Causes, the Universe, and What Questions Bump Into

I’ve been trying to break through the modern mindset that enslaves the high-schoolers in my “Philosophy of Hell” class.  This mindset is characterized by – well, to be honest, an inability to think.  This is appears when a good question is asked, and the terminus of the question fails to find a suitable place.  That doesn’t mean that my way of doing things gives them correct answers – far from it – but rather that the questions should lead us to something that we “bump” into.  We should get to something real, powerful, true.  For example, asking “Why did the ancient Greeks believe that there must be an afterlife like Hades?” gets an answer like, “They wantedto believe that things don’t end when you die.”

The problem isn’t that this response isn’t false, but that it shows that the question didn’t hit home before they responded.  If I asked “Why are you staring at the floor?” and one responds, “Because I craned my neck and my eyes are open”, it is evident that their response is insufficient.  That’s not what the questions is getting at.

There’s an interesting part in Plato’s Phaedo that addresses the problem of establishing causes, and reasons.  Socrates says:

When I was young, Cebes, I was tremendously eager for the kind of wisdom which they call investigation of nature.  I thought it was a glorious thing to know the causes of everything, why each thing exists; and I was always unsettling myself with such questions as these: Do heat and cold, by a sort of fermentation, bring about the organization of animals as some people say?”

Socrates continues by describing the sort of empirical questions that guided his curiosity, until he determined that none of these were sufficient and he reached a sort of bewilderment about the nature of causes.  He gives from pretty convincing arguments that it is difficult to go beyond folk understanding of everyday occurrences, including simple math.  The cause has become either an empirical observation, or becomes a reason.  Learning the how, if it is to have understanding, needs the why.  

I am far from thinking that I know the cause of any of these things, I who do not even dare to say, when one is added to one, whether the one to which the addition was made has become two, or the one which was added, or the one which was added and the one to which is was added became two by the addition of each to the other.  I think it is wonderful that when each of them was separate from the other, each was one and they were not then two, and when they were brought near each other this juxtaposition was the cause of their becoming two… So if anyone wishes to find the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of a particular thing, he must find out what sort of existence , or passive state of any kind, or activity is best for it.  And therefore in respect to that particular thing, and other things too, a man needs to examine nothing but what is best and most excellent.

This means that a description of a material cause is not sufficient for understanding.  If you’re looking for a cause, you must ultimately end in an intelligence.  If you want to understand cosmic events, like whether or biology, one must explain why it is that way.  And it must be that way because it is either “what is best and most excellent” or it trying to be so.  

So understanding things requires some understanding of an intelligence, either of the intelligence that created the cosmos, or individual intelligences. Socrates gives himself as an example.

If one should say that Socrates does with intelligence whatever he does, and then, in trying to give the causes of the particular thing I do, should say first that I am now sitting here because my body is composed of bones and sinews, and the bones are hard and have joints which divide them and the sinews can be contracted and relaxed and, with the flesh and the skin which constrains them all… [and] the sinews, by relaxing and contracting, make me able to bend my limbs now, and that is the cause of my sitting here with my legs bent.  [A}nd [he] should fail to mention the real causes, which that the Athenians decided that it was best to condemn me, and therefore I decided that it was best for me to sit here and that it is right for me to stay and undergo whatever penalty they order.

Shortly after this interchange Socrates will finally see fit to tell a story about the nature of the earth, and proceeds to tell a complicated but fascinating myth about how the earth is involved with the afterlife.  In other words, having understood a bit about the intelligence that constructed the cosmos, Socrates illustrates why it is best that Hades exist, and the earth as partner with it.

For a brief moment I thought my students saw this: that to understand the cause of the earth is to “bump” into the intelligence behind the material cause.  I saw fleeting in their eyes the idea that things are the way they are because it is good.  Their universe was beautiful, organized, and splendid – they were in awe.  Then it fell apart and what was profitable for them became nothing but a random molecular event.  They like the young Socrates, were blinded by the “science” of the thing.

The irony of this to me is how inundated we are with intelligently designed things: iPods, dishwasher, automobiles, and yet we think the world is random.  The Greeks however, eating olives, and contemplating the see – more in touch with this “random cosmos” – saw intelligence and beauty. We, tragically, and blinded by our own devices of intelligent design.


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