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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Early Metaphysics: Primal substance and cause


Alice C. Linsley


Metaphysics is the study of what is beyond the natural. Metaphysics is intertwined with epistemology (the study of knowledge) and ontology (the study of existence). In our study of Metaphysics we will explore:

Part 1: Theories of primal substance and cause


Part 3: Theories of change and constancy


The word "metaphysics" is composed of two Greek words:μετά (metá) (meaning beyond/upon/after) and φυσικά (physiká). Physics pertains to the study of natural science.Aristotle's "first philosophy" writings were given the title "Metaphysics" by Andronicus of Rhodes, the editor of Aristotle's works. This simply indicated the chapters coming after the chapters on physics. However, from the Middle Ages the term "Metaphysics" has referred to "the science of what is beyond the physical." It is the exploration of the "stuff" of the universe, and what is beyond matter, time and space.

A central question of Metaphysics is the nature of the universe and the origin of the Earth. Different explanations have been offered from before the time of Abraham (c. 2000 BC).


The Afro-Asiatics

The Afro-Asiatic record of beliefs can be determined from reading ancient scripts such as the Egyptian Coffin Texts, Sumerian commerical records and the Hebrew Scriptures, especially Genesis. Their worldview was essentially Nilo-Kushitic. They believed that the world was created from a watery chaos and that there was a hierarchy in the order of creation, with humans being the most like the Creator. They also saw a binary order in the natural world. This is evident in Genesis in descriptions of "the waters/firmament above and the waters/firmament below" or the dry ground and the seas, or the sun and the moon as the two great lights in the heavens. They found meaning in the relationship of binary opposites such as heaven-earth; male-female; night-day, and life-death. They regarded one of the components superior to the other. The heavens are more glorious than the earth. Males are larger and stronger than females. The sun is greater than the moon because it gives light whereas the moon merely reflects the sun's rays. Life is superior to death.

The Afro-Asiatic worldview was that of the educated upper classes which consisted of rulers, priests, scribes and warriors. Their society had a caste structure and people married only within their caste. This lent stability to the social structure. Rulers had great power and were expected to represent and enforce the Creator's will on earth. The earlier moral codes date to this time, between 4,000 and 600 BC.


The Pre-Socratic Greek Philosophers

Greek-speaking philosophers who lived before Socrates offered varied metaphysical explanations based on reason and observation of the natural order.

Group 1: The Milesians

This group of philosophers wanted to figure out what single substance forms the basic material of the world. They saw the universe as composed of one or more original substances, but to explain how these became a universe they introduced the idea of a force that acted upon the substance(s). Thales of Miletus (c. 624-546 BC) was a great observer of the natural order. He was a polymath, skilled in geometry, astronomy, engineering and natural science. Thales calculated the height of the pyramids from the length of their shadows. He was the first to measure the time between one solstice and the next.

Thales believed that all things derive from a single first cause or source which he called arche or archai. Arche designates beginning, source, origin, power, or dominion. Thales taught that water was the original substance from which all things took form. He noted that water has many states: liquid, solid, vapor, ice. He reasoned that everything that exists came from water and retains the essence of water. Aristotle later uses arche in a teleological sense, as the intangible element or principle of an entity that provides the conditions of the potential of that entity.

Anaximander of Miletus (c. 611-546 BC) held that the basic substance of the universe was an eternal and imperishable "infinite" or "apeiron" and he believed that a property of the substance was eternal motion. In his thinking, all things are born and return to the apeiron.

The idea that more than one Earth has existed can be traced to Anaximander who believed that the universe or “all the heavens and the worlds within them” came from “some boundless nature.” Their existence involved the interaction of the four elements of ancient physics: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Anaximander thought of the indefinable apeiron as being under all four elements, similar to the Tao.



The idea of the separation of water and earth is found in Genesis 1. Here the Creator gives order to the chaotic "deep" by separating the waters from the dry land. Ancient metaphysics regarded the separation of elements and the interaction of elements to be the material cause of flux, growth, increase or decrease

These elements were observed to have certain properties upon which Aristotle later expands in his Physics and Metaphysics. A handful of earth when released falls downward to its natural place, the place where earth naturally resides. Fire, on the other hand, rises and the natural place of balls of fire is in the heavens above. Aristotle's argument in can be stated as follows:

Every element has a natural motion that is simple.
There are only a finite number of simple motions.
Therefore, there are only a finite number of elements.

Aristotle wrote:
If every element has its proper movement, and a simple body has a simple movement, and the number of simple motions is not infinite, because the simple motions are only two and the number of places is not infinite, on these grounds also we should have to deny that the number of elements is infinite. [On the Heavens III 4, 303b3]

Anaximander speculated that these elements constantly interact to produce new worlds. This is why some thought this world came about as the result of the explosion of a previously existing world. He hypothesized that the world originated when a fiery ball surrounded Earth like bark on a tree. When the ball broke apart it formed other worlds as hollow concentric circles or spirals, filled with fire.

In his first sermon on creation, Basil the Great argued against Anaximander's view that a world is created by the spiraling motion of the four interactive elements. He declared, "Do not then imagine, O man! that the visible world is without a beginning; and because the celestial bodies move in a circular course, and it is difficult for our senses to define the point where the circle begins, do not believe that bodies impelled by a circular movement are, from their nature, without a beginning." (The Hexaemeron, Homily I)

This idea of previously existing worlds is not found in the Bible. According to the Bible, God fashioned all the worlds from nothing. Hebrews 11:13 says, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible."

Anaximenes of Miletus (c.585-524 BC) was a student of Anaximander. In contrast to Anaximander, he believed that the source of all things was not an eternal and imperishable infinite, but air, an definite and limited material substance. He believed that the earth and the heavens were flat planes floating on air and that by the process of ‘rarefaction’ became fire and by the process of ‘condensation’ became water and earth. He also believed that the Sun "is broad and flat like a leaf."

Anaximenes was an early pantheist because he believed that the air was divine and the source of life. Since everything is comprised of air in some form, there is no distinction between the divine and the world. In his Refutation of all Heresies, Hippolytus, a third-century Christian theologian, wrote, "Anaximenes… said that infinite air was the principle from which things that are becoming, and that are, and that shall be, and gods and things divine, all come into being… It is always in motion: for things that change do not change unless there be movement.

Today we speak of the elementary substance from the perspective of particle physics. An elementary particle is "not known to have substructure, thus it is not known to be made up of smaller particles." The elementary particles include the fundamental fermions (including quarks, leptons, and their antiparticles), and the fundamental bosons (including gauge bosons and the Higgs boson).


Group 2: The Pythagoreans

Bust of Pythagoras in the Capitoline Museums, Rome

Pythagoras the Samian (c. 572-500 BC)held the view that all things were reducible to or represented by numbers and extrapolated from Euclidean geometry an idea that would later become "The Music of the Spheres." He learned geometry from the Egyptians for whom math always related to spiritual matters. The view of the cosmos as having a geometric structure that could be expressed in numbers interested early mystics and led to the development of mystical numerology (as in Kabbala and later Gematria). Pythagoras' ideas influenced Plato, and through him, all of Western philosophy. Aristotle wrote, "The so-called Pythagoreans, who were the first to take up mathematics, not only advanced this subject, but saturated with it, they fancied that the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things." (Metaphysics 1–5 , c. 350 BC)

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 540-480 BC) was nicknamed the "Dark Philosopher” and “the Obscure.” He tended to be contemptuous of ordinary citizens and rulers who failed to exhibit philosophical reflection. He was known for outrageous remarks like “Physicians who cut, burn, stab and rack the sick, demand a fee for it which they do not deserve to get,” and “Asses prefer straw to gold.” His philosophy took a pessimistic view of change. He saw the world as existing in a state of perpetual change. Nothing can last, and nothing can stay the same forever. He is quoted as saying, "You can't step in the same river twice" and "Everything changes but change itself." Heraclitus' writings appear to be the first place where the word logos was used in ancient Greek philosophy.

Parmenides (c. 515-440 BC) was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. He explored the question of reality and existence (ontology), seeking to know what things must exist by necessity, what things cannot possibly exist, and in what ways things can exist. In his poem On Nature (of which only 160 lines are extant), Parmenides describes two views of reality. In "the way of truth" he explains how reality is one (monad/monism), change is impossible, and existence is timeless, uniform, necessary, and unchanging. In another part of the poem - "the way of opinion"- he explains that one's sensory faculties can lead to conceptions which are false and misleading. Appearances can fool. Parmenides' ideas influenced the development of Western philosophy, most notably through Plato.

Zeno of Elea (c. 490-430 BC) was a disciple of Parmenides and the Eleatic school. Aristotle called him the inventor of the dialectic. He is most famous for his Paradoxes on motion.

The Dichotomy: There is no motion, because that which is moved must arrive at the middle before it arrives at the end, and so on ad infinitum.

The Achilles: The slower will never be overtaken by the quicker, for that which is pursuing must first reach the point from which that which is fleeing started, so that the slower must always be some distance ahead.

The Arrow: If everything is either at rest or moving when it occupies a space equal to itself, while the object moved is always in the instant, a moving arrow is unmoved.

The Stadium: Consider two rows of bodies, each composed of an equal number of bodies of equal size. They pass each other as they travel with equal velocity in opposite directions. Thus, half a time is equal to the whole time.

Zeno's paradoxes posed a challenge to reason and observation. How reliable is information based on the five senses? Can information based on pure reason be trusted? This poses the distinction that would later characterize the relationship between empiricism and rationalism.

Empedocles (490–430 BC) was a citizen of Agrigentum, a Greek city in Sicily. He was influenced by the Pythagoreans. Empedocles' philosophy is best known for his cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements. He proposed the "alternaitve supremacy" (Mircea Eliade) of two opposing powers called Love (philia) and Strife (neikos) which act as forces to bring about the mixture and separation of the elements. These physical speculations address the nature and history of the universe and the origins of life. It is not clear if Empedocles believed the doctrine of reincarnation or the doctrine of metempychosis (as held by Plato). Given the influence of the Pythagoreans on his thinking, it is more likely that he held to the latter.


Group 3: The Pluralists

The Pluralists argued against the Milesians that matter is made of many different substances. This group included Empedocles (c. 490-430 BC) and Anaxagoras (500-428 BC). Empedocles believed that matter was comprised of many elements that were acted upon by opposing forces which he called Love and Strife. His most famous student was the rhetorician Gorgias.

Anaxagoras introduced the concept of Nous (Mind) as an ordering force in the cosmos. He regarded matter as a multitude of imperishable primary elements and believed that originally everything was mixed. Mind started the mixture rotating, and eventually the elements began to separate. He believed that this explains the rotation that we observe in the heavens. As the circular motion of the heavenly bodies was caused by Mind, Anaxagoras did not think rotation was natural to them.


Group 4: The Atomists

The Atomists were deterministic and materialistic in their view of the universe. They argued that all existence can be explained by matter in motion. They taught that all matter can be broken into indivisible units called atoms. The two best known Atomists were Leucippus (c. 490 BC-?) and Democritus (c. 460-370 BC).

Aristotle ascribes to Leucippus the Atomist theory that attempts to explain change, motion and a multiplicity of things. Worlds (kosmoi) are formed when atoms form a cosmic whirl. This motion causes the atoms to separate and sort by like kind. A enclosing membrane of atoms forms out of the circling atoms and continually acquires other atoms from outside. These become fire as they revolve and form the stars, with the sun in the outermost circle. This is how Leucippus conceived of the formation of worlds.

Democritus was a student of Leucippus. His experience of the world was broadened by his extensive travels. Using his inheritance, he traveled to Persia, India and Ethiopia. He lived for 5 years in Egypt where he became acquainted with Egyptian mathematicians, whose skill he praised. The ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to develop and solve quadratic equations of the second degree. Their influence on the Atomists may be greater than recognized. Posidonius and later Strabo claim that Mochus of Sidon was the author of the atomic theory. Sidon was an Egyptian holding.


The Biblical View

Genesis 1 describes when God began the work of creation. It uses the words tohu (formless or confused) and bohu (empty or void). The Hebrew phrase "formless and void" (Gen. 1: 2) is tohu wa-bohu and is of Nilotic origin. The word tohu in Isaiah 34:11 means "confused" so it appears that Genesis 1 refers to matter in a confused or chaotic state before God set things in order.

In Nilotic mythology chaos or disorder preceded creation. The Egyptians believed that chaos (tehom) dwelt south of Yebu (Elephantine Island) as a great river serpent between the Nile's east (bahku) and west (manu) banks. Tehom was overthrown by Tehut, divine Wisdom. The oldest known law code was the Law of Tehut, attributed to Menes, the first ruler to unite the peoples of the Upper and Lower Nile.

Thales of Miletus also believed that the primal substance at the beginning of time was chaotic water.


Blood as the primal substance

For the ancient Afro-Asiatics, being is constituted by blood (dam in Hebrew). Ha-adam means "the man" or the "human being." Adam and Edom also refer to the color red and are related to the Hausa word odum, meaning red-brown. This is the skin tone of the peoples who lived along the Nile where red-brown clay deposits accumulated after rains washed red silt down from the Ethiopian highlands. This is the region of the world where Abraham's Kushite ancestors lived and it is from them that we receive the story of Adam and Eve as the first created human beings. Adam was said to be made of the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7) and this narrative comes from Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors. The soil of the Nile Valley is red or reddish brown due to the high levels of chromic cambisols which produce a strong brown or red color.


Red and brown Nubians (Image: Arthur Brack)
These Nubians resemble the red Nabatean warriors 
who had long wavy hair and wore feathers.

Blood is the complex and somewhat mysterious transport system that allows communication and coordination between different parts of the human body. It nourishes organs and muscles. Without it, life as we know it could not exist. This is the meaning of Leviticus 17:11: “The life is in the Blood.”

By extension, blood is connected to bone since blood cells develop from hematopoietic stem cells and are formed in the bone. By extension, Eve also has being since she is made from Adam's rib bone. Upon seeing the woman for the first time, Adam declares, "This is now bone of my bones..." (Gen. 2:23). Eve was named by Adam and her name means “living” because she is said to be the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20).


The Generative Word/Spirit/Wind

The creation of the Earth was a singular event according to the Bible. John 1:3 says that everything that was created in the beginning was created from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). In other words, God did not create from preexisting elements or from the substance of a previous world. God's power is in the Word which goes forth from God and unfailingly generates life and existence (Isaiah 55:11). The Word (logos) is generative.

The concept of the generative Word is very ancient. It has been preserved in some of the oldest know tribal songs. Consider these songs:

The bards of the Bambara Komo Society of Uganda recite this praise of the Word:

The Word is total:
it cuts, excoriates
forms, modulates
perturbs, maddens
cures or directly kills
amplifies or reduces
according to intention
it excites or calms souls.


The phrase "In the beginning was God" is not found in Babylonian sacred prose, but it is found in African sacred songs. The following is a song of the BaMbuti Pygmies, some of whom speak languages in the Nilo-Saharan language family:

In the beginning was God
Today is God,
Tomorrow will be God.
Who can make an image of God?
He has no body.
He is as a word which comes out from your mouth,
That word! It is no more,
It is past and still it lives!
So is God.


The Logos, Nous, Apeiron or Ruach are understood to be generative, that is, having the power to give existence or to give life.


Hierarchy in the Order of Creation

Another feature of the Biblical worldview is the pyramid or hierarchical conception of the cosmos. Humans are at the peak of the hierarchy, being made in the divine image. The ancient Afro-Asiatics were fascinated by the geometric properties of the triangle or pyramid. This is evident in the construction of pyramids and ziggarats. It is also evident in their multi-tiered cosmology which pictured the Creator at the peak with the throne of God at the seventh tier of the heavens.

In the hierarchical conception humans rank above the other animals, the animals rank above the plants, and the plants rank above inanimate objects such as rocks. Within these tiers are the "kinds" (essentialism), each reproducing according to its kind. Onanism was regarded as an unrighteous deed because the seed that should fall to the earth is the seed of plants, which spring forth from the earth. The seed of man should fall on his own type (the womb), from which man comes forth. Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted” (The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 A.D. 191).
Bestiality and sodomy were regarded as serious violations of the God-established boundaries. By extension, it was forbidden even to sow two different seeds in the same field, as was the blending of different fibers. The prohibition against mixing kinds, be they seeds, fibers or blood, upholds the binary distinctions and prevents confusing the holy with the unholy, or blurring the distinction between life and death, as happens when a baby goat is boiled in its mother's milk (forbidden three places in Scripture).

The Creator's design entails boundaries which are generally recognized in reproductive science. It was important to the Afro-Asiatics that these boundaries be honored.

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