Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity by David Sedley. University of California Press, 2009, paper.


The world seems to be configured in ways hospitable to life forms. Is this the outcome of divine planning or an accident? Creationism — the argument that the world’s structure and contents can be adequately explained only by postulating an intelligent designer, creator god, was favored by the classical world. Greek and Roman creationists differed amongst themselves over the mechanisms that the creator used, or at least had at his disposal. Critics of these Ancient creationists argued that the origins of life could be explained as the outcome of chance occurrences or accidents, made possible by the infinity of space and matter.


David Sedley cautions the reader that this debate is unlike the present-day dispute between creationists and scientists. Fundamentalists base their beliefs about the origins of the world on the several creation stories in ancient Hebrew texts; scientists on deductions from their accumulated observations of nature. Neither view was held by ancient creationists nor their critics.


Sedley doesn’t discuss the creationist stories told by the ancient Israelites. They differed from the Greek in numerous ways. For example, the Israelite tradition has Yahweh creating the world out of nothing. The Greek metaphor for the creator god was that of the craftsman, or sculptor, fashioning the world out of existing space and matter.


Classical creationists most often held an anthropocentric view of creation. A benevolent god had created plants and “lower’ animals to serve the needs of humans, an idea not too unlike the Hebrew tradition of Yahweh giving humans “dominion” over His creation. Plato, for example, talks about the creator’s goodness. Their critics asked: How, then, does one explain aspects of this created world that were not beneficial to mankind? Man-eating-beasts, volcanoes, earthquakes?


The origins of natural phenomena were not the focus of creationist speculation. Rather they thought in terms of ends or goals, intentions or purposes.


There were, Plato believed, several episodes of creation. First a divine creator or demiurge fashioned the material world. And that materiality was subsequently infused with a world soul. Did Plato actually believe in the mythological artifice he invoked, the author asks? Sedley compares Plato’s use of myth to John Locke’s social contract; social and moral relations are fundamentally contractual. But Locke did not believe that there was an actual written or verbal contract in the historical past. True also of Plato’s creationism?


Classical notions of creation were imbedded in a rich philosophical tradition. For example, the Greeks were fond of the idea of symmetry. That raised the question, could the cosmos have had a beginning but no end? Restoring that symmetry meant that there could be no beginning, no time when there wasn’t space or matter. Or, one could hypothesize, no end, which for the Ancients, was also a problem.


The Greeks and Romans never came up with the idea of a creator god who then left his creation to run by itself. This is a much younger metaphor. A divine craftsman fashioned a clock-like world, wound its spring, and subsequently had no power -or chose not – to interfere in the working out of his creation.


The classical world also never came up with the idea that one species evolved out of another, a key notion in evolutionary biology in the nineteenth century and since. However, some Epicureans came close to the idea of adaptation through natural selection that would involve extinctions and survivals.


Creationists had difficulty explaining why it was that the rich fossil record of the Mediterranean world revealed creatures no longer present in their age. Why would a divine creator have created anything that was so imperfect that it perished? Or were these creatures still to be found in some corner of the earth?


David Sedley has woven together various ideas and movements from Greek cosmology and natural history that demonstrate a diversity of views over several centuries. It was a genteel discourse. Not as much was at stake as would be the case in the Christian west in a later age.

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