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Accidental Deities
Paul Schollmeier

1.         Is god a necessary or a contingent being?  I shall assume, in accordance with the cosmological argument, that god is an unmoved, self-moved, mover.  But I wish to ask whether god must necessarily be something rather than nothing, or whether god might merely happen to be something. 

But as long as god is something, do we need to worry about why god is what god is?  My question is important because what we are obliged to do and who we are obliged to be depends on where and when we are.  But we are in a natural environment, and our moral principles surely ought to reflect this circumstance.  We might, therefore, ponder our companion entities and their ontological status.

I shall argue both that we ought to give credence to a teleological view of the universe, and that we also ought to accept the contingency of the universe.  That is to say, the ancient idealists were right to assert that this universe of ours is an organized being, but the ancient atomists were right to insist that our universe is an accident.  The universe, despite its order, need not exist, and yet it does!

Plato can guide us on this theological enterprise, though some moderns would do as almost well, most notably David Hume.  I intend, first, to remind my reader of what Plato has to say about an answer to my question and, then, to propose an answer slightly more skeptical. 


2.         What will prove most helpful in Plato’s discussion is his concept of a soul.  He defines a soul much broadly than we do today.  What, then, is a soul?  A soul, Plato explicitly asserts, is that which has self-motion.  A body with a soul is moved from within, Socrates explains to Phaedrus, but a body without a soul is moved from without (Phaedrus 245e).  Strictly speaking, then, only a soul can move herself, and only a soul can move a body.

But what is that which moves itself?  That which has self-motion, Socrates explains more fully, is the spring and the first principle of motion (245c-d).  With this definition we already begin to see how broad Plato’s concept of a soul is.  We today would state more simply and precisely that a soul is the efficient and final cause of motion.  In a word, it is a teleological cause. 

Indeed, Plato argues that all motion arises because a soul somehow unites herself with a body, and a soul and a body in combination can move.  A teleological cause assimilates matter and puts it in motion, we would say today.  Indeed, all souls, he continues, are in charge of bodies, which include the universe itself as well as its parts (246b-c).1 

The demiurge presents the prime example, we might say, of a soul.  This god, according to Plato, has the care of the whole universe.  He is an artisan who gives motion to the universe and keeps it in motion, Timaeus explains to Socrates.  This artisan would appear to do so by implanting his own form in the universe.  His wish is to make all things resemble himself (Timaeus 29d-29e). 

Because he himself is good, he wished to make all things good.  But to do so, he had to make the universe with order.   But to be ordered, the universe had to have understanding.  And because understanding exists only in a soul, the universe had to have a soul.  And so the artisan placed understanding in a soul, and soul in a body, and, voila, he gave us a universe (30a-c). 

We can see from this account, then, that a soul is a teleological cause, which has a power to generate and to perpetuate motion in a rational and organized whole.  This rationality and order are most obvious in our natural systems, such as our solar system or our ecological systems, both global and local. 


3.         We see too that Plato presents, by our standards, a rather traditional god and a god not so traditional.  Timaeus himself concedes that these gods are of two lineages:  an ever existing god, and a god one day existing (Timaeus 34a-b).  The demiurge is the more enduring god, and we can easily see why.  This artisan, Timaeus argues, had to use as a paradigm that which is always the same as itself and eternal to make our universe.  The paradigm had to be of this kind, he explains, because our universe is the best of all things which have come to be (27d-28b and 28c-29a).2  And the demiurge, one would think, would have to have a soul which is itself eternal if he knows what is eternally the same.3 
The less traditional god is our universe.  The universe itself has a soul and is self-moved, but this god is also contingent.  After all, the demiurge created it.  But if it comes to be, could not the universe also cease to be?  The artisan in fact discovers that he can make from that which rests for eons in its unity only an image moving for eons according to number, which we know as time (37d). 

But doesn’t Plato argue that a soul is immortal?  Indeed, he does.  Socrates proclaims to Phaedrus that every soul is immortal!  Why?  A soul is immortal, he explains, precisely because she moves herself.  That is to say, a soul never ceases to move herself and to be moved by herself (Phaedrus 245c-d).  Self-motion, you will recall, is her very essence (245e). 

But why is self-motion eternal?  Recall too that a soul is a spring and first principle of motion (245c-d).  All that which comes to be, he explains, must come to be from a first principle.  But a first principle cannot itself come to be.  If it did, he argues, it would require a first principle in its turn.  Hence, a soul cannot come to be.  But neither can a soul cease to be.  If it did, the heavens and all within might fall into ruin (245d-e)!4 

But Plato also presents arguments to show that souls are not all immortal in the same way.  Diotima explains to Socrates that divine beings are immortal because they are unchanging, but that human beings are immortal because we are changing.  The gods are destined to be the same always, but our destiny is always to become a thing different than (e[teron) but similar to ourselves (Symposium 208a-b; also 207c-d). 

With this qualification, then, we can in fact see that not all gods would have a soul which is truly immortal.  A god would appear to have a soul of this variety who does not leave a self behind (Phaedrus 245c).  Of such sort is the demiurge.  But the universe, as are we ourselves, is immortal only in a lesser sense.  It has a soul which is continually changing in time.  Its soul ever leaves a new self behind in place of its old self (Symposium 207c-d).

Other gods besides the universe also have souls which are immortal in this secondary sense.  The artisan god makes not only the heavenly bodies, such as the stars and planets (Timaeus 40a-d), but he also makes the traditional gods whom we know in legend (40d-41a).  The artisan himself informs these other gods that they are mortal, strictly speaking.  Because they come to be, they can cease to be, he explains to them.  Not entirely are they immortal or incorruptible.  But he promises them that they will not decline or die because his wish, presumably eternal, is indissoluable (41a-b).  


4.         We thus see that Plato is not terribly profligate with his immortal beings.  Strictly speaking, one god only would appear to be an immortal soul.  But , still, why assume that any self-mover must be a necessary being?  What evidence does Plato have for a being of this kind?  None known to me, except, perhaps, our own ability to view our relations of ideas as such--to borrow a distinction from Hume.5 

But this evidence, I submit, is rather meager.  We presume to have an absolute necessity ideas which have a necessity relative only to our very limited experience.  Or, at the very least, we postulate a deity with absolute and necessary ideas unknowable to us--the eternal paradigm.  But a deity of this kind is scarcely conceivable.  Timaeus himself is unable to present the demiurge and his work outside of time (Timaeus 37e-38b; also 34c).  That is, he presents the creation of the universe as a matter of fact.6 

The contingent gods are surely more suitable for us mortals.  Any paradigmatic god, I would argue, can at best be not an eternal god but only an ephemeral one.  We can know a god or anything else only by matters of fact, but matters of fact are and can only be contingent.  I cannot deny that a necessary being might possibly exist.  But I do deny that we can know that a necessary being exists, or that we can know what a necessary being might be.

The cosmological argument we may thus accept.  But this argument can no longer be a proof of a necessary, unmoved, mover but only of a contingent, unmoved, mover.  We may accept the concept of a universal soul and its first principle of self-motion. But a universal soul and its first principle both we would best view as a contingent cause, and as a cause of a contingent universe.7 

Yes, we must concede that the universe need not have come to be, and that it could indeed cease to be.  No doubt, it will come to rank and ruin.  But may we not assume our universe to be sufficiently stable for present purposes? 

5.         Assume, then, that our universe and its other gods are mortal.  What might this divine mortality have to do with human morality?   Plato himself suggests that these contingent entities may have practical consequences of no little significance.  We can employ their first principles to cultivate our virtues and to pursue our happiness. 
Plato illustrates this self-governance with his famous account of love and beauty.  Those who see a divine form reflected in the beauty of one another love each another truly (Phaedrus 251a).  These lovers accordingly honor the god reflected in one another and imitate this god in their own character and conduct (252c-d).   Those who follow Zeus, for example, aspire to a philosophical character (252e-253b).

Plato indicates that this love for the beautiful is a source of human happiness.  By following their gods, these Platonic lovers experience a desire and an consummation not only beautiful but also happy (253c).  They may, indeed, find themselves leading a life of blissful happiness and harmony.  Their life may even become philosophical (256a-b).8 
But we must not neglect the other traditional gods.  These gods are those who create all other living creatures, including the birds, the aquatic plants and animals, and the terrestrial ones.  Plato names them as Ge and Uranus, Oceanus and Tethys, Cronos and Rhea.  They are the ancestors of Zeus and Hera and the other ancient gods more familiar to us (Timaeus 40d-41a, 41b-d; see 39e-40a).9 

Need I say more?  Surely, the invocation of Ge, whom we know by her more poetic name Gaia, is by itself sufficient make my case apparent.  These primordial gods who are created by the artisan and who complete his work may themselves also provide inspiration for our souls and their purposes.  Is there not natural beauty in our ecosystems and their principles?  In them do we not find a final cause with which to harmonize our own activities?10  


6.         I conclude, then, that we might possibly lead better lives without the presumption of a necessary deity, that the assumption of contingent deities might make our lives more reflective and reverent, and that we may actually cherish existence itself all the more! 

 

THE UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, LAS VEGAS

 

Notes
1Plato thus makes biology rather than physics the paradigm science.  He is in fact constructing a biological model of the physical universe. 

2Notice, by the way, that this universe of ours is not the best of all possible worlds, as some moderns have imagined.  We are habituées only of the best of all actual worlds.

3I thus agree with Perl that this paradigm for the universe is the knowledge of the demiurge.  See Perl, Eric D.  “The Demiurge and the Forms.”  Ancient Philosophy, vol. 18 (1998), pp. 81-92.

4I take this argument to be none other than the cosmological argument for the existence of god, though in a much abbreviated form.  Plato does argue in general terms, but we can now see that this argument applies, strictly speaking, to the demiurge.  One self-moved mover with one principle truly first suffices for a universe.  The other self-movers the artisan creates, of course.  These movers are self-moved not absolutely but only relatively to the motion which they cause. 

5Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion 9. 

6Again, Dialogues 9. 

7Smart also criticizes the cosmological argument with the same Humean distinction.  He, however, grants god to be a necessary being, religiously speaking, and he takes the argument to be an invalid proof of his existence.  J. J. C. Smart, “The Existence of God,” ed. Donald R. Burrill, The Cosmological Arguments (New York:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967), pp. 255-278. 

8Of course, to cultivate a character of this worthy sort is no mean feat (Phaedrus 253c-254e). 

9Plato here leaves a door open for evolutionary theory! 

10Lovelock introduced this deity into the contemporary philosophy with his Gaia hypothesis.  See esp., J. E. Lovelock, Gaia:  A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1979).  Environmental philosophers have developed similar concepts of natural values.  See, e.g., Holmes Rolston, III, Genes, Genesis, and God (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999). 



 


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Courtesy of: Dan (Thanks to my mother, Laura Kipnis, Ambrose Bierce and God Defined for inspiration.)
& Kevin (Special thanks to JP, and anyone else who has helped me think outside the box)