Aristotle’s Epistemological Legacy: “Science” vs. “Faith”

Aristotle is considered the father of natural science because he was the father of natural philosophy.  In Book II of the Physics, Aristotle distinguishes between natural philosophy, as an outgrowth of his treatise in part A of Book II concerning things in nature, and other forms of philosophy: mathematics and metaphysics.  Physics, along with Metaphysics, is Aristotle’s systematized natural philosophy and epistemology, the link between the two, and how they ultimately interact with each other (how natural philosophy leads to metaphysics).  In many ways, the debate between “science” and “faith” is the legacy between Aristotle’s epistemology, a contest between his interpreters, defenders, and heirs, and those of the “New Science” of Francis Bacon.

We already examined Aristotle’s Metaphysics in this post, but to go over again very briefly: Aristotle asserts four causes of metaphysics, the material, formal, efficient, and final causes.  All four stack upon each, that is to say, they build upon each other because Aristotle’s metaphysics is hierarchal in nature.  He also asserts that, “by nature man seeks knowledge.”  Since final cause is the highest knowledge of first principles (metaphysics), to satisfy man’s natural desire for knowledge (and reflect his capacity for knowledge), knowledge of the final cause is ultimately what science aims for.  (Science, from scientia, simply means knowledge.) However, we do not begin with knowledge of the final cause.  Instead, we must begin, according to Aristotle, with knowledge of the material cause.  From this understanding of the material cause, we can come to know the formal cause.  Together, this constitutes what is Aristotle’s child: natural philosophy.  After coming to an understanding of natural philosophy through the material and formal causes, we can proceed to “that which is beyond nature” (metaphysics), which are the efficient and final causes.  Science, in Aristotle’s formulation, necessarily reflects his hylomorphic understanding of the world and reality: matter AND form, not just form alone (idealism), or matter alone (materialism).  Thus, we see Aristotle rejects all forms of monism because monism leads to reductionism.

Aristotle’s scientific legacy was very pronounced and longstanding.  Aristotle’s scientific views led to the rise of Ptolemaic science, which is often simply called “Greek science,” which subsequently got subsumed by Christianity.  Contrary to most a-historical critics of Christianity (that is to say, Catholicism in particular), Christianity did not reject Greek science.  All historians of science and philosophers of science know that this is simply untrue.  Christianity subsumed Greek science as it became the dominant culture and intellectual force in Late Antiquity.  As a result, Aristotle’s science became integrated into Catholic natural philosophy which any reader of all five volumes of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica would readily know.  Rather than rejecting Greek Science, Christianity came to oppose Baconian Science – the “New Science” laid out in Bacon’s paradigm shifting work New Science, which is the beginning of modern philosophy and modern science.

Bacon’s New Science rejected Aristotle’s scientific paradigm.  This was later followed by Hobbes in Leviathan, whose other motives for the social contract – beyond political philosophy – was that through the social contract (which was for purely materialistic ends in Hobbes’s philosophy) there would come the “invention of that island [which] seemed to guarantee the possibility of a materialistic and mechanistic philosophy…Hobbes had the earnest desire to be a ‘metaphysical’ materialist.  But he was forced to rest satisfied with a ‘methodical’ materialism.”  And this is precisely what Baconian-Hobbesian science, which is the groundwork for the scientific method of our modern science, achieved.  Methodical, or methodological, materialism.

The scientific method, as it is a social contract in of itself, rules out the possibilities of formal, efficient, and final causes.  It does so not necessarily because formal, efficient, and final causes are not forms of knowledge, but because it attempts to completely, and fully, understand the material cause.  The irony of Bacon’s new science then, is that it still followed the footsteps of Aristotle despite wanting to break away from Aristotle.  Aristotle maintains that knowledge of the material cause is the first knowledge we can have, which then allows us to move toward an understanding of the formal cause, which completes natural knowledge, which then allows us to move into the forms of the efficient and final causes, which is metaphysics.  Hence, for Aristotle, natural philosophy is, in a way, superior to metaphysics (or it is at least different), because without the knowledge of natural philosophy we can never reach an understanding of metaphysics (which is really the highest knowledge since it satisfies our natural desire for knowledge).  But natural philosophy comes first, and it leads to metaphysics.  Part of Aristotle’s critique of the pure metaphysicians is that they neglect material and formal cause and simply concern themselves with the efficient and final causes without the proper grounded knowledge of the material and formal causes that allows for a true knowledge of the efficient and final causes.  In some manner, Baconian science agrees with Aristotle’s account, if only the acceptance and agreement that knowledge of the material cause is prime, or comes first.

The problem, of course, of Baconian science is that it ends there.  Knowledge of material cause is it, this is all the scientific method accounts for.  It is all that there is because Bacon’s New Science, just as Hobbes correctly interpreted, was monistic materialist in grounding.  It’s not even a materialism that permits formal cause, as in Aristotle, but a reductionist materialism that leads to a universal reductionism.  Everything in the world: trees (which is a formal cause), humans (which is a formal cause), rabbits (which is a formal cause), etc., are no longer different because Baconian-Hobbesian science as ruled out the formal cause of Aristotle’s natural philosophy which gives all material things a unique form, the end result is precisely what Hobbes proclaimed, we are nothing but “matter in motion.”  Everything is matter in motion.  It is the logical fulfillment of reductionist materialism, which is the foundation of our scientific method that is rooted in Bacon’s New Science.  This is why it’s called “new” science to begin with – it’s breaking away, and is therefore new, from the old science (Aristotle).  In fact, those proponents of science who reject this implicit reductionism from Bacon’s New Science are caught between a rock and a hard place because the use of the scientific method to understand material cause, which they devote their careers to, was crafted only with material cause knowledge in mind as “legitimate” knowledge.

Unlike the claims of dilettantes or myth-peddlers, Greek science did not give birth to the “new” science of the Western Scientific Revolution.  The Scientific Revolution was a complete break with Greek science, that is remembered as the “Scientific Revolution.”  This is not to say that Greek science, which then became Christian science, did not contribute to the movement toward the new science.  As Nietzsche correctly diagnosed, Bacon’s New Science was made possible because of Greek natural philosophy and Christian, Aristotelian, natural theology – the combination of Greek natural philosophy and Thomistic natural theology had cultivated in the Western mind a curiosity about nature and a want to understand nature.  True, Aristotle’s natural philosophy and Thomas Aquinas’s natural theology had other ends in sight than just a knowledge of the natural world itself, but both Aristotle and his grandest student, Aquinas, believed that in order to reach the knowledge of the final cause one must first cultivate an appetite and understanding for the material cause.  Nietzsche ultimately concluded that Christianity’s demise was self-inflicted.  Without the ability to reach the final cause, we gave up on the final cause (God), and we determined, in part thanks to Christianity, that the material cause was all there was because Christianity’s natural theology and Greek natural philosophy had cultivated the appetite for the conquest of the natural world.  (Nietzsche believed that our giving up on final cause led directly to the next logical conclusion of this Aristotelian-Christian framework: material cause is all there is because we can at least study that.)

Skipping the other side of these silly debates between “science” and “faith,” as they often relate to ethics, we realize that the debate between science and faith is one not of “reason” or “faith” at all.  It is one of epistemology.  After all, science is not rationalistic, it is empirical – it is empiricist.  The claim that “science is rational” is a reflection of a lack of knowledge on the history of epistemology.  Aristotle was the father of classical empiricism.  Plato was the father of classical rationalism.  Aristotle’s empiricism, true as it is that it included an important place for reason to correctly understand what it was observing so as to reach an understanding of that which was beyond material and formal cause, nevertheless laid the foundations for the primacy of observation and experience which dominates modern empiricism (which begins with Bacon).  As mentioned, in some ways, Bacon’s methodological materialism is still rooted in Aristotle’s starting point of material cause.  Thus, the real debate being had is one of epistemology.  In particular, it is whether there is knowledge beyond just the material cause as Aristotle claimed, or whether the material cause is all there is (to the reductionist point that not even the formal cause, which is still part of material nature according to Aristotle, is part of the scientific method).

“Scientism,” so-called, is not what its critics claim.  Scientism is a straw man argument.  Scientism, as that term is employed, simply refers to what all philosophers already know about the scientific method and Baconian materialist methodology: material cause is all there is because that’s precisely what the scientific method is crafted to “discover.”  It is the mono, single, source of all existence.  What we call formal, efficient, and even final cause, then, is just grandiose delusion since all there is, is the material cause.  This is what the scientific method safeguards and promotes.  The problem, of course, is that we must ask ourselves whether this is all that there is?

This is where “faith” comes in.  Faith is a unique concept in philosophy, and it really begins with the Protestant Reformation.  In order to distinguish itself from apostate and paganized Catholicism, which celebrated “the whore reason” as Luther said, Protestantism had to craft an epistemology that separated it from Catholicism and also allowed it to claim that it was the pure, “primitive,” and true spirit of the early Jesus movement that, somewhere along the way, got corrupted.  Faith is the axiomatic foundation to begin with.  Catholic science, in almost every way, just inherited Greek science (and there really isn’t anything called “Catholic science”).  In fact, this is what causes the easy strawman attack against Catholicism during the Scientific Revolution of 16th and 17th centuries.  The Catholic Church, in subsuming Aristotelian science, was suddenly caught off guard by the rise of the New Science.  Protestantism eagerly embraced the New Science not for the epistemological reasons laid forth by the likes of Bacon and Hobbes, but because it was a means to confront and upend Catholic authority.

The Galileo Controversy, which really wasn’t a controversy was all but forgotten by the time of his death, did not, at that time, conclusively displace the geocentric model of Ptolemaic science.  As such, the Catholic Church, which acted as the peer-review institution for all scientific theory at the time (and was even financing and supporting the early Scientific Revolution before the attempts to break away from Church-sponsored review caused the real rupture), did not endorse Galileo; it stuck with the old model precisely because there was no “paradigm shift” to use the language of Thomas Kuhn.  Of course, we, today, live in the aftermath of that paradigm shift which occurred, not from Galileo’s work, but really from Copernicus’s work and the gradual acceptance of Copernicus over Galileo even if Galileo lived after Copernicus – so it is easy for us, with hindsight, to look back with ridicule at those “idiots” who got it wrong.  Yet, science does not work in the laugh at idiots hindsight mentality, it is as Kuhn explained: a process of paradigm shifts where a new paradigm displaces the old after some time, or sometimes quickly and violently (lest we forget that the theory of plate tectonics, which was proposed by Alfred Wegener, was ridiculed by the scions of “reason” only for Wegener to be vindicated long after his death and all those “professional scientists” who ridiculed Wegener to have been shown to be wrong).  But Catholicism’s understanding of science is rooted in Aristotle, and it is contingently related to St. Augustine’s epistemology of things and signs, that all things in nature exist as signs pointing toward the “final cause” (to use Aristotelian language), and therefore, Augustine’s hylomorphic epistemology, along with Aquinas’s natural theology, are essentially Aristotelian in spirit: knowledge of the material cause leads, ultimately, to the knowledge of the final cause (properly speaking, Catholic epistemology is classical empiricist and hylomorphic which follows Aristotle in the blending of rationalism and empiricism together).  In seeking to be different, Protestantism came to adopt the axiom of faith first – which is to say final cause before material cause.

This is most famously summed up by Cornelius van Til, one of the most important Dutch-Protestant (Calvinist) philosophers of the 20th century.  He articulated the view “it is not true because it works, it works because it is true.”  This is called “presuppositionalism” in epistemological philosophy.  But then the irony of Protestantism’s claim that knowledge of final cause is what allows us to have knowledge of the efficient, formal, and eventually, material cause, is that it simply inverted the Aristotelian and Catholic paradigm.  Rather than begin with material cause to final cause, it begins with final cause and works backward.  This begins the tradition of deductive logic – deduction from the first principle to understand efficient, formal, and material cause, rather than how Aristotle and his Catholic interpreters and heirs understands it: additive logic from material, formal, and efficient causes to reach the final cause.

Returning then to the New Science, Bacon’s scientific methodology rejects both the deductive logic of “faith” and the additive logic of hylomorphic science.  There is, and only is, the material cause.  The sad, petty, and illiterate debates between “science” and “faith” are really debates over epistemology, and more specifically, over the role of Aristotelian science within the corpus of science.  Is there only knowledge of material cause, or is there more than material cause?  In this manner we’re still stuck, in some way, with Aristotle even if we accept Bacon’s purely materialist view.

To people actually knowledgeable  on this topic and deep history of epistemology, the so-called debate between science and faith is really a debate over the influence and legacy of Aristotle’s epistemological views, as well as debates over deductive logic, additive logic, and reductionist logic (which is what this whole “science vs. faith” debate is really about).  Where we stand on these epistemological questions, and schools of logic, tells us more about our own beliefs and views, whether consciously determined or unconsciously inherited.  But for those who fall into the unconciously inherited camp, it would be wise to actually learn about how you came to unconsciously inherit your presumed epistemology before spouting the usual a-historical nonsense.  Related is the defenders of Locke’s tabula rasa view that humans have no innate ideas and those defenders of Plato that we have innate ideas, but we will not go into that debate here even if it also related to this wider debate over epistemology that erroneously, and to the detriment of all participants and listeners, goes by the foolish phrase science vs. faith.  Aristotle’s metaphysics and epistemology are within the additive logic camp.  Knowledge builds from the bottom up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s