Thursday, June 7, 2012

Plato Bridges the Big Bang & Genesis

Plato's Timaeus contains a description of the origin of the universe that was much discussed in the Middle Ages. For Plato (or for Socrates, the speaker), all that exists began as a formless chaos, with all elements mixed. Understanding that effects have a cause, he postulates a force he names the Demiurge that acts upon the chaos and gives it shapes that conform to ideal forms that exist in the Demiurge's "mind." He further explains that, for him, each minutest particle of an element had a regular shape. He uses geometric forms:
  • Fire = Tetrahedron
  • Earth = Cube
  • Air = Octahedron
  • Water = Icosahedron
Some have noticed that his description of the origin of the universe seems to anticipate the Big Bang Theory; Mohr and Sattler go into more detail in One Book, The Whole Universe: Plato's Timaeus Today.

The Middle Ages, however, had its own version of the origin of everything to which it compared Plato. St. Ambrose (c.340-397) considered the differences between Plato and Genesis to be Plato's "errors." Ambrose's student, St. Augustine, however, embraces the similarities, specially appreciating Plato's contention that, since the world around us seems pretty good to us, it must be because the Demiurge was determined to make a world that was as good as it could be. The growing field of philosophy found more and more use for Plato in developing a "modern" world view.

Of course not all of Plato was palatable to all later thinkers. Plato tells us that the Demiurge:
  • Made the world into the shape of a globe, the ideal shape to encompass all other forms.
  • Imparted circular movement to the world, as the most uniform and suited to an ideal shape.
  • Created the soul of the world, linking all things on the earth with each other.
But even later ages would learn to appreciate the idea of the Earth as a globe, that it rotates on its axis, and that the Earth is a complex ecosystem of interlocking parts. Not too shabby.

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