Design or Chance? - Plato's "Philebus" paragraphs 28b - 30d

Philebus, 28b - 30d

Some Background to Plato's Philosophical Beliefs

One of the central questions that Plato dealt with was the central question that was held over from the Pre-Socratics. The question centered around the fundamental dichotomy in nature between the process of change that always goes on around us, and the unchanging identity which survives over time which our rational minds can recognize. For example, Theseus' famous ship. In one sense, as the ship ages, each of the wooden boards on the ship is replaced one by one. Yet in another sense, our mind recognizes that there is an identity in that ship which has survived its physical changes ... it's still Theseus' ship after all. 

For Plato, the identity in things which the mind recognizes isn't something material, because only material things change, corrupt, and have parts. Identities understood by the mind in the form of ideas can never change, corrupt, or be broken apart like physical things. Thus, the mind and the identity it perceives in things exists participates in a higher realm or form of existence which is not subject to decay. It is also this realm of identities that must, then, be the source of intelligibility in things. The mind understands that there is a higher level pattern or design that exists across many physical things, something which Plato is going to argue to be absurd to explain by "the guidance of unreason" or "change medley." Thus, that which is most real to the universe as its cause is an ultimate mind which is the source of the identity, or immaterial pattern, in things. If this mind can be seen in the design of lower animals and creatures, then certainly it can be seen in the cosmos together as a living whole which produces and nourishes every lower creature. That, then, is the subject of this part of Plato's work Philebus

Socrates and Protarchus Talk 

Socrates begins with a basic, but universal, human question to Protarchus ... Is the universe governed by chance or by a higher intelligence? Protarchus confidently says that it would be foolish to think such things could be made by chance. Socrates then asks if Protarchus is willing to truly hold this position, given that there are many in their time who would assault them for such an idea; those who declare that "all is disorder." Protarchus agrees he will stand firm, so they continue in their dialogue. 

Socrates next asks if he will agree that all the elements that are found in animal bodies are also found in the makeup of the world. Elements, here, referring to earth, air, fire, and water. Protarchus agrees. Socrates then makes the point that the elements in us are diluted and weak compared to their fuller forms in the world. "And is not our fire small and weak and mean? But the fire in the universe is wonderful in quantity and beauty, and in every power that fire has." So, Socrates continues on asking if the elements in us are dependent on the elements in the world or vice verse. Protarchus says that, obviously, our elements depend on the greater ones in the world. 

Well, if when elements are gathered together in animals, we call them a "body," then when they are gathered together in the world in a greater way, would they not also be called "bodies"? Would the world not be a type of living thing? "And the same may be said of the cosmos, which for the same reason may be considered to be a body, because made up of the same elements." If this is true, and living bodies like animals and ourselves have souls which animate them, then the cosmos too much have a soul which orders and animates it in an even greater way than us. "... the cause ... which enters into all things, giving to our bodies souls, and the art of self-management, and of healing disease, and operating in other ways to heal and organize, having too all the attributes of wisdom; - we cannot, I say, imagine that whereas the self-same elements exist, both in the entire heaven and in great provinces of the heaven, only fairer and purer, this last should not also in that higher sphere have designed the noblest and fairest things?" 

This, Socrates says, is what may be called "wisdom and mind." But such wisdom and mind cannot exist without a soul, of course. And this wise and intelligent soul, Socrates points out, is just like what their ancestors believed Zeus to be as the governor of all things in the universe. Thus, to Socrates, the intelligence behind the identity of things in the cosmos is more real than the things themselves, and certainly chance cannot play such a role. He has vindicated his ancestors beliefs, but from a philosophical perspective. 


1 - Plato. Philebus. 28b - 30d.