Getting ahead of myself, perhaps, in writing about whether or not Aristotle has been disporoven, when it’s possible – probable, even – that almost nobody cares.
Well, you should care. If you like science and technology, you should care. If you love truth, you should care. If you understand anything at all, you should care. So, let’s set the historical stage:
Prior to the early Greek philosophers, there’s no evidence that anyone anywhere believed that the world – physical, intellectual, moral, artistic and political – was understandable in any sort of systematic way. Some, most notably the Israelites, developed a detailed and objective moral code and theology – no small thing, to be sure. And human beings everywhere have made day-to-day technological advances. But you won’t find anybody laying out a well-thought-out approach to understanding the world around us until the Classical Greeks.
There’s a good reason for this: as foreign as it sounds to modern ears, nobody believed the world was such a thing as could be understood. In all the literature I’ve ever read from any culture (I’m no scholarly genius by any stretch, but I am pretty well read) in all cultures except those descended from Aristotle’s thought, there’s constant recourse to the arbitrary, petty or otherwise incomprehensible acts of the gods or chance as the cause of Things.
We could digress at Russian novel length here on the confluence of factors that came together in Attica over the course of a thousand years to set the stage for a Plato, an Aristotle and a Thucydides. Suffice it to say that, in the fullness of time, Greeks who loved their city, who committed to memory and wept at their poetry, who saw no limit to their arts that study and skill could not transcend, and whose hubris likewise knew no bound – they came up with the crazy idea that the world was understandable. The undisputed apex of this belief is Aristotle, who in one of the top two intellectual peaks of all time, systematically laid out his methods in a series of books. He represents the sum and apex of centuries of Greek thought.
Socrates was willing to say that the poets – the core curriculum of Greek education – lied about the gods. He said this because his reason told him that the actions and attitudes of the gods on display in Homer and the playwrights was contrary to divine nature. So: Socrates laid down the idea that the gods were in some ways at least understandable by reason.
At the same time, Socrates largely eliminated what we might call Revelation – what the gods chose to tell us about themselves. Since the poets could not be trusted, and the meanings of the oracles were shrouded, we could only say with any confidence about the gods what our reason revealed. Effectively, Socrates had constrained the gods as explanations. While it was never wrong to attribute the cause of events to the work of the gods, as properly and reasonably understood, it was also clear that this was not the end of thinking about things, but rather the beginning, as even the gods have natures, as the Greeks understood nature.
Aristotle takes up the challenge. Everything is subject to review and thought. Even God could be thought about and reasoned over. All the works of nature and man could be examined, using the skeptical scalpel of logic, and checked against observation. Knowledge of that world could thus be gained.*
And Man is up to the task. The world was not arbitrary and unknowable in its essence, but – reason revealed – reflected the order and reason present in the Unmoved Mover. Our natures as intelligent beings likewise reflect this order, enabling us, however imperfectly, to understand and know the world.
So, we can and do get push back on the conclusion that a very particular God – the Unmoved Mover is hardly what the Jews and Christians and even the Greeks themselves thought a god would be like – is required for human beings to have any sort of knowledge of anything. So, one would not be surprised to find schools of thought which reject the specific arguments about the necessity of a God at the end of the Physics, but are OK with everything else. But that’s not what seems to have happened, unless one is to take Kant to be that philosopher – a bit of a stretch. Kant loves, loves, loves Aristotle’s logic, but starts with Descartes’ radical doubt (and fudges it, as all who start there do) rather than Aristotle’s more common sense world of form and matter. That’s not where he’s going.
Instead, all philosophy since 1600 that isn’t expressly Aristotelian at its roots seems hell-bent on getting away from Aristotle. The point of these last few little essays is to show that, while the likes of Descartes, Hume, and Hegel would like to disprove Aristotle’s whole world view, they don’t actually do it. What they do is set it aside. What they do is embrace nonsense – non-sense both in terms of rejecting sensation and in terms of not making sense.**
Why this animosity toward Aristotle? Couple reasons:
Aristotle got drafted by the Church. Once the West stopped being constantly overrun by barbarian invaders, the Church settled down to founding universities and inventing modern science. From about 1200 to about 1500, Aristotle was deployed – baptized, the joke goes – in defense of the Church’s thinking, her philosophy and theology, most ably by St. Thomas.
Upon the occasion of the Protestant Reformation, everything associated with the Church’s defense of her teachings was tainted in certain influential circles. To read Thomas is to experience, in a way, Aristotle defending Mother Church. Thomas’s massive work towers in every sense above all the works of all the Reformers, like a Gothic Cathedral towers over a lean-to. There was simply no chance thinkers like Luther and Calvin were going to make an dent in Thomas. So, the sought to belittle and dismiss him.
If you want to bring down a massive edifice, as all siege engineers know, attack the foundation.
But if you are not Catholic, should you care? Yes! Because while Protestant theology and the philosophers who spring from it might trudge along without Aristotle, modern science and technology can’t! As modern science more and more pretends it doesn’t need Aristotle, it more and more becomes a slave to politics and activism. On this blog, and on other blogs in my blogroll, a recurring theme is battling the forces of zealous partisans and fiery-eyed activists pretending to do science to promote their goals.
The knight in shining armor who can slay the dragon Science! (meaning here pseudo-science) is none other than Aristotle, with his cool logic, keen insight and insistence that we start with ‘what is most knowable to us, and proceed to what is most knowable by nature.’ Getting close to Aristotle is getting close to real science. Real science is close to truth. And Truth is God.
* Aristotle is routinely faulted for what he didn’t invent – scientific tools such as clocks and scales – rather than credited with what he formulated and perfected – the idea that the world is knowable to any extent by us puny humans. So, for example, he noticed feathers falling slower than rocks, and didn’t find the issue all that compelling, and so just went with the simple observation. Now days, we’d say that’s wrong. We have 2000 years of practice and refinement Aristotle didn’t have.
** Hegel is most explicit in rejecting Aristotle’s logic, especially the fundamental Law of Non-contradiction. Hegel, by his own pronouncement, is illogical and contradictory – if that isn’t nonsensical, what is?