Plato on Intelligent Design: Truth, Beauty, and the Good

W. T. S. Thackara

Perusing an internet forum on intelligent design some months ago brought me to an unusual post by David Alexander entitled "Is beauty just Darwin's bad dream?" In it he writes:

Often it is argued . . . that Darwin's theory should be left to the biologists to be examined, that it is purely a matter of empirical, secondary knowledge that should be left to the experts. But it occurs to me that Darwin's theory clashes with a central precept embraced by Western civilization, Socrates' trinity, the belief in the essential unity of the good, the beautiful and the true, and, if this is true, it clashes with a concept which has been received as wisdom, the domain of primary knowledge, open to all, and the responsibility of all to cultivate and not merely the domain of a specialized class of craftsman. —, Feb. 28, 2005

Alexander raises an important question: does Darwin's theory reveal a fundamental conflict between the good and beautiful against the true? To clarify this, he excerpts a paragraph from the Origin of Species on the subject of beauty in the natural world, where Darwin comments on the "protest lately made by some naturalists,"

against the utilitarian doctrine that every detail of structure has been produced for the good of its possessor. They believe that many structures have been created for the sake of beauty, to delight man or the Creator (but this latter point is beyond the scope of scientific discussion), or for the sake of mere variety, a view already discussed. Such doctrines, if true, would be absolutely fatal to my theory. I fully admit that many structures are now of no direct use to their possessors, and may never have been of any use to their progenitors; but this does not prove that they were formed solely for beauty or variety. — pp. 249-50 (6th ed.)

In other words, Darwin's theory excludes doctrines which assert that much of nature's beauty reflects metaphysical or divine intent. Darwin accordingly defines a species' "good" in terms of its survival and reproduction; "beauty for beauty's sake" is but a factor in sexual selection; natural selection "cannot possibly produce any modification in a species exclusively for the good of another species"; and he concludes that, with some exceptions, "the structure of every living creature either now is, or was formerly, of some direct or indirect use to its possessor" (ibid., pp. 251-3). In Alexander's view, Darwin's theory reduces beauty to a utilitarian notion that masks its transcendent function and distracts one from recognizing it. He suggests, moreover, that the theory amounts to a materialist worldview which increasingly influenced Darwin's personal experience of beauty, as recorded in his autobiography:

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds . . . gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, . . . formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. . . . I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did....
. . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.— The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, pp. 53-4

Alexander contrasts this and similar stories with others which suggest that a numinous quality of beauty inheres throughout nature which can open a pathway to a clearer perception of truth. Research biologist Michael Denton, for example, commented that his mentor, the distinguished mathematician Marcel Schutzenberger,

first made me aware of just how much of the order of nature might be abstract afunctional patterns. . . . Schutzenberger argued that even if Darwinism could account for biological adaptation — which he never accepted — it was incapable of accounting for abstract pattern that seemed to be ubiquitous in nature. Such ubiquitous patterning seemed far easier to explain in terms of generative laws such as those that gave rise to fractal patterns. When I realized later that the one thousand protein folds in microbiology represented a finite set of elegant and very beautiful afunctional abstract three-dimensional molecular patterns, I recalled Schutzenberger intoning on abstract order, Goethe's travels in Italy, and the Platonic beauty of mathematics during a trip to the Loire Valley. There was more to biological order than "mere machinery."— Uncommon Dissent, p. 169

This application of Socrates' "trinity" to the current intelligent design debate is especially interesting because the principal discussion of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in Plato's Dialogues centers around the identical conflict between the materialistic and transcendental worldviews: Is the universe the product of blind chance or is it intelligently designed? While Plato clearly upholds design, his main concern is to explore a deeper — in fact the central — question of all his Dialogues: What is the Good? And what is good for man? That is, what is the "state or condition of the soul which renders the life of every man happy": a life of pure pleasure or a life of mind and wisdom? Plato's "answer" may surprise us.

The dialogue in which this discussion occurs (Philebus) was written relatively late in Plato's life, and therefore reflects his mature thought. Embodying Pythagorean concepts and some lengthy analytical sections, it presupposes acquaintance with his earlier works; but the principal comments on intelligent design and the Good are quite clear and fairly easy to follow. As in all his Dialogues, Plato seeks not so much to prove a theory as to focus our thought on issues of importance, helping us to clarify our own views. Socrates opens the discussion by saying:

Well, Philebus says that the good for all animate beings consists in enjoyment, pleasure, delight, and whatever can be classed as consonant therewith: whereas our contention is that the good is not that, but that thought, intelligence, memory, and all things akin to these, right opinion and true reasoning, prove better and more valuable than pleasure for all such beings as can participate in them; . . . and that nothing in the world is more profitable than so to participate. — §11

The inquiry soon leads to a "problem that will assuredly never cease to exist": What is the relation of the One to the many, and the finite to the infinite? This question could be phrased in modern scientific terms by asking how a seemingly featureless singularity evolved into the manifold universe? Anchoring the discussion to the foundations of physics and metaphysics, Socrates then suggests that there is a point of conjunction between all dualities that is often overlooked or disregarded. Just so with wisdom and pleasure: the good life cannot consist exclusively of either. There must be a mixture of both, a third possibility which transcends this particular duality, soon shown to be a false opposition (as in today's debate which pits intelligent design against evolution rather than the Darwinian explanation of it). As Socrates had said previously, the recognition of intermediates "makes all the difference between a philosophical and a contentious discussion." But, he asks, which of these components is the primary cause of the mixture being good?

How the question is to be answered depends upon which of the competing theories, materialism or intelligent design, informs one's fundamental worldview. Socrates intimates that neither had been proved given the present state of ignorance, even though "all philosophers agree (whereby they really exalt themselves) that Nous [mind] is the king of heaven and earth." Pursuing the inquiry, he asks:

Are we to say that the sum of things, or what we call this universe, is controlled by a power that is irrational and blind, and by mere chance; or on the contrary, as our forefathers said, is ordered and directed by intelligence and a marvellous wisdom?
Protarchus: The two points of view have nothing in common, my wonderful Socrates. But what you're now saying seems to me sheer blasphemy. To maintain that intelligence orders it all does justice to the spectacle of the ordered universe, of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the revolution of the whole heaven; for myself I should never express nor conceive any contrary view on the matter.
Socrates: Shall we then agree with our predecessors in maintaining this doctrine — not merely reasserting the notions of others without risk to ourselves — but shall we share in the danger, and take our part of the reproach which will await us, when a clever individual declares that the world is not as we describe it, but devoid of order? — §28-9

In an earlier dialogue, the Republic, Socrates stated that the Idea of the Good is held to be the author of all things, that it is "beyond being" and is the last, greatest, and most difficult reality to behold (§509, 517). In the Philebus he reaffirms this point near the end of the discussion. Nothing, he asserts, can come into being and continue to exist unless it has truth or reality mixed within its composition and, moreover, that any compound which lacks measure and symmetry is no real compound but literally a "calamitous lump of unmixed messiness."

So if we cannot hunt down the Good under a single form, let us secure it by the conjunction of three: Beauty, Symmetry, and Truth . . . and regard these three as one. More than all other components of the mixture, these may be considered as the cause, and that through the goodness of these, the mixture itself has been made good.* — §64-5

*For Plato's most succinct discourse on the enlightening power of Beauty and the revelation of its "single science," see the Symposium, §210-13 (Diotima's speech).

Plato makes no attempt in the Philebus to prove intelligent design beyond the evidence of order, symmetry, and beauty in nature. Nor does he dwell much on the implied cause or agent (the "Demiurge" of the Timaeus) that "fashions" the ordered universe from the eternal pattern, but points rather to something far more fundamental and abstract — the Idea of the Good — which exceeds all categories of Being, yet whose essence informs all animate beings, linking the many into a Oneness, and the finite to the infinite (cf. §16c). His concept of mixture — that we are beings of diverse qualities — also offers a path to solving the problem of imperfection, a riddle which defeats common theistic explanations of creation and pushed Darwin into agnosticism (if God is perfectly omniscient, omnipotent, and merciful, why didn't He create a perfect world free of defects, disparity, and suffering?). One leaves this unfinished dialogue better understanding that the ultimate burden of proof lies in neither mathematical formulas nor expert scientific opinion, but within the totality of our composite being, knowledge of which constitutes our truest pleasure and happiness.

An early compiler of the Dialogues subtitled the Philebus, "On Pleasure, Ethical," underscoring the importance of ethics, which like truth, beauty, and the good, could not be divorced from any effective attempt to know the great mysteries of life. Today materialists all too often assume and assert that "there is no life after death . . . no ultimate foundation for ethics"* — a view that Plato rejects in the Gorgias, as it implies that death is the ultimate escape from personal responsibility. This issue, I believe, lies at the heart of the controversy between materialism and intelligent design, which is but one skirmish in the unhappy battle between selfish power ("might is right") and altruistic principle which sacrifices personal power for the good of others.

*Biologist and historian William B. Provine, quoted in Evolution and Creation: A Theosophic Synthesis (2004), p. 3; full text online at

The twenty-three hundred plus years since Plato wrote this dialogue is but a nanosecond in eternity, and modern science has not yet evolved to the point where it can incontrovertibly prove or disprove intelligent design — or the dominant materialist paradigm. Hence the value of occasionally walking under a starry sky where, supported by the wondrously-complex living creatures beneath our feet and overhead, we can reach inwardly toward the Good — through the beauty, symmetry, and truth that we can perceive.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)

The evolution of the God-idea proceeds apace with man's own intellectual evolution. So true it is that the noblest ideal to which the religious Spirit of one age can soar, will appear but a gross caricature to the philosophic mind in a succeeding epoch! The philosophers themselves had to be initiated into perceptive mysteries, before they could grasp the correct idea of the ancients in relation to this most metaphysical subject. Otherwise — outside such initiation — for every thinker there will be a "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther," mapped out by his intellectual capacity, . . .
Divine thought cannot be defined, or its meaning explained, except by the numberless manifestations of Cosmic Substance in which the former is sensed spiritually by those who can do so. — H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 1:326-7

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