Monday, August 22, 2016

Reading #17: John Philoponus: Against the Eternity of the World

John Philoponus: Against the Eternity of the World

John Philoponus lived, studied, and taught in Alexandria in the 6th century.  At that time Alexandria was the pinnacle of academic learning, and Christians and non-Christians argued about beliefs central to each worldview such as the eternity of the world.  He is well known for his arguments against Aristotle and the eternity of the world. Below is a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy where his argument against the eternity of the world is summarized.

1.  Why do Christians believe that the world had a beginning, or is not eternal?
2.  Why do thinkers like Aristotle and Plato believe, or assume, that the world is eternal?  How does this affect their definition and understanding of "God."
3.  John Philoponus does not address every individual eternalist but instead addresses their claims in kind.  How does he do this?  Apply his argument to contemporary eternalists.  
4.  What are the implications for Christianity if: 1) the world is eternal (without beginning) or 2) we cannot know if the world is eternal or created?
5.  Why are eternity and divinity connected so that if the stars are eternal, they are also divine?
6.  Can you give his argument that the world is not eternal?  His argument against a divine 5th element?  Can you find correlations to this 5th element in contemporary eternalists?
7.  Summarize the method of John Philoponus in respect to reason and thinkers like Aristotle.

Summary of his argument from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Philoponus' battle against eternalism may be divided into three stages. The treatise Against Proclusis followed by a second and even more provocative publication, On the Eternity of the World against Aristotle. This work was published c. 530-534 and involved a close scrutiny of the first chapters of Aristotle's On the Heavens (his theory of ether as the fifth element, of which the heavenly bodies are made) and the eighth book of the Physics (arguing for the eternity of time and motion). The third stage is represented by one, perhaps two, non-polemical treatises that have survived in fragments which indicate that numerous arguments against eternity and for creation were arranged in some kind of systematic order.Like the polemic against Proclus, Against Aristotle is mainly devoted to removing obstacles for the creationist. If Aristotle were right about the existence of an immutable fifth element (ether) in the celestial region, and if he were right about motion and time being eternal, any belief in creation would surely be unwarranted. Philoponus succeeds in pointing to numerous contradictions, inconsistencies, fallacies and improbable assumptions in Aristotle's philosophy of nature relating to these claims. Dissecting Aristotle's texts in an unprecedented way, he time and again turns the tables on Aristotle and so paves the way for demonstrative arguments for non-eternity. One such argument is reported by Simplicius (In Phys. 1178,7-1179,26 = Contra Aristotelem, Fr. 132). It relies on three premises: (1) If the existence of something requires the preexistence of something else, then the first thing will not come to be without the prior existence of the second. (2) An infinite number cannot exist in actuality, nor be traversed in counting, nor be increased. (3) Something cannot come into being if its existence requires the preexistence of an infinite number of other things, one arising out of the other. From these not at all un-Aristotelian premises Philoponus deduces that the conception of a temporally infinite universe, understood as a successive causal chain, is impossible. The celestial spheres of Aristotelian theory have different periods of revolution, and in any given number of years they undergo different numbers of revolutions, some larger than others. The assumption of their motion having gone on for all eternity leads to the conclusion that infinity can be increased, even multiplied, which Aristotle too held to be absurd.
The non-polemical anti-eternalist treatises exploit, among others, Aristotle's argument that an infinite power or potentiality (dúnamis) cannot reside in a finite body (Phys. VIII 10). Philoponus infers that since the universe is a finite body, it cannot have the dúnamis to exist for an infinite time. As in the case of his theory of light, this argument involves a shift of meaning. In the context of Aristotle's argument in Phys. VIII 10, dúnamis meant ‘kinetic force’; Philoponus uses the word in the sense of ‘existential capacity’ or ‘fitness to exist’.