Monday, May 11, 2009

The Demiurge and the Prime Mover

Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world....we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.

od created man in his own image, the book of Genesis informs us; but it seems to me man has spent much of the last 3,000 years creating God in his own image. For the sternly rational philosopher, God must also be sternly rational and fit neatly inside his philosophical system. One sees this in the God of Spinoza who might be termed the Naomi Campbell of deities; beautiful and mysterious but also aloof, strangely malevolent and utterly lacking in personality. This picture is very close to that of the early religions in Ancient Greece. Here the issue of God was central right from the beginning but the early religions had nothing like a creator or a protector of the Jewish sort. Instead their deity was the ultimate absentee parent who sires his progeny in a rather convoluted and roundabout way before sitting back and watching on with magnificent indifference.

The pre Socratic philosophers approached this issue by asking the oldest of Greek philosophical questions, ‘how did it all come to be?’. The idea which emerged most prominently was that that in the beginning there had been a single kind of stuff (e.g water) from which things were fashioned. Some argued that one could discern from looking at the world that there had been a fashioner of some sort, not a personal being but some kind of remote deity. One reaction against this came from the atomists who supposed an eternal universe in which things had been able to come together by chance from simple corpuscles; a view that would later become Christianised by Gassendi and Descartes and appeared as the mechanical philosophy in which the corpuscles take their orders from God.

Two views were to have an enormous influence in later ages. The first of them came from Plato who looked at the universe around him and saw a world which was intelligible. The intelligibility was somewhat limited and the kind which struck him most was that of mathematics. The fact that configurations of mathematics could establish themselves in the world led him to formulate his idea of forms. The interesting move which he made was to assume that if something is intelligible to mind, it must be the product of mind. The forms which particularly interested him were mathematical and biological and he then set about the task of asking how they are realised.
Plato’s answer to this is that there must be a crafts worker, the demiurge, who has managed to impart form on the world around us. This work is good, it has intelligence and it is as perfect as possible in that light. The demiurge, Plato speculated, has fashioned the universe, imparting form in a way we can perceive. The intelligibility is therefore related to the imparting of a soul to the universe. It’s important to note that the demiurge doesn’t make the matter, he is presented with it and has to work with it the best that he can. Plato writes:

‘Taking thought, therefore, he found that, among things that are by nature visible, no work that is without intelligence will ever be better than one that has intelligence..and moreover that intelligence cannot be present in anything apart from soul. In virtue of this reasoning, when he framed the universe, he fashioned reason within soul and fashioned soul within body, to the end that the work he accomplished might be by nature as excellent and as perfect as possible. This, then, in keeping with our likely account, is how we must say divine providence brought our world into being as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence’

As Plato looked at the world however, he realised that it was in many way imperfect. The world of sense is changing, and yet the perfect forms he envisaged forms are supposed to be unchanging. Plato therefore supposed that when the Demiurge made the world he put it on a receptacle, but this was not of the God's making. What’s worse, the receptacle has a tendency to resist form; it is like a shifting surface on which form cannot be realised. There is therefore an original source of resistance in the world itself which makes it incapable of acceptance. The sense world itself is like images on the wall of a cave. We have to perceive the best we can with the sense world and find the original perfect forms. In other words, as it was later put, we can see but only ‘through a glass, darkly’.

Therefore in Plato, we have a God, but a remote non-personal one who doesn’t care too much about human kind, presumably having better things to do with his time.

In contrast to Plato, Aristotle had a strong divergence with his teacher and he certainly moved strongly away from him on a great many things. Aristotle also has the notion of form, but unlike the Platonic forms, his are at home in the world and fully realised in its particular place. If you have a sea urchin, for example, it is fully realising some kind of form by the activity of that nature. Change for Aristotle is therefore not a sign of corruption, it is the activity of nature. Each form therefore inhabits a matter with many roles. There can be defects, or ‘chance’, but this is because of the environment. An acorn can turn into a tree, but it can also be eaten by a pig. Therefore the wider world can qualify to thwart the forms.

At the centre of Aristotle’s physics is motion, whatever is in motion is moved by something other than itself. This idea would go on to have a long history, ending thankfully in defeat because it is extremely complicated and difficult to follow; not to mention a little long winded. Aristotle’s long chain of movement requires a constant source of motion which itself requires a cause. Or, as Aristotle succinctly puts it:

‘ [I] have established the fact that everything that is in motion is moved by something, and that the mover is either unmoved or in motion, and that if it is in motion, it is moved at each stage either by itself or by something else; and so we proceeded to the position that of things that are moved, the principle of all things that are in motion is that which moves itself and the principle of the whole series is the unmoved..we now have a series that must come to an end and a point will be reached at which motion is imparted by something that is unmoved.’

As Aristotle traced this motion upwards he followed it to the planets and the fixed stars, and finally to the prime mover itself. This is a complex view with critical problems, but what is important is the only way a God appears is by the activity of the first mover, a necessary being who causes movement by being the object of love and desire.

The deity has no personal relationship with nature, he simply bestows motion. In fact the prime mover strikes me as somewhat narcissistic since, according to Aristotle, it lives the fullest life by thinking of itself as the most worthy object of thought. God only thinks about himself because nothing else is a fit subject. Thus God only knows himself and remains eternally unaware of our existence and the physical world in which we exist. He affects the universe only through the desire for its unattainable perfection it inspires. ‘We may say therefore’, Aristotle concluded, ‘that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God’. It is assumed that ‘the things nearest the mover are those whose motion is quickest, and in this case it is the motion of the circumference that is the quickest, therefore the mover occupies the circumference.’

Aristotle also makes his universe eternal, provides natures that fit well together, and a cosmic order that is always safeguarded. This order, which causes all the motion and change in the universe, consists of the four causes:

a.) The material cause: the stuff out of which a thing is made (cheap plastic is the material cause of this keyboard);

b.) The formal cause: the pattern, model, or structure upon which a thing is made (the formal cause of me is "Humphrey-shaped");

c.) The efficient cause: the means or agency by which a thing comes into existence (Humphrey is the efficient - some might say the highly inefficient - cause of this blog post);

d.) The final (in Greek, telos ) cause: the goal or purpose of a thing, its function or potential (holding coffee is the final cause of a coffee mug, the final cause of me is presumably to bring the coffee mug to my wife so she can get out bed in the morning).

The idea of telos is the end to which nature tends. When stones are taken from their place they tend to fall back again because there is a natural place to which they return. Natural things will tend to act for the good of their kind. The telos should not be interpreted as a purpose, nor a conscious seeking. Instead the order in the universe will act to restore the place of stones. Each creature is therefore fitted to the niche in which it lives. Their structure and behaviours serves the purpose of that kind and so there is an end relatedness.

These then were the two major views which would come to be incorporated into Christian thought. Both are still relevant today, although ironically it is the atomists who have the upper hand. We are still presented with a set of contingent objects which, to some, might be suggestive of a prime mover or final cause. Science remains haunted by the vision of Plato’s cave, the idea that beneath the world of everyday sense experiences lies the true realm of beauty and order. Thankfully the long discourses on motion have fallen by the wayside.

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