The Theory of Forms and Non-theism Appear to Be a Difficult Marriage
By Mike Robinson, Granbury, Texas
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Jesus Christ: Revelation 1:7-8).
Behind this unreliable world of appearances is a world of … “Forms” or “Ideas” (eidos/idea in Greek). But what is a Platonic Form or Idea? Take for example a perfect triangle… This would be a description of the Form or Idea of (a) Triangle. Plato says such Forms exist in an abstract state but independent of minds in their own realm. Considering this Idea of a perfect triangle, we might also be tempted to take pencil and paper and draw it. Our attempts will of course fall short. Plato would say that peoples’ attempts to recreate the Form will end up being a pale facsimile of the perfect Idea, just as everything in this world is an imperfect representation of its perfect Form. The Forms are not limited to geometry. According to Plato, for any conceivable thing or property there is a corresponding Form, a perfect example of that thing or property. The list is almost inexhaustible. Tree, House, Mountain, Man, Woman, Ship, Cloud, Horse, Dog, Table and Chair, would all be examples of putatively independently-existing abstract perfect Ideas.
The thinking Christian knows that God is the foundation for the laws of logic and other immaterial truths. Pressing this actuality is a potent way to refute materialistic atheism (see my post Here). Most atheists are materialists and even strict materialists (physicalists). Nonetheless, there is a small minority of atheists who affirm the reality or possibility of immaterial things such as the laws of logic, selected universals, and Forms. Sundry schools affirm immaterial Platonic Forms of one sort or another. Yet what in an atheist world could produce or ground such immutable universals? The human mind and the material cosmos both lack immutability and universal reign. God is immutable and has universal reign and thus the ontological capacity to ground immutable universals such as selected Forms, ideas, and the laws of logic.
Problems with the Theory of Ungrounded Forms
Various problems appear when one attempts to ground any immutable universal outside God. Selected queries that should be asked regarding ungrounded & impersonal Forms:
1. Plato’s Forms look as if they are arbitrary as well as incomplete. Are all variety of things Forms such as mud, urine, and skin?
2. When and who decides when a Form is not one particular Form but another? When is a large stream Form a creek and not a stream? And when is a large creek a river? Or a large lake Form actually a small sea Form? When is a large hill form actually a mountain Form. Plato’s Forms look, under scrutiny, to be more than a bit problematic.
Who is the world’s shortest giant or the tallest midget?
3. Are Plato’s Forms something definite and if so, where do they reside? What is the ontological makeup of Plato’s Forms? Are they transcendent or immanent? Or both?
4. If one suggests that Plato’s Forms are transcendent, how do they effect the land of the living—the non-transcendent? If they are merely a Form, they do not possess causal powers, so how do they affect the material world? By what power do they achieve their rule?
5. Are the Forms atemporal and aspatial? –if they are, how do they effect the temporal and spatial realm?– by what means do they bridge the gap? Forms are impersonal so they lack will and the power to act and determine things, so how does any non-theistic Form rule as God rules? God is a divine person so He acts, wills, and has the power to effect the non-transcendent.
6. If one denies theism, I cannot apprehend any evidence that a Form or Forms exist anywhere. But there seems to be counterevidence against the possibility of ungrounded Forms, since Forms cannot avoid an infinite regress of negative Forms. Is a Form of a bear also a Form of “not-deer,” and “not-car,” and “not-tree,” and “not-planet,” and “not-number 2” and ad infintum? I cannot see how a Form avoids such. The concept of ungrounded Forms falls into an infinite regress.
A Theory of Forms fails to explain most of reality. It appears that such theories lack the ability to explain change? Additionally, a Theory of Forms may have trouble explaining particulars, love, and the moral ought?
God Has the Explanatory Capacity to Explain Material and Immaterial Truths
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).
God is the beginning, middle, and end of all. He is the supreme mind or reason, the effectual cause of all things, eternal, unchangeable…
The Christian worldview has the explanatory power to explain all things–it appears that the Theory of Ungrounded Forms falls infinitely short in accounting for things it’s designed to enlighten.
In your light do we see light (Psalm 36:9).
The distinctiveness of the Platonic philosophy is precisely this direction toward the supersensuous world, it seeks the elevation of consciousness into the realm of spirit. The Christian religion also has set up this high principle, that the interior spiritual essence of man is his true essence, and has made it the universal principle.
A dualism that manifests in the Theory of Forms might be compatible with minority schools of atheism, but it appears to be an awkward amalgamation. The Theory of Forms advances the existence of mental constituents such as ideas, minds, and souls. These immaterial elements can intrude causally in the physical world of change. Similarly, God is a non-material Person—a Spiritual being that ordains and interposes His will on the material world. Most atheists believe the notion that an immaterial thing can intrude causally in the physical world is incongruent; to consent to the reality that immaterial mental elements exist seems to eliminate a major objection to the existence of God.
Moreover, how did these immaterial elements and ideas come into being through unguided evolutionary progression?
A dualism that exhibits itself in a Theory of Forms might be united with marginal schools of atheism but seems to be an uncomfortable unification. It would be easier to press Sasquatch’s feet into Dorothy’s ruby slippers than a Theory of Forms into atheism.
See my new Apologetics eBook Reality and the Folly of Atheism HERE
- David Macintos. http://philosophynow.org/issues/90/Plato_A_Theory_of_Forms
- Forms: I capitalize the word “Form” in order to help the unfamiliar reader correctly identify the usage.
- The importance of Plato for the history of philosophy is evident… For Plato to understand anything … is to relate it to its class concept [Form or Idea]… Greg Bahnsen: Van Til’s Apologetic, p. 318.
- Plato, Republic. 716 A.
- Hegel. History of Philosophy, Vol. 2.
- Plato believed that the same point could be made with regard to many other abstract concepts: even though we perceive only their imperfect instances, we have genuine knowledge of truth, goodness, and beauty no less than of equality. Things of this sort are the Platonic Forms, abstract entities that exist independently of the sensible world. Ordinary objects are imperfect and changeable, but they faintly copy the perfect and immutable Forms. Thus, all of the information we acquire about sensible objects (like knowing what the high and low temperatures were yesterday) is temporary, insignificant, and unreliable, while genuine knowledge of the Forms themselves (like knowing that 93 – 67 = 26) perfectly certain forever. Since we really do have knowledge of these supra-sensible realities, knowledge that we cannot possibly have obtained through any bodily experience, Plato argued, it follows that this knowledge must be a Form of recollection and that our souls must have been acquainted with the Forms prior to our births. But in that case, the existence of our mortal bodies cannot be essential to the existence of our souls—before birth or after death—and we are therefore immortal. http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/2f.htm