Evolution vs. Intelligent Design in Classical Antiquity

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Evolution vs. Intelligent Design in Classical Antiquity

Anthony Long

No one can miss the current hype over evolution and creation. It made the front page of the New York Times on October 6, 2005, when the paper displayed a picture of two rafting trips proceeding side by side through the Grand Canyon, one finding evidence there for the great flood of Genesis, the other signs of gradual geological erosion. The previous week the same paper published an essay headed “Agreeing only to disagree on God’s place in science”, and a few days later, an op-ed piece entitled “Evolution as Zero-sum Game” with the sub-heading: “Science and religion don’t have to cancel each other out.”

None of this publicity gives the slightest hint that we have been anywhere like this before, I mean before Darwin and the fundamentalist backlash he continues to provoke in this country. Actually, much that divides the two sides in the modern United States was already a major source of debate in classical antiquity, pitting theistic and teleological Platonists and Stoics against anti-teleological Epicurean atomists. This is not to say, of course, that the modern debate is an exact rerun of ancient Greek philosophical controversy. Also, far more is at stake today in terms of educational policy, scientific research, potential legislative action, and the sheer heat and mutual dislike the two sides generate. Nonetheless, it is possible and worthwhile to compare the two cultures on this issue.

When we speak of God, we normally use this expression as the proper name of the Judeo-Christian maker of heaven and earth. Greek philosophers did not have this strongly monotheistic conception. Instead, they tended to speak indifferently of god or gods. Their notions of divinity (the term I shall use here) varied greatly, in accordance with their highly divergent cosmologies and systems of value. Yet, no ancient philosopher of the leading schools was atheist or even agnostic. All posited the existence of divinity, and all accepted the following quartet as divinity’s essential properties: (1) everlasting, (2) blissful, (3) supremely intelligent, and (4) paradigmatically excellent, meaning living a life that serves as the ideal standard for human beings to emulate.

Plato’s demiurge, for example, is transcendent and non-physical, the maker of the best of all possible worlds, motivated by providential goodness, and directly interested in human behavior. Moreover, Plato’s human world is going somewhere, in the sense that he supposes us to have further lives after our present ones, the quality of which, as in traditional Christianity, is divinely determined by how well or badly we are living here and now. If such a prospect makes your life more meaningful, you will presumably be attracted to a corresponding conception of divinity and hence to a science that can accommodate that. By contrast, Aristotle’s divinity, though also transcendent and non-physical, is neither a world creator nor a god that takes an interest in humanity. This supreme being functions as the eternal actuality on whose thinking all other life forms ultimately depend. Aristotle’s world is going nowhere beyond the present life cycle of each species member and the perpetual replication of every species. His non-personal divinity and everlasting cosmology suit this “here and now” conception.

I jump forward to the Epicurean and Stoic schools of philosophy, which dominated the Greco-Roman philosophical scene from 300 BCE to 200 CE. Here, too, as with Plato and Aristotle, we find two conceptions of divinity that vary radically while also agreeing in their endorsement of the four basic properties I have emphasized. As with Plato and Aristotle again, we find that these differences depend crucially on the kind of divinity these later schools deem appropriate to their cosmologies and to the best kind of life they posit for human beings.

The Epicureans even today are the unsung heroes of ancient science if you are looking for significant anticipations of a modern rationalistic outlook. They are unsung mainly because popular culture has preferred the theistic outlook of Plato with its Biblical affinity. Epicurus and his school do not, of course, anticipate a mathematical physics based on experiment and controlled observation. What aligns them with our science is the following set of methodologies and assumptions:

  1. The starting point for understanding the world is rigorous empiricism.
  2. We have reason to think that everything we experience is ultimately explicable by reference to physical facts and causes.
  3. The building blocks of the world are uncreated and everlasting atomic particles incessantly in motion.
  4. Science has no use for inherent purposiveness or mind in matter.
  5. Apparent evidence for design in nature (for example, the complexity of organisms and organs) is due not to an invisible guiding hand but to the determinate ways that matter organizes itself according to strict causal laws.
  6. Life and mind are not basic to the world, but emergent properties of particular types of atomic conglomerates.

If propositions 5 and 6 were unsupported, they would be a mere act of faith and thus inadequate to refute a theory such as Platonic creationism. In fact, the Epicureans were at great pains to defend these propositions and to rebut the evidence Platonists advanced in favor of intelligent design.

The positive arguments for an undesigned universe depend primarily on taking space, time, and the number of atomic particles to be literally infinite, though limiting the range of particle shapes and sizes. There is not one world but an infinite number of worlds, each of them with its own limited duration. Given such infinity, although any particular world is an outcome of accident (the composition of mindless particles), it is not accidental but mathematically inevitable that a world like ours with inhabitants like ours will arise, however rarely, from time to time; and there is always enough time and material for that contingency to occur. We should not be impressed by the fact that we happen to be such inhabitants. That is an unpurposed outcome of the way things are in an infinite universe where all possibilities will at some date, no matter how distant, be realized.

As for biological evolution, evidence suggests that our earth was very different in its early history from what it is today, and, in particular, more fertile. At that time it spontaneously generated life forms, some of which were able to propagate and others not, some of which were able to survive as viable species and others not. The theory, though vague about how the first human beings happened to emerge, presumes that they were pre-cultural hunter-gatherers with different body types than people of today. Civilization has developed by trial and error, as human beings pit their wits against the environment in the effort to survive and improve their material conditions. As for intelligent design, if you say that the world is too well-structured to be explained in this purposeless way, you beg the question by selecting the evidence that favors your case. We can conceive of a world that is more orderly than this one and more conducive to happiness. Disease and natural disaster provide decisive counter-evidence to the belief in a benevolently guiding hand.

Epicurean science allows the universe to contain divinity, in the form of beings that are everlasting, blissful, supremely intelligent, and ideals for human happiness. What it excludes is the notion that these superior beings (supposedly constructed out of especially fine atomic particles) have any interest in running the world or attending to our lives. An intelligent, designing divinity is not needed in order to supplement the science. What the blissful Epicurean divinity provides, in its non-interference, is the model for a humanly ideal life of pleasurable tranquility and peace.

Those who are committed to revealed religion and intelligent design will probably find the Epicurean world not only godless in effect but also ethically impoverished or dangerously freewheeling. The reply to this charge trades on the values of enlightenment and friendship. Epicureans find it supremely liberating to be free from divine intervention. They also think that everyone’s natural desires for pleasure and freedom from pain can provide all that a social group needs to live well if those desires are shaped by intelligence.

Like the Epicurean universe and the universe of modern physics, the world of the Stoic philosophers is most basically matter in motion. In their case, however, the motion is not mindless but the outcome of matter’s constant conjunction with a physical force called “god” (theos). Hence mind—the mind of divinity—is basic to the structure of the universe. It is not an emergent property of matter, as in Epicureanism, but also, contra Plato and Aristotle, it is immanent or omnipresent. Though lacking a precise concept of physical force, the Stoics proposed that divinity acts in and throughout matter by energizing it with a motion that is “simultaneously inward and outward,” and hence roughly analogous to a wave. Stoic divinity permeates everywhere, making the world a dynamic continuum. You may think of this theology as a form of physical pantheism whereby divinity is the causal power in everything, and quintessentially in the human intellect.

Physical though it is, the Stoic divinity resembles Plato’s immaterial demiurge in also being a providential and benevolent intellect. Unimpressed by Epicurean mechanism, the Stoics elaborated a cosmology that is also a teleology and an ethics. Their world is no unplanned accident of matter in motion. It is the result of a rational plan that divinity thinks up and fulfills by energizing and organizing matter in the ways I have described, and by designing us to be its intelligent partners in the great scheme of things. As in Genesis and as in Plato, our universe had a beginning; and it will eventually end in a mighty conflagration. But that is not the end of everything. Divinity sees to it that the universe will begin again and repeat itself in every tiniest detail down to the next conflagration. As it was before, so it will be again in everlasting recurrence.

In one respect the Stoic divinity anticipates the 17th-century conception of a divine clock-maker, whose world clock ticks away according to the strict causal laws it has laid down. In another respect it adumbrates a notion of genetics; for the Stoic world proceeds according to the “seminal principles” with which divinity “seeds” matter at the beginning, and by which it determines subsequent cosmology and biology, serving as the world’s DNA, so to speak. Refusing to get trammeled by arguments about the primacy of matter over mind, the Stoics offered an intriguing synthesis for those whose temperaments incline them to a holistic sense of the way things are.

In classical antiquity, then, philosophers were theologically divided in fascinatingly complex ways. The greatest division, as today, was between those who thought that the world is due to a creative, providential, and morally directive divinity and the view that it results from undirected and mindless matter in motion. Yet, in spite of such similarity to the modern debate, we should notice four big respects in which all the ancients, notwithstanding their profound differences, were quite united. First, they saw no incompatibility between science and theology. Second, they grounded their theology in reason as distinct from revelation or tradition. Third, they paid no heed to supernatural agency or miracles. And fourth, while rigorously arguing for their respective positions, they completely tolerated each other’s differences. No ancient philosopher could have imagined the wars and violent disputes over theology and religion from which the world has continually suffered since their time.

Anthony Long is Professor of Classics and Irving Stone Professor of Literature at UC Berkeley, with affiliated positions in the departments of Philosophy and Rhetoric. His latest book, published this month by Oxford University Press, is From Epicurus to Epictetus: Studies in Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy.

This article can be found in the November/December 2006 newsletter.