Have Aristotle’s Metaphysics Been Proven Wrong?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

OK, those of you who have never thought about Aristotle and don’t even know what the word metaphysics means are probably already yawning, but hang on for a minute.  Briefly, why should you care about Aristotle?  Because the medieval Christian theologians (Thomas Aquinas being the most brilliant example) built their conceptions of God and humans with the help of Aristotle’s ideas.  They combined what they learned from special revelation (the Bible) with Aristotle’s philosophical ideas to bequeath us the conceptions of God and humans that most orthodox Christians still hold today.

It was Aristotle’s metaphysics, in particular, which aided these learned men of the church.  What is metaphysics?  In simplest terms, the study of being.  Metaphysics helps answer the ultimate questions.  According to the great philosopher Jacques Maritain in his book The Degrees of Knowledge, metaphysics deals with “objects [in the mind] abstracted from, and purified of, all matter.”

Maritain continues:

These are objects of thought which not only can be conceived without matter, but which can even exist without it, whether they never exist in matter, as in the case of God and pure spirits, or whether they exist in material as well as in immaterial things, for example, substance, quality, act and potency, beauty, goodness, etc.  This is the wide domain of [metaphysics], knowledge of that which is beyond sensible nature, or of being as being.

Questions of God, causality, goodness, existence – all of these are the domain of metaphysics.  So hopefully now you have an idea of why Aristotle and metaphysics are important to Christians.  And, of course, since Aristotle and metaphysics are important to us, they face constant attack from skeptics of Christianity.  One of those attacks goes like this: “Aristotle’s ideas were all disproven by Descartes and other philosophers of the Renaissance 400 years ago.”  If Aristotle’s metaphysics, and thus the metaphysics of Aquinas and other medieval Christian thinkers, have been refuted, then our conceptions of God and man are completely wrong-headed and need to be radically revised.

Has Aristotle’s metaphysics been refuted?  Not at all.  What the Renaissance thinkers did was refute some of Aristotle’s scientific ideas.  Again we learn from Jacques Maritain:

Despite what certain popularizers may say . . . , these charges do not stand up in the case of the philosophy of Aristotle when carried back to its authentic principles. . . . It should be recognized that too great a confidence in the intelligibility of things and in the processes of reason . . . has played its part (and perhaps an overwhelming part) in the errors of ancient science. . . . [However] there is no necessary link between the mechanics, the physics and the astronomy of the ancients on the one hand, and the metaphysics or natural philosophy of the scholastic tradition on the other.

Maritain further explains:

The whole structure of the experimental science of the ancients has doubtless crumbled and its collapse may well appear to anxious minds to spell the ruin of everything the ancients had thought.  But in reality, their metaphysics and their philosophy of nature, in their essential principles at least . . . , have no more been affected thereby than the soul is changed when the body disintegrates.

The fall of Aristotelian experimental science was not also the fall of Aristotelian metaphysics.  The latter was not built on the former, and thereby was quite able to stand when the former collapsed.  This means that the classical Christian conceptions of God and man remain intact and as strong as ever, and skeptics must still deal with them.

  • Walter Tucker

    Bill, Aquinas may have built on Aristotle seeing that his philosophy was consistent with some Christian concepts. But in all seriousness, Aristotle wasn’t a prophet and whether he was right or wrong only matters for Aquinas, not for the Christian faith. If Aristotle, or even Aquinas were found to be fallible, I still think the Bible stands.

    All that said, much of what Aquinas said is useful, powerful, and I think right on. But if we get too hung up on having to defend Aristotle, we might have to say Christianity is based on Greek ideas, which you and I spend a great deal of time showing is not the case. It is based on Hebrew concepts that just happen to have some commonality with some Greek concepts. That commonality probably comes from natural revelation, not so much from Aristotle (except that he was wise enough to see it).

  • Anonymous

    I think what science has taught us about Aristotle is that he was a master of making stuff up as he went along. He didn’t base his science on observation, just on his personal hunches about how things probably worked. That makes me much less interested in an appeal to Aristotle’s authority in general. And I don’t like the approach of saying, “You have to read this old book, and this old book, and this whole series of old books before you’re allowed to have an opinion on the claims I assert are true. Until then, I’m right by default.”

    That being said, I think Walter is right about concepts just happening to line up. Even if you believe that Aristotle’s metaphysics is right and that Christianity is right, insisting that Aristotle must be refuted is a red herring, a distraction from the real issues.

  • Anonymous

    I think the point of Aristotelian authority is perhaps badly phrased. The tone of most comments seems to be that the pedigree of an idea reaching back to Aristotle adds no value; Aristotle was wrong about many things. Particularly in the sciences, his methodology is suspect, so he may also be safely discounted as an authority in metaphysic.

    That may or may not be logically compelling, but it is hardly at issue. A more relevant question is whether a formulation may be correctly discounted because Aristotle was the first one to say it.

    I know almost no philosophy, classical or otherwise, directly. Various ways of looking at reality have been given to me, and some of the ones which seem good, I have backtracked. But the formulation stands on its own without regard for its parentage.

    Aristotelian authorship adds no authority, but neither does it detract. We have not defeated a line of reasoning by virtue of showing that it came, in its first utterance, from a man we believe to be in disfavor. The pedigree may be interesting in thinking about the development of thought, but the only issue that truly matters is “Is it true?”

  • Todd

    Metaphysics is science without the proof. Not that it can’t lead to truth, but it can certainly conclude otherwise…

  • Walter,
    My general point is that many skeptics attempt to sweep all of the ideas of antiquity aside by pointing out that some of the scientific theories of antiquity were wrong. What I am saying, and what Maritain is saying, is that you cannot sweep aside all of the ideas of antiquity just because they got some things wrong. Many of the ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas are as right today as they ever were. It is chronological snobbery for a skeptic to ignore ideas that haven’t been produced in the last 100 years, yet that’s what many of them do.

  • Anonymous

    How heavy do objects fall again?

    How many teeth do women have?