God, Mathematics, and Intelligent Design in Antiquity

For the past few months, I’ve been engaged in some of the most fascinating and intensive research I’ve ever undertaken. A major element of my exploration has been the question: What did the great thinkers of Greco-Roman antiquity have to say about the nature of the cosmos, particularly the applicability of mathematics to the natural world? In canvassing mathematicians, engineers, philosophers, and theologians from Plato to the fall of Rome, I learned a great deal about the brilliance of these men and why Western thought is so indebted to them.

One figure that I found particularly interesting was Nicomachus of Gerasa (60-120 AD), a Neo-Pythagorean who was trained in mathematics and philosophy in Alexandria, the epicenter of scholarship and home of the most famous (but tragically ill-fated) library in history. He wrote an Introduction to Arithmetic that became enormously successful, enduring as a standard textbook for the remainder of Antiquity and (in Latin paraphrase) throughout the Middle Ages. He also penned an Introduction to Harmonics that still survives and an Introduction to Geometry and Life of Pythagoras that, sadly, have been lost.

Nicomachus was not a Christian, but in reading his work it is evident that he perceived intentional design in nature, and saw mathematics and philosophy as partners in illuminating higher truth about the world.

In Introduction to Arithmetic chapter three, he offers an elegant metaphysical statement on the mathematical nature of the intelligently-designed cosmos:

All that has by nature with systematic method been arranged in the universe seems both in part and as a whole to have been determined and ordered in accordance with number, by the forethought and the mind of him that created all things; for the pattern was fixed like a preliminary sketch, by the domination of number pre-existent in the mind of the world-creating God, number conceptual only and immaterial in every way, but at the same time the true and eternal essence, so that with reference to it, as to an artistic plan, should be created all these things, time, motion, the heavens, the stars, all sorts of revolutions.

If you are familiar with Plato’s Republic, you will notice the similarity of language.

This is such a fine example of how beautifully integrated higher learning was during that time. Scholars recognized and embraced the fact that the various branches of learning interact with one another, and believed that the philosophical and theological inferences that naturally flow from the sciences shouldn’t be omitted from academic discussion.

The Life of the Mind: Intensive Study as an Act of Worship

Georgetown University Professor Emeritus, Father James V. Schall, authored a marvelous book entitled The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking. Just the title was enough to give me shivers of anticipation when I first read it on a doctoral course syllabus. I had an inkling of the experience that awaited me, since previously, I had read Fr. Schall’s excellent work, The Order of Things. My expectations were exceeded, and The Life of the Mind is now on my top ten list of most recommended books.

Photo from my personal library--The Great Books of the Western World

Photo from my personal library–The Great Books of the Western World

In chapter 2, “Books and the Intellectual Life,” Fr. Schall discusses the importance of creating a bookish culture in the home—investing in a quality personal library (which he offers some guidance on) and thoroughly reading the books one owns with discernment and a spirit of eager desire for knowledge. “I think we ought also to read ceaselessly,” he says. “Reading, indeed, can itself be a form of prayer.”

Dozens of times I’ve been asked how I find the time to read and study as much as I do, and I usually give a very incomplete answer. “Oh, I don’t leave my house often, and I don’t watch much television.” Both are true, but the more important answer, the one I’ve been shy about articulating at any length, is that reading and intensive study are how I best worship. When I read Fr. Schall’s statement about reading being a form of prayer, I felt a great sense of affirmation.

Mind you, I’m not talking about Bible study in particular (though that is most certainly included). I experience a soul-state of worshipfulness when reading all sorts of things, from Pascal to Tolkien to Nicomachus to Shel Silverstein. Truth can be found in all kinds of literature! The early church fathers often talked about gathering God’s wisdom from far and wide, including from the works of non-Christian writers. Just as the Hebrews carried off the treasures of the Egyptians and used them to construct the Temple, so we are to seek and take truth from wherever we find it, pressing it into service for Christendom.

Basil the Great (329-379 A.D.), in his essay “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” uses a metaphor that I particularly love (because of the origin of my first name). He says we are like bees, testing flower after flower, taking only the sweet, quality nectar for our honey-making and leaving the rest behind.

So, yes, intellectual work is time and energy-consuming, but it is essential to cultivating a robust Christian mind. Why not begin thinking of reading and deep study as forms of worship? No one ever says, “Oh I just don’t have enough hours in the day to worship.” This is my encouragement to you, whether you have yet to embark upon the perilous but joyful journey of loving God with your mind, or if you simply needed a fresh perspective on that insatiable book obsession.

Academic and Former Atheist, Dr. Holly Ordway, on Fox News Tomorrow!


Hello faithful readers! Tomorrow morning at 8:20am Central, tune in to Fox and Friends to see an interview of my dear friend and HBU colleague, Dr. Holly Ordway. She will talk about her new book, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press), in which she recounts her journey to faith and later reception into the Roman Catholic Church.

Stay tuned for my review of her book. :-)

Join Me in Northern California October 10-11th

Dear Readers,

On October 10th and 11th, I’ll be giving two different lectures at the THRIVE conference in Roseville, California: “Bioethics: Making the Case for Life” and “Exploring Creation Models: The Science and the Scripture.” Both of my children’s apologetics books will be available in the resource sales area.

The plenary speakers for the weekend are Lee Strobel, Dr. Stephen Meyer, Dr. J.P. Moreland, and Dr. Craig Hazen. If it is feasible for you, I encourage you to join us for what promises to be a fantastic event!

Click the image below for details—>

Thrive

“Why I was Once an Atheist” –From Pastor Matt

Dear Readers,

I am now dwelling deep inside the cave of PhD work, up to my eyeballs in Plato and battling the balrog. I promise I’ll try to post a new article soon! But in the meantime, I encourage you to check out this fascinating piece by Pastor Matt. Here’s an excerpt:

Once I became confident that Christianity didn’t work and, therefore, God didn’t exist, I looked primarily to the work of Sigmund Freud to intellectually justify my atheism.  I argued those who believe in God do so only because they are afraid of death and the uncertainties of life, so they create a giant daddy in the sky that will take care of them.

When I received any push back from Christians, I would lob the typical accusations their way: “What about those who have never heard?” “Why is there evil in the world, especially natural evil?”

CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE READING

Blessings,

Melissa

Socrates Meets Descartes: A Fun Little Primer on Cartesian Philosophy

Descartes

Socrates Meets Descartes is part of Dr. Peter Kreeft’s Socrates Meets… book collection. If you are not already familiar with these popular-level philosophy books, I encourage you to consider them. Here’s the concept: Kreeft uses Socrates—the father of philosophy—as a mouthpiece to individually examine major philosophers of history through classic Socratic dialogue. This turns out to be a rather ingenious literary technique that is employed with both wit and wisdom.

In Socrates Meets Descartes: The Father of Philosophy Analyzes the Father of Modern Philosophy’s Discourse on Method, Socrates’ interlocutor is Rene Descartes. Kreeft arranges their imaginary meeting in Purgatory, where Descartes’ penance is defending his famous Discourse on Method in response to Socrates’ demanding critique. Descartes, the reader learns, set out to revolutionize philosophy by inventing a scientific method that could discern truths with certainty, even eliminate human warfare by providing the tools for intellectual conflict resolution. If everyone had a common set of data and tools (his method), they would be enabled to reach the same conclusions, he claimed. In fact, everything that can be known could, theoretically, be realized in this way. Descartes’ purpose in writing Discourse on Method was to introduce the world to his new science of philosophy. It was this work that contained the most famous statement in the history of philosophy: “I think, therefore I am.”

Socrates proceeds to examine each step in Descartes’ system, which first moves from universal doubt to certainty only of one’s self-existence, then to proof of God’s existence, and then the existence of the material world.  Socrates doesn’t pull any punches in his analysis of Descartes’ ideas. He extensively questions the hidden presuppositions of Descartes’ project and points out logical difficulties.  But Descartes has his moments, too. One fine example is when he roundly criticizes the ancient pagan philosophers “who discuss morals in very proud and magnificent palaces that are built on nothing but sand and mud” (83). Often, a difficulty isn’t fully resolved, and the two philosophers leave the reader with what they call a philosophical “loose end.” Sometimes it was a mild relief to abandon an increasingly tedious rabbit trail, but sometimes it was frustrating, such as when it happened at the end of Socrates’ evaluation of Descartes’ version of the ontological argument.

Kreeft packs a lot of value into this little volume, but manages to do so with clear language and a minimal amount of convoluted argumentation. In addition to learning the basic strengths and weaknesses of the Cartesian philosophy being scrutinized, the reader is exposed to a few rules of logical argumentation, some basics of ancient Greek thought (Plato’s Cave is explained, for example), relevant cultural context, and names of a few of Descartes’ key challengers and sympathizers. The dialogue is interspersed with comic relief, clever and corny—both appropriate to the spirit of the book.

I highly recommend Socrates Meets Descartes and believe it to be suitable for college undergraduates or adults just beginning a foray into philosophical study. It’s a wonderful stand-alone introduction to Descartes that would serve as a nice preliminary to research.