Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

Synopsis

The world is configured in ways that seem systematically hospitable to life forms, especially the human race. Is this the outcome of divine planning or simply of the laws of physics? Ancient Greeks and Romans famously disagreed on whether the cosmos was the product of design or accident. In this book, David Sedley examines this question and illuminates new historical perspectives on the pantheon of thinkers who laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Versions of what we call the "creationist" option were widely favored by the major thinkers of classical antiquity, including Plato, whose ideas on the subject prepared the ground for Aristotle's celebrated teleology. But Aristotle aligned himself with the anti-creationist lobby, whose most militant members--the atomists--sought to show how a world just like ours would form inevitably by sheer accident, given only the infinity of space and matter. This stimulating study explores seven major thinkers and philosophical movements enmeshed in the debate: Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, the atomists, Aristotle, and the Stoics.

Excerpt

The dining hall of my college—Christ’s College Cambridge—displays portraits of its most illustrious alumni. One pairing is of unique symbolic value. On the left is William Paley (1743–1805), author of the classic version of the Argument from Design. In his Natural Theology (1802), Paley developed his celebrated comparison of the world and its natural contents to a watch, on finding which one could not but infer that “there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.” To Paley’s right stands Charles Darwin. In his days as a student at Christ’s (1827–31) Darwin was immensely proud to occupy what he believed to be the same set of rooms as Paley had before him. Yet within months of leaving Cambridge Darwin had embarked on the research which would, when it reached maturity, radically and irreversibly destabilize Paley’s confident arguments for intelligent creation.

In today’s Cambridge it would rarely if ever occur to me to check with my colleagues whether any of them believe Paley’s arguments to trump Darwin’s. Locally at least, whatever residual skirmishes may still divide Darwin’s successors, the war is generally perceived as having been won by the evolutionists. But the lectures that form the content of the present book were delivered in a country where the legacy of the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee still resonates in battles fought on school boards and elsewhere over the teaching of evolution, and where polls suggest that nearly half the population believes that the human race has been created by God in the last ten thousand years, while at the opposite pole fewer than one tenth believe that evolution occurred without God’s intervention. In the United States of all places it would have been a mistake to consign the debate to history.

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