DCMission Statement

Sunday, March 10, 2013

An Open Letter to Friends of the Dominicans:
On Aristotle and Induction

I was recently conversing with a friend who was telling me about her current enrollment in a class covering Aristotle. Given that it is all too easy to dismiss such course material as simply a dull and pedantic undertaking, I wanted to offer some thoughts that emphasize the importance of his role in the history of thought: particularly in the intellectual tradition of the Dominicans. As it turns out, I was visiting with this friend and others in the company of two Dominican sisters recently, and a conversation came up in which there arose a question regarding the distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning.

Well, I was listening to a lecture series by Prof. Daniel Robinson the other day, and by a seeming coincidence, he discussed both of these topics in a single lecture. Here is an open letter to friends of the Dominicans regarding what I learned -- and found quite interesting. I hope that you will, too.

Dear Friends of the Dominicans,

Regarding our recent conversations on various interesting topics -- particularly Aristotle, deduction versus induction, and those amidst ongoing discussions about the Dominicans -- I wanted to share with you my recent discoveries on these topics contained within some enlightening lectures by Prof. Daniel Robinson. Upon reading this letter, I hope that you will come to see the following:
  1. The significance of Aristotle, which cannot be overstated -- particularly within the intellectual tradition of the Dominican Order.
  2. Evidence to support the rejection of the Conflict Thesis, widely promoted by Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918).
  3. The emphasis placed on inductive reasoning by Christian thinkers in the High Middle Ages, in anticipation of the founding of modern science.

Before we begin, a few words are in order about Prof. Daniel Robinson, whom I will be citing in this letter. He taught at Georgetown University for 30 years and is currently a philosophy professor at Oxford, where he has been on the faculty since 1991. Within the lectures I'll be referencing, he associates himself with no particular religion. At times, he gives comments that would likely be taken by the general public to be praiseworthy of various religious figures in history. At other times, he gives scathing criticisms of certain religious groups. With regard to the Catholic Church in particular, it is worth noting that he devotes an entire lecture to excoriating the Catholic Church for Her dealings with the Malleus Maleficarum in the fifteenth century. Hence, I consider him to be a neutral source when it comes to the area of religion.

Two of the lectures focus on some of the great thinkers of the Scholastic tradition during the High Middle Ages. Prof. Robinson begins with Peter Abelard (1079–21 April 1142) and continues on to cover to varying degrees Robert Grosseteste (1175–9 October 1253), Roger Bacon (ca.1214–1294), John Duns Scotus (ca.1266–8 November 1308), Albert the Great (1193/1206–November 15, 1280), and Thomas Aquinas (1225–7 March 1274). Over the course of the discussions of these figures, we can see the intellectual foundations being laid for the great achievements to come in the following centuries. And whom do we meet at each step along the way, playing a vital role in guiding each of these important thinkers? None other than our dear friend, Aristotle. We begin with Peter Abelard.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

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Consider Peter Abelard whose life stretches from 1079 to 1142 and whose celebrated teaching earned him the title of ... Peripateticus Palatinus. A "palatine" here suggests a form of lordship, and the "peripatetics": that was a term historically assigned to the school of Aristotle. So here you have a "lordship" in the domain of Aristotelian thought. Abelard's own teacher was the philosophically acute Anselm whose instruction was a staple in Roman Catholic higher education...

— Prof. Daniel Robinson, from The Reappearance of Experimental Science

Note that the Anselm mentioned above is not St. Anslem (ca.1033-21 April, 1109), the Benedictine monk and Doctor of the Church.

From Abelard, we move on to Robert Grosseteste, who served as Bishop of Lincoln and was influential as a scholar in the fields of philosophy and theology. In a DCMission video (available here), we have presented a brief consideration of his accomplishments in the field of natural philosophy. Grosseteste leads us then to his student Roger Bacon, a Franciscan whose Opus Majus covered a wide range of topics, including the Scriptures, moral philosophy, mathematics, optics, and others.

Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253)

Roger Bacon (1214-1294):
Statue at the
Oxford University Museum

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Let me return to the thirteenth century when, again, thanks very much to Islamic commentaries on Hellenic texts, the West begins to recover Aristotle the natural scientist and sees in these Aristotelian works the possibility for genuinely progressive knowledge. Two figures of immense importance are found at the already thriving University of Oxford: both members of the Catholic clergy and both among the most instructed minds of their century. In Robert Grosseteste, the bishop of Lincoln, we find a scholar as much at home with optics as with theology. His dates are 1175 to 1253. His commentaries on Aristotle were authoritative well into the sixteenth century. Significantly, in addition to commentaries on the ethical treatises, he also studied and wrote on Aristotle's Physics. And by the time of his death, he had created at Oxford an interest in science in which his young student, Roger Bacon, would come to call experimental science. Now, Roger Bacon's great work, his Opus Majus, is one of the foundational works in the modern scientific movement.

— Prof. Daniel Robinson, from The Reappearance of Experimental Science

Robinson's mention here of the Islamic philosophers' roles in the study of the ancient Greeks is worth highlighting, as such points in the history of philosophy indicate the importance of Islamic thinkers oppose popular trends among Christians that attempt to cast Islam as an intrinsically anti-intellectual religion. The works of such Islamic thinkers such as Avicenna and Averroes are discussed briefly by Fr. Frederick Copleston, S.J. in Volume 2 of his well-known series, A History of Philosophy. Note that these Islamic figures by themselves offer evidence against the Conflict Thesis, in that thinkers such as a Avicenna and Averroes, while not Christian, are reported to have conducted studies into the natural sciences, while at the same time being religious men.

Robinson goes on to quote an excerpt from Roger Bacon's Opus Majus which highlights the fundamental importance of experience in the pursuit of Truth. We see here that the foundations for the experimental study of nature are being further developed. Note well that, although he lived 1600 years before, we see the influence of Aristotle at play here as Bacon is laying these foundations.

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Aristotle had taught that "proof is reasoning that causes us to know," and Bacon understood that this required as a proviso that the proof is accompanied by its appropriate experience and is not to be understood as the bare proof of a syllogism. Thus he says, "He, therefore, who wishes to rejoice without doubt in regard to the truth's underlying phenomenon must know how to devote himself to experiment." What an incredible statement of purpose. What a pedagogically rich, instructive, guiding precept [from Roger Bacon's Opus Majus, ca. 1267]."

— Prof. Daniel Robinson, from The Reappearance of Experimental Science

Following Roger Bacon, we encounter Duns Scotus (ca.1266-1308). Scotus was born around the time that Bacon's Opus Majus was authored, and we see that he picks up where Bacon left off in the emphasis of the role of experience in the acquisition of knowledge. As a component of Scotus's contributions, Robinson mentions his recognition of the use of inductive reasoning in the process of cultivating order within experience-based knowledge.

Bl. John Duns Scotus (1266-1308)

It is worth noting that, within Catholic contexts, I suspect that one is more likely to hear the name of Bl. John Duns Scotus, O.F.M. (beatified by Bl. John Paul II in 1993) mentioned not as a precursor to modern experimental inquiry, but rather for this Franciscan's indispensable contributions to Catholic Mariology. On this point, the Catholic Encyclopedia at NewAdvent.org states the following:

The famous Duns Scotus (d. 1308) at last (in III Sent., dist. iii, in both commentaries) laid the foundations of the true doctrine so solidly and dispelled the objections in a manner so satisfactory, that from that time onward the doctrine prevailed. He showed that the sanctification after animation — sanctificatio post animationem — demanded that it should follow in the order of nature (naturae) not of time (temporis); he removed the great difficulty of St. Thomas showing that, so far from being excluded from redemption, the Blessed Virgin obtained of her Divine Son the greatest of redemptions through the mystery of her preservation from all sin.

Catholic Encyclopedia, from the article "Immaculate Conception"

Returning to Robinson and his thoughts on Scotus:

Click Here to Play Audio Clip

The great medieval Christian philosopher Duns Scotus put the case in yet another way. "As for what is known by experience, I have this to say. Even though a person does not experience every single individual, but only a great many - nor does he experience them at all times, but only frequently - still, he knows infallibly that it is always this way and holds for all instances." Now, you know what he's getting at here, don't you? This is a forerunner of what is now called the "frequentest probability approach (probabilistic knowledge)," establishing an inductive inference as a permissible mode of knowledge. Once you've sampled a number of cases and you see that things work out - remember Aristotle's hôs epi to poly: "by and large," "for the most part," "in general" - well, you don't have to wait for an infinite time to consult every single instance. By inference - by logical inference - by a plausible, rational mode of thought - you can lay claim to understanding how this will be under all circumstances, no matter how many times it's sampled.

— Prof. Daniel Robinson, from The Reappearance of Experimental Science

Robinson goes on to explicate how Scotus's emphasis on inductive reasoning played such an important role in the intellectual developments within the studies of nature in the following centuries. He goes so far as to say that we are seeing through Scotus an "actual philosophy of science" beginning to appear, along with a "justification for experimental science itself."

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Put another way, in the words of Duns Scotus again, "Whatever occurs in a great many instances by a cause that is not free is the natural effect of that cause. This proposition is known to the intellect even if derived from erring senses." You see what's going on here. There is an actual philosophy of science being developed in these texts. Here's a justification for experimental science itself - a justification if I ever saw one. What the proposition is is this. You take a fairly large sample. You see what the general pattern of outcomes is. You have every right to conclude by inference that there is a general law controlling these things. You know that you can't observe every event for all time to come. Nonetheless, your knowledge is infallible when the pattern is so securely repeated a given number of times.

— Prof. Daniel Robinson, from The Reappearance of Experimental Science

To conclude his thoughts on these men, Robinson ends with a point that, to many today, could very well come as a bit shocking. This work by the Christian Scholastics -- which prefigured the experimental sciences -- at this time in history did not occur in spite of their faith, but because of it. The reasons for this takes us all the way back to beginning of Genesis itself. The creation gives insight into the creator. The depths of the mysteries within the natural world are seemingly impenetrable, but the intelligibility of these mysteries tell man something about himself and his own rationality. Through an increase in his knowledge about the natural world and the resulting increase in knowledge of his own nature, man - being made in God's image - discovers something about God Himself.

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Duns Scotus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon: they're defending a mode of thought in the Scholastic period that is characteristic of that period, though also original and groundbreaking. There's something quite commonsensical about it all, even amidst the analytical rigor and the formal arguments. This comes about, in a very considerable measure, as a result of Christian teaching itself: the requirement that we know God through His creation; an inquiry into our own nature, because by way of imago dei, to know oneself is to know something of God. So, again, this is not an age hostile to the senses, indifferent to experimental modes of inquiry.

— Prof. Daniel Robinson, from The Reappearance of Experimental Science

Now, lest Christians become too proud of this heritage, it is important to note that the aforementioned Islamic thinker Averroes in the 12th century is reported to have held an interest in the sciences, such as astronomy, for example. And of Avicenna before him, even in the first millennium, it has been said that "before he was sixteen he had mastered what was to be learned of physics, mathematics, logic, and metaphysics; at the age of sixteen he began the study and practice of medicine..." (from the Catholic Encyclopedia article "Avicenna"). Having been men with interests also in theology, it would seem to make sense to speculate that they understood this connection between inquiry into the natural world and knowledge of the Creator. Here we have further evidence which works contrary to the anti-religious sentiments expressed by those subscribing to the Conflict Thesis.

Avicenna (980-1037)

Averroes (1126-1198): Pictured reading over the shoulder of Pythagoras (ca.570 - ca.495 B.C.) in Raphael's The School of Athens (1511)
Born around the same time as Roger Bacon was a man who was to become one of the greatest minds in history, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Dominican and Doctor of the Church. His teacher, St. Albert the Great (ca.1206-1280) - also a Dominican Doctor of the Church - was a great thinker in his own right. His Opera Omnia (available online here), which is a compilation of his written works, consists, in one translation, of thirty-eight volumes and covers a multitude of topics including theology, philosophy, the physical sciences, psychology, anthropology, and many others. In Prof. Robinson's lecture, Scholasticism and the Theory of Natural Law, he offers us an eloquent introduction to Thomas and Albert.

Click Here to Play Audio Clip

Thomas Aquinas, Tommaso d'Aquino, the famous and great Doctor of the Church. The great thirteenth-century Dominican figure whose Scholastic philosophy continues to dominate thought within the overall religious philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. He was a prolific writer. He was not, however, the most promising of students. At least legend has it that he was a large and rather lumbering chap called by his classmates, "the Dumb Ox," and his celebrated teacher, Albertus Magnus, was persuaded that when that ox started making sounds, the entire world would quake. And in this, Albertus Magnus was correct - in this and in many other things.

— Prof. Daniel Robinson, from Scholasticism and the Theory of Natural Law

St. Albertus Magnus (1193/1206–1280)

It is worth noting that when one looks a bit deeper into Albert's works, he might come to see an influence from none other than Avicenna, the Islamic polymath mentioned earlier. The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us:

A favourite principle of Avicenna, which is quoted not only by Averroes but also by the Schoolmen [i.e. the Scholastics], and especially by St. Albert the Great, was intellectus in formis agit universalitatem, that is, the universality of our ideas is the result of the activity of the mind itself.

Catholic Encyclopedia, from the article "Avicenna"

This brings us, then, to St. Thomas Aquinas himself. Allow me to illustrate the supreme dignity of St. Thomas anecdotally. I was visiting a Dominican convent recently, and I noticed a painting of a Dominican standing at the foot of the Cross. I asked one of the sisters, "Is that St. Thomas?" She responded, "No, it is St. Dominic [i.e. the founder of the Dominican Order] -- but he would have no problem with you mistaking him for St. Thomas." Hence, one cannot overestimate the rank of St. Thomas within the Dominican tradition. What Robinson will illustrate to us now is that neither can one overestimate the rank of Aristotle within the works of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Click Here to Play Audio Clip

Now, Thomas Aquinas's deep and enduring respect for Aristotle has him invariably referring to Aristotle not by name, but simply as "the philosopher": Aristotle as a philosophical guide and often, but not always, a philosophical authority. Recall that Thomas Aquinas is going to become Saint Thomas Aquinas. He's a Dominican priest. His mission in life is service to the Church. What he's attempting to get right is the spiritual dimension of human life; the obligations we have to God: conducting our lives in such way as to be worthy of the salvation secured through the death of Jesus Christ. So this is not someone seeking tenure in a philosophy department, and he certainly isn't going to settle, once and for all, for the philosophical musings - no matter how deep and penetrating they might be - of a pagan philosopher who died in the fourth century BC. To make the point briefly, then, I should say, we don't want to read Thomistic philosophy as a gloss on Aristotelianism. The stakes are different, and the stakes - at least for Thomas Aquinas - are much higher.

— Prof. Daniel Robinson, from Scholasticism and the Theory of Natural Law

St. Thomas Aquinas
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.):
As depicted in Raphael's The School of Athens
And this brings us to the end of our journey through the High Middle Ages. We've met several monumental minds from Christianity and Islam who were forerunners to the great founders of modern science. All along the way, we've seen the influence of a man who, although he lived about 1500 years earlier, played an undeniable role in the intellectual lives of each of these men. The spirit of each is, in a real sense, present with us today in a world enriched with scientific inquiry. But the question for us remains: how will Aristotle, the great "philosophical guide," affect each of our lives?

Pax Christi Vobiscum,
Laetare Sunday
Dominica IV in Quadragesima
Feast of the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste
On the Date of the Dedication of Our Lady, Help of Christians Parish in Huntsville, Alabama, by Most Rev. Robert Baker, Bishop of Birmingham

My Meeting with Dominican Sisters at the
2012 March for Life, Washington, D.C.

Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste († 320).

According to St. Basil [ca.329-379], forty soldiers who had openly confessed themselves Christians were condemned by the prefect to be exposed naked upon a frozen pond near Sebaste on a bitterly cold night, that they might freeze to death.

Domina Nostra, Auxilium Christianorum
et Quadrāgintā Sānctī Martyrēs, orate pro nobis.