The Analogy of Religion

Philosophy, Christian Theology, and Joseph Butler

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Cold Hard Logic: Aristotle and Demonstrative Knowledge

Aristotle’s works, as I mentioned in my last post, were not written in the form of dialogues (any dialogues he did write have apparently been lost). Instead we have works that are very dense and technical, which makes Aristotle hard to read and understand. The Posterior Analytics is no different in this regard, but since it is a relatively short work it provides us with a useful introduction to Aristotle’s philosophy and a chance to hear some of  his ideas about the nature of knowledge.

We have already heard how Plato’s defined knowledge: he said that knowledge related to that which is. Plato, moreover, thought that the objects of knowledge are the immaterial, unchanging and eternal forms (remember the form of “absolute beauty”). The objects of everyday experience do participate in the forms, according to Plato, but they themselves are only the objects of opinion, not knowledge. Building on Plato, Aristotle also thinks that knowledge must relate to what is stable and unchanging: he writes “knowledge relates to what cannot be otherwise.” But Aristotle does not shared the contention that the objects of knowledge are the forms and he also denys that we have innate knowledge in the sense Plato expresses in the Meno. The reason for this will become apparent in the next post, but first we will briefly explore another element of Aristotle’s epistemology: demonstrative knowledge.

Demonstrative or Scientific knowledge

Aristotle describes two ways of knowing. The first is pre-existing knowledge and the second is through a demonstration. Take the following argument:

1. All men are mortal

2. Socrates is a man

3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal

For Aristotle, a “demonstration” is an argument with two characteristics. First, the premises need to be true. That ‘all men are mortal’ must be a true statement and that ‘Socrates is a man’, likewise, must be knowledge (remember knowledge and truth relate to “what cannot be otherwise”). If the argument is logically valid and the premises are true then the conclusion must be true too. Both characteristics seem to be fulfilled by the argument above. The following argument, however, is invalid, but it does have true premises:

1. All men are mortal

2. Socrates is an animal

3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal

Notice that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. In contrast,take this argument:

1. All men are purple

2. Socrates is a man

3. Therefore, Socrates is purple

The argument is valid (the conclusion follows from the premises), but one the premises is clearly not true.

Aristotle calls a valid argument with true premises a “scientific syllogism” and  the conclusion “scientific knowledge”. Now the word ‘science’ obviously has a specific modern meaning, but remember for Aristotle – writing before the advent of the modern scientific disciplines – the word refers to knowledge in this broader sense.

Demonstrative knowledge, then, is knowledge gained through a logical argument. But then another question arises: how do we know whether a premise, “All men are mortal”, in this example, is true? What are the starting points for knowledge which these premises are built on? With this in mind, I will explore Aristotle ideas about sense perception, memory and the building blocks of knowledge in my next post.

Does Aristotle’s two characteristics of a demonstration seem reasonable to you? Do you agree with Plato and Aristotle that knowledge must relate to that which is or what cannot be otherwise? Why does knowledge need to relate to stable objects?

Summaries and Motivations

Three weeks and five posts have quickly past by, and I think it is time to recap some of the ideas that have been introduced. I am also going to take this opportunity to explain some of my motivations for writing a philosophy blog, why is has such-and-such a title, and what I hope to achieve.

In my first post I described different ways to talk about philosophy as a discipline and why we might want to do philosophy in the first place. I talked about the importance of testing our own beliefs, and how – I think at least – we have a moral obligation to pass some of these beliefs on to others. Craig and Moreland gave us three ways of talking about philosophy, and while this blog will incarnate all of these broad ways, you will notice that I have so far stuck to inquiring into epistemology, which is one of the traditional branches of philosophy.

My investigations first led me to Plato, and in a few weeks, after Aristotle, we will look at some of Descartes ideas about knowledge. But isn’t this blog is supposed to be about Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion? Yes it is. However, in order to understand Butler’s work, we need to be exposed to some of the history of philosophy. We need at least some familiarity with Butler’s terminology and arguments, in their broad context, before rushing into what is a sophisticated and dense philosophical work. For example, Butler talks about a “demonstration” in his introductory chapter, but unless we have read some Aristotle and Descartes we won’t be able to understand the importance of this term.

That’s the how of this blog, but what about the why? My motivations for writing are fairly simple: to learn how to do philosophy and teach it to others. Part of my inspiration came from the words of veteran philosopher(and blogger) Bill Vallicella:

If you read books of lasting value, you ought to study what you read, and if you study, you ought to take notes. And if you take notes, you owe it to yourself to assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. What is the point of studious reading if not to evaluate critically what you read, assimilating the good while rejecting the bad? The forming of the mind is the name of the game.  This won’t occur from passive reading, but only by an active engagement with the material.  The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it.  Here is where blogging can be useful.  Since blog posts are made public, your self-respect will give you an incentive to work at saying something intelligent.

So that is why I write. Now back to what I have written so far.

You will remember in my post on the Meno I introduced the term epistemology (theory of knowledge). And one of the most basic questions we can ask in this area of inquiry is “can I know anything?” Meno presents his paradox as a challenge to any epistemology that says that we can gain knowledge. Roughly speaking, it can be summarised in a question: “how can we start inquiring into a subject we know nothing about?”

Socrates replies by explaining his doctrine of the immortal soul in which we have all experienced many many past lives. For Socrates, our souls have gained knowledge in these past lives and we are only really recollecting these “true notions” as we come to know things in this life. Socrates attempts to demonstrate this by teaching a slave boy how to solve a mathematical problem by only asking him questions. I left open the question of whether Socrates solved Meno’s paradox, but we were certainly exposed to an important philosophical concept: innate knowledge.

Building on Soctrates’ distinction in the Meno between “true notions”(or opinions) and knowledge, we came to Plato’s famous Republic. First, I sketched a summary of the Republic’s purpose: a defence of Socrates, and more broadly a defence of philosophy itself. Socrates, in the extract, states that society must be ruled by philosopher kings in order to rid itself of evil. However, Glaucon, one of the dialogue partners in the Republic, presses Socrates to define what a true philosopher does uniquely, as opposed to what a craftsman does or an artist does. We discover two characteristics of a true philosopher: first they love every type of knowledge without distinction or qualification, and second they are “the lovers of the vision of truth”.

It was this second characteristic that we delved into in last time. For Socrates, the true philosopher understands the relationship, for instance, between beautiful things and absolute beauty itself. Beautiful things, as I explained, are objects or state-of-affairs we can see. For example, a sunset is one such beautiful state-of-affairs. But merely to see and recognise these beautiful things is not to have knowledge, only opinion. For Socrates, knowledge relates to that which is or pure-being and ignorance relates to that which is not or non-being. Since opinion can relate to both what is and what is not, Socrates deduces that opinion relates to the world we see around us. It is only when we understand that things that are beautiful or just or big or small or red – or any other property we can think of – are that way to the degree that they participate in absolute big or absolute justice, that we can say that we have knowledge. Only the absolute idea or form of these properties refers to pure-being or that which is, so, according to Socrates, only these forms are the proper objects of knowledge.

If that was confusing then read last weekends post!

The next post will be on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. Aristotle provides a useful contrast to Plato, by focusing more on the role of sense perception as a way of gaining knowledge. And he also never wrote in dialogue; instead, he wrote methodically on a wide range of specific topics. He presented previous views on the topic, compared and critiqued them, and then gave his own views. For these reasons, Aristotle is considered by some to be the first great philosopher to do philosophy in a recognisable sense. Whether that’s the case or not, Aristotle was clearly a genius and we shall gain a great deal from reading even a short extract from his huge corpus.

What do you think of blogging? Does it encourage depth and learning or mediocrity? Is it self-centred or egotistical, or perhaps an expression of giving?

Philosophy: Improving Beliefs Since 4th Century BC

We have all been in a discussions with friends, family, work colleagues or facebookers where our respective opinions are very different. For the most part this makes life interesting; we disagree, have a little banter, and move on. However, when it comes to more important topics such as politics, religion, and certain ethical questions, we get more defensive and aggressive. Suddenly, we are more interested in converting our dialogue partners to our perspective, and knocking down theirs.

And the above makes sense: if certain beliefs are important to us, it is probably right to pass these on to other people as part of our moral duty. However, there is a question that arises from this. Are our own beliefs correct and do we believe them for good reasons? At one level this will depend on the belief in question, but at a more fundamental level this is a question for Philosophy.

Philosophising about Philosophy

Philosophy literally means ‘love of Wisdom’. But as that doesn’t tell us much (after all, most non-philosophers are interested in wisdom too), I will look at two definitions given by professional Philosophers.

John Cottingham writes at the beginning of his anthology of Western Philosophy that ‘philosophy probes and questions the fundamental presuppositions of every area of human inquiry‘ and ‘all [philosophers] have shared the Socratic vision of using the human intellect to challenge comfortable preconceptions, insisting that every aspect of human theory and practice be subject to continuing critical scrutiny‘.

William Lane Craig and JP Moreland, in their textbook on Christian Philosophy, define Philosophy in three different ways. I find their three ways of talking about Philosophy quite helpful so I will summarise them here:

1. Philosophy is a tool to help us form a rationally justified world-view.

As Cottingham mentions above, many Philosophers share the same Socratic vision of examining ones life critically. For Craig and Morland, this involves forming well justified beliefs about life’s most important questions. They define ‘World-view’ as “an ordered set of prepositions that one believes, especially propositions about life’s most important questions.”

Philosophers, I imagine, debate the relative importance of specific questions and how one justifies their world-view. Some Philosophers completely dispute the concept of a ‘world- view’ in the first place, so Craig’s first definition like most things in Philosophy is controversial, but useful nonetheless.

2. A second order discipline

Philosophy can be used to study other “first order disciplines” – as Craig puts it. For example, Philosophers of Science could study the assumptions that underpin the scientific method, clarifying what scientific knowledge is and how it relates to other first order disciplines, such as politics, for instance. There are a myriad of possible disciplines for Philosophy to study, so I won’t attempt to list them, but bear this in mind: if a subject exists then Philosophy can study it.

3. Traditional branches of inquiry

Philosophy can also be divided into the traditional subjects of inquiry. Aristotle started this practice by writing works that concentrated on specific topics. For example, Aristotle’s Metaphysics is devoted to the study of being and now we have a branch of Philosophy called Metaphysics or Ontology. He also wrote two works on Ethics, the most famous being the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle discusses what is means to flourish as a Human and live the good life. Other branches of Philosophy include logic, and epistemology (the theory of knowledge).

These definitions, like most definitions of complex subjects, only brush the surface. You have to see Philosophy in action, so to speak, to really understand what it is all about. My next post will introduce Meno’s Paradox, which will bring to light several important concepts in Epistemology. So if definitions don’t do much for you, stick around and see some real Philosophy with one of Plato’s great Socratic dialogues, Meno.