Aristotle on His Head

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 4:10 AM

Aristotle and his friends clearly stated only philosophers can really get where we are going. Thus, it was their duty to lay it all out for everyone else. To this day, we still use a significant amount of Aristotle's formal structure for human knowledge. Unfortunately, we carry forward his ideas without really ever questioning if they are valid.

Ed Hurst previously presented an overview of Western epistemology in part 1 of this series, “Conflicting Kingdoms: the Biblical Worldview and the West.”

Aristotle willingly explained how he got his structure. It was a matter of observing directly, or collecting the observations of other wise philosophers, and building from those observations the structure. That is, examine all the various examples of a given thing, then draw out from those examples the nature of the thing. Things related were placed near each other in a yet wider structure, and so on, until the whole of human academic pursuit had been organized. The priesthood of philosophers thus presented to the rest of mankind a fully organized grasp of the world.

From what is known this way, things which cannot be observed directly could also be extrapolated, as surely it would all follow the same rules. So Aristotle postulated how beings higher than humans might exist, and determined what must be true about them. The result is essentially agnosticism, by virtue of eliminating much of what various religions asserted, but which did not fit Aristotle's logic.

From this, we can discern a distinct epistemology. That fancy word means the study of how humans can know things. Ideas which have a basis in logic, thus fitting the rational ideals, were correct. Ideas which could not be tested in the same way as everything else were rejected as mere belief. Most of Eastern philosophical structure was thus tossed aside as superstition. As you can see, this in the long run brings us to the Scientific Method. Knowledge then becomes whatever is verified, mostly by trying your hardest to disprove it, and failing. The point is, it's not called “knowing” if it can't be verified under a commonly accepted matrix of tests.

That's fine if everything you want to know can be confined to what you can observe, even if only indirectly through effects. If you are content with results which can be quantified and qualified under that matrix or values, the world stands pretty well understood. You can determine your own measures of success, construct the means to test for failure, eliminate what won't work, and find a path which leads to a good life. Sounds like a good religion, no?

What Aristotle tossed aside is something entirely outside that matrix. A fundamental element shared by most Eastern cultures is the insistence success in this life is not all it's made out to be. Maybe failure here is okay if by some other measure you have done well. Aristotle and his friends rejected that out of hand. Eastern thought requires accepting the notion a thing could be known which must be revealed, not discerned. ANE epistemology in particular asserts the only stuff really worth knowing is revealed knowledge, and everything else is just mechanisms.

So it is with the God of the Bible. The first element in revelation is you can't possibly get it on your own. If God doesn't reveal it to you, it remains unknown and unknowable. That's because whatever “it” is remains a part of a living God. Truth is by no means some objective body of logic and reason out there, standing on its own. Truth is “truth” only insofar as it reflects something of God's nature as the Person. A thing cannot be true on its own, but is true only if God says so. Disciples of Aristotle reject that, since they can't imagine a person who doesn't change his mind. That is, they can't trust an Almighty God to provide all truth at His whim, because He might change it later, and you'll be caught in an impossible bind. To them, deities were notoriously flighty, arrogant, loaded with whims, and all too powerful. The God of the Bible is nothing like that.

Even if He were like that, the biblical approach is to state God has every right to act that way if it suits Him, since He made it all. In other words, God is unassailable. There is no standard except Him, so any standard raised up to test Him is already sin. The matrix is pretty simple, in that it carries a fundamental assumption of morality. There are two things: (1) What God says, and (2) everything else. And that number (2) is by definition sin, which includes falsehood and death.

Indeed, we find it well nigh impossible to fully explain the difference between East and West from the Western position. That is in part because true knowledge in the Bible cannot be brought down to human language. It can be perceived on some level other than the intellect. The purpose in knowing is not to own and control, but to obey those “whims” of God.

The aim of it all is to meet His approval, and that approval is not discerned by any standard at all, but by a means which cannot be put into words. Each and every human is then utterly dependent, moment by moment, throughout all of their lives, upon that living Being. Few things are truly locked down in the mind, because there is the assumption whatever you have there is surely incomplete. Somewhere down the road, what you “know” will be shown false. Yet, you are bound to obey what you know at the time, even if it falls short. God is pleased that we intend to obey, not in the obedience itself.

That would drive Aristotle and his friends mad.

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.

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