About two years ago, I came across a helpful framework for understanding and explaining why I often feel like my worldview vaguely but consistently clashes with those of many of my intelligent peers: most intellectually driven people in America today are Aristotelians, whereas I am a Platonist.
My stomach churns as I speak in such broad strokes. The very division between “Platonist” and “Aristotelian” pains me because their views were far more complex than could ever be lumped into two adjectival categories (or, really, than could ever be fully explained at all.) Furthermore, my views, as anyone’s should be, are certainly far too rich to be dumped into a neat box referencing a thinker from thousands of years ago. That said, the key distinction between the views of Plato and those of Aristotle is a useful one: Aristotle believed that rigorous observation of the natural world – what is plainly in front of us – is the best path toward wisdom, whereas Plato, Aristotle’s predecessor and teacher, sought to transcend this confusing and “shadowy” world to find truth in ideas.
Aristotle looked to biology and the natural world to uncover knowledge, and as a result has been crowned the father of naturalism and even of science itself. He devoted considerable energy to the classification of natural phenomena and sought to acquire knowledge through labeling everything he saw and then discovering its purpose. Nouns were Aristotle’s close companion, and vast amounts of categorization (certainly a worthwhile pursuit in my view but one that must be undertaken with extreme caution and skepticism) was the result. He leans strongly toward empiricism: the idea that knowledge comes not from reason or ideas but from observation of the world through the senses.
The scientific approach has been a priceless boon to humanity, and biology is indeed a beautiful window into truths about behavior and consciousness and development and even the meaning of life. However, evolution has made clear today that biological truths are merely contingent truths. Aspects of human nature ranging from our physical features to the way our brains process information to sexual dimorphism and even to our very behavior and aspirations are, for the most part, contingent truths about life. If we had evolved differently – as, clearly we could have – other contingent truths would have led to completely different frameworks for understanding not only who we are but even reality itself. To illustrate that point, consider this: it is quite possible that someday humanity will encounter intelligent “alien” life that would likely look and think and behave radically differently from humans, and thus many of the contingent truths of human nature that are so worshiped in the more Aristotelian, secular humanist school will become far less meaningful when placed in the increasingly obvious ocean of possibilities of how things could be.
Most academics and self-described intellectuals of today favor science over less concrete pursuits of knowledge such as the mysticism of religion, and understandably so given the massive leaps forward in technological progress and the piercing insight into the physical world that an increasing emphasis on science has brought to us over the last several hundred years. To see the spiritual beliefs of the past as superstitious, backwards relics is somewhat valid. However, the worship of science and the accompanying confidence in human empirical knowledge (and the arrogance that often comes along with it) has gone too far.
Plato felt that the objects or “particulars” in this world were only crude representations of the truth. For him, the things we experience point to something purer that we can’t readily observe. In his famous allegory of the cave, he explained that the world we see is actually a shadow world of false representations and that only a few perceptive and brave souls would ever leave the cave of shadows and see truth in its absolute form. Plato also believed that an ascetic rejection of most worldly pursuits was the path to avoiding the trappings of the shadows. While I disagree with Plato on many points and share only some of his ascetic leanings, this conception of the human condition speaks to me. Inspired by Buddhism, I advocate more than Plato did for the facing of reality and for diving into what is. That said, our goals are linked because I believe that, paradoxically, this full embracing of “what is” actually leads to transcending “what is” and finding higher truths. The flavors of our approaches are different, but transcendence, critically, remains the goal. Plato found inspiration more in ideas than in objects and more in the potential of what could be than in the observation of what is plainly right in front of us, and in those respects his views, experiences, and values resonate deeply with mine.
I doubt that we can ever fully escape the cave and see the truth, at least as humans (and I am a total agnostic when it comes to the afterlife, so any hope for leaving the cave in some other reality or form is, for me, purely speculative.) Like Aristotle, I believe that close observation of what we experience in this world is critical to advancing knowledge. However, siding more overall with Plato, I maintain that we must always remember that our human experiences are in some respects “shadows” – mere perceptions, limited by our imperfect minds. Our understandings of existence are flawed attempts to label and categorize a reality that we cannot fully comprehend.
What unseeable truths does the natural world point to, you might ask. It’s a fair question, and one which Aristotle wielded against his predecessor’s worldview with considerable success. Aristotle argued that these transcendent forms or ideas were not necessary in order to understand the “real world” and thus should be philosophically discarded. I cannot precisely answer what these pure and ideal truths are, and for good reason: by definition, truths that (largely) lie beyond the world we experience cannot be accessed fully. Moreover, human language is extraordinarily limited, and it’s possible that, even when understood on some level, these truths would evade human description (and that’s if ideal, absolute truths even can be understood by the human mind in the first place.)
I believe in the existence of transcendent truths mainly for a simple reason, a reason at which logically minded philosophers would surely scoff: it simply feels true to me. However, I do have expediences to cite, experiences to explain why I suspect that Plato was onto something with his transcendentalism: when I listen to music with my whole heart, I feel like I touch a world beyond our own. When I love someone else, I sense that there is something more to reality than what easily meets the eye through observing the activities of Earth. When I am fully absorbed in the moment, I sense the existence of an ocean of truth far deeper than the human mind could ever fully grasp by treading water in this life.
Perhaps these feelings are delusions and nothing more than the product of a naturalistically evolved human brain, but these transcendent moments are too powerful for me not to believe in. Thus, I look for truth most often not in the happenstance of our human lives or the chaos of current events but in the infinite mystery beyond.