“Is Life Just a Chemical Reaction?” Joseph Wood Krutch asks this question in an excellent article in the Saturday Review (May 4, 1968). He faces the developments scientists think they see growing out of DNA and the possibility of the creation of living organisms in a test tube. And he also faces an old, old philosophical puzzle.

As all philosophers know, Plato was a realist. What most people do not know is that Plato was not “realistic” in the way we use the word today. A man today prides himself on being realistic when he deals with the here and now, the material at hand, things evident to the five senses. But Plato was realistic in an entirely different way. For him, the real was beyond the realm of the senses. He was more interested in the eternal than in the temporal and found those things immediately before the senses as only passing illustrations of The Real. He believed that The Real had to do with such things as the Beautiful, the True, the Good. One may speak glowingly of a beautiful woman, a beautiful sunset, a beautiful horse, or even a beautiful double play, but these are merely passing instances of the abiding reality that is Beauty itself.

Aristotle threw an emphasis on the individual cases and pointed out that what Plato would call The Real is simply a name to cover a group of similar things. Thus the word “dog” is a useful name for all the dogs we ever see. Because of this approach, Aristotle was rightly called the first scientist. Generally speaking, the scientist likes induction, though he is not limited to this method, and the Platonist likes deduction.

The debate between the reality of the seen and the unseen has never downed in either religion or philosophy. It appeared ...

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