sunnuntai 23. elokuuta 2009

Was world planned or not?

Eleatics challenged the idea of a world full of change and multiplicity, suggesting both were only illusionary in comparison with the continuous material substance of the Anaximenian philosophy. The illusionary or at least secondary nature of motion was accepted by philosophers of post-Eleatic generation, who all believed in a stable structure behind all alterations that was itself incapable of any change. Indeed, many of them were supposed to be pupils of Eleatics, like Empedocles or the atomists Leucippus and Democritus, or then pupils of Ionian philosophers, like Anaxagoras.

The case of multiplicity was different. Parmenides and his followers were convinced that all apparent differences between types of objects were secondary or even illusionary: the whole world formed one indivisible continuum. The post-Eleatic philosophers answered by affirming the status of multiplicity. The number and nature of these multiple types of objects was a debated issue. Empedocles stayed closest to the common sense and suggested earth, fire, water and air to be the building blocks of material world. This was the beginning of the famous theory of the four elements, which now seems outdated and yet seemed so natural for many millennia. Indeed, three of the supposed elements corresponded to the three most familiar states of matter – earth being solid, water liquid and air gaseous – and the fourth, the fire, was a state or more like process that appears quite different from any of the three states. Furthermore, the basic idea behind the elemental theory was for a long time and in some sense is even now uncontested, and indeed, was a supposition common to all post-Eleatic philosophers: the basic elements of the world are unchangeable, like the Eleatic world substance was supposed to be, but they can enter in accidental combinations with one another, thus making the appearance of change more comprehensible than in Eleatic theory.

Although Anaxagoras and atomists shared Empedocles’ idea that the accidental combination and separation and recombination of basic elements formed the visible world, they endorsed somewhat more scientifically respectable notions on the constitution of the objects. Anaxagoras explicitly said that earth, fire and the rest of the four elements were not the true elements. Indeed, he remained silent on the issue what the true basic elements were. He only made the sound remark that e.g. plants must share some basic ingredients with horses, because horses use carrots for nourishment. In general Anaxagoras assumed that all different objects contained some common elements, at least when a sufficient state of division was taken: Anaxagoras believed that no final state of division could be found.

Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, had a different notion of the nature of basic elements: they believed that there must be some final level of division, that is, a state of atoms that couldn't be divided further. The word ”atom” should not make us favour atomists over Anaxagoras. Atoms of Leucippus and his pupil were not like atoms of modern day science. The entities we call atoms are divisible, and furthermore, they are more insubstantial than their Greek relations: atoms of Leucippus and Democritus were full of matter and like small Eleatic continuums that came in different sizes and shapes, while atoms of our days are mostly filled with emptiness. More modern is the atomists' acceptance of such emptiness. Eleatics had declared that every place must be filled with some matter, because emptiness implied existence of non-existence of matter, which they deemed absurd. Other post-Eleatic philosophers were content with this denial of vacuum, as they didn't particularly require it. Atomists, on the other hand, were compelled to accept the possibility of empty space, because it is hard to imagine how any motion could happen if world was full of indivisible material objects resisting the movement of one another: Anaxagoras on the other hand, could say that most of the universe was filled with a matter so weakly combined that it was instantly divided and dispersed when some object moved through it. The atomists were thus forced to suppose the existence of an entity differing radically from material objects: space or a container that could not be felt or seen and which contained other objects instead of repelling them.

The post-Eleatic idea of basic elements involves the possibility of an external combination and segregation of these elements: whatever the nature of these basic elements is, their combination produces the material objects we are familiar with. A natural question is what causes such combination and breaking down of combinations. Empedocles was again one to suggest the easy answer: he proposed a force combining element – love – and another separating them – hate. These names are perhaps more of metaphors, except that Empedocles clearly was of the opinion that the combination of elements was the better direction: although all combinations were not destined to live long, some of them survived and most complex of them were animals and human beings. The force of separation, on the contrary, would one day result in the destruction of the current state of world.

Poised between the roles of natural forces and gods, Empedoclean love and hate were of an ambiguous nature. A similar ambiguity lies in the Anaxagoras' idea of a reason governing the world: his reason might well have been a mere an impersonal force instead of a personal constructor of the world. Still, the unitary nature of the reason makes Anaxagoras' theory simpler than Empedocles: the world was not a result of two battling forces, but could be explained by a single force. Indeed, one is bound to notice a similarity with monotheistic explanations of the existence of the world: something must have created the world. Yet, Anaxagoras did not believe in complete creation, which was an oxymoron for nearly all Greek philosophers: after all, they thought, how could something come out of nothing. The reason of Anaxagoras was only like an architect moving matter, which existed independently of it: reason was not omnipotent, but was restricted by the nature of the matter. Indeed, reason itself was most likely embodied in Anaxagoras' theory: he was thus more likely to explain facets of the world causally than through a reference to a plan that the reason had envisioned for the world.

If Anaxagoras saw some final purpose behind the motions of the world, atomists were of a completely different opinion. All motions were caused by necessity, that is, by one material particle causing the other to change its place through an impact: for instance, a billiard ball doesn't move by itself, but only when another ball happens to hit it. In philosophical jargon such a viewpoint is often called determinism. In its strict form it would admit no freedom of action: all our decisions would be decided by previous events and not by our free will. Usually determinism is connected with a materialistic denial of any soul or persona independent from the material world: human consciousness is just an apparent entity. But like Anaxagoras was no strict monotheist, Greek atomists were not yet strict materialist determinists. Both atomists accepted the existence of souls. True, the soul was material for them – another atom, although of a particularly fine shape – but the line between merely material and ”living” was not so strict for these early philosophers. Indeed, the younger of the atomists, Democritus, felt it completely natural to assume that these souls or human persons could determine their own ends: he was even ready to proscribe some recommendations of how humans should govern their lives.

Anaxagoras and atomists thus started the debate on whether everything in the world was planned or whether everything has happened without no rhyme or reason, merely through some causal determinism. Although the instigators of the debate, these philosophers were actually closer one another than their successors: it was left for posteriority to draw clear lines in this discussion.

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