Abstract Thought and Ancient Religion

I enjoyed thumbing through Leonard Mlodinow’s Euclid’s Window, a book about the development of math and science Unknownfrom ancient to present times.  Mlodinow praises the discoveries of the Egyptians and Babylonians, but focuses on the significant advances of the Greeks from Thales down to Pythagoras and Euclid.  Their key discovery, their “leap of consciousness,” was abstract thought.  Previously civilizations saw only isolated parts or formulas. They knew certain things worked but had no idea of the connections between different ideas.  After the Greeks, we gained the ability to make generalizations, to group similar ideas under larger ones, and create systems.

Good stuff to be sure, but I hoped Mlodinow would offer speculation on how this happened. Why did abstract thought begin with the Greeks and not the Babylonians?  Did abstract thought in general (rather than just in math) come from the Greeks?  He did not touch on the question.

This frustrated me, so what follows is my own speculation.

Abstraction requires a certain view of creation itself.  Logically one must see order and pattern in creation before one could see it in math, for example.

Initially I thought that it makes sense that abstract thought did not show itself first in either Babylon or Egypt.  Babylon’s creation account reveals a haphazard universe.  Creation happens due to conflict between the gods.  Sorcery and power determine the winner.   We don’t see principle, justice, and so on.  In such a theological environment we would not expect them to think of general governing principles of thought.  At the the time of Thales, for example, Babylonians obsessed over the minutiae of dream interpretations.

The Egyptian creation account bears more similarity to Genesis 1-3, which should have given them an advantage in the “race” to abstraction.  However magic also plays a strong role in Egyptian society and myth.  It seems that in a society where nature can be manipulated on a whim one would not learn to see the forest for the trees.

So far so good.  In this triumphal ascent we should then see how Greek creation accounts most resemble Genesis and how this helped them.  But . . . Greek creation accounts might resemble the Babylonians more than the Egyptians.  True, magic doesn’t really have the role in Greek myth and folklore that it did in Egypt, but we do see the occasional frustrating randomness of the gods’ actions.  Perhaps Zeus and the others sometimes act in accord with “Fate” and a larger plan, but Fate remains mysterious and inaccessible to both gods and men.  There appears little in Greek religion on which to build the foundation of abstract thought.

Indeed, how did abstract thought arise in a polytheistic culture at all?  We might guess at some special revelation of God, perhaps.  What source did Thales and others draw on to develop it?  I am at a loss for ideas.  Perhaps this is why those who really took abstract thought seriously (like Pythagoras and Plato) end up breaking from Greek religion and starting “heretical” faiths.  Standard Greek religion had no category for such things.

I also wonder why the Greeks beat out the Israelites.  The Israelites had all the advantages in place.

As I mentioned, Genesis gives all the foundation for abstract thought one needs.  God creates everything, and does so in an orderly and purposeful way.  Yes, in the Old Testament as a whole God shows his omnipotence, love, and justice, by intervening in miraculous ways at times.  But in stark contrast to other contemporary faiths, the Old Testament has none of the fanciful/whimsically “miraculous” about it.  Throughout Scripture in fact, miracles get concentrated at key points in redemptive history (i.e. the founding of Israel, the beginning of the prophetic era with Elijah/Elisha, with Jesus Himself, and the beginning of the apostles’ ministry).  Today missionaries report miracles in areas where the gospel first gets introduced.  When looking at other ancient religions we may understand more why Jesus showed reluctance at times to effect miracles.  Reliance on them at our whims hinders the development of wisdom.*

We can say that the Israelites did develop, or we should say, had revealed to them, the “abstract” reality of God’s creation of all things, and His rule over and care for all things.  Certainly this is a far more important truth to have then imaginary parallel lines.  Though Biblical critics of the modern school say that Jewish belief in God’s universal dominion comes only with the later prophets (and then they often date them much later than most orthodox commentators) you have it “early” in Jewish history not just in Genesis, but in 1 Samuel 5, Psalm 19, Psalm 82, and so on.  The term “abstract” in this context has its problems, however.  We define abstract as “existing in thought but not having a concrete or physical existence.”   God exists in more than just thought.  He is real reality.

But the Greeks limitations in theology should not diminish their mathematical achievement.  Nor does it explain why the Israelites apparently did not take the general truths about God and the universe and apply them in other areas besides theology and ethics.  Nor again, does it explain how the Greeks developed their abstract mathematical ideas within their own context.

I intrigued, and I am stumped.

*All this to say — God forbid we start thinking along the lines of, “God, please do no miracles and keep to yourself, as your involvement will hinder the development of abstract thought!”

 

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