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Plato, Miracles, and the Reality of Matter

July 17, AD2017

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Plato realized that the intelligible is immaterial by identifying a fundamental difference between the intelligible and the material. The intelligible is universal, while the material is particular. The concept of dog is universal: it applies to all dogs, whatever might be the medley of particular properties possessed by each material dog. Plato proposed that there is a real world of universals or concepts, while what is material must be a mere reflection of reality. According to Plato, human intellectual knowledge is the recollection of prior knowledge of the real world of universals, occasioned by sensual experience.

“Platonic Materialism”

Plato’s student Aristotle solved the problem of explaining the compatibility of intellectual knowledge, which is universal, and sense knowledge, which is particular.

According to Aristotle, there is no Platonic real world of concepts. Materiality is an existential principle enabling the very existence of a universal nature in an individual composite consisting of substantial form and matter. Thereby, the material entity itself is intelligible in its form and possesses the medley of particular properties in its individuality due to its materiality. There can be no universal dog in itself. A dog, of its very nature, is material and can only exist due to its particular materiality.

According to Aristotle, all of human knowledge begins in one’s animal sensations. However, the human mind has the ability to abstract the intelligible principle from the sensual phantasm, such that the universal principle exists as a concept in the human mind.

Now one might think that today a Platonic real world of universal concepts, existing in itself, would be summarily dismissed as preposterous. Isn’t science viewed as the nitty-gritty of materiality, the only true human knowledge? Isn’t the predominant philosophy materialism, the belief that only the material exists? Wouldn’t “Platonic Materialism” be an oxymoron?

Matter and Concept

Ironically today’s materialism actually declares what really exists are the purely mathematical relationships or laws of physics, where what is material merely obeys these laws.

In the philosophy of cosmologist Sean Carroll, one fully defined universe is Newtonian space and time with a single elementary particle moving within it (see the 9:40 mark of the video). In this possible universe, an elementary particle is identical to its spatial locus at rest or the trail of its loci, if in motion. Thus, in this universe of pure materialism, not only are space and time solely intellectual concepts, but matter as the elementary particle is solely a mathematical concept. For Plato, matter was matter. For Sean Carroll, even matter is a concept. Carroll has one-upped Plato on a real world of universals where even matter is a concept.

However, it is not only this a priori universe of Sean Carroll that is void of anything but concepts. The universe in which we live consists solely of concepts. According to Carroll, what fundamentally exists in our universe are elementary particles in motion obeying the laws of physics of a non-Newtonian space and time. But are these elementary particles material? I would answer negatively. In Carroll’s universe, an elementary particle is nothing more than the sequence of points of its location in space and time; i.e., it is a mathematical function, which is nothing more than a concept, a mathematical definition.

Scientific Laws and Reality As a Concept

It is not only some avowed scientific materialists who de facto believe that our universe is solely conceptual, a non-material, Platonic reality. Every one of us flirts with a conceptual view of materiality when we refer to the Laws of Physics.

Aristotle observed that the human mind has the ability to abstract the nature or substantial form of a material entity from a sensual phantasm of it. A phantasm is the composite of all the sensations received from a material entity.

Analogously, the human mind infers mathematical relationships from the measurements of the properties of material entities. Because measurements are material activities, dependent upon the properties being measured, it should be evident that the mathematical relationships are human expressions of relationships inherent in the natures of the material entities.

When we refer to these mathematical relationships as scientific laws or the Laws of Physics, we come very close to yielding to the false connotation that the laws of physics are external to, and independent of, the natures of material entities. It is as if material things were being manipulated by external forces. It is as if the forces are sufficient in their own conceptual existence and are outside of the material natures being manipulated.

To counteract this false connotation, we should appreciate the fact that the properties of material entities are an expression of their very natures. Consequently, the laws of physics arise from within. However, the nature of a thing does not consist in the sum of its properties. If it did, our metaphysical natures would change as we matured from our youth. Even clipping one’s fingernails would result in a change of nature, if nature was the sum of one’s properties.

The Glorified Body of Christ

That the laws of physics and the other sciences arise from within the nature of an entity, provides a perspective for understanding miracles and the glorified body of Christ after his resurrection.

We often may view a miracle as outside of, or in suspension of, the laws of science. It is almost as if a miracle were a contradiction of the natures of material things. This comes very close to viewing a miracle as a self-contradiction. However, we know that God cannot contradict Himself or create a material contradiction. A miracle does not do violence to the natures’ of things as God has created them.

Education and maturation through puberty enhance the nature of a human without changing the humanness of the individual. So too a material miracle can be the enhancement of the nature of a material entity without changing the nature of the entity. Because the laws of physics and the other sciences are expressions of the natures of things and are not self-existent and externally imposed, a miracle is not a suspension of scientific laws.

In explaining the properties of the resurrected body of Christ, Stacey Trasancos recently wrote:

As we would say in modern scientific terminology, the glorified body is not subject to the forces and laws of physics and chemistry. Human bodies, made of the elements on the periodic table, belong to rational souls. Although our powers of intellect and will give us control over what our bodies do — we can smile, wave, wear our favorite color, or read a book — our bodies are still subject to the natural order.

This comes close to externalizing the very nature of an entity. However, the nature of a thing cannot be divorced from itself.

Manifestations of Enhanced Nature

A perspective which breaks no laws is one in which the nature of the resurrected and glorified human body is an enhanced version of the non-glorified body. It is capable of doing other than what a non-glorified body can do. Without the enhancement of glorification, the activities of our bodies imply the mathematical relationships which we label the laws of science. With the enhancement of glorification, the human body expresses itself differently from the ways we label the laws of science.

In no way can it be said that the laws of nature are suspended or violated by the enhanced nature of a glorified human body. The inherent nature of an entity cannot be divorced from itself. The laws of science are human expressions of the inherent natures of things as those unenhanced natures are evidenced by their current properties.

Even without a miracle or glorification, we see material enhancement in the expression of nature in human maturation. Accordingly, we should avoid stating that miracles or actions of glorified human bodies are instances where material entities are not subject to the Laws of Physics or to a natural order. Such subjection implies that material things are ruled by Platonic forces external to the natures of material entities. Rather, the properties of material things which we call the Laws of Physics and the natural order are manifestations of the very natures of those material things, while properties of material things elevated to a miraculous or glorified status are manifestations of their enhanced natures.

Summary

Let us avoid even touching our toes into the waters of Platonic “Materialism”, where even matter is a mathematical concept. Let us avoid misconstruing the Laws of Science as self-existing concepts external to the natures of material entities and forcing the obedience of those material entities.

Similar to the Laws of Physics, the Ten Commandments are not autonomous laws external to and imposed upon us. Rather, they express and illuminate our human nature in those areas that are under human intellectual and volitional control.

We are not angels. It is matter, the existential principle of individuation, which makes possible the very existence of each one of us. “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Bob Drury is retired. He has been fascinated with the reasonableness of the Faith since his junior year in high school in the mid-20th century for which the religion text was entitled, "Faith and Reason". That fascination has continued throughout his education in philosophy, math and science. In his essays he hopes to share that fascination with others. Read more at his website, They Have No Wine.

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