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A Platonic Approach

When all is said and done, is belief in God really any better than belief in magic spells? I think it is. Magic cannot be understood, but if God is real then a platonic approach might help us to understand why God is real. It could also have interesting things to suggest about the meaning of the words “God” and “divine design”.

Let me first introduce the Platonism of one of this century’s finest philosophers, A. C. Ewing. In his book Value and Reality (1973) Ewing suggested that God exists simply because this is good. What sense could we make of that idea? In Universes, and earlier in Value and Existence (1979), I commented that followers of Plato think it impossible, even in theory, to get rid of all realities. Even in a blank, an absence of all existing things, it would still, Platonists think, be a reality that two and two made four. It would still be real, in other words, that if there were ever to exist two groups of two things, then there would be four things. Similarly, it would be a reality that the blank was better than any world of people in agony that might replace it. It would be real that the absence of such a world of torment was ethically required. And likewise, the presence of a good world could be ethically required despite how there would be, in the blank, nobody to have a duty to produce such a world. The platonic suggestion is that ethical requirements can be real unconditionally, absolutely, eternally. And a further platonic suggestion is that when it is sufficiently weighty an ethical requirement - such as, perhaps, the requirement that there exist a supremely good divine person - can be directly responsible for the actual existence of whatever it is that is required. Asking Platonists to point to some mechanism which made any such requirement able to have this responsibility could be like asking them to point to a mechanism which made misery an evil, or to a mechanism which forced the experience of red to be nearer to that of orange than to that of yellow. For Platonists, these are not affairs which depend on mechanisms. Instead they are affairs of a sort which could explain why anything at all exists, and why any mechanism ever works: why, that is to say, there is a world that obeys causal laws which mechanisms can exploit.

Much more can be said about all this, but let us simply suppose that it does make some sense, as is accepted by John Polkinghorne in his recent book The Faith of a Physicist (1994). Like Ewing, Polkinghorne thinks Platonism could best be used to give us insight into why there exists a benevolent divine person who selects a world among all the worlds which are possible, and who wills that it shall exist. However, Ewing and Polkinghorne are little inclined to believe that this person selects anything in quite the way you and I do, with much hard effort to reach correct evaluations, noble struggles to direct acts of will towards good results, stiffening of arm muscles, and so forth. If God is indeed a person and a designer, then we must recognise that he is at least not a person quite like you and me and a designer quite like any architect apart, of course, from being smarter and more powerful. But many people, for instance Paul Tillich among recent theologians, have gone much further than recognising that point. There is a long Neoplatonic tradition in which it seems to be argued (albeit obscurely) that “God” is just a name for the fact that an ethical need for the cosmos to exist is directly responsible for its existence. This tradition takes its inspiration from Plato’s remark in the Republic that the Form of the Good “is itself not existence but far beyond it in dignity” since it is “what bestows existence upon things”.

Here the idea of an omnipotent architect is entirely abandoned. We might still speak of divine design, but only on the grounds that good things were selected for existence by virtue of being good - the word “selected” being used, evidently, in an unusual sense because nobody would be doing the selecting. As the Neoplatonist Plotinus expresses the matter in his Third Ennead, the cosmos exists “not as a result of a judgement recognising its desirability, but by sheer necessity”; “effort and search” play no part in the creative process; yet the outcome, “even had it resulted from a considered plan, would not have disgraced its maker”.

Contributed by: Dr. John Leslie

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
The Meaning of Design

A Platonic Approach

The Argument from Design
Design and Living Beings
Fine Tuning
Design and Divine Conservation
Fine Tuning and the Laws of Nature
Anthropic Principles
The Best of All Universes
Design and Human Survival
Spinoza's Compromise


John Leslie

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