Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Platonic vs. Aristotelian World Views

[Editorial Note: This is also posted on my other blog The Eternal Universe.][Editorial Note: Sorry I did not post this sooner, but I have been busy and I have also been thinking about this for a few weeks. But several people have asked what I meant by Platonic and Aristotelian world views. This is an attempt at an explanation.]

Previously I posted on the "conflict" between science and religion. A critical distinction that I made in that post was the difference between the Platonic and Aristotelian world views. At the time I did not offer an in depth explanation of what constituted a Platonic or Aristotelian world view partly because they are rather difficult (i.e. would take several books) to explain. But not to leave those who are interested with absolutely no explanation I will attempt to give a brief explanation of the fundamentals of both. [Editorial Note: When I am giving an explanation I will often include another word in parentheses after a word which has a technical philosophical definition. The word in parentheses is a more colloquial (common) word used in the same context. Both words are interchangeable but I felt that more than one word was needed to get an idea across while still using the "correct" philosophical language (words). If you find it annoying, sorry. I can't think of a better way of doing it.]

On a basic level a Platonic world view carries with it a fundamental distrust of the material (observable) world. An Aristotelian world view fundamentally assumes that all knowledge comes from the observable world (universe). Note that these ideas are not opposite nor are they even mutually exclusive. But they are two approaches to the same thing, how we know and interact with the world.

In my previous post I implied that the Platonic world view was the root of many problems, and while it is, I should qualify that with an explanation. If not considered rightly a Platonic world view can lead to many philosophical (intellectual) problems. By way of explanation I will use a simple analogy, specifically tailored to my assumed audience, those who read this blog. This analogy will not work for everyone.

When we are first learning physics the standard approach is to learn physics with a heavy emphasis on the algebra involved. This means that the equations are given to us in a standard form, from which we work problems and (hopefully) come to an understanding of the physical principles involved. When we have passed this step and we have achieved a certain level of understanding, generally one then returns to the basic physical principles, and relearns them but now with an emphasis on deriving the equations and solving more complex problems using calculus instead of algebra. This allows us to solve problems and answer questions that were impossible before. Problems such as including wind resistance in projectile motion problems. The underlying physical principles have not changed, just our approach to the problem.

This different approach fundamentally assumes that the world is not as "simple" and "easy" to deal with as is usually presented in introductory physics classes (i.e. the world is not made up of spherical cows). While things may be more difficult, and require more training and experience, the outcome allows more understanding and insight.

For all simple cases there is no difference between an algebra based approached to physics and a calculus based approach. As a matter of fact if we tried to solve every basic physics problem by first writing down the Lagrangian for the system and then finding the equations of motion we would never have time to finish solving all of the simplest problems. So in some cases it may even be advantageous to use an algebra based approach than to use a calculus based approach. But if we do this we must realize that we are using a simplification and to not get bogged down in the potential shortcomings of the purely algebra based approach.

Now relating this back to the Platonic and Aristotelian world views, the Platonic approach recognizes that the world is very messy and is not "ideal", meaning that it cannot easily be reduced down to simple, easily solvable problems. There is no problem with this, as this is also the view taken by an Aristotelian world view. But the problem arises when someone who holds to a Platonic world view begins to think that the universe is actually made up of spherical cows (i.e. atoms are "hard" and perfectly spherical, all things can be considered to be point particles, forces behave exactly like 1/r^2 laws etc.). So the problem is not that spherical cows (simplifications) are used to solve (comprehend) problems (reality) but when we begin to actually think that the universe is made up of spherical cows (ideal, according to our understanding) we run in to intellectual (philosophical) problems (mistakes).

You may be thinking, "What in the world is he talking about? How does this relate to anything important? And does this have any bearing on how the world, and our society works?" Well to answer those questions let me give a few examples.

First, recently there was a post on this blog that included this comic:

Without knowing it (or maybe he did) by posting this comic Joe was showcasing the Platonic world view (and one of the problems with it). Essentially the XKCD comic expresses the idea that the further away from reality we move, the more "ideal" or "pure" we are getting. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that in order to understand the world we must move away from all the "messy" stuff and move in the the realm of pure thought. Only then can we begin to understand anything. It is interesting to note that in seven short comments attached to that post the Platonic world view was debated, debunked and rejected in favor of the Aristotelian world view (and Clark Goble even managed to include both Heidegger's and Wittgenstein's arguments against the Platonic nature of language, impressive. And Bill, John Locke and John Stuart Mill would be proud, though many philosophers would try to lynch you for it).

So other than comics where does any of this show up? Again I need to emphasise that the basis for the Platonic world view is a fundamental distrust of reality (observation, sensations). This fundamental distrust of reality leads to all kinds of weird wacky things, like this gem that my wife came across one day. On a basic level the Platonic (or Platonic like) world view leads people to assume that in order to learn anything "real" or of value, they must disassociate themselves with reality (the physical world). This was the motivation behind the drive to use "experimental drugs", such as LSD, in order to experience things that could not be "experienced" in the physical world (this was explained to me by a philosophy student who "had friends that did drugs").

There are other implications to this but to sum up it, is enough to say that even though the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to the world both consider the physical world to be "messy" at first, the Platonic approach feels that the "messiness" prevents the discovery of the world and thus in the ideal case we must remove the influences of all the "messy" stuff from reality, including our senses and anything that has to do with our "physical" bodies. The Aristotelian approach recognizes that the world is difficult, and while simplifications (math, equations, words, language) can be used to make it easier, the simplifications are just that, a simplification and not an ideal. Thus a Platonic approach demands that new knowledge comes from the ideal world (Plato's world of Forms), while on the other hand the Aristotelian approach assumes that knowledge comes from observation (sensation) of the physical world, and is verified again by observation. All knowledge according to the Platonic approach, by definition, is not verifiable in the Aristotelian sense, but is entirely determined by whether or not one can "think correctly" about it.

So how does this relate to the original motivation for this post involving the "conflict" between science and religion? On a fundamental level science takes an Aristotelian approach to how we learn and find out things about the universe. It asks, "What do we observe and how can we explain what we observe?" While science (and physics in particular) takes an Aristotelian approach, it is not exclusive. We still see a substantial amount of Platonic thought in science, but it is not as common as it is in other fields of research (Math is one that is substantially Platonic).

Perhaps the most prominent place Platonic thought shows up is in religion. I should emphasize that there is nothing about religion that demands Platonic thought, but at times it does seem rather conducive to Platonic thought as it mostly deals with things that are not (obviously) related to the five senses (I put the "obviously" in there because I disagree with that assertion). But if we are working under a Platonic world view then it makes sense that if one considers the mental or the abstract (the Platonic Forms) to be the most pure and perfect then that is where one would consider their God to be. This leads to the argument that God does not partake of the physical world and does not have any part in it other than being the unmoved mover (important note, there is an important distinction here between having an unmoved mover, as was Aristotle's concept, and thinking of God as the unmoved mover). In the end religion (and other "intellectual" fields, such as philosophy and math) became dominated by Platonic thought, while Aristotelian thought dominated science. Again this was not an exclusive domination (nor even correct) but that is the way it stands today in our society.

This causes problems when the question is asked, "Can you prove that God exists?" A Platonist would respond with a philosophical argument for the existence of God, an Aristotelian would respond with a demonstration of the existence of God. In the first case scientists (who are largely Aristotelian in their approach to knowledge) would reject the arguments as invalid because in order to "prove" anything according to science it must be demonstrated (mathematical proof does not count, it has to be demonstrated by experiment, see string theory). Thus the requirements for "proof" are fundamentally different for the Platonic approach and the Aristotelian approach, and because 80-90% of religion takes a Platonic approach, the tendency of scientists is to reject religion as invalid. Unfortunately this rejection first assumes that religion is fundamentally Platonic, and that any approach to it must first be Platonic (including a "scientific" approach).

This difficulty goes away if an Aristotelian approach is taken with respect to both science and religion. In other words it must be assumed that the same modes of knowing can be used for both, which depending on your views of religion (or science, or both) may be an issue. But if the same method is used for both then all apparent difficulties go away (interesting note: it works both ways, if a Platonic approach is taken in both cases then there is no conflict, but as long as a different approach is taken for either science or religion then there will be a conflict).

So now after this long explanation I will return to what I started out by saying:

On a basic level a Platonic world view carries with it a fundamental distrust of the material (observable) world. An Aristotelian world view fundamentally assumes that all knowledge comes from the observable world (universe). Note that these ideas are not opposite nor are they even mutually exclusive. But they are two approaches to the same thing, how we know and interact with the world.

The problem comes when we take the Platonic distrust of the material world to the point that we think that the material world inhibits our understanding. This is in opposition to the Aristotelian view, which is that even though the observable world may be difficult to understand it is the basis of our knowledge and our understanding and we cannot reject it as the fundamental source of knowledge.

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