Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, Ph.D.

From: JASA 11 (March 1959): 24-25.

For this Issue I have requested Professor John W. Sanderson to take the column. Professor Sanderson is on leave of absence from the Covenant Theological Seminary, where he taught apologetics, in order to complete work for the doctorate in philosophy. At present Mr. Sanderson is also serving as special lecturer in practical theology at the Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.

The Contribution of Plotinus to Scientific Thought 

The scientist, already wary of the philosopher and jealous of his sovereignty as a scientist in his own domain, will no doubt cast a doubtful glance at the title of this article, reach for the nearby pen, and send off a letter of protest to the editor: "Why clutter up a magazine devoted to science with an article on that miso-somatic of antiquity, Plotinus?" The protest in part well-founded. "Plotinus, the philosopher contemporary, seemed ashamed of being in the So deeply rooted was this feeling that he could ne be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or birthplace." So Porphyry began his frustratingly meagre account of Plotinus' life. Would such a have any interest in, or ever say anything pertinent scientific pursuits ?

On the other hand, Plotinus' interest in the science of his day, if we measure it by the number of extant treatises on scientific subjects, was considerable. Of the 54 articles of varying length which comprise the "canon" of Plotinus, eighteen were grouped together by Porphyry to constitute the second and third Enneads because they were "disquisitions on the world and all that belongs to the world" and they discuss "the philosophical implications of some of its features." These tractates deal with astronomy, physics, optics, fate and providence, time and eternity, and the origin of man. If we include ancient psychology among the sciences, we may properly designate the fourth Ennead as scientific since it is Porphyry's grouping of his treatises on the soul. Some of these were written in the middle period of Plotinus' life when, Porphyry says, he displayed the "utmost reach of his powers" and treatises then written attained the highest perfection.

All of this might indicate that for one to rej ect science, one must become a scientist! But Plotinus, for all his mysticism, was concerned with many details of our present life and his statements about the world above are not based on his experiences of it but on a process of reasoning which takes this world as the starting-point. A mystical experience is not is substitute for observation and reflection.

Although the details of Plotinus' science have little interest for the scientist of today, some of his insights are remarkable for their similarity to modern theories. Plotinus, in opposition to Aristotle, believed that light needed no medium for its transmission. He asserted this (IV,5) because the assumption of an intervening vehicle necessary to the transmission of light leads to problems: if air, for example, is the vehicle, then the source of light activates the air next to it, and this air in turn excites the portion next, and so on until the eye is illuminated by being stimulated by the air contiguous to it; but this means that the eye perceives not the light or an illumined object, but the air! Moreover, the above explanation is based on the theory that light is transmitted by touching; but if we touch the eye with an object, sight does not result; rather, the eye sees nothing. Light then needs no medium to travel in.

Plotinus rejected the materialism of his day, and developed a theory of matter which makes it almost immaterial (IV,7). The Stoics made gods, the soul- everything, material. Plotinus argued against them as follows: if both soul and body are material, then each is divisible into the same elements; but these cannot be alive since matter is inert. How then can a combination of them be alive? Moreover if "life" is in a certain arrangement of material things, what principle arranged them?

In his own theory of matter (11,4 and 111,6) Plotinus used the term for a mere abstraction, not really material; this "something" underlies all physical objects and is acted upon by forms and agents; no quality or quantity can be predicated of it; it is nowhere; it is even "unembodied." Dean Inge thinks that this concept anticipates some modern theories of matter which reduce it to energy or to indivisible points of which nothing can really be predicated.

If we are to find an abiding contribution to science, we must look for it in Plotinus' place in the history of thought in general, and in the progress of scientific thought in particular. The current tendency of the philosophers who are studying Middle- and Neo-Platonism is to reject the suggestion that Plotinus was greatly influenced by oriental religions. Instead his system is viewed as a logical development within the Greek tradition itself. Writes Paul Henry: "Heir to the great philosophies of the ancient world ' those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, he borrowed from all of them the insights which he needed, but without surrendering at any point the dominant influence of Platonism."

If this is so, then it is not unreasonable to infer that an impersonal universe is the end-product of Greek philosophy. Above and beyond even the world of the changeless, is the One, completely unknowable and self-contained. In fact, the One does not "exist". Plotinus says, "Generative of all, the One is none of all; neither thing nor quantity nor quality nor intellect nor soul; not in motion, not at rest, not in place, not in time: it is the self-defined, unique in form, or, better, formless, existing before Form was, or Movement or Rest, all of which are attachments of Being and make Being the manifold it is" (VI,9). This is the object of Plotinus' worship. Such a One lies at the end of any search which leaves out of it the living God.

But on the positive side of things, Plotinus had a salutary influence on the history of thought at the time of the Renaissance. Writes Henry: "He is a precursor of modern times . . . The Renaissance, in the person of Marsilio Ficino, rediscovered his works and was enthralled by his teaching." In particular, it was the neo-Platonism of Plotinus which inspired Giordano Bruno when the latter forsook the narrow limits of the universe assigned to it by Aristotle, and allowed his imagination to carry him off into the limitless space of which the modem astronomer speaks so much. And if this insight seems insignificant in itself, it should be noted that this thought, as much as any other, led to the rejection of Aristotle's world and prepared for the world as Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus were to see it. 

Westminster Theological Seminary Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia 18, Pa. January 27, 1959.