Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 2

by nonewsisnew

Both Christians and Muslims had a great challenge in learning how to cope with Aristotelian ideas.

One Islamic approach to dealing with a comprehensive and reasonable system that didn’t include God was to further develop the “Theory of Two Truths”.  This was done by primarily by the brilliant Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes.  This approach considered there to be two bodies of truth, religious and secular.  By creating incompatible sets of truth so solve the problem of Aristotle being so secularly awesome, a new problem was created.  Why adhere to the secular body of truth when the religious one is equally true but given by God?  This ended up stunting Islamic thought because truth that was reasoned to was harder to attain than truth revealed.  Why work through reason when revelation will give different but just as true answers?  This stunted growth in thought is one reason why Christian countries pulled ahead of Islamic ones in production of science, whereas before the development of the Theory of Two Truths the Islamic societies were more advanced and developed.

The theory of Two Truths is very useful if kept within limits.  Erving Goffman’s work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life touches on the idea that even in our own lives, we present different versions of the truth to different people.  Scripturally this means that various passages aren’t all meant to be understood in the same way.  Some passages are poetry, some are history, some are myth (I’m looking at you, Tobit), but all are used to portray an accurate picture of God.  The single truth of God, just like the single truth of ourselves, are presented in a variety of different and sometimes superficially contradictory ways.  Simply put, there is a truth in the story of say, Noah, about who God is.  Changing the story to make it more historically factual would lose that truth.  However, changing the story to express the truth of God can mask the truth of what historically happened.  Two truths — both contradicting each other, but neither wrong if understood within its own context.

Just as secular people are doing today by ignoring the context of scriptural truth, a la below:

Bible conntradictions according to some atheists.

Bible contradictions according to some atheists.

So too do some religious people do when they ignore the contexts of scientific truth, a la below:

dinofeedingThis is the downfall of the Theory of Two Truths.  It becomes easy to ignore one truth for the sake of another.

So why did Christian countries not end up with a similar incompatibility between faith and reason?  Why is the Theory of Two Truths a fringe theory in Western society today?  The answer is in that great dumb ox, Aquinas.  He synthesized Aristotle and Christianity by applying Aristotelian reason to Christian truths.  In this way neither faith no reason was separated from the other, so that both could flower together rather than one supersede the other.  One major way he did that was by utilizing the four causes of change that Aristotle came up with and showing how they can fit within Christian belief.  The five proofs of God Aquinas gives aren’t so much to prove God exists (Aquinas already believed that), but rather to prove secular reason isn’t incompatible with God.  This was a big question in his day, as Islamic scholars had only recently introduced Aristotle to Western Europe; whose scholars seldom had any training in Greek (this again shows how much more advanced Islamic society was then Christianity society was at that time).  Had Christian scholars taken the approach of their Islamic brothers, we might never have had the scientific revolution.  Therefore the five proofs of God Aquinas came up with mark quite a turning point in our intellectual history: not because they definitively proved God exists but because the definitively proved faith and reason can intermingle.

Next Time: The first cause of change.