Complex Aristotle

Abstract: Aristotle, the most influential genius that Earth has carried, used the double look at things but lacked a framework to formalize the complex dimension. It unwittingly fostered an inextinguishable confrontation between materialism and idealism. The most demanding analytical mind goes astray if it is not in the right framework.

Material and purpose

The double look1Conjunction of the upward look (what constitutes) and the downward look (what is constituted), as a philosophical method, is not a novelty. Aristotle already described it as the two ways of explaining something: 1) The material cause, ‘by what’ it happened —the ‘how’. 2) The purpose, ‘for what’ it happened —the ‘why’.
Example: rain. How to explain that it rains? 1) Because there are clouds producing rain —the ontological ‘how’. 2) To water the earth and provide us with drink —the teleological ‘why’.

Where Aristotle goes astray is by comparing the two ways, to seek a greater importance for one. He gives priority to teleology, to the complex starting point that considers his existence fundamental: the mind. Without the finality, the mind would not exist, so the finality is primordial… affirms the somewhat partisan mind in this case.

A benign mistake?

This seemingly legitimate decision —agreeing to compare two ways of seeing things— initiated an irreducible conflict in Western knowledge, which continues today. Knowledge has split between materialists, preoccupied with ontology, and teleologists, preoccupied with finality. Ancient scholars were scientists as well as philosophers —Aristotle dissected the living as much as thought. They gradually separated themselves into ontological science and teleological philosophy, each defending the pre-eminence of its specific look.

However, there is no possible comparison between the weights of these looks. The two are irreducible to each other. Any attempt at reduction produces in reaction a strengthening of the weakened look, because the other loses proportionally its explanatory power.

A genius in his time

Aristotle was a fabulous, inimitable analyst. My French followers will read about him the excellent comic strip by Alecos Papadatos and Tassos Apostolidis. However, he was born in a world still imbued with the Gods. The spirit is not ready to give up its divinity. It still hasn’t. We quite agree that spirit dominates matter. But divinity is something more: the spirit owes its origin to nothing but itself. God does not have to seek His origin; The concept makes no sense about Him. It is impossible that God, or his avatar the human spirit, can come from impersonal matter. This is the ancient resistance of the teleological look: to refuse that it owes anything to the ontological. Its claim to the title of ‘major way’ of looking at things masks its spite of being in reality indissoluble from the ontological.

Since the ontological look has been personified in science, there is a comparable claim, from its side, to the title of ‘major way’. This is reductionism, the counterpart of the divinization of the spirit. In their extreme forms, these claims are eliminativism —the mind does not exist so teleology is an illusion— and radical idealism —matter does not exist so ontology is an illusion.

Truncated message

However, Aristotle’s message has been partly lost. It has been forgotten in passing that he considered matter as indissoluble of form. One could not exist without the other: it is the inseparability of the two looks. For matter appears only before the ontological look and form only before the teleological. Obscure one or the other and you only see one side of the coin, not the coin itself.

Aristotle even extended this dualism and inseparability to things of the mind. There is distinguishable material and form in concepts. In the explanation of a story, there are the historical facts —the material— and the narrative that is made of them —the form.

Aristotle was thus the first to implicitly merge material and virtual kingdoms, in terms of explanatory method. The double look extends continuously from matter to the mind observed as an organization. There is no real/virtual break in terms of information. Aristotle manages to free himself from existing frameworks with incredible brilliance for his time. He even extends the notion of ‘movement’ to any transformation of things, any change of their being, thus creating a driving principle that frees itself from the spatial framework.

Lacks the right frame

It is not the idea of a complex dimension that Aristotle lacks, it is the right framework. The spatio-temporal background was still far from its current finalization. The vertical dimension was not equivalent to the two defining the horizontal plane. For Aristotle the vertical is used to separate the elementals ‘air’ and ‘fire’, which rise, from the ‘earth’ and ‘water’, which descend. Time was a setting apart. And complexity, totally invisible. So inherent in the differences between things that we don’t see it; So we can’t think about it. Even today the majority of thinkers see complexity as a by-product of our ways of knowing, or as a property of mathematics, rather than an inherent dimension in the essence of things.

Aristotle’s complexity is cosmic verticality. His conception of the cosmos is a series of concentric circles separating worlds of different nature. The Earth is at the center. The first circle is sub-lunar, bounded by the rotation of the Moon around the Earth. Beyond: the supra-lunar world, occupied by the concentric spheres of the planets, and at the top the sphere of the fixed stars of the first heaven. The “natural” movement of the air and fire elements is to climb this vertical, that of earth and water to descend. The “unnatural” movement is to oppose this tendency. Throwing a pebble in the air? It is a movement against its earthy nature, so that it falls back, and still seeks to descend if it arrives in an abyss.

Flat categories and volume causes

By confusing it with spatial verticality, Aristotle involuntarily “flattened” the true complex dimension, of which he was not aware. This flattening is manifest in the creation of its 9 categories: substance, quality, quantity, relationship, time, place, position, possession, action, passion. Teleological categories: they help us to grasp the being of things, the result of their ontological birth. But today, having more extensive frameworks, we easily see that these categories are not really independent, that they can be hierarchical. They have their own ontology. Instead of compressing them into the ‘categories’ plane, we give them a conceptual structure, we reextend their complex dimension in our minds.

Proof that Aristotle intuitively attributed complexity to things, he protected at all costs their double appearance, the duality of things under ontological and teleological looks. Thus its 4 distinct causes, material motor formal final, are arranged two by two under the banner of each look. The material —what the thing is made of— and motor causes —from which the thing is produced— are the beginning and the culmination of the ontological look. The formal —the properties of a thing— and the final causes —the one for which the thing is produced— are the beginning and the culmination of the teleological look.

A good physicist summons his forces as he wants

Nevertheless, Aristotle’s complexity is not this holistic framework, encompassing the others, that I am promoting today. Aristotle’s fundamental elements, air fire earth water, play the same role as the fundamental forces of contemporary physics. Aristotle wonders about this in the same terms as physicists. Its four terrestrial elements lacked a fifth to explain the movement of the stars. He thus introduces the ‘quintessence’, the element giving the stars their natural circular motion. As a good theorist looking for an additional natural law to complete his ontological model. Physicists do the same.

No genius has marked human history as much as Aristotle. However, the thought of a genius must spring from a framework. Aristotle’s was still too sketchy for even his exceptional analytical thinking to straighten it out. Many experiments were missing. Too many steps for one man to take. I would have liked to discuss with this incomparable spirit the complex dimension. The impossibility of comparing ontological and teleological looks, coming from opposite ends of this dimension.

Another apprentice who grandstands

As a student trying to be as brilliant with him as he was with Plato, I would have proposed to him to replace his cosmic verticality, a simple additional spatial dimension, with a really different dimensional variety, the complex, capable of hosting our mind. But of course I would not have been such a good student if I was born in his time. How would I have brought my state-of-the-art framework with me?


Aristotle, by Alecos Papadatos and Tassos Apostolidis, 2022

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