Monday, February 8, 2010

Lucretius and Naturalism

Did I mention that I'm in a class on the History and Philosophy of Atheism (at Kilns College)? Well, I am, and today I want to post about the first reading. Our text for the course is The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. These essential readings are selected and introduced by New Atheist Christopher Hitchens, and promise to provide good fodder for any Christian apologist-blogger. In today's post, I'll identify two sets of problems, one in the reading (by Lucretius) and one in Hitchens' introduction to it.

Lucretius was an ancient Greek naturalist; he lived in the early 1st century BC and (following Leucippus) promoted atomism, the view that in our day would be called naturalism. He rejected the pantheism of the Greek and Roman worlds of his day, pointing out that what those pagans credited to the acts of the gods could be better explained as the result of natural laws.

I find Hitchens' inclusion of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura intriguing for at least three reasons.

First, the entire project of the ancient atomists depended upon our universe being infinite as regards both space and time, a claim that Lucretius is at pains to make (though not to support). This idea was likewise foundational to Darwin's 19th-century theory and remains (logically) foundational to modern atheism. Unfortunately--for Hitchens and his ilk (Richard Dawkins admits that his opponents have accused him of being stuck in 19th-century science and further admits that he doesn't know what they're talking about)--20th century science has convincingly refuted this foundational assumption. For most scientists, philosophers of science, and historians of science, the greatest discovery of the last 100 years was the recognition that all of the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe had a beginning a finite time ago. The universe began--it is finite with regard to both space and time. Lucretius and Epicurus were wrong on this basic score, as were Kant and Darwin. I am left wondering whether Hitchens and Dawkins fail to realize the implications (for metaphysical naturalism) or are simply in denial of the evidence.

Second, Lucretius also makes clear that living things reproduce after their kind, that there is a continuity of reproduction. This idea--known to the ancient Greeks--passed out of knowledge in the Western world, and throughout the Middle Ages, educated people believed (what Homer, writing in the 8th century BC, knew to be false) that life was spontaneously generated (as maggots from rotten meat). Some would argue that modern biology began when Francesco Redi disproved spontaneous generation (at least with regard to worms in meat). Geneticist Giuseppi Sermonti, discussing the later refutation of spontaneous generation by Pasteur (with regard to bacteria), writes
Biology has advanced in status with every new refutation of the spontaneous generation thesis.
And yet, modern disciples of Darwin (like Hitchens and Dawkins) continue--contrary to all the evidence and reason--to steadfastly maintain the spontaneous generation of life from non-life.

The third problem has to do with the history of science, and seems to betray a further weakness in Hitchens' understanding. I take it that Hitchens approves of Lucretius' essay as an ancient articulation of the superiority of a reasoned appeal to natural law over a superstitious appeal to acts of the gods. But while Lucretius was right in this particular, this stands as an argument against polytheism and pantheism, but not against Christian monotheism. That is, if Hitchens' book is meant to be an argument for atheism as over against Christianity, then De Rerum Natura misses the point. More importantly, however, it was Christians--not atheists--who agreed with Lucretius, saw the world as following natural laws, and thus established (in the 16th and 17th centuries) modern science.

As glaring as are these problems in De Rerum Natura itself, there's an arguably bigger problem with Hitchens' introduction to it. Having established that Lucretius' atomism was a superior, more reasoned understanding of the world (than the religious superstitions of that day), he writes,
Atomism was viciously persecuted as heresy throughout the early Christian era, and only one printed manuscript of De Rerum Naturum survived the flames.
What is one to make of such a statement? Is it revisionist history foisted on us by someone for whom the ends (turning readers into unbelievers) justifies the means (making up history)? To be sure, atomism didn't carry the day, and the Greeks and Romans continued to worship their pantheons of gods. But there was no persecution of the ancient Greek naturalists. (Lucretius may have committed suicide, but if so it appears to be a direct consequence of his disbelief in an afterlife, and not because of any contemporary reaction against his views.) There is no evidence that atomist books were burned; the reason such books did not survive is because they were written on papyrus or animal skins, and the same fate faced every ancient writing regardless of its metaphysical claims.

But more importantly, why does Hitchens refer to the 'early Christian era' if not to wrongfully impugn Christians? Throughout the early Christian era, Christians were too busy being persecuted themselves to persecute others. They were themselves being burned at the stake and not burning obscure books about natural philosophy. Even when--much later in church history--Christians did turn their attention to the subjects of orthodoxy and heresy, the issues that captured their attention for several centuries had to do with the nature of the trinity and the deity/humanity of Christ, not what a minor sector of dead Greek poets had written.

Coming as it does in the introduction to the very first selection in his book, this statement by Hitchens raises a bright red flag. At best, it highlights either gross ignorance about or willing gullibility regarding the issues about which he writes. At worst, it stamps him at the outset as disingenuous or downright deceiving and his book as a skewed polemic rather than an honest search for truth.


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Anonymous said...

Great post on Lucretius. I am Christian, and yet find Lucretius' work to be as you say it is - a reasoned argument against the polytheistic religion of his day. And as far as writing goes, his skill at description and vivid imagery is unsurpassed.