Repost: Aristotle Defeats Aristotle (Long)
(Reposted, with some minor editing, from another blog which no longer exists.)
We can use Aristotle’s own logic to show how it is incompatible to Christian faith.
The fundamental question here is bound up in that fancy word, “epistemology.” You can look it up and compare with my definition, but I’m going to focus on certain core concepts. It works like this: Aristotle was asking the question of how we should act in this world. That is, by what means do we understand reality such that our actions in this world work more or less predictably? Can we develop a reliable view of reality so we can study it and develop consistent expectations how various human activity will turn out?
In modern times, we might say the question is bound up in “being scientific.” We are all fully aware in typical usage today that phrase is badly bruised, abused and politically perverted for all sorts of insane agendas. What I refer to is the set of academic pursuits which tries to examine phenomena and explain them, often focused on how they affect us, and often they want to know the causes of such phenomena. That fancy word “phenomena” is both singular and plural, simply a word indicating observable events which seem to matter to humans. The method involves identifying extraneous facts which may or may not correlate to those events, to try isolating phenomena from anything which doesn’t matter for whatever reason. We have to find a way to make this whole thing consistent, so other folks can reproduce it. If we can understand it, the door stands open to shaping such phenomena to our ends.
Notice the one factor which cannot be removed is the human observer. While we know the very act of observing does affect some phenomena, there’s not much we can do about that. Pure science for its own sake is not justifiable in anybody’s budget unless the scientist in question is independently wealthy. The point remains, with real world scientific inquiry and with Aristotle’s logic: What can you and I do with it?
Epistemology deals with the question of what we can know such that it’s usable, as it were. What can I claim to be true so we can talk about it, knowing it will work pretty much every time? Mankind has always sought control over his world, one way or another. It’s one of the human instincts to want to shape our environment to suit our purposes. If we accept all sorts of inputs to our knowledge base without proper filtering, we might start believing stuff which can’t be proven. Then we’ll be wasting our resources on activities which don’t do us much good, and might actually harm. Of course, it involves all sorts of discussion about what’s good and useful, but that’s part of the philosophical pursuit. Aristotle was all about establishing the frame of reference, giving such debate some firm foundation so it will have meaning.
So, how do we distinguish something we can say we know as truth, versus something we might believe or imagine? That’s the basic question which gets the fancy name of “epistemology.” Aristotle makes one assumption for which his native Greek culture is well known: If the best of men can’t grapple with it using their intelligence, it’s probably not important. Humanity in the ideal is the measure of all things. Another word for the culture which arose from this assumption is “Hellenism,” since the first self-conscious Grecian folks referred to themselves after their legendary Queen Hellen. It’s all tied to the legends of wars we associate with the famous Trojan Horse. The point is, the Greeks were so mighty and great only insofar as they stayed devoted to Hellenism, and the academic core of this is Aristotle, who comes at the climax of a long line of philosophical inquiry. We recognize him today as the man who is most responsible for the system we use. Thus, we have Aristotelian epistemology.
For Christians, there is one fundamental core item tied to our identity as “Christians.” We have one truth which justifies using the name “Christ” — He died on the Cross to pay the awful price to remove the stain of sin, such that humans can come before God and receive something besides His wrath. The underlying assumption is we all deserve wrath. To state it more fully, we deserve a short miserable life, a lingering painful death, and eternity in Hell. We say, “Mankind is fallen.” If you prefer classical terminology, we refer to “total depravity.” Now, if you don’t buy into that, I cannot call you a Christian. There is nothing more to discuss, since removing that makes the Cross meaningless. Without the Cross as an act which pays the price for human sin, there is no Christ and no Christians. (Yes, we add the resurrection, but the substitutionary atonement is a logical necessity before that.)
An essential corollary of that question is whether you understand the human intellect was also fallen, in need of redemption. I can tell you it’s not enough simply to say it and write it, but you must operate from that assumption or we share nothing. In case you didn’t know it, so much is bluntly stated in Scripture, specifically Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I won’t cite prooftexts because it makes more sense to read it in the context. But oddly enough, it is the Roman Church which was first to formally reject total depravity in that sense. Their teaching is that the mind or intellect is not fallen, just a little confused. They say give a man the straight facts and he’ll naturally realize what’s necessary, and he can then choose to do what’s right. Again, Paul bluntly says in Romans no one comes into this world with the slightest desire for peace with God, nor is any human capable of such a desire. No amount of education can fix it. Unless God takes the initiative to act, people simply cannot turn to Him through Christ.
Here’s the problem we run into right away. Aristotle assumes at least some humans are theoretically capable of perfection, whereas Paul says none, zero, nada. Aristotle works from his own understanding, his reasoning and intellect. Paul works from revelation. Aristotle lived in a city where Jews could be found, and they had a synagogue, and they had the Hebrew Scriptures. It is wholly unimaginable Aristotle wasn’t aware of theirs and other religious texts claiming to reveal things from beyond human capability; historical records mention him conversing at length with Jews. He rejected Scripture completely, all of it. He might have been willing to incorporate ideas from it, but they had to meet his tests of logic. His brain was the judge; his intellect sat upon the throne. If he couldn’t find a place for it in his system, it was just a belief, not truth, not knowledge.
It’s not as if Hebrew scholars from ancient times were unaware of analysis and reason such as Aristotle used. However, the whole of Ancient Near Eastern culture could not imagine a reality which excluded knowledge coming from outside the human intellect. It was okay to measure things, discern how they can be used, and how to build things with precision and purpose. The Eastern folks did pretty good with that, even if they did sometimes slather religious imagery on such technology. But when it came to how a man should live, it was simply unimaginable we were capable of working out all the implications without input from a higher sources which also had their inputs and controls over this world. The Hebrew intellectual culture shares much with that epistemology.
Indeed, the entire Ancient Near Eastern culture was so used to dealing with things outside the grasp of human understanding, they had college degrees in it. They understood how to connect with that part of human nature which was not restricted by mere intellectual analysis. They had whole schools of thinking how men should structure their lives, how to live, while accounting for various inputs from outside the intellect. They also understood the distinction between emotion and sentiment versus that other source.
Because of Aristotle, we no longer understand that. Indeed, we have come to the place such things are hokum, spooky, primitive and barbaric. Indeed, we have a fundamental assumption which denies any control from outside the system itself. It’s called “superstition.” The problem is, when Aristotle chopped off that vast legacy of Eastern learning, it included the Hebrew way, as well. The whole thing is labeled “mysticism” and tossed in the trash. Hebrew was just one of many Ancient Near Eastern cultures which he regarded as mere superstition, simply because he could not explain how their revealed truth could be used in his system.
To some degree, Aristotle allowed for the existence of things not observable with the eyes, but he did subject those things to his logic. Thus, he maintains the centrality of the human intellect. If it can’t be explained, it might as well not exist, because we can’t experiment with it and build up our knowledge base. For him, logic was the god, so to speak. Whatever higher forces there might be would have to act according to his logic or be excluded from discussion. For awhile, the strictness of his teaching was lost, but during the death throes of the Middle Ages, his and other writings from Greek philosophers were recovered and published widely. That period of revival of Aristotle and friends is called The Enlightenment. Whatever Western Civilization has become today is almost entirely dependent on the Enlightenment, which in turn is founded on Aristotle. If you are Western, you are Aristotelian.
If you embrace Aristotle, you cannot embrace the Hebrew viewpoint. You probably can’t even understand it. You can’t pretend it’s possible to simply plug in revelation on some exterior spot and add it to the mix. The mix itself excludes revelation. You can’t make faith reasonable when “reasonable” means using Aristotle’s epistemology. The very definition of “logic” in our Western world means Aristotelian. We don’t allow for shifting to a different logic for dealing with faith. These days almost no one in the West even acknowledges the existence of other logical systems. The few who do could tell you ancient Hebrew writers did have a logical system which was different from that of Aristotle.
They could tell you something about those differences. I dare say not a single scholar who considers himself evangelical in the broader sense of the term is among those few scholars who acknowledge something other than the logic of Aristotle. If there are any, they have no influence with their fellow evangelicals. When you plow through the writings and recorded teachings of Christian scholars, you are unlikely to find a single one whose teaching reflects an understanding of the Hebrew mind. They do exist, but you aren’t likely to encounter them, mostly because they are painted with all sorts of dismissive labels by the majority. They would love to tell what they know, but almost no one listens.
When Christians you meet refer to reason and logic, they are excluding the basic intellectual assumptions of those people who wrote the Bible. If you approach the Bible with Aristotelian epistemology, you will bring an alien viewpoint, will be an alien to what they wrote. It’s not totally alien, but missing a whole range of operations which require engaging non-intellectual perception and processing. You’ll apply your rules of logic and you’ll come up with a different understanding from those who wrote it.
Often, you’ll be plain wrong about what it all means. Aristotle’s epistemology has openly declared itself the enemy of Scripture.