius to Spenser.

    The answer to your question, however, is “no” in the small things—and “yes” in the large. The demiurge is one of the small things. It is not crucial to either of them. They both use the term poetically, which makes it impossible to pin down precisely what they were up to.

    In Plato’s case, this use of poetry is complicated by the fact that his dialogues are dialectical. One speaker may invoke a concept such as the demiurge in quite a convincing manner only to be superseded later on by one who is wiser in the ways of philosophy.

    It is safe to say, however, that the demiurge does not have a positive connotation for Plato. His “highest good” is pure intellect. The demiurge exists in the realm of physical procreation, and is therefore a decidedly lesser deity.

    For Darwin, just the opposite is true. He invokes the demiurge as a poetic way of expressing his belief that value is the product of sex. According to him, the beauty and excellence of the species came about through small, incremental changes driven by some sort of mysterious sexual superforce—and in this case the demiurge is not a lesser deity but sex itself.

    So here Plato and Darwin definitely part ways. Plato exalted “intellectual procreation” over mere physical procreation, while Darwin attempted to exalt physical procreation as the mysterious source of all value.

    And yet in the larger things, there is indeed a palpable resemblance between them—which is their idealism and love of the simplicity and elegance of dialectical method; their ardent desire for transcendent values, which causes them to negate the values that actually exist.

    This is quite obvious in Plato’s dualism. He believed that intellect was “good” and matter was evil. Since men are in fact made of matter as well as intellect, Plato’s dialectical view of being actually leads to nothingness. The value of present existence is negated for the sake of some poetic (ecstatic) ideal—unknown and unknowable.

    The same type of poetry often creeps into Darwin’s writing. Darwin was the exact opposite of Plato in the sense that he rejected the notion of “the good” and any role for God or even lesser gods in evolution—but he too was a dreamer, intoxicated by beauty and full of a longing for transcendent values.

    The Origin is not about science per se but Darwin’s dream of a transcendent state of existence “generated” through evolution; of nature rising up of its own accord to furnish the happiness that had so far eluded the philosophers. Why talk of beauty in a putatively scientific text? Because Darwin believed he had found a way to turn science into a new kind of philosophy, as seen in his poetic musings on the demiurge.

    Darwin was not an Idealist in the Platonic sense—he did not believe in self-existent ideas—but he was a sort of negative idealist. Like Plato, he was infatuated with beauty and filled with a poetic longing for a transcendent state of being. Unlike Plato, he thought it was possible to obtain this state of being by excluding the creator from creation and investing his poetic energies in “generation.”

    And yes, his method is, like Plato’s, dialectical. The whole purpose of the Origins is to negate God and exclude him from creation. Just as Plato used a dialectical method to attack all constructs of intellect and sense on behalf of pure intellect, so Darwin used the notion of evolution to attack the Transcendental Aesthetic and its construct of being and nothingness for the sake of pure nothingness, which he believed was capable of producing an ideal state of being.

  2. 2
    Joseph says:

    Play-dough has also influenced my daughter- now 6 years old.

    Oh PLATO- nevermind…

  3. 3
    tm19 says:

    allanius pretty much nailed it, although talk of the “dialetical” might give the Origin a shinier philosophical sheen than it otherwise deserves. I don’t think Darwin wanted to write philosophically. I think he saw himself as transcending metaphysical speculation. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Of course, that didn’t work, but anyway…

    In the Origin, Darwin makes constant allusions both to Paley and the prevailing doctrine of creation. Paley, in turn, was reacting to Hume who was reacting to a classical design argument strongly influenced by Plato’s Timaeus. The Church’s teaching on species fixity was influenced by Linnaeus who was influenced by Aristotle’s “Scale of Nature,” which expanded on Plato’s ideal of a “living being.”

    Ultimately, Darwin appropriates the language of design for the same reason Sagan, Dawkins, and countless nature documentaries appropriate the language of design: none of them can help it. Evolutionists can’t escape the deep-seated intuition that something truly wondrous is happening, and they can’t resist using the language of religion in the cause of materialism. The trick is to demystify the Demiurge while honoring the Delphic oracles of institutional science. The result is a curious admixture, but something only fallen man could make.

  4. 4
    StuartHarris says:

    The translation you gave of Timaeus is dated at 2006. It’s sort of a trivial point to note that we’d need to know what translation Darwin would have been reading in the mid 19th century, and whether the specific Greek phrase was rendered in English as “most beautiful”.

    Translations of Greek to English done in the last one hundred years look a lot different from those done before, mostly because English has changed so much.

  5. 5
    Timaeus says:

    Let me get this argument straight.

    1. Charles Darwin and Plato both use these three words — three very common words in both English and Greek (and in most languages for that matter) — “form”, “most”, and “beautiful”.

    2. In the Plato passage, the words “form” and “most beautiful” are in different Greek sentences and different syntactical contexts, but in terms of mechanical word-count they happen to be relatively near each other.

    3. This proves that Darwin had Plato’s Timaeus in mind when he wrote the final paragraph of the Origin.

    4. Further, this proves not only that Darwin borrowed some phrasing from one passage of Plato for rhetorical purposes (in which case the title of the article above should have been: “Did Plato Influence the Literary Style of Charles Darwin?”), but also that Darwin’s entire evolutionary theory was deeply influenced by Plato’s thought.

    Am I the only one here who thinks that this argument would not likely make it past a referee for The Journal of the History of Ideas?

    Or am I missing something?


  6. 6

    As I said – this argument was presented at an Oxford conference in relation to Newton’s interpretation of Plato. I thought it a bit tenuous, but who am I to argue with Oxford professors?

  7. 7
    StephenB says:

    Actually, Andrew, I think that you are probably much smarter than most Oxford professors. You have proven it many times with your admirable posts. Here, though, I must dissent.

    Without difficulty, I could list a hundred different ways that these to men were diametrically opposed. I would begin with the obvious point that Plato’s Idealism and hard dualism places him a planet apart from Darwin’s quasi-materialism and borderline monism.

    Then, I would point out that the “dialogue” in Plato is not synonymous with the “dialectic in Hegel and Marx. “Conflict” as communication aimed at finding objective truth is miles apart form “conflict” as metaphysics aimed at relativizing truth.

    While the Oxford professors are at it, they might also suggest that Hitler was a disciple of St. Paul in the sense that both used powerful rhetoric. Or, to keep it in the Oxford spirit, Hitler borrowed from St. Augustine’s emotion, who in turn, borrowed his emotion from St. Paul. That would make Hitler an indirect disciple of St. Paul. Let’s keep that Oxford spirit mindless sophistication.

    That’s only three, do you need 97 more.

  8. 8
    dgosse says:

    Hi Andrew

    I thought it a bit tenuous, but who am I to argue with Oxford professors?

    Given the “tenuous” grip on reality some professors exhibit, I would think you are just the man “to argue with Oxford professors.” Someone needs to do it.

    Have you read Wiker’s, “Moral Darwinism” in which he traces evolution back to Epicurus rather than Plato? It makes a little more sense to me. An essay the covers the high points can be found here.

    “Because nature is self-contained, it has no need of a creator, for the atoms themselves are eternal, and their eternal motions “create,” by their random activity, all that we see in nature. Hence there are no signs of the gods in the workings of nature.” Wiker

  9. 9
    Timaeus says:


    I would stick up for Oxford professors, if we were talking about pre-1945 Oxford professors. Even if we were talking about them up to about 1960, I might defend them a bit. However, I get the impression that these days, they are mostly just ideologically driven twits and mediocrities, like, say, oh, I don’t know, maybe your average Cornell or Iowa State professor (note subtle ID references, nyuk, nyuk).

    However, there was a time when Oxford was the center of a truly dialogical, Platonic style of learning. Unfortunately, in North America since the 1950s, we have preferred the Teutonic model in which the professor is “the expert” rather than a Socratic conversation leader; and now the Brits are imitating what North America has done. So Oxford, which used to produce scholars who were humane and wise, now produces merely specialists (and from the report above, not always very bright specialists, either).

    I agree that Plato and Darwin are about as far apart as one can get. Plato was opposed to all the lines of ancient thought that held a view of nature similar to Darwin’s. I can’t think of anyone who was a greater champion of the existence of Mind than Plato, and Darwin is firmly in the tradition which interprets nature without reference to Mind.

    In Andrew’s repeated attempts to make Plato into a proto-Darwinist, I detect the unfortunate influence of an anti-Greek line of Christian thought which runs from Tertullian through to Francis Schaeffer. It’s never been the mainstream of Christian thought, but every now and then it surfaces, and when it does, it does great damage. Thus, from about 1900 or so the fideist hordes of Teutonic Bible scholars and theologians crossed the Channel and the Atlantic. They had the SCM Brits as their fifth column inside the great Oxbridge universities, and they had certain American conservative evangelicals acting as their vulgarizers and promoters in the New World. It was all “out with Plato and Aristotle, out with natural theology, out with everything Greek, let’s all be more purely Biblical”. Now we are reaping the rewards. The New Testament story about expelling one devil and letting in many more comes to mind. These Christian champions who drove the “pagan” Greeks out of Christian theology and ethics, drove out the main teachers of order, limit, justice, and moderation, creating an intellectual vacuum which had to be filled. It has been filled by modern philosophy, which teaches the supremacy of will over reason, justifies greed and ambition, sanctifies dog-eat-dog competitiveness, prefers change to tradition and freedom to order, puts rights above duties, worships human “creativity”, junks tradition in the name of progress, etc. Many “conservative” Christians I know sound more like Hobbes or Adam Smith than they do like Christ, and the liberals sound more like Kant or Lessing than they sound like the Hebrew prophets. The jettisoning of the Greek element in the Christian tradition has been a cultural and moral disaster.

    The last thing the modern world needs is anti-Greek thinking. What the modern world needs to do is to recover Greek thinking, which it does not grasp. Regarding Greek thought about nature, this recovery is more likely to come from physicists, and from biologists with ID leanings, than from those who occupy the chairs in philosophy departments. Denton and Sternberg see that nature is shot through with mathematical form and that the language of accident, contingency, chance, unguided physical causes, etc. is utterly inadequate. Plato tried to tell that to the materialist natural philosophers of his day, 2400 years ago. And his reward, apparently, is to be told by “conservative” Christians that he’s responsible for Darwin.


  10. 10
    nullasalus says:


    Strangely enough, there’s at least one philosopher out there taking the tact that you do, at least I think: Edward Feser. Check out The Last Superstition. I’m re-reading it right now, and he oddly makes the argument (though he does it gently and briefly) that modern ID proponents tend to be the ones who are most far afield from classical thought and natural philosophy.

  11. 11
    Timaeus says:


    I don’t know the book or author you mention, but from your description, he isn’t taking the same tack.

    I regard ID as a modern update of classical teleological argumentation, one completely in line with traditional natural theology and with the general thrust of Plato and Aristotle.

    Many TEs, on the other hand, are in principle opposed to natural theology, and don’t like the way that thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas “baptized” Plato and Aristotle. Their theological heroes are Pascal, Barth, and kindred spirits.

    And many other Christians, even without reference to the question of evolution, seem to have been taught to dislike or to distrust Greek philosophy generally — its ethics, its notions of soul etc. The idea seems to be that Athens should have no truck or trade with Jerusalem (cf. Tertullian).

    If the complaint about the Greeks were merely that Christian theology became too complicated when Greek jargon was adopted in the battles over the Trinity and so on, I would be sympathetic, because those early Church battles produced more heat than light, and in many cases the theological use of Greek philosophical concepts was questionable.

    What I’m objecting to is something different: it’s the rejection of Greek thinking even as an ally and friend of Christianity. You don’t have to put Plato and Aristotle in command of Christian theology to recognize that they are friend, not foe. Jerusalem and Athens differ over some important things, but they also agree over some important things, against many modern philosophers. And one of those things is the role of Mind in the ordering of the world.

    Darwinism is alien to the mainstream of Greek classical philosophy. It fits in better with the minority Greek views of some pre-Socratic and later Epicurean philosophers. But those views were condemned by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and of course by the Bible.

    ID doesn’t require anyone to subscribe to Christianity, but it’s friendly to Christianity. Someone who infers the existence of some kind of God from design in nature is potentially open to the notion that God may have revealed himself in other ways. The Christian doctrine of Creation is compatible with ID. But this is precisely what irritates Barthians, TEs, and other anti-Greek malcontents. They want everything, the whole ball of wax — even the very existence of God — to depend entirely on the historical Christian revelation. They want it to be the case that we cannot know anything about God without revelation. They believe that they are exalting God higher by making his revelation that much more necessary. It never occurs to them that they are perhaps insulting God, by saying that his workmanship on nature and on the human soul was so poor that that his wisdom does not shine through them.


  12. 12
    nullasalus says:


    It’s easy enough to find online ( is his blog site) – all I will stress is that The Last Superstition argues heavily in favor of returning to Aristotilean/Thomist thought and a general thomistic approach to nature and contemporary questions. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe not – I fear I may have set you against the concept by mentioning how Feser’s take of ID is a bit negative (specifically, he thinks ID is from the outset married to Paley’s concepts, and therefore to a mechanist and innately anti-plato/aristotle view of nature).

    All I can do is recommend you have a look. My guess is you’ll find a lot to agree with – it is anything but an expression of distaste for Greek thought playing a role in viewing nature, or in understanding Christianity. I’d not have bothered bringing the book up on this site, but if a call to return to a serious understanding of Greek (specifically Aristotle’s and, to a degree, Plato’s) thought is being suggested, here’s the philosopher leading the charge to do it.

  13. 13

    Timaeus, allanius, nullasalus, Stephen B – I appreciate your comments. I approach ID as a mildy conservative evangelical – along the lines of Francis Schaeffer – as I think you have guessed Timaeus.

    C.Darwin’s main argument is indeed Epicurean – Hume’s character Philo argued from both Hesiod and Epicurus, which shows ambiguity in Hume’s thinking, or at least Hume’s actual view is carefully hidden.

    One concern I have had is that ID might support pagan beliefs – so once the atheists have finally been shown the door, the pagans would walk right into the room and claim ID as their own. However, I agree that Greek philosophy need not support pagan beliefs, but I think there is ambiguity. However, the type of ID argument that Hume’s character Cleanthes made was much closer to Christian theology – where there is an analogy between design in nature and human intelligence. Man created in the image of God. That could be close to the demiurge of Plato too, but Hume, E.Darwin and (perhaps C.Darwin) seemingly saw the demiurge as an impersonal ‘source or power of generation’ by interpreting the demiurge in light of Hesiod’s Theogeny. In modern times Staurt Kaufmann wants to use the word ‘God’ to explain complexity in light of evolution, but deviod of any meaning. Therefore God may be seen as an impersonal force in nature – almost along the lines of Spinoza.

    I don’t want to get into a debate about whether Plato is necessarily opposed to Christian theology. Plato has certainly been used to that end by subseqient philosophers with Plato’s ideal city state often imposed with brutal force by left and right with Christians persecuted.

    There is some irony that the Platonism of Leo Strauss has been an influence on American neo conservatism where a state that has broadly lost its faith must be controlled by strong arm tactics, fear and noble lies. Many American Christians perhaps are not aware of this platonic influence. New Labour in Britain seems to be following the same track. And I agree with your comments about extreme free trade being damaging, but does that stem from a loss of Greek influence in Christian thinking. Adam Smith was a friend of David Hume. I suspect that it is loss of Christian responsibility towards GOd and man that the economic libertines brought in that enabled the rise of extreme capitalism. Why do many Christians think that is Christ like?

    The Judeo-Christian Scriptures contain a detailed social legislation with much discussion about how it should be implimented. i.e. Love is the fulfillment of the law. It is perfectly possible to construct a strong and stable society based on the Bible without the works of Plato. Isn’t that what the Pilgrim Fathers wanted? SOciety can be run effectively from Scripture without Plato, but whether Plato ought to be removed is another question I don’t wish to get into here.

    Plato need not be seen in a negative light I agree, but it is possible to see what so many have done with Plato – (and admittedly with the Bible).

    Theistic evolution is influenced by a form of Platonism that stems form Origen, and partly from Augustine, where the theologian is free to alegorise those passages that he/she finds hard to take literally, thus dividing the spiritual from material. Isn’t the type of argument that says nature cannot refect anything of God really a Platonic dualism? The type of argument made by Hume’s Demea is to seek ontological proofs, but such theologians are not necessarily theistic evolutionists.

  14. 14
    tribune7 says:

    Andrew, I love your posts.

    One concern I have had is that ID might support pagan beliefs –

    Yes, just as meth-nat can be used to support atheism, which doesn’t make meth-nat bad.

    Our goal with ID should be to make make its limitations clear in the beginning. We should insist it be superb at what it does but don’t let it be anything more.

    ID, btw, combined with (the other aspects of) meth-nat is a pretty strong antidote to paganism and all other forms of superstition.

    Of course, ID+meth-nat don’t solve the big problems of the soul, which we should also make clear.

    I suspect that it is loss of Christian responsibility towards God and man that the economic libertines brought in that enabled the rise of extreme capitalism. Why do many Christians think that is Christ like?

    I think part of it is that thinking Christians prefer the Devil to rule one’s employer who can make you miserable for just eight-hours a day rather than the state, which can make you miserable 24/7.

    And of course it is always easier to escape a bad employer than a bad state.

    Maybe more importantly, with a limited government one can enter the market to serve, successfully, God. With an unlimited government, all service must be for the state.

    Also, a LOT of the “social justice” economic arguments are immoral i.e. “I have a very good paying job doing unskilled labor so that fellow in Thailand must not be allowed to get it even though his life would be significantly improved with it and poor people throughout the world will have more affordable food, clothing and shelter”.

    And I’m not saying that all arguments for economic intervention are immoral.

  15. 15
    Timaeus says:

    nullasalus (#12):

    Ah, I understand you better now. Thanks for the clarification and expansion.

    Let me say right away that I have nothing against neo-Thomists or anyone who wishes to revive or defend Aristotelian concepts, whether in biology or ethical and political matters.

    As I understand it now, this fellow Feser is criticizing intelligent design not for insisting on design in nature, but for having too mechanical a conception of the design or the designer, i.e., Paley’s conception. He thinks that the Greek conception of nature was subtler than, or different from, Paley’s. That’s an interesting criticism, and one worth exploring.

    My main point in this exchange, however, is what Paley, traditional natural theology, Plato and Aristotle have in common, i.e., they infer intelligence from the arrangements of nature, and they think that human beings can do this legitimately, even without the aid of revelation.

    This is what Darwin denies. He argues that the inference to design is unsound. And his argument would apply not only to Paleyan design but to design as Aristotle or Plato would have understood it.

    If you asked Augustine or Aquinas who is closer to a correct understanding of the origin of living nature, Darwin or Plato, I think both would say Plato. Even if you asked Calvin, I suspect the answer would be the same. Traditional Christian theologians recognized that Plato and Aristotle opposed chance and believed in the rule of Mind. They of course differed from Plato and Aristotle on the details, because their conception of God was different. But they saw the “family resemblance” between Christianity and Greek thinking. We should be able to see it, too, and recognize the gap between Darwin and Plato.


  16. 16
    dgosse says:

    Hi nullasalus

    Thanks for the link. I’ve had a quick look and appreciate his ascerbic style. Some ideas need to be treated with the scorn they so obviously deserve. I think I’ll enjoy traipsing around there for a while.

  17. 17
    StephenB says:


    Here is a key point, in my judgment: Everything turns on the “unity of truth.” God’s revealed truth in Scripture is consistent with God’s revelation in nature. Romans 1: 20 makes this point crystal clear: God’s existence is made evident through his handiwork. Notice that this point is less about theology and more about philosophy– less about faith and more about the use of unaided reason. So, here we have the Bible, faiths main playbook, explaining that no faith is necessary to detect God’s intelligent design or to draw inferences about his existence.

    This teaching reminds us that the Christian faith is rational and the faith and reason provide the optimum synthesis. Faith illuminates reason, and reason illuminates faith; revealed truth confirms science, and science confirms revealed truth. Rationality itself depends on this unity of truth. Without it, all is lost. That is the problem with theistic evolution. It proposes one truth for faith and another for reason—one truth for Scripture and another for nature. Athens and Jerusalem must either join together in marriage, or reason will always be divorced from faith. Greek thought, at least in the rational tradition of Plato and Aristotle, blesses this marriage; anti-Greek thought, in the irrational tradition of Hume and Kant condemns it.

    Unless we can know some truth independent of God’s revelation, we cannot provide a rational justification for the Christian faith. It is through this synthesis of faith and reason that we learn that Biblical truths will never be at variance with any scientific discovery or any conclusion arrived at through the principles of right reason.

    Further, without Greek thought, we have no means by which we can discern the truth claims issued forth by all the other competing religions and belief systems. On the one hand, for example, Christianity holds that God is both transcendent and imminent. On the other hand, Islam recognizes only God’s transcendence while eastern thought accepts only God’s imminence. Because the Judeo/Christian ethic incorporates Greek paradigms, it can compare its teachings with those of other religions by using these same common terms. Greek though provides the common denominator through which we can study comparative religions.

    So, to Tertullian’s question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem,” we can answer—a lot. Nothing less that rationality itself is at stake. To accept the skepticism of Hume and Kant is to relegate Christianity to a faith-only enterprise. Even the Bible says that this is a bad idea.

  18. 18
    Timaeus says:

    StephenB (#17):

    Bravo! That was just lovely! My congratulations.

    You could have written the Regensburg speech for Pope Benedict!


  19. 19
    Timaeus says:

    Andrew (#13):

    We’re now communicating. You’ve given a good answer which responds to some of my concerns. Thanks.

    You don’t need to worry about “pagans” claiming design as their own if atheism is ever defeated. Genesis has given Christians and Jews a large chunk of the corporate shares in the firm known as Intelligent Design Inc. But in fact the Greeks also have a large number of shares in the same corporation. (Though a few Greeks, like Epicurus, have chosen to invest in the Random Enterprises Corporation instead.) The truth is that design is a concept shared by Christians, Jews, and some pagans, and it will always be that way, because pagans are capable of reasoning just as well as Christians and Jews, and can infer a designer from the order of nature. This should not be a cause of vexation for Christians, but a source of joy. If nature tends to lead even pagans to the idea of God, then nature is a sort of preparatory evangelism, which Christians can use as a first step in their teaching. But a certain sort of gloomy Christianity wants nature to teach absolutely nothing, so that we need revelation not just to learn about Jesus Christ, but even to learn about the existence of God. It’s that strand of Christianity that I’m criticizing. Many TEs have embraced it.

    We agree that it is a misunderstanding of Christianity to say that nature can teach us nothing of God. You trace this back to dualism, and dualism to Plato. But here you appear to be lacking detailed knowledge of the history of ideas and of Plato. The dualism that you detect in certain modern Christians is a tamed form of ancient Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a general term for a set of early Christian heresies which saw the world as so enfolded in sin, darkness and evil — in some versions, it was even created by an evil sub-deity rather than by God — that the world had nothing in common with God; only revelation, a radical breaking-through of the light into the darkness, could teach human beings anything. Gnosticism was a denial of the goodness of creation taught in Genesis, and was rightly condemned, but in disguised forms it has resurfaced over the centuries. The opposition to natural theology, and the radical revelationism of someone like Barth, have Gnostic overtones. Barthians do not quite say that the world is evil, but they say that it is spiritually opaque, that it is mute, that effectively the heavens do not declare the glory of God, and that therefore the only way we can know of God is for the divine Word to break through into the created order. That’s gentlemanly, civilized, Teutonic Protestant Gnosticism. The TE movement is infested with it.

    Plato is another matter. In some (not all) of the dialogues, Socrates appears to be endorsing a dualism of soul and body. But Socrates is always tentative, and whether Plato is actually teaching dualism has been questioned by many serious Plato scholars (though you’d never know that from reading Schaeffer). But even in those cases, Plato never moves the reader from such a dualism to anything like a Gnostic hatred of the world. And in the Timaeus, we have a plausible story about creation, not literally affirmed by Plato regarding the details, but with which he appears to sympathize in general outline, which confirms Genesis regarding the overall goodness of the world. Thus, Plato, Genesis, and Augustine all agree, against the world-hating dualism of the Gnostics, that nature is good and indicates the existence of its wise designer. Human reason has some access to God through nature.

    Can a society be Christian without reading Plato? Of course. We have the Gospel model taught by Jesus. Christianity does not require metaphysical speculation, at least not for the average Christian, most of the time. Jesus didn’t teach metaphysics or enjoin his disciples to do so. But if Christians do choose to employ philosophical conceptions in order to express their faith rationally, it would be wiser for them to employ philosophical conceptions that are at least open to the notion of God, and which define human beings in terms of the virtues of the soul and the need for self-discipline, not in terms of radical freedom and the inherent right to “self-actualization”. Modern philosophy is frequently hostile to the notion of God, or at least openly skeptical, and it exalts freedom and the assertion of will over virtue and self-control. Greek philosophy was not like this, which is why Christians for so many centuries did not find it generally threatening, though of course they did not accept everything that Greek philosophers said about particular details.

    At this point all I can do to strengthen my argument is to refer you to the opinion of some of your fellow Christians. Most of the greatest theologians in the history of the Christian church (Augustine, Aquinas, Abelard, Thomas More, Erasmus, Origen, Clement, etc.) have admired Plato and integrated him wherever possible into their thinking. Many of the greatest modern Christian writers (C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, etc.) show a strong Platonist influence. Major Christian philosophers such as A.E. Taylor and modern saints like Simone Weil have been deeply shaped by Plato. On the other hand, who are those who say that Plato is evil and advocates tyranny? Mostly non-Christian secular humanists like Popper. And the few Christians who seem to dislike Plato a great deal are either theological small potatoes (like Schaeffer), or, if they are major (like Barth), hold to a philosophy of nature that rejects ID and leads straight to TE. All that I’m asking is that you listen to the best Christian advice before you decide.


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    nullasalus says:


    To be honest, I disagree with Feser’s light criticism of ID – only because it seems to me he’s making those criticisms on philosophical grounds, which happens to be the area I think ID can make the most contributions and where ID manages to most undercut atheism. And also because I don’t see ID as so married to the concept of nature Feser seems convinced that it is – I wonder if he’s read Sternberg’s take on the matter, for example.

    There does seem to be another distinction worth noting. Your response is that Darwin would argue that no inference can be made from nature to design. Feser’s response, if I am to understand him, is twofold: First, that there has never been a serious, much less successful, argument given against the conception of nature that Aristotle/Aquinas offered. Second, that the arguments they advanced on the subject of law, nature, etc do not stand or fall based on the results of science. One example he gives is the first cause argument, which he stresses is not related to Kalam/Big Bang arguments – it would hold in a multiverse, an an eternal big bounce universe, etc.

    My own response to ‘Darwin would not accept’ is that the response to ID has been to gut – quietly, awkwardly gut – Darwin’s metaphysics from his theory. I am sure every reader of this blog will by now have heard this claim coming from ID-opponents and Darwin-boosters: ‘Science can’t tell us whether nature was designed or not designed. All it can tell us is what materially happened. So ID is not science because it attempts to identify design in nature.’ This gives away the farm as far as science goes, because the only way for a Darwin-booster to commit oneself to this line of thought is to give up practically anything and everything that made Darwinism objectionable in the first place. Timaeus, you more than anyone I know have argued that if you remove the metaphysics from Darwinism – if no comment is made about design or its lack, but only material claims about a past procession of species – the result is something other than what Darwinism historically has been. But notice that this is exactly what everyone from the NCSE to Ken Miller to otherwise are willing to do – indeed, what they insist must be done for science to ‘remain proper’. The alternative is to admit that ID is science, which is the more poisonous pill for them to swallow.

    I submit that estimation of the playing field to enhance the points being made here about the importance of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and classical philosophy in general. Design cannot be disproven in the scientific realm, and most ID critics (and I include in this list the most ardent atheists and anti-theists in particular) are well aware of this. At best they can kinda-sorta imagine the universe popping into existence and things ‘just happening’, and as a result the most common move is to argue science can’t settle the design debate, particularly if ID proponents are willing to absorb quite a lot of the standard evolutionary and cosmological principles to begin with. But what this means is that the area where the most severe fight takes place in is the philosophical. I think anyone who has studied classical philosophy compared to more modern metaphysics will be forced to admit – if the ‘non-design’ argument can barely pull even with the design argument in the realm of science, in the realm of philosophy non-design will have trouble even making it past the starting line.

    (As to the issue of whether ID can be co-opted by pagans, all I can say is – sure it can. But the sort of pagans that would embrace ID, much less Plato and Aristotle, would likely end up looking closer to pre-baptismal Constantine than Aleister Crowley. For a good example of what I mean, look at the history of Mortimer Adler.)

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