left biblioblography: PROFILES IN ATHEISM - ANAXAGORAS

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Here's another noteworthy atheist: Anaxagoras.

From the Britannica:

"(born c. 500, Clazomenae, Anatolia-died c. 428 BC, Lampsacus) Greek philosopher. Though only a few fragments of his writings have survived, he is remembered for his cosmology and for his discovery of the true cause of eclipses. His cosmology grew out of the efforts of earlier pre-Socratics to explain the physical universe in terms of a single element. The most original aspect of his system was his doctrine of nous (“mind,” or “reason”), according to which the cosmos, including all living things, was created by mind in a process of attraction of “like to like”; mind also accounts for the power of living things to extract nourishment from surrounding substances."

From the Encyclopedia:

"c.500–428 B.C., Greek philosopher of Clazomenae. He is credited with having transferred the seat of philosophy to Athens. He was closely associated with many famous Athenians and is thought to have been the teacher of Socrates. His belief that the sun was a white-hot stone and that the moon was made of earth that reflected the sun's rays resulted in a charge of atheism and blasphemy, forcing him to flee to Lampsacus, where he died. Rejecting Empedocles' four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), Anaxagoras posits an infinity of particles, or “seeds,” each unique in its qualities. All natural objects are composed of particles having all sorts of qualities; a preponderance of similar though not identical particles creates the difference between wood and stone. Anaxagoras' universe, before separation, was an infinite, undifferentiated mass. The formation of the world was due to a rotary motion produced in this mass by an all-pervading mind (nous). This led to the separating out of the “seeds” and the formation of things. Although Anaxagoras was the first to give mind a place in the universe, he was criticized by both Plato and Aristotle for only conceiving of it as a mechanical cause rather than the originator of order."

And a snippet from the Wiki Entry:

"Cosmological theory

"All things have existed from the beginning. But originally they existed in infinitesimally small fragments of themselves, endless in number and inextricably combined. All things existed in this mass, but in a confused and indistinguishable form. There were the seeds (spermata) or miniatures of corn and flesh and gold in the primitive mixture; but these parts, of like nature with their wholes (the omoiomere of Aristotle), had to be eliminated from the complex mass before they could receive a definite name and character. Mind arranged the segregation of like from unlike; panta chremata en omou eita nous elthon auta diekosmese. This peculiar thing, called Mind (Nous), was no less illimitable than the chaotic mass, but, unlike the logos of Heraclitus, it stood pure and independent (mounos ef eoutou), a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same. This subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, is especially seen ruling in all the forms of life.

"Mind causes motion. It rotated the primitive mixture, starting in one corner or point, and gradually extended till it gave distinctness and reality to the aggregates of like parts, working something like a centrifuge, and eventually creating the known cosmos. But even after it had done its best, the original intermixture of things was not wholly overcome. No one thing in the world is ever abruptly separated, as by the blow of an axe, from the rest of things.

"It is noteworthy that Aristotle accuses Anaxagoras of failing to differentiate between nous and psyche, while Socrates (Plato, Phaedo, 98 B) objects that his nous is merely a deus ex machina to which he refuses to attribute design and knowledge.

"Anaxagoras proceeded to give some account of the stages in the process from original chaos to present arrangements. The division into cold mist and warm ether first broke the spell of confusion. With increasing cold, the former gave rise to water, earth and stones. The seeds of life which continued floating in the air were carried down with the rains and produced vegetation. Animals, including man, sprang from the warm and moist clay. If these things be so, then the evidence of the senses must be held in slight esteem. We seem to see things coming into being and passing from it; but reflection tells us that decease and growth only mean a new aggregation (sugkrisis) and disruption (diakrisis). Thus Anaxagoras distrusted the senses, and gave the preference to the conclusions of reflection. Thus he maintained that there must be blackness as well as whiteness in snow; how otherwise could it be turned into dark water?

"Anaxagoras marked a turning-point in the history of philosophy. With him speculation passes from the colonies of Greece to settle at Athens. By the theory of minute constituents of things, and his emphasis on mechanical processes in the formation of order, he paved the way for the atomic theory. However, his enunciation of the order that comes from an intelligent mind suggested the theory that nature is the work of design."

And finally:

Anaxagoras, the first undoubted theist, among the philosophers, was perhaps the first that ever was accused of atheism.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, Chapter IV

Hume claimed that the reason that Anaxagoras was accused of atheism was that he denied that stars, planets and other created objects were divine.

Ponder, muse, and get back to me.

Till the next post, then.

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Zac Hunter said...

It is pretty amazing how much of the language of the ancients and pre-socratics paved the way for contemporary physics.

Was Anaxagoras an atheist? Maybe in a contemporary sense that he didn't hold a belief in 'God' but clearly 'nous' qualifies as something beyond the pale of mere materialism.

Then again, I have always wondered if, as Aristotle touched upon in distinguishing nous from psyche, something like consciousness was the opposite of entropy. Even Einstein struggled with the problem of determinism. I am not trying to wax mystical about the the mind, but it is interesting if we look at consciousness as an ordering force versus entropy and physical determinism.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hey Zac. I just re-looked up the word 'nous', & came up w/this definition:
"Aristotle asserted that Nous was the intellect, as distinguished from sense perception. He divided it into an active and passive Nous. The passive is affected by knowledge. The active is an immortal first cause of all subsequent causes in the world."
Am unclear as to Aristotle's investment into an anthropic principle, but offhand I'd bet he was for it.
Determinism? I'll have to look into that, thanks.

beepbeepitsme said...

It is the evolution from astrology (the planets and stars as divine beings which have deliberate impact upon the lives of mortals) - to astronomy (the planets, stars etc NOT having minds or conscious will)- that is the interesting and probably less looked at part of human civilization.

The reason I think that it is least examined and analysed is because we will find the roots of our religious beliefs in the ancient study of astrology.

It took thousands of years before the planets, stars etc were seen NOT as gods, but as the creation of gods.

We are still primarily in the historical phrase where they do not represnt gods, but where they supposedly represent the WILL of one god.

Of course no one seems to be able to provide an adequate explanation as to why the gigantic universe needs to exist, if it was created by a god for human beings.

And one of the reasons they can't, is because when the concept of many divine powers changed to one divine power, they had absolutely NO idea of the magnitude of the universe.

The ancients recognized about 4 planets, the sun (which they didn't know was a star) and one moon. They recognized constellations such as gemini, pisces etc but these were patterns and shapes of divine beings. The stars were rays of light that shone through the "holes in the firmament."

It is only quite a modern idea that "the god mind" conducts its activities outside of time and space; outside the purvue of mankind. How convenient!

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hey, BBIM, that's effin' brilliant. You should do a post about that.
Astrology as the basis of religion.
I had to re-read the post to see where you got it (the Hume quote). I was, as always, fixated on the 'all things have existed from the beginning' portion myself.
Of course, I maintain that there wasn't a 'beginning' so to speak: our speciocentric minds posit such a thing.

mxracer652 said...

KA, just thought I'd stop by to explain my mangling of your handle. KRS-1 happens to be a socially conscious political rapper from the early days. Aka KRS-One, the pseudo-acronym stands for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody.

Since you're now Krys, I thought it to be quite fitting, at least it seemed that way when that junk ran through my mind....Carry on.

Sorry for the off topic, but I thought I should explain.

Krystalline Apostate said...

mxracer, that's okay, I didn't take it personally. I kinda figured the KRS-1 connection - it's actually quite the compliment.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE ka

Thanks for the encouragement.

And don't scare away my latest potential fundie troll too soon. They are rare these days and I do so enjoy hearing their blusterings ;)

Krystalline Apostate said...

And don't scare away my latest potential fundie troll too soon.
Oh my. I already laid 1 on Frances.
(every guy I've ever met named Frank LOATHES being called Frances - hehehehe)