I’ve been reading Brian Clegg’s book, Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives. This isn’t a review of the book, which I’m not quite halfway through. I’d like to look at his treatment of aristotelianism as viewed by our more rational age. I’d like to expand on a few things that struck me, and apply them to how the Catholic Church approaches theology.
My thesis here is that Catholic theology struggles mightily with one foot in the rational world and one in the medieval recovery of Aristotle. It’s a sort of philosophical schizophrenia. For those serious about the realm of the mind it produces moments of grave disconnect, where time-honored traditions do not fare well under modern analysis. And in the pastoral realm, we are left with seemingly heartless decisions rendered in ways that foster alienation rather than union with God. And for those who control the intellectual output of the Church, it provides a convenient cover. We can be rational when it suits us. Or we can appeal to “tradition” as it has surfaced in the intellectual tradition.
For the ancient Greeks, what we accept today as science was a matter of the mind. Thinkers reflected upon the world around them. They sought understanding and meaning from reflection and acted, taught, and lived according to those principles. They did not always trust the senses. What one saw, heard, or felt could deceive. In other words, the human thinker came first, and the world was ordered in ways in which the human brain understood it.
According to Clegg, the whole notion of experimentation was alien to Aristotle and to those of his intellectual heritage. Men and women had different numbers of teeth in their mouths–this is one of the more interesting of the bits of knowledge attributed to Aristotle. It went largely unchallenged, and if you think it would be easy enough to just count the teeth in people’s mouths to contradict it, well, then you are a modernist as seen from the aristotelian camp. The concept that observation and analysis could be done to verify a thesis was totally foreign to them. Of course, if one’s eyes or ears could deceive, it would seem the human mind could do likewise. But that didn’t seem to place in the aristotelian tradition.
Galileo, of course, comes into the book as a person who disputes some of the basic scientific principles of the day. Heavy things fall faster than light things–this was a fact of aristotelian insistence. And our experience might bear this out, for there is a difference between a boulder being dropped on our foot and a pebble. The former might cause broken bones. The latter is brushed off, barely felt. More force is applied by a more massive object, but the modern view is that is caused not by greater speed on impact, but by more mass applied to our tender foot.
Astronaut David Scott demonstrated the principle on the moon in 1971. A falcon feather and a geological hammer fell to the lunar dust at the same speed. Of course, science had long reconciled the floating feather on Earth as being more due to air resistance than its relative lightness. The experiment attributed to Galileo is that two balls of different weights
Aristotle was recovered for the West by medieval theologians, rehabilitated, as it were by Thomas Aquinas and utilized to sharpen the Church’s expression of theology. Unfortunately, the angelic doctor also brought some of the philosophical fuzziness into theology. Even the great hymn Adoro Te Devote suggests:
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur.
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius;
Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius.
In plain English:
Sight, touch, taste are all deceived
In their judgment of you,
But hearing suffices firmly to believe.
I believe all that the Son of God has spoken;
There is nothing truer than this word of truth.
I don’t know why one sense suffices, and others do not. Or why one might think that a powerful intellect could not be self-deceived. But I have the modern perspective and experience of the biggest mind game: addiction. The compulsion to indulge in substances and behaviors can overcome our most sincere intention or expression of intelligence. Saint Paul knew it well:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)
Modern rationalism has its own traps, but the idea of testing is not foreign to the Bible:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1a)
I’m not suggesting that any single approach is optimal. But there are some principles the Church misses, especially in the upper reaches of the hierarchy. I think the intellect can be deceived as easily as the senses. Our brains and everything that connects to them are fallible organs. So what hope do we have? The reality that we belong to a Body. A community is the best check on individuals who may be in danger of going astray. The widest possible input helps–something more easily possible today–if only we dare to leave out ideological ghettoes.
The Catholic hierarchy seems to inhabit neither worldview with any gusto. The approach to many moral issues seems to be based on the intellect, rather than on testing, analysis, and discernment. The approach to war, just or not, comes to mind. Wars may or may not be considered just, but many of the same evils emerge from all of them. Is there any urge to use one’s eyes, ears, and other senses to assess and test a theory which has stood for centuries, and does not appear to be contributing much, if anything, to alleviate human suffering or repairing the church’s moral leadership in the world. A more favored issue these days would involve gays and lesbians. If people are born and made homosexual, then perhaps there is something to be said for setting aside the possibly untrustworthy realm of the mind and balance discernment with what one can hear from the testimony of LGBT people and see in the value of their lives.
I do have hope that someday the Church will finish the procession over the bridge from pagan and medieval philosophy and use the full range of tools at its disposal. If sight can deceive, so can aristotelianism, or any other philosophy. We’re Catholics. We need it all. And we can use it.