Why platonism?

A fellow Christian on twitter recently wrote an article explaining their position on materialism and why they believe it meshes better with Christian doctrine as taught by the scriptures than Platonism does. This article can be found here and this is my response to that article.

First off lets start by acknowledging that Christianity does accept a more friendly view of the material than Platonism. In fact this is one of the key issues of Platonism that needs correction by Christian doctrine. In middle and neoplatonism matter is viewed as something that the soul needs to escape from. Plotinus goes so far as to identify matter with evil itself. Within Platonism this makes sense since evil cannot derive from above since the One is the form of the good and has no evil within it, so whence then does evil come? The answer, for the Platonists was from below, it springs from matter. Though matter itself is the lowest level of emanation from the One, below matter is void and matter forms the nexus point between infinite being and infinite nothingness. All good flows from above from the One, all evil flows from below from the void.

For a Christian this view is unacceptable. Scripture clearly teaches in Genesis that God called creation “good” matter is by no means evil, or a suboptimal mode of existence. Rather, to hammer the point home, Christianity teaches the resurrection of the body. While Platonists try to escape the cage of the body, Christians look forward to the day when body and soul will be reunited in a way that fulfills Gods ultimate plan for creation and the place of humanity within it. Humans are fundamentally material beings, us being matter was not a mistake but rather Gods plan that will come to ultimate fruition at the second coming. So it is certainly true that on this point Platonism as a self standing religious/philosophical system stands in contrast to Christian teaching.

Cantus also makes the point that the fear of death makes sense in a materialist mode of thinking where my existence as a being is identical to my existence as a physical body. I fear death because when my body dies, I die. Therefore the promise of the resurrection, in Cantus’ view, only really makes sense with a materialistic view where my whole existence as a being will be resurrected from the clutches of nothingness and my “sleep” ends with my waking in a material, yet glorified, body that brings my existence full circle from the spiritual rebirth of baptism to the physical and ultimate rebirth of me with the resurrection of the body (keeping in mind in this view my body IS me, it’s difficult to avoid slipping into dualistic language by talking about “my body” apart from me as a person).

It’s also certainly true that in some ways the influence of Platonism on the theology of Christianity throughout history has muddled some aspects of doctrine. For example when people think of “heaven” as a spiritual realm rather than a renewed physical creation. Ironically the Evangelicals who have this eschatological vision are probably some of the most hostile towards “pagan philosophy” that informs that vision, but that’s for another time.

The ultimate point then is if this is the picture that scripture paints then why shouldn’t we accept this materialistic view and ditch the dualism of Platonism where physical reality is viewed as a “shadow” of a higher reality and that our existences, while being largely material, are not wholly material and that there also exists a non-physical and spiritual aspect to not only us as souls but all things that exist as exemplar forms in the mind of God.

I have a few responses. Firstly Platonism is the theological language of Christianity, like it or not. Once the persecutions of the first three centuries ended and Christians could finally freely start diving into serious theological issues they were in a Platonist milieu. To discuss theology was to discuss Platonism, and many educated Christians, such as St Augustine received their philosophical training in Platonism before converting to Christianity to apply it there. Many of the opponents the early Christians sparred with over the validity of Christianity were Platonists, such as Porphyry the student of Plotinus who wrote “Against the Christians”.

This shouldn’t be something we reject. After all scripture itself requires some backing in Greek philosophy to interpret. How could you properly understand John 1:1 without a background knowing the philosophical meaning of Logos used by the Stoics as the rational organization principle of creation that makes it intelligible? It’s also difficult to untangle at this point since many aspects of Christian doctrine utilize terms and ideas that were cribbed from Greek philosophy. How do you talk intelligibly about the Trinity if you don’t think “substance” or “essence” are real aspects of existence? And if God can have a “substance” then why deny the possibility that material things have an objectively real substance to them that underlies their physical existence?

Next is the issue of the classical theistic view of God as the ground of being. Cantus quotes David Bentley Hart on the issue of finite beings all deriving their being from God and being entirely unable to stand apart from God maintaining their being.

I submit that any succour Hart gets out of this picture is an illusion maintained only by the Christian window-dressing Hart grafts onto his Platonist framework. For the Christian Platonist, everything in creation only enjoys existence insofar as it participates in God’s existence. It is hard to see how we could enjoy intrinsic worth on this view or even any kind of existence that is not in some sense illusory qua existence.

Surprisingly Cantus doesn’t address THE number one verse that supports Harts view here, Acts 17:28 “In Him we live and move and have our being”. Certainly of all the verses in the Bible this one stands out for almost explicitly supporting the Platonic participatory model of being. That said I’m unsure of why finite beings participating in Gods act of existence somehow removes their intrinsic worth. I’m also unsure about why divine conservation makes things “illusory” while existential inertia does not. In some sense we all agree that everything that exists now owes it’s existence to God whether that be in a hierarchical series that extends to God ultimately upholding all created being from moment to moment or in a temporal (accidental) series that extends back in time to the big bang. The acknowledgement that we as beings exist only in so far as we participate in Gods act of being is simply recognition that everything that exists is ontologically dependent on God. Being theists, and not deists we recognize God is imminent in the world and His imminence is manifested by our participation in His being. I disagree that the concept of being as participation in any way reduces the dignity of created being, rather it elevates created being by reinforcing that God willingly created the cosmos so that it might participate in what God is, part of that of course being being.

Lastly, and this is probably the big one. Materialism still has all the bugbears that make it very difficult to square away a rational epistemology, whether it be an atheist materialism or a theistic materialism. We sometimes forget that the ancient philosophers were acquainted with the idea of a fundamentally materialistic metaphysics and they deliberately rejected it because of the absurdities that it causes. Plotinus pre-empts Kant when he points out the difficulty posed without a Platonic epistemology:

In other words consider a small animal and a human. They both see a chair. The sense information received by both is the same but the human gains something in addition to the sense knowledge, that is what the chair IS. The small animal only sees a chair shaped object but it is the human who recognizes it as a chair. It would seem that the human has gained some knowledge above and beyond what sense information provides, the human has perceived the form of the chair rather than just the appearance of the chair. How do we account for this? For materialism that posits there exists nothing in addition to the particles that make up the chair the answer seems difficult if not impossible. For the Platonist the answer is simple, as above we recognize through the nous the form has been recognized and we gain true knowledge of the object not by sensing it but by directly accessing it’s essence through the intellect.

So why should one be a Christian Platonist rather than a Christian Materialist?

  1. Christian theology has traditionally been couched in the language of Platonic philosophy
  2. Scripture has “baptized” Greek philosophy for use, both by it’s usage of philosophical terms like Logos and Pauls address at the Areopagus where he explicitly identifies the God of philosophy known by the Greeks as the “unknown God” with the Trinity.
  3. Platonism still makes far more sense as an overall worldview than materialism which still suffers crippling issues with its ability to account for the ability to obtain true knowledge and the existence of the human soul/mind.

The Rejection of “I AM” and the Rejection of “I am”

In Exodus 3:14 God identifies himself to Moses as “I am what I am”. It is one of the most explicitly metaphysical verses in the Bible with God explaining His nature to Moses as a being who is, a being whose nature it is to exist. Gods nature is “I AM” because God simply exists as a fact of being God. John takes this and makes it part of his gospel narrative with the “I am” statements of Jesus. The most important of which is “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was I AM” which was Jesus way of connecting his identity with who Moses spoke to in Exodus and asserting His divinity.

1600 years later Rene Descartes used “I am” in a different way. Descartes struggled to find something concrete, something we know for a fact exists to form the basis of our knowledge and understanding of the world. He found his answer in the phrase “I think, therefore I am”. In the formation of any epistemology you need to start with a foundation that is self evidently true and existent, and what else could serve this purpose than your mind? The one thing every individual can be absolutely sure exists since all your experiences are filtered through it. We may be living in the matrix, hooked up to vats siphoning off our body heat while our minds exist in a virtual world but at least we know our mind is real even if the sensory information fed to it is not.

It is interesting then in the modern world how so many people are willing to reject that idea and claim that consciousness itself is non-existent. Dan Dennett, one of the “four horsemen” of atheism is a notable proponent of this in his attempts to debunk the hard problem of consciousness he denies there exists any such thing in the first place. His 1991 book “Consciousness Explained” was called by some of his peers “Consciousness Explained Away”.

The terrible metaphysics of naturalism has seemingly led us inextricably to a point where material reductionists have to admit that the thing that Descartes said must exist as a predicate for any knowledge to be gained at all, is now something we need to say doesn’t exist, at least in any meaningful capacity as the internal mental life of a person is solely dictated by neural processes as the human being is a biological automaton. Since naturalists by definition must deny any supernatural or transcendental aspects of reality they’re stuck with a conclusion that undermines everything they purport to know as fact. It seems as though the consequence rejecting the great “I AM” is rejecting the smaller “I am”. Denying the existence of God leads us to denying the existence of self, at least as traditionally understood as free agents with phenomenal experiences that transcend their biological underpinnings in the physical brain.

Naturalists in a sense have inverted Descartes statement on the existence of the mind being the basis on which we know other things to be true, instead now asserting that the existence of the material world which we know solely through empiricism proves that our mind is “illusory” and a result of evolutionary pressures. The fact we have an internal monologue is simply a result of the brains need to interpret the data it is collecting. It’s not “our” monologue, the thoughts of a mentally independent being, but a side effect of the physical brain processing data. We know empiricism is true therefore the mind is false. Very questionable since it then begs the question of how you know the conclusions you’re reaching are valid since they’re being reached by filtering information through that thing you claim has no real existence of its own beyond the brains physical processing? Some try to point to computers as the answer but that doesn’t seem to work since the logic a computer reaches is ultimately verified as either true or false by a human mind. You could program a computer to output 4 when you enter 1 + 2 and the computer would do it, the computer is a slave to its programming and the way its logic gates are set up. The computer cannot know whether the answer it is giving is correct because it can’t make those judgments, it simply processes the inputs according to a predetermined set of instructions and provides the output. Ultimately whether that output is correct rests on the mind of a human who views it. But this relies on the idea that the human is any different to the machine and actually can know the truth because we utilize logic free from the constraints of the rigid processes of electronic logic gates. Are we free under a naturalistic worldview? The answer seems to be no, and if that’s the case then you can’t really trust that you’re coming to correct conclusions given certain information any more than the computer can.

Naturalists have spent so long chopping away any branches of the tree of knowledge that are annoying to deal with from a materialistic perspective that the tree has toppled down on them entirely. Their epistemology withers because it ends with the vaunted empirical methods of science being filtered through a mind that is every bit a slave to its physical logic gates as a computer.

The reactions to this conundrum are interesting to say the least. Apart from some interesting thoughts on how accepting a deterministic worldview is detremental:

Further studies by Baumeister and colleagues have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. They found that when subjects were induced to believe that “all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules,” those subjects came away with a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. Early this year, other researchers published a study showing that a weaker belief in free will correlates with poor academic performance.

The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.

There’s no such Thing as Free Will – Stephen Cave

It’s the fact that some of these philosophers believe it is irresponsible and even dangerous for these things they believe are truth to be spread among people. The conclusion of the article highlights the absurdity of the naturalistic position. Free will doesn’t exist but we should act like it does. What? So you come to a position you acknowledge is absurd, detrimental and eats away at the basis of knowledge and humans as independent moral agents but rather than ditching the idea you choose to try and have your cake and eat it too by claiming it is the objective truth but we should live as though it isn’t. Ok then. That doesn’t work for me and I doubt it works for most people who believe the search for truth should impact our lives, we should live in conformity to how we understand reality because its fact. To claim that you understand the truth of the human condition and then turn around and say “Ignore it and live as though it wasn’t true” because the implications make you uncomfortable is cowardice. The truth is the truth follow it to its logical conclusion.

Given this a rational person has two options. The first is to cling to naturalism like a warm blanket, to claim that there exist no other paths to true knowledge beyond the quantitative inquiries of modern science and that if we can’t find any non-physical aspects of reality through their methodology entirely geared toward cataloging and predicting physical phenomena then we must accept we’re just meat robots. The second is to stay true to Descartes, to assert that the existence of the mind as a real thing that can interpret the world yet is apart from it, forms the basis of our knowledge and that if any knowledge we gain runs counter to that we must accept we’re missing part of the picture, that there exist some facets of reality we haven’t discovered or cannot discover through purely empirical methodologies.

It turns out that God has the last laugh in this philosophical trend. In denying God we deny ourselves, and we cannot escape that except to choose to live a lie we “know” to be false. It is in times like this that I feel most comfortable with theism because I know that I’m not required to perform these mental gymnastics. The truth I know and believe to be the objective truth of reality doesn’t require any such concessions from me, rather I embrace it and base my entire life around it. It certainly is a comfortable position, and I pity those who feel like they need to cling to a truth that involves rejecting that truth to go on living.

Lamentabili Sane Exitu

With truly lamentable results, our age, casting aside all restraint in its search for the ultimate causes of things, frequently pursues novelties so ardently that it rejects the legacy of the human race. Thus it falls into very serious errors, which are even more serious when they concern sacred authority, the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and the principal mysteries of Faith. The fact that many Catholic writers also go beyond the limits determined by the Fathers and the Church herself is extremely regrettable. In the name of higher knowledge and historical research (they say), they are looking for that progress of dogmas which is, in reality, nothing but the corruption of dogmas.

These errors are being daily spread among the faithful. Lest they captivate the faithful’s minds and corrupt the purity of their faith, His Holiness, Pius X, by Divine Providence, Pope, has decided that the chief errors should be noted and condemned by the Office of this Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition.

Therefore, after a very diligent investigation and consultation with the Reverend Consultors, the Most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, the General Inquisitors in matters of faith and morals have judged the following propositions to be condemned and proscribed. In fact, by this general decree, they are condemned and proscribed.

1. The ecclesiastical law which prescribes that books concerning the Divine Scriptures are subject to previous examination does not apply to critical scholars and students of scientific exegesis of the Old and New Testament.

2. The Church’s interpretation of the Sacred Books is by no means to be rejected; nevertheless, it is subject to the more accurate judgment and correction of the exegetes.

3. From the ecclesiastical judgments and censures passed against free and more scientific exegesis, one can conclude that the Faith the Church proposes contradicts history and that Catholic teaching cannot really be reconciled with the true origins of the Christian religion.

4. Even by dogmatic definitions the Church’s magisterium cannot determine the genuine sense of the Sacred Scriptures.

5. Since the deposit of Faith contains only revealed truths, the Church has no right to pass judgment on the assertions of the human sciences.

6. The “Church learning” and the “Church teaching” collaborate in such a way in defining truths that it only remains for the “Church teaching” to sanction the opinions of the “Church learning.”

7. In proscribing errors, the Church cannot demand any internal assent from the faithful by which the judgments she issues are to be embraced.

8. They are free from all blame who treat lightly the condemnations passed by the Sacred Congregation of the Index or by the Roman Congregations.

9. They display excessive simplicity or ignorance who believe that God is really the author of the Sacred Scriptures.

10. The inspiration of the books of the Old Testament consists in this: The Israelite writers handed down religious doctrines under a peculiar aspect which was either little or not at all known to the Gentiles.

11. Divine inspiration does not extend to all of Sacred Scriptures so that it renders its parts, each and every one, free from every error.

12. If he wishes to apply himself usefully to Biblical studies, the exegete must first put aside all preconceived opinions about the supernatural origin of Sacred Scripture and interpret it the same as any other merely human document.

13. The Evangelists themselves, as well as the Christians of the second and third generation, artificially arranged the evangelical parables. In such a way they explained the scanty fruit of the preaching of Christ among the Jews.

14. In many narrations the Evangelists recorded, not so much things that are true, as things which, even though false, they judged to be more profitable for their readers.

15. Until the time the canon was defined and constituted, the Gospels were increased by additions and corrections. Therefore there remained in them only a faint and uncertain trace of the doctrine of Christ.

16. The narrations of John are not properly history, but a mystical contemplation of the Gospel. The discourses contained in his Gospel are theological meditations, lacking historical truth concerning the mystery of salvation.

17. The fourth Gospel exaggerated miracles not only in order that the extraordinary might stand out but also in order that it might become more suitable for showing forth the work and glory of the Word lncarnate.

18. John claims for himself the quality of witness concerning Christ. In reality, however, he is only a distinguished witness of the Christian life, or of the life of Christ in the Church at the close of the first century.

19. Heterodox exegetes have expressed the true sense of the Scriptures more faithfully than Catholic exegetes.

20. Revelation could be nothing else than the consciousness man acquired of his revelation to God.

21. Revelation, constituting the object of the Catholic faith, was not completed with the Apostles.

22. The dogmas the Church holds out as revealed are not truths which have fallen from heaven. They are an interpretation of religious facts which the human mind has acquired by laborious effort.

23. Opposition may, and actually does, exist between the facts narrated in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s dogmas which rest on them. Thus the critic may reject as false facts the Church holds as most certain.

24. The exegete who constructs premises from which it follows that dogmas are historically false or doubtful is not to be reproved as long as he does not directly deny the dogmas themselves .

25. The assent of faith ultimately rests on a mass of probabilities .

26. The dogmas of the Faith are to be held only according to their practical sense; that is to say, as preceptive norms of conduct and not as norms of believing.

27. The divinity of Jesus Christ is not proved from the Gospels. It is a dogma which the Christian conscience has derived from the notion of the Messias.

28. While He was exercising His ministry, Jesus did not speak with the object of teaching He was the Messias, nor did His miracles tend to prove it.

29. It is permissible to grant that the Christ of history is far inferior to the Christ Who is the object of faith.

30 In all the evangelical texts the name “Son of God” is equivalent only to that of “Messias.” It does not in the least way signify that Christ is the true and natural Son of God.

31. The doctrine concerning Christ taught by Paul, John, and the Councils of Nicea, Ephesus and Chalcedon is not that which Jesus taught but that which the Christian conscience conceived concerning Jesus.

32. It is impossible to reconcile the natural sense of the Gospel texts with the sense taught by our theologians concerning the conscience and the infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ.

33 Everyone who is not led by preconceived opinions can readily see that either Jesus professed an error concerning the immediate Messianic coming or the greater part of His doctrine as contained in the Gospels is destitute of authenticity.

34. The critics can ascribe to Christ a knowledge without limits only on a hypothesis which cannot be historically conceived and which is repugnant to the moral sense. That hypothesis is that Christ as man possessed the knowledge of God and yet was unwilling to communicate the knowledge of a great many things to His disciples and posterity.

35. Christ did not always possess the consciousness of His Messianic dignity.

36. The Resurrection of the Savior is not properly a fact of the historical order. It is a fact of merely the supernatural order (neither demonstrated nor demonstrable) which the Christian conscience gradually derived from other facts.

37. In the beginning, faith in the Resurrection of Christ was not so much in the fact itself of the Resurrection as in the immortal life of Christ with God.

38. The doctrine of the expiatory death of Christ is Pauline and not evangelical.

39. The opinions concerning the origin of the Sacraments which the Fathers of Trent held and which certainly influenced their dogmatic canons are very different from those which now rightly exist among historians who examine Christianity .

40. The Sacraments have their origin in the fact that the Apostles and their successors, swayed and moved by circumstances and events, interpreted some idea and intention of Christ.

41. The Sacraments are intended merely to recall to man’s mind the ever-beneficent presence of the Creator.

42. The Christian community imposed the necessity of Baptism, adopted it as a necessary rite, and added to it the obligation of the Christian profession.

43. The practice of administering Baptism to infants was a disciplinary evolution, which became one of the causes why the Sacrament was divided into two, namely, Baptism and Penance.

44. There is nothing to prove that the rite of the Sacrament of Confirmation was employed by the Apostles. The formal distinction of the two Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation does not pertain to the history of primitive Christianity.

45. Not everything which Paul narrates concerning the institution of the Eucharist (I Cor. 11:23-25) is to be taken historically.

46. In the primitive Church the concept of the Christian sinner reconciled by the authority of the Church did not exist. Only very slowly did the Church accustom herself to this concept. As a matter of fact, even after Penance was recognized as an institution of the Church, it was not called a Sacrament since it would be held as a disgraceful Sacrament.

47. The words of the Lord, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23), in no way refer to the Sacrament of Penance, in spite of what it pleased the Fathers of Trent to say.

48. In his Epistle (Ch. 5:14-15) James did not intend to promulgate a Sacrament of Christ but only commend a pious custom. If in this custom he happens to distinguish a means of grace, it is not in that rigorous manner in which it was taken by the theologians who laid down the notion and number of the Sacraments.

49. When the Christian supper gradually assumed the nature of a liturgical action those who customarily presided over the supper acquired the sacerdotal character.

50. The elders who fulfilled the office of watching over the gatherings of the faithful were instituted by the Apostles as priests or bishops to provide for the necessary ordering of the increasing communities and not properly for the perpetuation of the Apostolic mission and power.

51. It is impossible that Matrimony could have become a Sacrament of the new law until later in the Church since it was necessary that a full theological explication of the doctrine of grace and the Sacraments should first take place before Matrimony should be held as a Sacrament.

52. It was far from the mind of Christ to found a Church as a society which would continue on earth for a long course

of centuries. On the contrary, in the mind of Christ the kingdom of heaven together with the end of the world was about to come immediately.

53. The organic constitution of the Church is not immutable. Like human society, Christian society is subject to a perpetual evolution.

54. Dogmas, Sacraments and hierarchy, both their notion and reality, are only interpretations and evolutions of the Christian intelligence which have increased and perfected by an external series of additions the little germ latent in the Gospel.

55. Simon Peter never even suspected that Christ entrusted the primacy in the Church to him.

56. The Roman Church became the head of all the churches, not through the ordinance of Divine Providence, but merely through political conditions.

57. The Church has shown that she is hostile to the progress of the natural and theological sciences.

58. Truth is no more immutable than man himself, since it evolved with him, in him, and through him.

59. Christ did not teach a determined body of doctrine applicable to all times and all men, but rather inaugurated a religious movement adapted or to be adapted to different times and places.

60. Christian Doctrine was originally Judaic. Through successive evolutions it became first Pauline, then Joannine, finally Hellenic and universal.

61. It may be said without paradox that there is no chapter of Scripture, from the first of Genesis to the last of the Apocalypse, which contains a doctrine absolutely identical with that which the Church teaches on the same matter. For the same reason, therefore, no chapter of Scripture has the same sense for the critic and the theologian.

62. The chief articles of the Apostles’ Creed did not have the same sense for the Christians of the first ages as they have for the Christians of our time.

63. The Church shows that she is incapable of effectively maintaining evangelical ethics since she obstinately clings to immutable doctrines which cannot be reconciled with modern progress.

64. Scientific progress demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine concerning God, creation, revelation, the Person of the Incarnate Word, and Redemption be re-adjusted.

65. Modern Catholicism can be reconciled with true science only if it is transformed into a non-dogmatic Christianity; that is to say, into a broad and liberal Protestantism.