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In the Middle Ages, Aristotle's belief that the world was eternal posed a major theological challenge for the many people who held a religious belief in Creation. Moses Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, argued that Aristotle knew his position was not demonstrated with the same standard of proof as his other positions, but rather reflected more of his personal opinion.

What is/are the contemporary, mainstream academic view(s) as to how well Aristotle felt his belief in the eternity of the universe was established? Are there other classic commentators on Aristotle who address this question?

  • In passing, Wikipedia has grouped together a few of the major points of contention in their article on arguments for eternity; it might be somewhere to start – Joseph Weissman Feb 26 '12 at 2:08
  • You might want to distinguish between physical investigations (not Aristotle's primary concern in his writings) and the philosophical level. See Wikipedia on his Physics – Aputsiaq Mar 3 '12 at 16:15
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Given the efforts Aristotle made to support his argument for an eternal universe, it would appear that he was quite certain of the belief. He establishes multiple principles and arguments in making his case for an eternal universe (many of which creationists have gone to some lengths to either reconcile with creationism, or refute). Thus, many of those who read his works in medieval times did take the writings with a proverbial grain of salt, often deferring judgment on Aristotle to religious authorities (either people or texts).

I'll try to outline Aristotle's arguments below (thanks to Joseph for that link) to show that he indeed must have been quite certain of his belief. I'll also give some examples of responses from creationist philosophers, hopefully to indicate that most of them do not try to argue about Aristotle's own beliefs, but rather how they can be reconciled or dismissed to allow for creationism. Consequently, I answer that the common belief (supported by the contemporary SEP) is that Aristotle did hold his own views to be well establish.

Argument from Matter

In his Physics, Aristotle discusses his view of matter extensively. As a part of this discussion, he makes an argument in support of eternal matter. Aristotle asserts that all things must come into existence from an underlying "substratum", which is a sort of essence of being. Then he argues that matter itself (the Aristotelian concept of matter) is the substratum of all things, so it must have either created itself, or been eternal. Obviously, Aristotle argues, a substratum cannot create itself; therefore, matter must be eternal.

Argument from motion

To Aristotle, the process of coming into existence is a sort of motion, and motion is a very important concept to Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotle's argument is that if a beginning to motion (i.e. existence) is to be assumed, one of the following must be true:

  1. The object that experienced this first motion must have come into existence and moved.
  2. The object that experienced this first motion must have existed at rest, and then moved.

Aristotle argues that #1 is contradictory, because the object could not have already been moving before coming into existence, and in order to have moved, it requires a preceding motion: that of coming into existence.

He further argues that #2 is flawed because the existence of the object implies that it came into being, which is already a motion. Furthermore, in order to cause the first motion, a preceding motion is required, which is a sort of infinite regress.

Because the idea of a first motion results in these unsatisfactory conclusions, Aristotle asserts that motion must have been eternal.

Argument from Time

Here, Aristotle employs contradictions to support his argument. His argument is that if time had a beginning, then one could refer to a time before that beginning (because something must have preceded a beginning), and this is contradictory to the premise. Furthermore, to Aristotle, time is a series of beginnings and ends, or moments; each moment ends the one before it. Thus, a "first moment" or beginning to time must have ended a moment before it, and this too is contradictory.

Horror Vacui

Nature abhors a vacuum. This famous and extremely influential statement is the basis for Aristotle's argument "from the vacuum." He argues that a vacuum cannot exist; nature will do anything to avoid one. Therefore, to imply a beginning of the universe is to go against this fundamental principle, for before the beginning there must have been nothingness, or a vacuum.

Of course, the very concept that nature abhors vacuums has since been empirically refuted.

Response from Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was a very influential Medieval Christian Philosopher, and played a big role in reintroducing Aristotelian philosophy. He wrote many commentaries on Aristotle's works (such as the metaphysics), and adopted much of Aristotle's philosophy. However, the SEP makes the following important note:

Given the distinction between philosophy and theology, one can then distinguish between philosophical and theological sources and influences in Aquinas' work. And as a philosopher, Thomas is emphatically Aristotelian.

However, in his theology, Aquinas is very Christian. Although he took much from Aristotelian philosophy, he did not attempt to combine it with Christian theology, and the concept of creationism. The SEP points out that his philosophical acceptance of Aristotle does not mean that "he never disagrees with his sources." The eternity of the universe is one of these points of disagreement; Aquinas takes Aristotle's view very seriously, but simply disagrees with it. He does not attempt to argue that Aristotle saw his own philosophy of eternity as somehow flawed.

Response from Al-Farabi

Al-Farabi, one of the first major Muslim philosophers, was a scholar of Aristotle. However, in his philosophical writings (obviously influenced, and actually motivated, by Islam) he "breaks with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle." He too takes Aristotle seriously, but he attempts to reconcile his (and Plato's) philosophy with a First Cause (a principle of Islam), "using him as an authority when it suited [his] purposes, and knowing that philosophy was a 'foreign science' in need of an external authority as it lacked an indigenous authority"(source).

Al-Farabi, having drawn from not just Aristotle, but Plato and even Ptolemy in his metaphysics, does use Aristotle's principles of causation. However, equally important to him is the concept of a First Cause. Thus, Al-Farabi considers Aristotle arguments to represent his beliefs, but simply does not agree with some of them. This view is similarly held by the majority of medieval Islamic philosophers.

Summary

Aristotle's efforts to support his idea of an eternal universe, not created ex nihilo, indicate a strong belief in what he is trying to prove; if he saw his arguments as flawed, why would he attempt to convey them?

The medieval responses act as the "classic commentators" you ask for in your question; although they do not directly respond, they do indicate that the classic (perhaps, medieval) view of Aristotle held that he believed his own philosophy to be true; thus, they simply make a point to disagree with him.

As for a contemporary view, the SEP is always reliable, and offers no indication that there is a mainstream questioning of Aristotle's own beliefs about the eternity of the universe. Rather, he went to great lengths to establish and support them, and they are about as important to him as his other principles. Unfortunately, I cannot offer specific commentaries, but the difficulty in finding any that question Aristotle's personal beliefs speaks to my argument.

  • "Flawed" is different than not demonstrated. – Yirmeyahu Mar 13 '12 at 14:50
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    just a note may help some, I guess SEP= stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. – barlop Jul 17 '12 at 13:02
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Actually, the notion that time was circular (and eternal) rather than linear (with beginning and end) was the traditional view in Greco-Roman culture:

Time has traditionally been viewed as either like a circle or like a line. Plato, Aristotle and many other Greek and Roman thinkers, particularly the Stoics, advocated a circular view of time. Linear time first appeared in Hebrew and Zoroastrian Iranian writings. Seneca was an advocate of linear time. Augustine thought time was specifically like a line segment. It had a distinct beginning and end, from Genesis to judgement day. Later on Aquinas agreed, and even further on Newton mathematically represented time as a line in his equations. Prominent thinkers such as Barrow, Leibniz, Locke and Kant all agreed with a linear type of time, and in the 19th century time was widely regarded, in both philosophy and science, like a line. It wasn't until 1949, when Kurt Godel, working with Einstein's equations, developed "closed loops of proper time", which are semi-circular in that they allow one to end up where they started after going forward in time.

Source: The internet encylopedia of philosophy

Hindu cosmology also supports the notion of circular time, albeit in cycles of (re)birth and death:

In Hindu cosmology the universe is cyclically created and destroyed in the timespan of 8.64 billion years. Deeply rooted in Hindu literature including Vedas and Puranas, it is believed time is divided into four epochs or Yuga, of which we occupy the final. In roughly 432,000 years the final Avatar Kalki will end time. Narayana destroys all this existence while creating a new existence. Time starts over.

Source: Wikipedia

Interestingly, the Big Bang theory (introduced by Belgian priest Georges Lemaître in 1927) is questioned by physicists today, as new studies increasingly confirm the ancient notion that time is eternal

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