Clear Thinking

Modern science stems from Aristotelian methodology

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Philosophy

Everybody has heard of Socrates, the Greek philosopher who was put to death by his own people in 399 BC. The charge against him was that he had “corrupted the youth,” but in reality it was his profound intellectual humility that killed him. He was as honest a man as you could imagine, but his honesty was a thorn in the side of the ambitious and pretentious: if you claim to know nothing you will very quickly irritate those who think they know everything!

Less well known is Socrates’s successor Aristotle, who first raised clear thinking to an art form — and called it Logic. He taught the world to think straight by analyzing the way people express their opinions and beliefs and showing us how to distinguish sound arguments from false ones. In essence: a sound argument is one that comes to a conclusion that’s consistent with the agreed facts; an unsound argument ignores at least some of the facts and comes to a false and misleading opinion. If only we could have Aristotle by our side every time we read a newspaper or hear a political speech!

Aristotle eventually became the favored thinker of the Christian West. St Thomas Aquinas certainly regarded him as the greatest of the pre-Christian thinkers and relied heavily on his strict and respectful attention to Truth in order to elaborate his own great theological and philosophical works.

In case that sounds all too abstract, there is something more to be added, something practical and powerful that affects every one of us, and that is this: If it were not for Aristotle and his Christian followers, modern Science could never have happened. The scientific approach to experimentation, the testing of hypotheses, the weighing of evidence, the respect for impartial research, all stem from that Aristotelian methodology. The Christian synthesis of Faith and Reason is his enormous bequest to us.

A remarkable 13th-century English Franciscan, Roger Bacon by name, shared in that same strong Aristotelian tradition of clear thinking. He teaches us to avoid error by helping us to identify what he calls the four causes of human ignorance. They are: (1) following the example of feeble and unworthy authority; (2) being a slave to long-established and unthinking habits; (3) accepting the untested opinion of “the man in the street,” and (4) concealing one’s own ignorance while pretending to be wise.

This is a rich inheritance. The Western Christian tradition together with experimental science and the technologies that arise from it could never have come to pass without Aristotle and those Christian thinkers who built on the foundations that he laid.

 

David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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