William Innis: Plato and the Temptation of Mechanism


Plato and the Temptation of Mechanism

William B. Innis

    During the seventeenth century, the transition from the traditional Aristotelian philosophy to Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy began to take on a dominant influence over the science of the time.  The effects of this change are evident in the mechanistic account of the universe presented by Galileo.  Why then is Galileo's world so cold, mechanical and empty when it arises from a tradition in which the world is warm, animated and value-laden, like Plato's?  This paper will seek to address what exactly it is about Platonism (and particularly this overly focused resurgence of it) that leads to mechanistic world-view.  From there, it will examine how Plato, himself, avoids these mechanistic tendencies.  Finally, it will critically evaluate Plato's responses to determine whether or not the most consistent Platonist would actually be a mechanist.

    Plato's cosmological myth, the Timaeus, gives two accounts of the creation of the universe.  These accounts, from Reason and Necessity, are not two opposing hypotheses, but rather two vantage points for viewing the same thing (analogously, one can imagine that up and down are actually the same line on a Cartesian coordinate viewed from two different perspectives).  The account from Reason is a purposeful account of the world, where each individual existent (including Plato's god) is setting its sights on its teleological end in accordance with the Idea of the Good.  The second account is from Necessity and it is a world which has lost sight of the Good.  Things in this world do not strive toward the fulfillment of some ultimate purpose; they are merely the meaningless swirvings and collidings of some ultimate geometrical constituents.  Plato introduces the teleological creation myth, complete with the Demiurge as its active cause, in order to answer the question as to why there is cosmos rather than such chaos.  This second portion of the myth was created in order to explain how the chaos is related to the Ideas.  It becomes apparent, when one merely looks at the questions that each section was created to address, that the first question asks 'why,' as it is looking for a final end, whereas the second question asks 'how,' because it does not seek an end, but rather only a description of the actual state of affairs.  It was precisely this view from Necessity which became the starting point for the world-view of the mechanist.

    In Plato's account of what occurs by Necessity, the ultimate constituents of the universe are triangles.  There are two types of triangles that come to exist within the matrix which, when further informed, group together to create more complex geometric shapes (e.g. pyramid, cube, octahedron and icosahedron).  It is precisely these four Platonic solids which constitute the four basic elements respectively:  fire, air, water and earth.  Plato further states:


        Such being their [the elements] nature at the time when the            ordering of the universe was taken in hand, the god began by           giving them a distinct configuration by means of shapes and            numbers.  (Timaeus 53b)


In this quotation, one notices that the Forms in the account from Necessity are vastly different from those Forms in the teleological account.  The Demiurge is merely imposing Ideas of geometrical quantity upon the matrix, so as to form the elements, not in order to create distinct unified things, but rather distinct geometrical configurations or functional unities.  Even the realm of sense experience is cast aside as a quantifiable geometrical and elemental interaction.  In short, looking at the world through the eyes of Necessity, it becomes apparent that, rather than being qualitative in character, it is completely quantitative.

    Hence, we see where someone like Galileo arrives at a mechanistic position from a peculiarly one-sided reading of the Timaeus.  Galileo ran much further than Plato with this mechanistic interpretation because of his overwhelming faith in the ability of mathematics to discover and give an exhaustive account of reality, as well as the belief that geometrical space is the arena in which reality is played out.  Galileo sought the answer to 'how' things are, rather than 'why' things are, and insisted that these descriptive answers must be expressed in terms of exact mathematics.  Everything that is real is capable of being accounted for through a series of  quantitative calculations, and anything which cannot be accounted for by this mathematical method is not something which lies outside the scope of this mathematical method, but rather something which merely is not.  It is immediately apparent why Galileo, considering his world-view, would reject, out of hand, the teleological account of creation presented at the beginning of the Timaeus; final ends are not quantifiable and are, therefore, not real.  Any attempts at explaining the world, rather than describing it by applying the most simple mathematical calculation, are methodically doomed to failure.

    The question remains as to why Plato would include the second account to begin with, knowing that it left out the fundamental nature of reality.  Is Plato buckling under the weight of the mechanistic temptation?  Certainly not.  Plato explains, speaking of the sorts of causes he describes in the second part of the Timaeus:


        . . . . all these things are among the accessory causes which          the god uses as subservient in achieving the best result that          is possible.  But the great mass of mankind regard them, not           as accessories, but as the sole causes of things. . . . such           things are incapable of any plan or intelligence for any               purpose. (Timaeus 46d)


As is readily apparent, Plato holds out on his mechanistic temptation by cautiously grounding himself in rationalistic intelligibility and teleology.

    Both Plato and Galileo insist on the existence of mutable and immutable realms.  Each believes that the changing world, the world which is experienced, is the mutable realm.  For Plato, the Ideas and the matrix compose the immutable realm, whereas for Galileo, it consists of the governing laws of geometrical quantity and the atoms governed.  One immediately notice an apparent correspondence between the two; as Plato's Ideas are to the matrix, so Galileo's laws of geometrical quantity are to the atoms.  The real difference lies not in the distinction between the mutable and the immutable, but rather in what lies within (or is left out of) the realm of the immutable.  For governing over all within this realm in Plato is the Idea of the Good, but this notion or another similar is conspicuously absent from Galileo's account.  The Idea of the Good is that in virtue of which order is established within the universe.  It is within this order that, at all levels in the universe, the foundations of all intelligibility are grounded.

    Ultimately, the overarching principle in Plato's world-view, is the notion of the teleological ends of things.  He desires to know the sufficient reason for each thing and each motion.  Plato seeks the causes of things in their purpose, rather than merely the conditions of the phenomena and the means toward that purpose:


        . . . . a lover of intelligence and knowledge must necessarily         seek first for the causation that belongs to the intelligent           nature, and only in the second place for that which belongs to         things which are moved by others and of necessity set yet              others in motion. (Timaeus 46e)


Given that the Idea of the Good is the source and ground of all intelligibility and what it is to know things, as knowledge is not merely geometrical in nature, it is to the Good which Plato turns as “a lover of intelligence and knowledge” to find this purpose.  When Plato speaks of “the causation that belongs to the intelligent nature,” he is referring to the Demiurge, as the active cause of the world of Becoming, looking toward the Good in his creative act.  The Demiurge is a knower, a lover and a maker:  he knows the Ideas, he loves the Good, and he makes the world.  Of these three, however, his love of the Good is primary as that is what impels him to make his moving replication of the world of Ideas.  As the Good is that which governs and gives structure to the world of Ideas, so to it gives this teleological structure to his replication.  By way of example, Plato explicates the teleological functions of the various parts of the human body in the third section of the Timaeus, where he discusses the relationship between Reason and Necessity.  An interesting and insightful example of the teleological scheme is the relationship between the human head (which contains the immortal soul) and the stomach.  The stomach is an appetitive organ rather than a reasonable one, and hence, like the senses themselves, it is frequently drawn to distraction by various phantasms.  The stomach was intelligently placed in the lowest part of the abdomen so as to isolate it within its own territory, in order to place its tempting influence as far away from the seat of reason as possible.  In this way, reason can maintain its contemplation almost completely undisturbed by its bestial appetitive grumblings.  Yet, far from being an organ insignificant or superfluous to human beings, its appetitive existence possesses its own teleological intelligence;  the stomach is able to distract the mind enough to occasionally pull it from its contemplative state and focus its attention toward seeking the sustenance necessary to survive. (Timaeus 70e-71a)  It is obvious, from this account, that Plato is holding out for a purposeful universe and is not merely giving a positivist description of the universe.  The relationship between the stomach and the head is more than an empty description of the state of affairs in which the atoms happen to find themselves at this moment.  It is a purposeful relationship where all of the parts reject their autonomy and merge to form some one single unified whole.  That whole is a human being who also, as a whole, has his own teleological end, which is to transcend the World of Becoming and return to the World of Being.

    Here we see the problem of the one and the many rearing its ugly head.  Its is this problem which both Plato and the mechanist seek to resolve.  The mechanist, however, gives a reductionist view of the universe.  All his ideas of geometrical quantity are order on the same level.  He seeks to explain the existence of wholes (if there really can be said to be any in the mechanist's system) in terms of the positioning and spatial relationships of their parts.  Hence, the whole itself (properly conceived) disappears or at least must be conceived as a distinct configuration no greater than its parts.  Plato, on the other hand, orders his Ideas heirarchically.  The Idea which makes a particular thing what it is (e.g. a man) is the principle of organization of its properties.  An Idea is the principle of relationship between the whole and its parts.  And it is here that we see that the Idea of the Good is that principle in virtue of which all of the many are organized into one whole and are integrated into one reality.  Thus, for Plato, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts.

    Let us look further at the example of a human being.  Through Galilean categories, it is a distinct geometrical configuration.  The Galilean applies the principle of sufficient reason to the atoms and through this can explain the whereabouts of any given atom at any given time.  Hence, for the Galilean, a human being is a particular geometrical configuration at an instant.  Does something seem to be missing?  Does this account ring true in our lives?  Certainly not!  Without unified wholes, with purposeless universe is nothing like that in which we live.  The mechanist fails to give an exhaustive account of experience.  Instead, he identifies the world with a geometrical abstraction, with an accessory cause, and radically misses his target.  The Idea of the Good allows Plato to go where no mechanist would dare to tread.  His is able to make the logical move to applying the principle of sufficient reason to the wholes as well as the parts.  There is now not only a reason why each of parts can be said to form a distinct geometrical configuration at any given instant, but the Good can account for the existence (and frequently the actions and desires) of the whole over time.  Hence, the Idea of the Good places humanity back in the human being.  The what it is to be a human being, or a squirrel, or any other thing requires more than a momentary combination of a cluster of atoms.  Things are more than their shape.  Things require the unity, wholeness and purpose which is clearly part of our experience, and for Plato accounts and the mechanist does not.

    The last of the three original questions seems to be quite easily answered; no true Platonist can espouse a mechanistic world-view.   Galileo would certainly grant to Plato that the principle of sufficient reason is applicable to parts of things, but not with respect to the whole.  One can use the predictive power of Galilean positivism in order to ascertain the movement of atomic constituents.  But as was said before, the mechanist cannot account for the existence of unified wholes.  Plato takes the logical step of extending the principle of sufficient reason beyond the part to the whole as well.  Men experience the phenomena in the world around them as wholes and not merely distinct geometrical configurations.  Ultimately, the mechanist loses the world for which he is attempting to account.



St.  Anselm College

Manchester, New Hampshire