Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Introduction to Ontology

"Existence is prior to essence."--Jean-Paul Sartre

"Esse est percipi."--George Berkeley

"To be is to be the value of a bound variable."--Willard van Orman Quine

"It is only when the core of being has shown itself as social becoming, that the being itself can appear as a product, so far unconscious, of human activity, and this activity, in turn, as the decisive element of the transformation of being." --Georg Lukacs, Marxist philosopher

Alice C. Linsley

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence or the nature of being. Ontological questions include:

What is existence?
Is there a difference between existence and being?
Why does something exist?
What are the essential or incidental, as opposed to the accidental, traits of an entity?
Is existence a property?
If an entity changes in essence does it cease to be?
Are sensible substances the only substances that can be said to exist?
What is the relationship between consciousness and being?

Plato believed that entities are real because they have distinct essences patterned after the original immutable and eternal Forms. His Forms are immaterial and classified according to essence in a hierarchy. His student Aristotle was also an essentialist, but his classification of entities led him to a different view. This is taken up in Aristotle's writings, especially his Categories.

Aristotle’s approach to ontology

Aristotle attempted to categorize entities by four divisions: universal substances; universal non-substances; individual substances and individual non-substances. In Aristotle's writing "substance" refers to essence. He classifies essences as universal and particular, but he also recognizes non-essential universals and non-essential particulars. He uses the Greek phrase en tôi ti esti, en tôi ti ên einai (what belongs to a thing in respect of itself belongs to it in its essence). He defines essence/substance as "the what it is" (to ti esti). Essence or substance is one determinant of the entity's category. Another determinant is whether it represents a universal or a particular. Yet another determinant is what can be said about the entity.

Aristotle's categories are linked to the concept of boundaries or definition (horos, horismos). In his logical works, he says, “a definition is an account (logos) that signifies an essence” (Topics 102a3). He says that "what belongs to a thing in respect of itself belongs to it in its essence" (en tôi ti esti, en tôi ti ên einai) for we refer to it “in the account that states the essence” (Posterior Analytics, 73a34–5). The Greek expression to ti ên einai literally means "the what it was to be." Here we glimpse the necessity of teleos in Aristotle's reasoning. Essence for Aristotle is tied to the ultimate purpose or destiny of an entity, to its becoming what it is.

Aristotle is not the first to philosophically explore existence or being, but he is credited with laying the foundations of ontology. In Gamma 1 he asserts that humans desire to know and what they desire to know most are the "first principles and highest causes." He argues that these first principles are found by studying being qua being. By studying 'that which is' qua 'thing which is' and what belongs to 'that which is' we may discover first principles and highest causes. The 'qua' locution is used to indicate the general (propositional) principles that apply to 'that which is' and to consider their properties, or what Aristotle refers to as kath’ hauto (attributes). He further contends that there must be something to which the first principles and highest causes belong; they must be properties of being itself. He believes in “the Prime Mover” who is immutable, unmoved and complete in itself.

First Principles

In philosophy, a first principle is a basic, foundational proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. For Aristotle a first principle is “the first basis from which a thing is known” (Metaphysics 1013a14–15).

To have knowledge (epistêmê) about birds, for example, is to be able to explain why birds are as they are and behave as they do. When we can give a fundamental explanation about birds as a class of being and explain the processes whereby birdness is achieved; we have come upon the first principles of birds. Aristotle seeks to establish what a bird is apart from but in relationship to what can be said about the individual bird (particular) and birds as a class (universal). He intends that this should be done by a well-considered process of observation and logic.

First Philosophy

“First Philosophy” is the term Aristotle uses in his Metaphysics for philosophy concerned with first causes and ultimate principles. He sees first causes as originating in the Nous. For Aristotle First Philosophy is at the root of the tree of knowledge. Aristotle maintains that causation is first and foremost the business of Philosophy. He uses the term archai to refer to the sources, origins or roots of things that exist and to the principles that provide the conditions of the possibility of things.

Aristotle's Four Causes (archai)

1. substance or essence
2. matter or substratum
3. source of change (efficient cause)
4. purpose and good (final cause)

Aristotle presents a logical view of Cause, Motion, and Purpose. He makes distinctions between kinesis (motion/change/flux/process) and energeia (power/actuality), and between actuality and potentiality. Here are some Aristotelian examples of actuality-potentiality pairs:

Potentiality                                            Actuality

stones/bricks                                          house
bronze                                                    statue
acorn                                                      oak tree

The Aristotelian distinction between kinesis and energeia is well presented in David Bradshaw’s book Aristotle East and West (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 10

Linguistic challenges

Aristotle's term "ousia" (essence) was rendered "substantia" in the Latin translations of his works. The English translations therefore use the word "substance" which connotes matter. Cicero recommended the Latin word "essentia" because Aristotle often speaks of non-material entities and universal essences.

Likewise, rendering "Horismos" or "Horos" as "definition" rather than "boundary" contributes to confusion. Horus was regarded as the one who establishes boundaries. The ancient Greeks were much enamored of Nilotic metaphysics and Plato studied under the Egyptian priest Sechnuphis wh would have taught him about the eternal soul and earthly reflections of heavenly realities. The notion of earth as a mirror of heaven is central to ancient Egyptian theology and Plato's two-world metaphysics was likely influenced by his 13 years of study in Egypt.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Theories of Change and Constancy

"It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man." --G.K. Chesterton (The Everlasting Man, Part 1, The Man in the Cave)

"We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature."--George Berkeley

Alice C. Linsley

In the last lesson we considered theories of time. The philosophers we studied held a range of notions about the dynamic of change through time. Hegel proposed a dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, upon which Marx built his dialectical materialism and advocacy of collectivism. In the dialectical view, change is precipitated by clashes of interest. The Pluralist Empedocles (490-430 BC) held a similar view in which motion, flux and chaos result from the clash of love (philia) and strife (neikos).

Thomas Kuhn made the case that scientific revolutions are sudden leaps that result from an individual's discovery, not from the steady advancement of knowledge by the scientific community. Kuhn termed these epistemological breakthroughs "paradigm shifts" and he demonstrated that the evolution of science does not justify the view that science advances by accumulation of raw sense data. The history of science is full of examples of "discovery through paradigm destruction."

Paradigm shifts drive the philosophical project as well as science. Rene Descartes, Emmanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein are examples of men who saw a philosophical question from a unique perspective. In each case, they began by wondering about something. If we trace the philosophical project from the earliest times we recognize that the project is driven by innate human curiosity that leads us to ask questions about the world in which we live.

Plato said, "This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin." Aristotle said, "It is owing to their wonder that men now begin, and first began, to philosophize."

We already have addressed some of the questions asked by early philosophers; i.e., What was the first cause? What was the first substance? What is eternity? The next question we will address concerns change.

Can the essence of entities change?

You have heard it said, "There is nothing new under the Sun." In this view no changes in the essence of entities occurs. The essence of humans is the same as it was at the dawn of human existence. Though we may speak of archaic humans and modern humans, the distinction is one of minor anatomical difference which is explained by local adaptation. The distinction is not one of essence.

The essence of trees is the same today as at the time of the appearance of the first tree (though there is actually less diversity today than a million years ago). I am able to look at a towering oak and a date nut palm and recognize both as being of the same essence - tree. The form of these trees is different but they have certain necessary attributes in common - roots, trunks, branches, leaves or fronds.

Plato believed that the human soul re-cognizes objects because they reflect the properties of the one eternal Form of which the soul has innate knowledge. We re-cognize the elm and the pine as trees because they reflect the one eternal form Tree. They embody "treeness" though these trees are quite different. Likewise, each human embodies the essence of humanness though there is a wide range of human features.

Plato's theory of Forms is an early brand of essentialism. Platonic idealism holds that all known things and concepts have an essential reality behind them which constitutes the essence that makes those things and concepts what they are. Dr. J. Jeremy Wisnewski (East Carolina University) has written, "Essentialism is the view that there are things in the world that are constituted by certain essential properties, discoverable by some means of investigation, be it through conceptual analysis, empirical investigation, or some mixture of the two. Precisely what will count as an essential property, of course, is an open question. The one thing we can say about such properties is that they will necessarily be present in any instance where the thing exists for which the property is essential. The term ‘property’ is here to be construed in a broad sense. Hence, to use a typical example, water has the essential property of being H2O. In any instance where we have water, we will necessarily have H2O." ("An Antirealist Essentialism?" East Carolina University; Philosophical Writings No. 22, Spring 2003.)

Saul Aaron Kripke
Essentialism is the view that a specific entity (group of people, living creatures, or objects such as rocks) has a set of attributes or traits all of which are essential to its identity and function. More recently essentialism has been argued by the American philosopher Aaron Saul Kripke in his book Naming and Necessity (1980, Cambridge: Harvard University Press). He maintains that entities have essential properties that can be discovered by scientific investigation and that their essences are independent of human language and culture.

Jacques Derrida expresses an essentialist view in his ontotheology. These would argue that the essence of an entity may fluctuate but does not change. Water's essence is unchanged though it may fluctuate between forms -liquid, solid and vapor. The essentialist makes a distinction between change and flux.

Non-Essentialism is the view that a specific entity does not have a set of attributes which are essential to its identity and function. Some non-essentialists include Heraclitus and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Clearly, great thinkers do not agree on the question of change. We often assign different meaning to the word "change." When we say the weather is changing are we speaking of a shift in the wind direction or in the transition from one season to another? When we say that modern humans represent a change from archaic humans are we speaking of essential change or anatomical change?

Archaic views of change

In the ancient world the order of creation was viewed as hierarchical and fixed. This was based on the observation of patterns in nature. In the time of Abraham's Kushite ancestors, the observation of the fixed movement of the heavenly bodies was done by a caste of priests. They noted the constellations have a clocklike movement, the seasons are linked to the 12 lunar cycles, and the Sun directly over head marks mid-day. They saw these phenomena as fixed and constant.

They perceived boundaries in nature. The boundaries were fixed within the hierarchy of "kinds" (pyramid). The Biblical "kind" is not synonymous with the word "species." The term "kind" is conceptually close to Plato's term Form or Idea. The Essentialist view classifies on the basis of exact likeness, that is the offspring are essentially identical to the parents. "Kind" refers to the original pattern of a created entity. Creationists believe the original pattern never disappears. The Biblical "kind" represents an Essentialist worldview. In Aristotle's writings "kind" is intended by his use of the Greek words genos and eidos.

A species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. In the evolutionary view similarities are sufficient to classify creatures into genus. Species hypothesized to have common ancestors are classified in one genus, based on similarities. Because of mutation and adaptation there are many more creatures than there are kinds. Before the theory of evolution the essentialist view of the natural world prevailed. It held that each species preserves its original essence through time. Organisms that lose necessary attributes become extinct. Extinct organisms cannot evolve into different organisms.

Sacred Geometry

The ancient Afro-Asiatic priests saw boundaries in earth's geometry. From the tops of high mountains they noted the curvature of the Earth at dawn and dust. They "oriented" themselves by facing east as the Sun rose. Ancient towers and temples reflected the sacred geometry and cosmology of their builders. The differing geometric shapes of the temples of the Horite Sabians (Afro-Arabian Dedanites) associated the hexagon with Saturn, the triangle with Jupiter, the rectangle with Mars, the square with the Sun, the octagon with the Moon, and a triangle within a quadrangle with Venus.[1]

Abraham's Nilotic ancestors conceived of the cosmos as God's sacred pyramid or temple. As the Sun rose, God entered the temple from the east. As the Sun set, God left the temple toward the west. Rulers were buried in pyramids with the hope that they would rise with the Sun and lead their people in procession to immortality. St. Paul refers to this belief when he writes about how Christ rose from the grave, leading captives in his train. (Ephesians 4:7-9)

This is the symbolism of the sand scarab, which comes out of the sand when the Sun rises and returns to the sand as night approaches. The sand scarab represents the Sun's journey and life after death (repose). The female sand beetle lays her eggs in the sand and when the eggs hatch, she is no longer, because she gives her body to be eaten by her newborn young (cf. Jesus' words, "This is my Body given for you..."). (See The Dung Beetle and Heavenly Lights.)

For Abraham's Horite ancestors, the Sun and the scarab spoke to them of their deity, HR (Horus in Greek). He was regarded, with his father Ra, as the fixer of boundaries. Horos refers to the boundaries of an area, or a landmark, or a term. From horos come the English words hour, horizon and horoscope. The Indo-European root for year is yeHr-, yet another reference to Horus. The association of Horus with the horizon is seen in the word Har-ma-khet, meaning Horus of the Horizon. Today the word horoscope connotes astrology, but the word original meant "observer of the hours", from hora (time or hour) and skopos (observer or watcher).

In the time of Abraham's ancestors, the priests of Horus (called "Horites" in the Bible) were dedicated to observation of the planets and constellations. They observed that the planets and the constellations have an orderly clock-like movement. They conceived of this order as fixed and established by the generative force which makes existence possible (logos, nous, ruach, etc.) The Horite priests were the earliest known astronomers and it is likely that horo is a reference to their celestial archetypes surrounding Horus, the son of Ra, born to Hathor-Meri. Hathor-Meri's animal totem was a cow. She is shown at the Dendura Temple holding her newborn son in a manger or stable.

The Horites were devotees of HR (Hor, Hur, Har or Horus) whose mother Hathor-Meri conceived miraculously by the overshadowing of the Sun (the Creator's emblem). Horus is the archetype by which Abraham's descendants would recognize Jesus as the promised Seed of the Woman (Gen. 3:15). His authentication was His rising from the dead on the third day, in accordance with Horite expectation. In a 5 day ceremony, the Nilotic peoples fasted as a sign of grief for the death of Horus at the hand of his brother. On the third day the priests led processions to the fields where grain was sowed as a sign of Horus' rising to life. Jesus described his death as a seed of grain falling into he ground and dying (John 12:20-26). St. Augustine noted that the Egyptians took great care in the burial of their dead and never practiced cremation, as in the religions that seek to escape physical existence. Abraham's ancestors believed in the resurrection of the body and awaited a deified king who would rise from the grave and deliver his people from death.

Horus marked the boundaries and established the "kind" (essences). He guarded the four directional points and controlled the water and the wind. The Harmattan trade wind that blows from the northeast and east across the Sahara was named for Horus. The word is comprised of the biradicals HR for Horus and MT meaning order. The Nilotic peoples were probably the first to invent the sail because the prevailing wind blows south while the Nile (Hapi) flows north. Horus was invoked to send favorable wind. The four winds sometimes appeared as birds at the four quarters of the heavens announcing the accession of Horus' deified ruler on earth. On the walls of Amenemhat's burial chamber at Hawara Horus is depicted at the cardinal points and associated with the resurrection of the ruler. The four forms of Horus top the canopic jars holding the ruler's organs.

In the ancient world, the earth below was perceived as a mirror of the celestial order above. The cosmological significance ot the four quarters of the winds - north, east, south and west - are apparent in Homer's writings. The quarters were divided again to configure an 8-point order for the winds know to the Greeks after Homer. By the time of Eratosthenes (c. 276 – 195 BC) a 12-point wind configuration had emerged, but the 8-point configuration was used again in the time of Andronicus of Kyrrhos in the first century B.C. Around the top of the Tower of Winds that he designed 8 winds are named: Boreas (N), Kaikias (NE), Eurus (E), Apeliotes (SE), Notus (S), Livas (SW), Zephyrus (W), and Skiron (NW). The North, Northeast, Northwest and East are associated with men (masculine principle) and the Southwest, West, South and Southeast are associated with women (the feminine principle). This suggests the binary influence of the earlier Afro-Asiatics.[2]

The Horologion

Wind towers were a common feature in the ancient world. Andronicus' tower in Athens is called the "Horologion." Abraham's Nilotic Proto-Saharan ancestors associated the wind with the divine generative force. Ruach eloyim means spirit, breath, wind, movement of God. The association of wind with Horus is seen also in the word Har-mat-tan, referring to the dry wind that seasonally blows across the Sahara. Here again we see the root horo, relating to Horus. The term was borrowed by the ancient Greeks who were fascinated by ancient Nilotic culture and religion. "Horos" and "horismos" are used by Plato to refer to definition, term, distinction and boundary. Plato studied for 13 years in Egypt.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) gives the classic definition of essentialism: an essence of a thing is that which it is said to be. It is that which is most irreducible, unchanging, and therefore constitutive of a thing. A thing's essence is that property without which the thing would cease to exist as itself. Entities derive their coherence or constancy from the immutability and homogeneity of their essences. In his logical works, Aristotle links essence to boundaries (horos, horismos) or to definition. He says, “a definition is an account (logos) that signifies an essence” (Topics 102a3). He says that “what belongs to a thing in respect of itself (kath’ hauto) belongs to it in its essence (en tôi ti esti)”.

Modern philosophical conversations on essentialism

Properties, attributes or traits that are essential are considered incidental while properties, such as stripes or number of legs, are considered accidental. Ernst Mayr expresses the essentialist character of Platonic Forms in biology in this statement: "Flesh-and-blood rabbits may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviation from the ideal essence of rabbit".

Anthropology professor Lawrence Hirschfeld gives an example of what constitutes the essence of a tiger. Particular traits such as stripes, color or lack thereof (albino), or deformities such as the loss of a leg or a short tail, are not essential (incidental). The essential properties of a tiger are those without which it is no longer a tiger. Other properties, such as stripes, the number of legs, color and tail length are considered inessential (accidental).[3] (Here is a response to Hirschfeld on the question of race.)

Essentialists (Plato, Aristotle) believe true essences exist. This is the basis of Plato's Forms which pertain to the metaphysical realm outside time where essence does not change. For Plato this realm is real, structured and eternal. The apparent variety of transitory appearances is not real change, but flux within a fixed order. The real world consists of distinct essences that make it possible to recognize and sort objects into natural kinds. All things that have the same essence are identical in their incidentals, though not necessarily in the accidents.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) points to the fixed nature of the metaphysical "center" in his book From Structure, Sign and Play. He writes, "the entire history of the concept of structure... must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the center receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix... is the determination of Being as presence in all sense of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated an invariable presence - eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) alethia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth."

Derrida maintained that the philosophical project in the West has reached a dead end because of the abandonment of Plato's essentialism. Derrida's “metaphysics of presence” borrows from the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger maintains that Western philosophy has always granted primacy or “privilege” to presence itself. That is to say, something is because it can be and something can be because it is. We might add that "something isn't" is also about metaphysical presence. Derrida is familiar with the apophaticism of eastern thought.[4] (For more on this, go here and  here)

Apophaticism describes by negating that which God is not; one eliminates all that is material and named. Also excluded are the attributes such as goodness, love, truth, and wisdom. One finally excludes being itself. God is none of these. His nature is the unknowable. He “is not” this or that, or any other perceived thing that we imagine out of our finite selves. Yet, God is the One who chose to have a relationship with us so that we are somehow able to say “You who calls me are God, the Known Unknown, the apophatic God.” In this tradition we are never able to see God, only the veil of God.

In the Western theological tradition this is sometimes called “negative theology” but apophaticism and negative theology are not exactly the same. They do have one thing in common. They identify something at the center of reality that is not material and not fully knowable.

Derrida's “ontotheology” speaks of “the center” to which we inevitably must return in philosophy. There we find an eternal, immutable Presence which has been variously called Logos, Nous, God, Tao, Apeiron, the Ontological Core, etc. Derrida demonstrates that language is unstable and plays havoc with the concept of a transcendental, self-evident logos. That said, it is important to remember that Derrida never denies the existence of “the center” or that there is something there. He regards the center as a function, not a being, to which we must return to understand existence (ontology).

The logic of “supplementarity” (Derrida’s term) shows that what is conceived as the marginal object does in fact define the central object of consideration. We have seen this in the supplementarity of male-female principle or binary polarities of the Afro-Asiatics. The assigned priority to north and east (those being associated with God) are reversible, bringing south and west to the position of priority. Such reversals are significant in Semitic mysticism, such as Kabbala. It appears that Derrida, an Arabic-speaking North African Jew, was reviving an appraoch to metaphysics that would have been familiar to Abraham and his African ancestors.

Fixed Boundaries in Genetics

The word horotely is used to describe the rate and boundaries of evolutionary change for a given group of plants or animals. The term is used to indicate evolutionary progress and the implication is that through the mechanism of evolution the essence of an entity can change. However, the etymology of the word suggests the very opposite, coming as it does from the ancient world. The term relates to Horus and fixed limits or boundaries between "kinds" (an essentialist view). This is not a popular concept among those who believe that chimps and humans have a common ancestor because they have similar anatomical and genetic structure, or that nurse sharks and camels have a common ancestor because they have a similar antigen receptor protein structure.

For purposes of classification, the essentialist is willing to group similar species such as apes and humans in the same genus, but this does not mean they are of the same essence. Clearly they have different essences since they reproduce different kinds. Humans only reproduce humans and have done for the past 3 to 4 million years. There are fixed boundaries within the DNA code. While the similarity of humans to primates may suggest a common origin, a common ancestor(s) is not known to have existed in real time.

Three to four million year fossils recovered in Ethiopia and Cameroon have been studied to reconstruct a picture of Lucy and her archaic people. These 3.2 million year old remains were found in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1973. For about 20 years Australopithecus afarensis was described as the earliest known “human ancestor species.” Australopithecus means “Ape of the South” and afarensis refers to the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia where the fossils were found. The first discovered skeleton of this population was named "Lucy" and she was described as an ape rather than a human.

Australopithecus afarensis is the term coined by South African anatomist Donald C. Johanson for Lucy and her community. Johanson has since concluded that these were Homo, not apes, although the artists’ drawings in biology books still show them as hairy and apelike.

Ward, Kimbel, and Johanson reported in Feb. 2011 the recovery of a complete fourth metatarsal of A. afarensis at Hadar that shows the deep, flat base and tarsal facets that “imply that its midfoot had no ape-like midtarsal break. These features show that the A. afarensis foot was functionally like that of modern humans.”

What are we to make of the phrase “functionally like” – does it mean similar or identical? The Darwinian will read this and stress similar structure as evidence of common ancestry. On the basis of similar anatomy humans and chimps are classified in the same genus. So why not admit, on the basis of similarity, that A. afarensis is human? Here we find a serious flaw in logic.

The Essentialist would regard the structures being compared as identical in essence.

When paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva compared the ankle joint, the tibia and the talus of fossil "hominins" between 4.12 million to 1.53 million years old, he discovered that all of the hominin ankle joints resemble those of modern humans rather than those of apes. Chimpanzees flex their ankles 45 degrees from normal resting position. This makes it possible for apes to climb trees with great ease. While walking, humans flex their ankles a maximum of 20 degrees. The human ankle bones are quite distinct from those of apes. Using DeSilva's evidence no argument can be made that the fossils are similar to apes. They are not. Lucy and her community are not evidence of common ancestry of apes and humans. They are evidence that humans have had the same essence for millions of years.


1. Pierre A. MacKay, "A Turkish Description of the Tower of the Winds" American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 73, No. 4, (Oct., 1969), pp. 468-469.

2. The Horites saw a binary order in creation. There binary view is distinct from dualism in that one of the entities in the binary set is regarded as superior to the other. See "The Binary Distinctions of the Horites."

3. Lawrence Hirschfeld, Race in the Making: Cognition, Culture and the Child's Construction of Human Kinds, p. 87.

4. The word "apophatic" means revelation and negation. Vladimir Lossky defines apophaticism as follows: "Apophaticism consists in negating that which God is not; one eliminates firstly all creation, even the cosmic glory of the starry heavens and the intelligible light of the angels in the sky. Then one excludes the most lofty attributes, goodness, love, wisdom. One finally excludes being itself. God is none of all this; in His own nature He is the unknowable. He "is not." In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we find this: "And grant us, O Lord, to dare to invoke Thee with confidence and without fear, by calling Thee Father." According to Lossky the Greek text says, "God on high Whom one cannot name, the apophatic God." (See Lossky, V., Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1978, page 32.)

Related reading: Pre-Darwinian Taxonomy and Essentialism by David Stamos; Biblical Anthropology and the Question of Common AncestryThe Ruach of God; Who Were the Horites?; The Horite Ancestry of Jesus Christ; Theories of Primal Substance and Cause; Theories of TimeThe Science Guy Reveals His Ignorance

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.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Time and Eternity

Alice C. Linsley

Joan Violet Robinson said, "Time is a device to prevent everything from happening at once." To this, someone has cleverly added, "Space is a device to prevent everything from happening in Cambridge."

The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889 – 1975) said, “History is just one damn thing after another.” He wrote a 12 volume analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations.

Karl Marx (1818–1883)wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” He also said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) wrote, "…the dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress.”

Herbert Spencer wrote, “…the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears and the social state into which that race has slowly grown… Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” He also said, "The wise man must remember that while he is a descendant of the past, he is a parent of the future." He coined the phrase "survival of the fittest."

We began our study of Metaphysics with the question of eternity. You were asked to explain the difference between eternity and time and recognized that the property of eternity is timelessness. Eternity pertains to that which is outside of time and space. It is not bounded, and as such has been considered an attribute of the Unmoved Mover, or the First Cause, or the Uncreated Creator.

Aristotle's Unmoved Mover is a primary cause of all the motion in the universe. The entity moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. In Book 12 of his Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the Unmoved Mover as perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: itself contemplating. He equates this concept with the Active Intellect.

Many ancients believed that there was an original substance at the beginning of time. They recognized that time, space, matter and motion are interconnected. There were a range of views, sometimes conflicting, on the questions of elements and their interactions, primal substances from which life emerges, and causes. The ancient Afro-Asiatics regarded blood and water as the substance of life and these became importance symbols in their philosophical theology.

Afro-Asiatic metaphysics is reflected in the book of Genesis and throughout the whole Bible. In this view God created everything from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). At the beginning of time chaotic waters covered everything until God’s Word (logos in Greek) moved like a breath or spirit (ruach in Hebrew) over the vast deep and established a fundamental binary order in the world. There is no sense in the Biblical accounts of creation of this earth or cosmos being the product of a previous world that exploded. In other words, unlike the early Greek-speaking metaphysicists, the Afro-Asiatics do not appear to have regarded the creation of the world as the product of a cycle of events, but as the direct and special creation of God. This is not to say that they took a linear approach to time, as we shall see.

In his book The Myth of the Eternal Return, the Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade writes that the myth of cyclical time was “discernibly present in the earliest pre-Socratic speculations. Anaximander knows that all things are born and return to the apeiron. Empodocles conceives of the alternative supremacy of the two opposing principles philia [love] and neikos [strife] as explaining the eternal creations and destructions of the cosmos…The eternal conflagration is, as we have seen, also accepted by Heraclitus. As to the eternal return – the periodic resumption, by all beings, of their former lives – this is one of the few dogmas of which we know with some certainty that they formed a part of the primitive Pythagoreanism.”

In the mid-20th century the question of infinity was taken up but pioneers in the Logic. Most who contributed to this conversation were mathematicians. The English mathematician, John Wallis, was the first to use the notation for such a number. The German Georg Cantor formalized ideas related to infinity and infinite sets. In his theory, there are infinite sets of different sizes called cardinalities. For example, the set of integers is countably infinite, while the infinite set of real numbers is uncountable. Students often equate eternity and infinity, but these are different concepts. They have in common the idea of extension, with infinity referring to space and numbers, while eternity is unbounded and timeless.

In this second part of our study of Metaphysics we take up the subject of time and consider various theories of history. Philosophy concerns itself with the nature of time and history. It asks these questions:

  • Where should philosophers look to understand the nature of time? What is history? Is a linear account of events the only way to speak of events in time?

  • In thinking about time and history should we look at the lives of individuals or the whole human species? Should we consider nations or ethnicities?

  • Can we discern patterns or cycles of progress and decline, or is there no overall change in the condition and circumstances of humanity?

  • If history is progressing toward some end, what is the driving force or the material engine moving the progress?

Most views of history fall into the following categories: Cyclical, Static, Linear Progress, or Linear Decline.


There are different cyclical theories of history. The atomistic view holds that this world came into existence through the destruction or explosion of a previously existent world and that all matter is of one substance and was at one time condensed. In this view there is an eternal cycle of worlds giving birth to new worlds. This view is represented in the classical Greek philosopher, Democritus. In this view there are a limited number of souls and these souls are recycled (metempsychosis).

Spiral symbol cyclical time found on Proto-Saharan rock carvings

The mythical-religious view is concerned with ceremonial enactments that place the priest or shaman and his community in the eternal present (anamnesis). This often meant marking out sacred space within a circle or at the top of a mountain. It might also involve sacred time which was usually high noon, a time when there were no shadows. Among the ancient Habiru (Hebrew), the sacred center of space and time was the mountain top at high noon. Mircea Eliade explored the mythical-religious aspects of ancient peoples and their religious practices. He showed that archaic religious ceremonies were performed as reenactments of divine action (energeia), cosmological archetypes, or celestial patterns. In this view, human actions and rituals mirror what the universe tells us about God’s actions.

The political view holds that kingdoms and nations rise and fall depending on economic fortune and geographic location. The nations who have wealth must work to preserve it, but not at the expense of the average worker. Revolutions occur when wealth is not well distributed among the social classes, or when only a few control the means of production. Marx's dialectical materialism is cyclical, which is why he said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

The religious view, especially evident in Hinduism and Buddhism holds that time and matter cannot be escaped except by the most virtuous souls. All are caught in the cycle of reincarnation. Plato believed that there are a finite number of souls and at birth the human receives one of these eternal souls (metempsychosis), rather the way vital organs are harvested and transplanted from the dead.

Criticism of cyclical view: There is no way to prove the existence of previous worlds. More research is needed to establish the degree to which human history is determined or influenced by conscious or unconscious archetypes. A study of ancient civilizations suggests that kingdoms that achieve prominence and then decline are changed, so that we cannot speak of recovering former prominence or even of being the same society.


A static view of history maintains that nothing really changes as time moves because human nature is unchanging or immutable. A static view of history is represented by the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Plato viewed all things as reflections of Forms (Ideas). Nothing changes since the Forms are changeless. What we perceive as “change” is the Form in flux; so rain changing to snow or hail is not change, but flux, since both are reflections of the Form water, the essence of which is H2O and unchanging.

Criticism of static view: Human ingenuity has led to the invention of new things, things unimagined by archaic peoples. There is hope that human nature can be changed through religious conversion and transformation, or through education and social conditioning, or through biotechnology. Plato’s view speaks more about the function of Mind than Matter.

Linear Progress

Things improve with the passing of time. Modern technology is proof of human progress. Given more time, humans will evolve into a higher species and will invent even greater things. A variation on this idea is liberal ideology that through co-operation the nations of the world can achieve unity. The hope for human progress led to the establishment of the National Council of Churches and the United Nations.

Many Americans in the 1940s were hopeful that humans were becoming more humane and societies more just. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but instead it was the prelude to World War II. The atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor were sobering reminders that evil is not easily dismissed, that sin is not obsolete.

The 1950s was a time of optimisim in American. The economy was booming and new devices such as dishwashers, televisions and modern homes suggested that the future would be more comfortable, but with prosperity came other problems.

Criticism of linear view: Modern technology has led to more powerful weapons and more effective propaganda. These have been used to exterminate millions of people in ethnic and religious wars in spite of international co-operation.

Linear Decline

Things are gradually getting worse. Life used to be better or humans were once more noble. Rousseau held a romantic notion that in the state of nature humans are good but we have become corrupted by the influences of civilization.

Dispensational writers such as Hal Linsay and Tim LaHaye (Left Behind) believe that great tribulation is coming and great wickedness, but God will intervene when things get bad enough. Dispensationalists have even constructed a schedule of final world events using selected passages from the Bible. In this view, Noah’s flood was worldwide and represents one of many of God’s course corrections to human history.

Criticism of Linear Decline: While there is no doubt that civilizations decline, there is no evidence that humans are more evil today than they were in ancient times. The idea that history is spiraling toward a final universal destruction fits into this category, but when we add the element of a glorious new kingdom rising from the ashes, this theory can be moved to the cyclical category.

Hegel’s Dialectic

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) argued that history is a constant process of dialectic clashes (between “thesis” and “antithesis”) that result in a conjunction of the two (“synthesis”) to form something new. Hegel believed that this dialectic process was directed by God, though his idea of God was not that of Christians or Jews. The end of this process was to bring humanity to a civilized state.

Hegel built on the pre-Scocratic idea of conflict between opposites. (Remember the conflict between Love and Strife?) His dialectic has as its cause the energy of negativity. He believed that the natural impulse of people and civilizations is to develop by "successive gradations" toward freedom and toward higher logic. Thus understood," Hegel writes, "the dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress."

Hegel with his students in Berlin
Sketch by Franz Kugler

Hegel wrote, "Absolute knowledge... must not remain in its immediacy as an inner feeling or as a vague faith in an indefinite abstract being-in general, but must proceed to comprehend the Absolute in the mythical term 'God.' To know God is not above comprehension, but is above reason which is the knowledge of things finite and relative."

Hegel believed that the dialectical character of reality speaks of reaching beyond doubt to a vision of reconciliation of oppositions. He felt that his approach to understanding history makes for a more positive vision of the future.

Criticism of Hegel’s dialectic: The clashes of history are often multifaceted, involving factors that Hegel’s theory does not take into consideration. This view reflects 19th century optimism about human progress, an optimism that was greatly diminished by the events of WWI and WWII.

Marx’s Class Struggle

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) adapted Hegel’s dialectic to his political class struggle. For Marx, the continual struggle was between those who controlled the means of production and wealth and those who struggled daily to earn a living. Only as the workers of the world rose up and overthrew the oppressive capitalists could there be a new order: Communism. Marx believed that this dialectic process is a material mechanism that moves events in history.

Marx's view of progress, called "dialectical materialism" proposes that every economic order grows to a state of maximum efficiency, and at the same time develops internal contradictions and weaknesses that contribute to its decay. Through conscious acts those oppressed by the system can make history by rising up and establishing a new economic order.

Marx’s view of the world is materialistic. is He is not concerned about life after death, the soul, or questions concerning time,eternity and infinity. He sought a reform of western society through revolution, or the uprising of the working class. In his view, the welfare of the working class depends upon the perpetual overthrow of social, religious, political and economic structures that make protect the rich and oppress the poor. The Communist state is responsible for collection of wealth and resources and their distribution.

Criticism of Marx’s Dialectic: The experiment of Communism failed and the countries that comprised the former Soviet Union are rebuilding along capitalistic lines. Capitalism remains the best means of accumulating wealth and achieving a higher standard of living. Capitalism as an economic system is morally neutral. However, because humans are prone to greed, capitalism works best when restrained by just laws that prevent oppression of workers. Marx's view of human nature is to pessimistic. Adam Smith has a more realistic view in recognizing that humans want to amass wealth but also can feel sympathy for those who are without basic needs and often share from their abundance. 

Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Thomas Samuel Kuhn (1922 – June 17, 1996) wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962) that introduced an influential theory about how science progresses. Kuhn presented the idea that science does not progress gradually, but instead makes huge sudden leaps through periodic revolutions which he called “paradigm shifts.” According to Kuhn, science maintains stable growth until an individual who stands outside the discipline introduces a revolutionary new vision or solution. John Newton and Albert Einstein are examples of how discoveries and revolutions come about as a consequence of anomalies.

According to Kuhn, scientific revolutions result from epistemological shifts as scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within the scientific community.

Criticism of Kuhn: Stephen Toulmin (1970) argued against Kuhn’s theory, pointing out that not all breakthroughs in science are sudden anomalous visions. Some breakthroughs are more common and less dramatic than Kuhn proposes. The discovery of the structure of DNA came through prolonged steady investigation and the double-helical structure was not unexpected, yet it provided a mechanism for the duplication of genetic information that has enormous consequences for medical and biological research. In other words, steady scientific research can lead to quiet scientific revolutions without there being a dramatic paradigm shift.

Philosophy through time

We began our study of Metaphysics with a discussion about the "philosophical project" and how it moves forward. We concluded that the philosophical projects advances because humans are innately curious and ask questions about the world in which we live. Curiosity and questions are the basis for the natural sciences, mathematics and exploration.

Curiosity and skepticism go hand-in-hand. The curious often learn not to rush in without careful consideration. The archaic family seeking shelter would have been glad to find a cave, but did not enter it without first exploring to determine whether it was safe. It is likely that the cave was already inhabited by a bear or a lion. The exercise of skepticism is necessary for human survival.

On the most fundamental level, it is human curiosity that moves the philosophical project forward. There is also an element of truth in the Hegel's view that "…the dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress.” The dialectic is an ideological tug-o-war which strengthens muscles until one side wins. Galileo's observations caused him to reject the earlier view that the earth was the center of the solar system. The Western Church was forced to struggle with the new understanding and eventually accepted Galileo's view, changing his status from heretic to in 2008.

Curiosity and skepticism, when cultivated by a logically reasoning mind, can produce innovative thinking and recasting of former ideas. Another factor that stimulates creativity in the philosophical project is the tension between seemingly opposite ideas. The tug-o-war between Plato and Aristotle on the chief Good, or between essentialism and evolution on the question of change, drives the project. When the tension is lost, the project begins to lack vitality and can reach a dead end. Jacques Derrida claimed that this happened in Western philosophy with the abandonment of Plato's focus on the larger metaphysical questions. The dominance of Aristotelian thought, as a vestige of medieval Scholasticism contributed to this, as did modern materialism. (See Magee, pages 29-30).

Kuhn's understanding of paradigm shifts also has bearing on the development of philosophy through time. The great philosophers represent epistemological breakthroughs. Such is the case with Ludwig Wittgenstein who argued that family resemblance is not based on essence, but on function. We recognize all varieties of chairs because they have a common function, not a common essence. Some have arms, others do not. Some have backs, others do not. Some have legs, others do not. All have a flat surface upon which we may sit. This is not their essence, but their function.

The Biblical View

In the Bible we read that there will be a new heaven and earth (a new cosmos) and that Christ will rule over His eternal kingdom. St. Paul writes that the whole of the creation eagerly awaits and groans in anticipation of this day of the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-22). This cosmos will give way to an eternal kingdom over which Christ will rule forever. This is suggestive of a cyclical view or recapitulation; what the Early Church Fathers understood as the restoration of Paradise (recapitulation).

There is also the view that things were once better (Paradise) and turned bad with sin and death. In this view, which is an incomplete story, we have linear decline. However, the resurrection and second coming of Jesus Christ, completes the story. From linear decline comes linear progress. Imagine a vertical line pointing down and then turning upward.

Did Abraham's ancestors hold a linear view of time?

It is often repeated that the Jews were the first introduce the idea of linear history, which may be true, but Abraham and his ancestors were not Jews. Abraham's ancestors were Nilo-Saharans who held a cyclical view. This is evident in the deep analysis of the story cycles and couplets of Genesis.

We tend to read Genesis as a linear sequence, but upon closer examination we find a very different structure. It is one that Abraham and his ancestors would have recognized and they were not Jews. They were Nilotic peoples who tended toward binary tensions expressed in parallel accounts. The parallel stories highlight similarities such as the moral lapses of Noah and Lot while drunk. Noah's misbehavior led him to blame ("curse") his grandson. Lot's drunk state led to incest with his daughters.

Sometimes the parallel stories contrast the character of two figures, as in the accounts of Abraham and Isaac attempting to pass off their wives as their sisters. Sarah was Abraham's half-sister whereas Rebecca was Isaac's patrilineal cousin. In other words, Abraham did not lie and Isaac did.

Other parallel accounts include the two creation stories. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are parallel accounts from different traditions. The second story about the garden, the serpent, and the tree of life is older than the first story about the six days of creation.

Likewise, there are two flood accounts. In one we read that Noah was to save one pair of animals, a male and female, and in the other we read that he was to save seven pairs of "clean" animals.

This parallelism is not limited to the book of Genesis. It is found in the Psalms and throughout the Old Testament. Adam and Enoch are paralleled in Hebrew in Psalm 8:4. The story of Korah opposing Moses' authority has a parallel in the story of Sheba who opposed David's authority. In the end, both Korah and Sheba lost their lives.

The blood on the door posts in Egypt has a parallel in the story of the passover of Rahab and her family by the scarlet cord hung from the window.

The birth of twin boys to Rebekah has a match in the story of Tamar's twin sons.

The story of Sarah's miraculous conception of Isaac is paralleled by Hannah's conception of Samuel. In the New Testament, we find a parallel between Elizabeth's miraculous conception of John the Baptist and Mary's conception of the Son of God, to whom John would bear witness.

There are also parallel stories about cousin wives. Nahor, Abraham's older brother, married his cousin wife Milcah before ascending to the throne of his father, Terah. This happened before Abraham made his journey to the land of Canaan. However we are not told about Nahor's wife and children until after Sarah's burial.

Likewise, Abraham married his cousin wife before Sarah died, but Keturah is not mentioned until after Sarah's burial. This has lead people to assume that Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died. Instead we have parallel cousin-wife stories.

Abraham and all the Horite rulers listed in the Genesis "begats" had two wives. This was their custom. The first wife was a half-sister, as was Sarah to Abraham. The second wife was a patrilineal cousin or niece, as was Keturah to Abraham. This pattern describes Moses' wives also. His first wife was his Kushite half-sister and his second wife was his Midianite patrilineal cousin, Zipporah.

History is not told in a linear way in the Bible. Some events described took place around the same time. Between other events there are great gaps of time. This is not to say that Abraham's ancestors lacked a device for narrating events in a linear fashion. This was done through recounting the lists of rulers found in the Genesis “begats.” These are authentic king lists that establish that Noah lived before Nimrod and Nimrod before Abraham, etc. We can imagine a Nilotic story teller elaborating on the character of various rulers as is evident in Genesis 4:23, where we are told that Lamech bragged to his two wives. Another elaboration is found in Genesis 10:8-12 concerning the Kushite kingdom-builder Nimrod who was said to be a “mighty hunter.”

This is not to say that Abraham's ancestors lacked a device for narrating events in a linear fashion. This was done through recounting the lists of rulers found in the Genesis "begats." These are authentic king lists that establish that Noah lived before Nimrod and Nimrod before Abraham, etc. We can imagine a Nilotic story teller elaborating on the character of various rulers as is evident in Genesis 4:23, where we are told that Lamech bragged to his two wives. Another elaboration is found in Genesis 10:8-12 concerning the Kushite kingdom-builder Nimrod.

Related reading:  Early Metaphysics: Primal Substance and Cause; Theories of Change and ConstancyThe Experience and Perception of Time; Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida on Binary Oppositions; The Story of Ontology