How to Explain the Universe

Unlike the Christians, early ancient Greeks did not have the catalyst of inspired and written truth in order to form a tangible view of reality. For the Greek, the universe only had two options: either it was at bottom chaotic or it was orderly. Of course it is easy to notice that a chaotic world is one where chance events do not produce or attribute a particular or general meaning to the universe altogether. In the words of J. M. Reynolds, “In a chaotic world, there is no ultimate reason for anything. There is no design, no plan” (J. M. Reynolds, “When Athens Met Jerusalem“; cp. 2009, p. 25).

This unfortunately was the case for the mythology as seen in Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. “Before philosophy, Greek religion bought into this realism born of despair that had no end” (Ibid. p. 25). The gods of Homer and Hesiod were by no means understood as say, a Christian or Islamic vision of divinity. Hesiod’s gods were utterly selfish and unjust – rape, power, lust, selfishness, and so on. Homer’s gods were more along the lines of using humans as their own “chance play-toys.” Though the sympathetic hero in the Illiad, Hector, fought courageously to maintain the fate of his city Troy, Homer leaves us with the message of futility – Hector loves his family and his city, but he will die, along with his home.

These were well known mythologies to the Greeks at this time during the sixth century B.C.E or so. They had been brought up to worship Greek Gods like Zeus, Apollo, and Aphrodite. Interestingly, these early Western philosophers (who were Greeks) didn’t live on the mainland of Greece, but on the southern coasts of Italy and on the Western coast of what is now Turkey (continue reading for discussion of the Milesian philosophers).

These first philosophers tried to free the Greek culture from the mythology of Homer and Hesiod that contended the universe was chaotic bottom up; but rather they suggested, the universe was rational and orderly. We then take our discussion to who is considered to be the first philosopher Thales of Miletus (Greek Asia). There has been of course, other philosophers before Thales [e.g. Pythagoras], but Thales is considered to be the first natural philosopher, or physicist (the Greek word for ‘nature’ is ‘physis‘).

I will not focus an exposition on Thales here, but a brief passing comment of Thales and the nature of the discourse these early Milesian (or Ionian) philosophers took are important for understanding the “explanation” of the universe.


  • Who Was Thales?

The beginning of philosophy has been said to have taken place on 585 B.C. where the natural philosopher Thales of Miletus predicted a solar eclipse. This event began Thales’s search for an arche, or foundational point, that the universe is uniform or rational in some kind of way. The merit of this search was to show that myths, according to Thales, are by their very nature local explanations of peculiar events or objects. Such as for instance an explanation for an event or object (e.g. say, a mountain) could not sufficiently extend itself as a universal explanation for all other objects/events (e.g. other mountains). A comment made by Reynolds is needed for my point:

“Rational reasons can be applied in more than one circumstance. They are simple and comprehensive. Thales wanted just this sort of explanation.” (Ibid. p. 30)

Let us go then to a more demonstrative discussion about these Ionian philosophers. It has been wrongfully suggested that these early Ionians were in and of their own right naturalists – the belief that nothing exists other than physical matter. This is an idea wrongfully used in Stephen Hawking’s recent book, “The Grand Design” (cp. 2010, pgs. 18-23; Bantam Books). The debate between naturalistic interpretations of nature and mythology however, existed in the writings of the pre-Socratics and the Socratics. Most interestingly however, let us examine a good example from Aristophanes’s comedic work, “The Clouds“:

  • Strepsiades: Oh, earth! what a sound, how august and profound! it fills me with wonder and awe.
  • Socrates: (referring to the Clouds) These, these then alone, for true deities own, the rest are all god-ships of straw.
  • Strepsiades: Let Zeus be left out: He’s a God beyond doubt; come, that you can scarcely deny.
  • Socr: Zeus indeed! there’s no Zeus: don’t you be so obtuse.
  • Streps: No Zeus up above in the sky? Then you must first explain, who it is sends the rain; or I really must think you are wrong.
  • Socr: Well then, be it known, these send it alone: I can prove it by argument strong. Was there ever a shower seen to fall in an hour when the sky was all cloudless and blue? Yet on a fine day, when the clouds are away, he might send one according to you.
  • Streps: Well, it must be confessed, that chimes in with the rest: your words I am forced to believe. Yet before I had dreamed that the rain water streamed from Zeus and his chamber-pot sieve. But whence then, my friend, does the thunder descend? That it makes us quake with affright?
  • Socr: Why, ’tis they I declare, as they roll through the air.
  • Streps: What the clouds? did I hear you aright?
  • Socr: Ay: for when to the brim filled with water they swim, by Necessity carried along. They are hung up on high in the vault of the sky, and so by Necessity strong in the midst of their course, they clash with great force, and thunder away without end.
  • Streps: But is it not He who compels this to be? does not Zeus this Necessity end?
  • Socr: No Zeus have we there, but a vortex of air.

With all comedy aside, the above passage provides us with good insight into the debate between the explanations offered from natural disciplines (i.e. natural philosophy) and that of religious mythologies. James Thrower in his short volume, “Western Atheism” (2000), writes in this regard:

Our interest is in the issue of natural as against mythological explanations of natural phenomena… [Aristophanes] brings out well the type of explanation in terms physical causes operating according to necessity which the new philosophy of nature was putting forward in opposition to the explanations of the traditional religious mythology. (“Western Atheism: A Short History”; cp. 2000, p. 26-27; Promotheus Books)


  • Beginning Our Discussion of Explanations

The above quote by Thrower provides us with the proper gateway to which I would like to now address. Though we may have the natural explanations to particular states of affairs about natural cycles, physical operations and even rainy days, Socrates still finds himself dissatisfied with these sort of explanations. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates says to a curious Cebes, “When I was young, Cebes, I had a prodigious desire to know what department of philosophy which is called Natural Sciences; this appeared to me to have lofty aims, as being the science which has to do with the cause of things, and which teaches a thing why a thing is, and is created and destroyed; and I was always agitating myself with the consideration of such questions…” (“Phaedo“; p. 90, Harvard Classics)

This leads me to the explanations by which we must attribute to the universe. In Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) Argument From Contingency, we are given the following premises:

  • Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  • If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  • The universe exists.
  • Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1 and 3)
  • Therefore, the explanation of the universe is God. (from 2 and 4)

It must first be understood what Leibniz means by an “explanation.” According to Leibniz there are two kinds of things: (a) things that exist necessarily and (b) things that rely on something other than itself for its existence (i.e. contingent beings). The argument asserts that the universe does not have property (a): the universe exists necessarily, but rather, property (b). William Lane Craig expounds:

Things that exist necessarily exist by a necessity of their own nature. It belongs to their very nature to exist. Things that exist contingently can fail to exist and so need an external cause to explain why they do in fact exist. (W. L. Craig, “On Guard”; cp. 2010, p. 55)

Thus, we can expound on Leibniz’s premise (1) as such:

  • Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.

In regards to an explanation of the universe, we are still left naked with what kind of explanation could be offered for such a phenomenon as the universe. Anaxagoras may have appeased to a degree what Socrates was looking for in terms of the “why” questions about the universe (see Phaedo, Harvard Classics; p. 91 – Socrates further says, “Then I heard someone who had a book of Anaxagoras, as he said, out of which he read that mind was the disposer and cause of all, and I was quite delighted at the notion of this, which appeared admirable…” Later he says, “And I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I had desired…” Ibid. p. 91).

Rightfully then as J. Thrower comments, “The point I take it of what Socrates is saying is that a causal explanation along the lines offered by physical philosophers is a limited explanation and does nothing to satisfy those who are asking other and different questions; who are asking for an explanation in terms of meaning and purpose; who are asking, as Socrates himself expresses it, for reasons rather than causes, and for what Aristotle was later to call the final cause of the workings of things.” (“Western Atheism”; cp. 2000, p. 28).


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