Thursday, February 02, 2012

Saint Thomas Aquinas Confounds Averroës

SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS was my patron for my confirmation; his feast was celebrated a few days ago in the new calendar.

Saint Louis Art Museum, in Saint Louis, Missouri - Aquinas defeats Averroes.jpg

A painting, St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës by Giovanni di Paolo, ca. 1445-50, at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Saint Thomas is famed as the 13th century scholar who, along with his master Saint Albert the Great, harmonized the teachings of Aristotle with Christianity. Saint Thomas was a great man of faith and a mystic; he also fiercely separated that which was true in Aristotle with that which is false and incompatible with the Faith. This separation, which was not done easily or without controversy, led to a flourishing of both theology and modern science.

Many of Saint Thomas' contemporaries either became overly slavish followers of that ancient pagan philosopher, similar to the Islamic scholar Averroës — as depicted in the painting above — or rejected everything in Aristotle, eventually leading to a nearly complete skepticism. These two diverging trends are still found with us today, as is a renewed study of Saint Thomas is in the Church.

There are two main philosophical approaches to knowledge in the West. Top-down or deductive reasoning, which goes from general principles to specific instances, is associated with the Greek philosopher Plato, and is most commonly found in mathematics. Bottom-up, or inductive reasoning, takes individual instances of things, and seeks to generalize these individuals into species and genera; this is common most especially in the biological sciences, and is associated with the philosophy of Aristotle.

Both of these approaches are popular, as well as the skeptical approach which denies any certain knowledge, but unfortunately, a unified philosophy is rather rare — intellectually, you must be on one side of the fence or the other, although many do sit on one side or the other depending on the question asked. Aquinas has been often depicted in the 20th century as being a complete Aristotelian, and this had great impact on the Church this past century — to her detriment, in my opinion.

If we start with the assumption that all that we can know is what we directly sense — this is considered rather progressive in some circles — then a theology based only on this will be centered on the human person and his experiences. We have seen this in catechesis — children are gathered around in a circle, and the facilitator asks them “What does Jesus means to you?” — instead of the teacher teaching the doctrine of the Church regarding the Person of Jesus Christ, True God and True Man. Likewise, we are told that the holy water found in the baptismal pool at the front of the church is a reminder of our baptism; since we cannot see the prayers imposed on the water by the priest, other useful characteristics of holy water are not mentioned, such as its use in exorcism and blessing. This theology implies that Catholicism is simply one of many man-made roads “up the mountain” and so is ultimately destructive to the faith.

“I feel that the Holy Spirit is the ghost of a bird. And the bird is on fire,” says the child. “Very good,” says the facilitator, “Thank you for sharing.”

This seemingly Aristotelian, or bottom-up understanding of knowledge led to the old hippie slogan of the 1960s: “Question Authority.” I recall my public school education — perhaps around the fourth grade — when we were taught to distrust explicitly the authority of commercial advertising, and implicitly to distrust the authority of religion, most especially Christianity. But then we were told that we had to trust our teacher about the plight of the whales, which according to her authority, were in great decline and therefore had to be saved via political action. When these hippies came into power — or reached ‘empowerment’ — they did not like their authority being questioned.

This bottom-up thinking also was strongly involved in the acceptance of modern art in the Church. Jacques Maritain’s book Art and Scholasticism turned away from the Platonic hierarchical view of beauty and instead embraced the more muddled idea of “everything is beautiful, in its own way.” This is nice and tolerant but isn’t helpful at all in separating the wheat from the chaff in the arts — and can be even destructive when the nihilism of sin is denied and is given equal dignity with everything else.

A pure bottom-up approach to knowledge is considered to be progressive. One geometry curriculum has children (sitting in circles and assisted by a facilitator) attempting to determine the rules of geometry by cutting out shapes from cardboard and measuring the length of the sides. The crucial top-down axiomatic propositions and logical proofs leading to theorems, found in Euclidean geometry, are removed from the curriculum.

By creating laws of geometry that are true for himself, a student learns to question the authority of Euclid.

But this bottom-up preference is not only found in progressive circles, but also in elite conservative opinion. This conservatism has an extreme hatred of Plato — usually due to his notion of the ‘philosopher king’ found in The Republic and Plato's dislike of wealth. This conservatism strongly promotes realism in the arts — which is undoubtably bottom-up — while neglecting (or rejecting as barbarous) the Iconographic tradition of the Church, which is rather more top-down in emphasis.

There are some philosophies of science that are rigorously bottom up, but these come to the conclusion that there is no cause and effect — things just happen. But this isn’t science at all, and is simultaneously useless, ugly, and untrue. That much of the social sciences and academic pedagogy are based on these philosophies means that the results of these are likely to be wrong, and very wrong.

So bottom-up philosophy is assumed to be avant-garde or elite. But ironically, this same attitude can be attributed to the most backward and ignorant peasant. I’ve recently read that a surprising large fraction of the population believes that the sun orbits around the earth. But if you raise children to question authority, and to only take direct sense-experience as being true, then geocentrism is the falsely logical conclusion: certainly the sun appears to rotate around the earth, and nothing but the authority of highly detailed observations and advanced mathematics can prove it otherwise. So contemporary philosophy keeps people chained deep inside of Plato’s cave: and perhaps as a consequence they wear other, more worldly chains as well, forged by the powerful. (Moderns tend to forget that it was Catholics — along with the patronage and imprimatur of the Pope — who showed that geocentrism was not correct: Galileo’s fault was that he was arrogant and claimed too much.)

This does not mean that a top-down Platonic understanding is no longer used. The trouble is, that you can only use Platonism well if you go “all the way up” to God as the first principle, the Source, the One, the Supreme Being, the Font of all that is good, true, and beautiful. The German Idealists (as far as I can tell) did their philosophy top-down, but their Source of all Good was very much a lesser god: usually something like the State, the Constitution, the Proletariat, the Party, the Environment, or the Race became the idols of their worship. This inevitably leads to competing and destructive ideologies.

It is from this notion of a lesser god that we get the emphasis on  ‘the community’ or the congregation in ‘spirit of Vatican 2’ ecclesiology. But just what is this ‘spirit’? Certainly not the Holy Spirit, but rather one of these lesser gods of a truncated top-down philosophy.

This kind of top-down approach was also used in mathematics, which was reduced entirely to set theory. In the United States this was imposed on the schools in the “New Math” curriculum. New Math was supposed to help the country train more engineers to compete with the Soviet Union in aerospace technology, but it precisely had the opposite effect. Geometry in particular, when taught with a set-theoretical approach, is incredibly obtuse. Actually, set theory is not necessarily a good foundation for mathematics — it is controversial — because it does not go far enough up, and makes some problematical ontological assumptions. Whenever mathematicians disagree on anything, there is usually a philosophical error somewhere, and so they are arguing about higher metaphysics and not mathematics.

Bad top-down ideologies harm human knowledge. The Communists banned the study of ‘bourgeois’ cybernetics — an early synthesis of computers, robotics, and telecommunications — to its detriment, as did the National Socialists when disparaging the ‘Jewish’ sciences of mathematics and physics. And I might add that the ideology of sola scriptura harms the physical sciences, as the ideology of pure materialism harms the psychological sciences.

I was trained in theoretical physics, and this field of natural philosophy weds Platonic mathematics with purely observational measurements: and this marriage of top-down and bottom-up discovery is quite fecund. Computer science is also an incredibly fertile field, and it too marries top-down mathematics with bottom-up electrical engineering, and it has even become poetical as artists use the technology to make things more harmonious and beautiful. The geometry of Euclid has a unified top-down and bottom-up method, with its use of propositional logic and manual construction of shapes with a compass and straightedge. It proved to be successful throughout thousands of years, finding favor with pagans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even atheists, until the new ideologies abandoned it in the 1960s: architecture and the minds of children have suffered ever since.

Aquinas himself was not a pure bottom-up Aristotelian, for the philosophical writings he quotes the most are top-down Platonic. Theologies that are “more Thomistic than Thomas” and do not take this into account are bound to lead to gravely wrong conclusions. Instead, in Catholicism and the other sciences, a unified approach works best. We cannot take the human experience and split it off from ultimate reality, nor can we simply work on general principles while ignoring the human person.

The divorce between faith and reason — first found in the universities after Saint Thomas, and later accepted by the Reformation — is near the root of the modern problem. A unified, catholic, both/and approach which is simultaneously top-down and bottom-up is best. Catholicism is worthless if it is purely intellectual without practice, and it is ignorant if it practices without belief. The same goes for all fields of endeavor.


  1. That was a very deep piece. I had a little trouble following it at times, but the ending put it all together. So ultimately it comes down to the means justify the ends vs. the ends justifying the means?

  2. Yeah, I need a good editor -- I have trouble following it too. It is overly long and I cut out lots of expository stuff for the sake of brevity.

    Regarding ends versus means, I did not consider morality here. Rather, my emphasis was on knowledge and not actions. We can use the same principles regarding morality however. A purely bottom-up approach would analyze what people actually do and from that extrapolate what they ought to do. This usually leads to moral laxity. An insufficiently top-down approach to morality usually leads to tyranny.