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Lecture 22: Roots of Modern Malaise

As I pointed out in the last lecture, we need to find the causes of our modern malaise in the metaphysics that produces the cognitive dissonance of 20th century physics. There is nothing either mysterious or modern about this analysis, for these are issues 15 centuries old or older. In this lecture, I want to discuss the developments from Plato, through Aristotle and Epicurus, ending with Augustine that have framed the debate of the last century. As we mentioned earlier in the course, Stanley Jaki argued that a Christian metaphysics provided an important balance between empiricism and rationalism leading to the renaissance of science in the 16th century. In this chapter, we argue that a Christian metaphysics turns out to be crucial in the renaissance of physics in the 20th century. My firmly held belief is that it will continue to be important in the physics of the 21st century.

Augustine, Epicurus and Genesis

My view on the Greek pantheon has changed radically when I read Iman Wilken's Where Troy Once Stood, which placed Homer's Iliad in Britain. As I read it as history, rather than myth, I began to appreciate the Greek pantheon as oral anecdotes, lightly embellished. That is, it no longer had the incense-drenched aura of "religious instruction" that (for me anyway) still is wrapped around the Baal-stories of Mesopatamia. Then it seemed more logical for Plato and Aristotle to have developed their philosophy as a natural evolution of Greek religion, rather than as iconoclast debunking skeptics of the Greco-Roman pantheon, as they are often portrayed today. Thus Plato distilled from Homer the real religion of the Greeks, sans the interesting plot line. And Aristotle distilled Plato even further, rooting much of the Plato's "gods" (the Forms) within the human mind, leaving only one task for God, that of the consummate billiards professional, the First Mover. Despite Socrates untimely death, neither Plato nor Aristotle were intent on overturning Greek religion, and indeed, were later seen as staunch supporters of the status quo and devout faith.

But neither had gone far enough, in the mind of Epicurus, a 5th century BC philosopher/slave to relieve the world of superstition and blind obedience to capricious gods. Epicurus proclaimed a belief in atoms--the smallest, and most elemental particles, and from which everything was made--and in nothing else. No gods, no spirits, no supernatural powers, and no miracles. In answer to Aristotle and Plato's search for the Creator, Epicurus removed creation event entirely, supposing that the universe was eternally existent both in the past and future. To prevent creation from sneaking in through the back door, it was necessary to suppose that these material atoms could neither be created nor destroyed. And finally, to nail the lid on the coffin of the gods (so as to make a clean break with Plato's Demiurge, who created the universe from pre-existent matter) one must believe that atoms were not themselves controlled or ordered by any other forces than natural chance collisions. That is no beginning to time, no creation/destruction of matter, and no spooky action-at-a-distance for atoms. Here in a nutshell is the materialist agenda--to make the world safe for atheism by absolute denial of a creator or his creation.

One can see then how Epicurean philosophy was seen as radically different from Platonic (and Stoic) philosophies in Roman Empire period. Augustine was a rising star in the world of Greek philosophy when he converted to Christianity and became bishop of Hippo. He is responsible for integrating much of Platonic or neo-Platonic thought into Christian philosophy. It was his interpretation of Genesis, the Biblical creation account, that became the standard view of Christian theology, and which strongly contradicted Epicurean materialism. That is, Augustine argued that
  1. Not only space, but time itself was created by God in the Creation. It was an absolute beginning, not even a relative one like Plato's Demiurge, but a clean break.
  2. Matter was definately created by God (and presumeably, could be destroyed by God at will.) Matter was not eternal.
  3. God was not constrained in his creative abilities, he was not forced to create by either natural law nor chance. The creation event was totally under God's control, designed by God, contingent upon God. Whether one believes in "other forces" or "initial conditions", Augustine felt that God shaped his creation the way a potter shapes clay.

These three points of Augustine are clearly antithetical to materialism, and allow no compromise. Atheism was safe no longer, and indeed, fell out of favor in the next millenia. Materialism, however, did not disappear forever, but began to resurface in the 17th and 18th centuries, as a response to magic and superstition. That is, Christian apologists and scientists embraced aspects of materialism as a way to control nature without the "spiritism" of magic and alchemy. Indeed, chemists who abandonned alchemy were some of the first to emphasize the atomic nature of matter. Boltzmann, for all his mathematics and physics, was a relatively late convert to the faith of materialism. Brook records the development through Descartes and the Deists which we do not attempt to summarize here, but the net result was a resurgence of "scientific materialism" in the 19th and 20th centuries. So much so that today, it is the view of 93% of the National Academy of Science in the US, and virtually unapposed in textbooks and academia. Ardent Christians, such as Francis Bacon, have been reinterpreted as materialists, and the "scientific method" has become synonymous with materialism. Again, all this is documented by books such as Philip Johnson's "Wedge of Truth", so I won't go into details about the prevalence of scientific materialism, other than to say that the 20th century began with the apparent utter victory for atheism.

So it came as a great shock to the scientific establishment that both relativity and quantum mechanics both theories based on perfectly sound scientific materialism, had managed to undercut the foundations of materialism. Not only did the new cosmology show that the universe had a beginning, but Einstein's equations for gravity showed that it was a beginning in both space and time. Until this moment, Augustine's comment about time having a beginning had been routinely ignored as typical philosophic speculation. Now it became evident that he was right on target. In addition, relativity showed that matter was not indestructible, but matter and energy were interchangeable. Again, victory for Augustine. Finally, the discussion of whether the Universe is contingent has become very relevant, with all the evidence in Augustine's favor, and scientists straining at more and more far-out speculation to save the world from purpose. The debates are still raging, but salvation for atheism appears more and more a distant dream. Darwin is on the ropes, Paul Davies pleading for a Whiteheadian God, Stephen Hawking rounding off the point of Augustine's rapier and declaring victory. The jury is still out (to lunch), but the evidence is mounting for a complete vindication of Augustine and serious modification of materialist precepts. As we review the evidence, I hope to develop a modified materialism that is more consistent with the data, and will provide a roadmap for 21st century physics.
Last modified, April 3, 2002, RbS