Reasons to Believe

Ancient Philosophers and Intelligent Design

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20, NASB)

Some people today write as if only “fundamentalist Christians” would affirm divine design in nature, and disparage “design” as if it must be driven by a “sectarian” agenda. Such a perspective, however, not only ignores the views of many founders of modern science (including both the many orthodox Christians among them and also Isaac Newton, a unitarian). It also discounts the views of a wide range of ancient philosophers, who were in nowise affected by Christian theology.

Apart from Epicureans, who were characteristically skeptical about deities, most ancient Greek and Roman thinkers recognized divine design in nature.1 Many considered absurd the alternatives, namely that the universe resulted from chance or human activity.2 Various philosophers believed that the Supreme Deity was present in and known by his works.3

Many ancient writers also believed, as did Paul (Romans 1:20), that much about God’s character could be inferred from his creation. Design in nature showed something about the divine nature, such as that it transcended merely human religion,4 or (in the views of Socrates and Seneca) that the gods were benevolent and cared for people.5 Of course, we should not expect every ancient inference to be correct: some concluded that the divine nature must be spherical, since this was the perfect shape!6 Most obviously, many of these philosophers still accepted polytheism, the belief in many deities. But in Paul’s day even the Stoics, the school most known for its tolerance of polytheism, ultimately believed in one divine designer behind everything (including the other gods).7

Thus, after arguing for the necessity of a cause,8 the late-first-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus argues from the structure of objects that they reflect a designer and not mere chance:9 “Assuredly from the very structure of all made objects we are accustomed to prove that the work is certainly the product of some artificer, and has not been constructed at random.”10 Anyone who observes the facts of nature yet denies the existence of a creator, he opines, is stupid.11 Epictetus believed that human beings and especially their intellect, most complex of all, particularly revealed the designer.12 Many others (including Cicero and Seneca) concurred: humans,13 and especially their intellect,14 were inexplicable apart from design.

Jewish thinkers in the Greek world had adapted such ideas for a purer monotheism centuries before Paul,15 making his missionary job much easier.16 But both Paul and his Jewish predecessors could draw on such lines of argument precisely because they found them amenable to what they already believed from Genesis. Gentile thinkers lacked the full knowledge of God available through special revelation, but sometimes they did grasp some truths based on their observation of nature.

Critics today who dismiss Christians for insisting on divine “fingerprints” in nature must dismiss most ancient philosophers as well. Such a dismissal will not disturb most of these critics, of course, because ancient philosophers lacked modern knowledge of science. Yet modern science has unveiled greater, not fewer, complexities. If anything, this new information would have strengthened such philosophers’ commitment to design. Rejection of design, at least on a larger level, is not a matter of information; it is a matter of reigning paradigms. And it is encouraging to know that Christians do not stand alone in recognizing design, but that on this point we stand in a much broader intellectual tradition.

by Craig Keener

Subjects: Philosophy of Science

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1. So Dio Chrysostom Or. 12.29, 34, 36-37; for examples, cf. Plutarch Isis 76, Mor. 382A; Letter of Pseudo-Aristeas 132.

2. A Pythagorean in Diodorus Siculus 12.20.2.

3. Epictetus Disc. 1.6.23-24; Josephus Against Apion 2.190, 192; cf. 2.167.

4. Ps.-Heraclitus Ep. 4, 9.

5. Socrates in Xenophon Mem. 4.3.12-13; for their benevolence, cf. also Seneca Ep. Lucil. 95.50.

6. Cicero De Nat. Deor. 2.17.45-46.

7. Cf. Diogenes Laertius 7.1.134; cf. earlier Heraclitus in Diogenes Laertius 9.1.1. Some earlier Stoics tended toward pantheism, but Stoicism generally distinguished between matter and the logical principle (the logos) which organized matter (I explore some of these ideas further in my The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 341-47.

8. Epictetus Disc. 1.6.3-6.

9. Epictetus Disc. 1.6.7.

10. Epictetus Disc. 1.6.7 (Loeb Classical Library translation, 1:41).

11. Epictetus Disc. 1.16.8.

12. Epictetus Disc. 1.6.10; cf. Rom 1:19.

13. Cicero De Nat. Deor. 2.54.133—58.146; Seneca De Benef. 6.23.6-7; cf. Cicero Finib. 5.12.35-36; Letter of Pseudo-Aristeas 156-57.

14. E.g., Cicero De Nat. Deor. 2.59.147—61.153; Porphyry Marc. 26.410-11. They viewed knowledge of a deity as innate in people (Seneca Ep. Lucil. 117.6; Dio Chrysostom Or. 12.27-28; Iamblichus Myst. 1.3). Some also adduced in favor of deities’ existence the universal pervasiveness of belief in them (Cicero Tusc. Disp. 1.13.30; cf. Maximus of Tyre 11.5).

15. For example, the Jewish philosopher Philo borrows various philosophers’ arguments for God’s existence (Harry Austryn Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam [2 vols.; 4th rev. ed.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968], 2:73-93), including Plato’s argument from creation (p. 74) and material from Stoic sources (pp. 75-83).

16. He may especially draw on the Wisdom of Solomon, a widely circulated Jewish work in Greek. I have adapted the information in this article from a paragraph on Acts 17 in a commentary on Acts I am currently writing for Eerdmans.