Sunday, September 27, 2009

Greek Philosophy – The Seeds of Doubt - Plato (The History of Epistemology! - Part 4)

In this series, we explore epistemology, or “How do we know what we know?” I think such a question is as relevant as ever, especially given our culture’s fairly recent leanings toward postmodernism – the belief that traditional norms should be abandoned in favor of abstractness. Josh McDowell defines postmodernism as “a worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.” In other words, a postmodernist would claim that truth is a variable, and that it is relative to each individual who attempts to discover it. In the postmodern world, there is the potential for more than one truth.

Is truth relative, or is it an absolute? And does it matter? Read on…
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Probably the best-known saying associated with Plato is this – “If you don’t put the lid back on when you’re done, it will all dry out.”

Okay, not really. But you have to admit that you didn’t expect that in the middle of an epistemology series.

Plato (428-348 BC) was a student of Socrates, and unlike his teacher, he actually wrote things down. Consequently, there is a lot more to look at and deduce from Plato and his writings. Plato refined much of the thinking of Socrates into more concrete form. As opposed to the thinking that went before him, he speculated that each soul, before birth, possessed a perfect knowledge of everything. Plato would argue that truth was “pre-loaded” into each person, and it is their task to “recall” that truth, rather than learn it. This was a unique concept for the time, and differed greatly from the pre-Greek philosopher thinking which simply looked to God (or pagan gods) for truth. The idea that each human began with perfect knowledge, lost it, and must spend a lifetime trying to regain it is not unlike many religions of today.

There is a fine line between this thinking, and that of Romans 1:18-21, where we are told:

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
The difference between these schools of thought is that Plato’s thinking assumes a perfect understanding at the start of life, while the Bible makes no such claim. Since the fall of man through Adam, man has had an imperfect grasp and knowledge of God. We are told in 1 Corinthians 15:22 – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.”

Plato used an allegory of a chariot driver being pulled by two horses to explain more of his thinking. The charioteer represents man’s reason – the decider who will guide the soul to truth. One horse is white, and stands for the positive part of man’s passionate nature (such as righteous indignation), and the other horse is black and represents irrational passions and appetites. The driver – man’s reason – must learn to tame and balance these two forces in order to make progress. The horse part of the analogy is not far from the apostle Paul’s reasoning in Romans 7:21-25:

“So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”


The real difference between the two philosophies is this – who is the driver of the chariot? For Plato, this was man himself, who learned to drive and control the horses as best he could. The whole of the process rested in man alone. For the Christian, as we see in Paul’s words above, we give the reins to Jesus Christ, who is our rescuer and who guides us into all truth. There is a huge difference between these two models.

Finally, in typical philosophical fashion, Plato also contributed to the roots of today’s postmodernism movement. He constructed an argument to discuss whether or not all objects have a universal form, by saying something like this – “When we look at an apple, for example, we see an apple, and we can also analyze a form of an apple. In this distinction, there is a particular apple and a universal form of an apple. Moreover, we can place an apple next to a book, so that we can speak of both the book and apple as being next to each other.” These are words that a post-modernist would love to discuss, but not I. My fifteen-year-old daughter likes to label words such as this as “a load of waffle”. For me, it’s enough to say that apples were created by God, and they taste good. Can we see some of God’s handiwork when we eat one? While the Greek philosophers are often credited with moving man toward a deeper understanding of truth, there is some doubt as to whether this is really right… Next up, the final Greek philosopher in this series - Aristotle. Then we will need to jump ahead almost 2000 years to get to the next major epistemological development.

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Next in the series...