Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Greek Philosophy – The Seeds of Doubt - Aristotle (The History of Epistemology! - Part 5)

In this series, we explore epistemology, or “How do we know what we know?” I think such a question is as relevant as ever, especially given our culture’s fairly recent leanings toward postmodernism – the belief that traditional norms should be abandoned in favor of abstractness. Josh McDowell defines postmodernism as “a worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.” In other words, a postmodernist would claim that truth is a variable, and that it is relative to each individual who attempts to discover it. In the postmodern world, there is the potential for more than one truth.

Is truth relative, or is it an absolute? And does it matter? Read on…

In the last entry, we saw that the Greek philosopher Plato believed that all perfect knowledge was inborn into every man – it was simply left to a lifetime of experiences to “discover” this whole truth. Plato’s foremost student was Aristotle (384-322 BC), who represents the third in a series of influential Greek philosophers (after Socrates and Plato). Aristotle continued to refine the thinking of the time, which was in stark contrast to the pagan times that went before.

Like many who have come after him, Aristotle speculated that in order for a man to live a good life, he must strike a balance between excess and scarcity. In other words, a good life is achieved through finding a balance in all things. Presumably, this philosophy extended to nearly all aspects of life, including that of religion and the existence of God. I cannot find that Aristotle took a strong position in either direction on the role and existence of God in our lives. Instead, his arguments asked men to reason their way to the truth.

In many ways, this would seem like an appeal to science as the ultimate authority in establishing a philosophical argument. Actually, Aristotle knew very little about science. His thoughts along these lines included the thinking that the earth was the center of the universe, that women were an inferior form of life compared to men, and even that men had more teeth than women. This seems ludicrous in light of the ease with which he could have simply counted the number of teeth in a given sample of people, but remember this – science did not really meet up with math and hypothesis testing until the sixteenth century. It was typical for philosophers and “wise men” of the time to simply draw inferences based on personal feeling and highbrow banter.

One of Aristotle’s favorite ways to “prove” his point was through the use of dialectic. Dialectic was the basis of “logic” for many of the Greek philosophers. It is simply a contrived written argument between two people of differing opinion, both of which wish to convince the other of their point of view. These can take a lengthy written form of argument between the two individuals – but the end result is that both sides were written by the same philosopher. I can write my own short dialectic right here:

Person A: Anchovies are tasty!

Person B: No, they’re not!

Person A: Yes, they are, because I eat them every week!

Person B: Oh…maybe they are tasty. I’ve never tried them.

Yes, that is a very simplified and silly form of dialectic. But here is the point - dialectic is not proof and it is not absolute. Karl Popper, twentieth century philosopher of science, said this when he argued against dialectic: “The whole development of dialectic should be a warning against the dangers inherent in philosophical system-building. It should remind us that philosophy should not be made a basis for any sort of scientific system and that philosophers should be much more modest in their claims” - (just a tip - while this is good, don't listen to everything that Popper said).

Where am I headed with all of this? My point is pretty simple. Greek philosophers, including most notably Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle changed thinking radically, by bringing man’s reason and personal opinions into the equation. Prior to this, men looked to the one true God or the pagan gods for answers and absolutes. When men (and women) get together and begin to speculate about a topic, without any reference to an absolute authority, they practice what I like to call “pooling ignorance”. Anyone can take the time to make the craziest ideas seem possible, if they spend their efforts on ways to turn a phrase, create a hypothetical example, or manipulate big words. In fact, I think a lot of college courses are designed to do exactly that.

But what happens to absolute truth in a world influenced by human philosophy? The answer is that it gets ignored, just as it does every day in our postmodern world. As Pastor Voddie Baucham, Jr. says in his excellent book The Ever-Loving Truth, “The denial of absolute truth is a hallmark of modern thinking.”

But the key to understanding an epistemology series is this – just because absolute truth is being ignored all around us does not mean that it does not exist! Whether man chooses to believe that 1) God exists, 2) that He has a plan and a desire for each of us, 3) that He sent His Son to die for us, and 4) that we all have a chance to live with Him for eternity – the truth of these statements is unchanged by man’s thoughts. It is true, and we Christians should not be ashamed of the boldness of that thought. Our position of one absolute truth would have been deemed unacceptable in Aristotle’s day. It is labeled as “intolerant” in our world today. I don’t care. IT IS TRUTH.

Back to the start of the Epistemology series…

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