A Problem for Science or for Education?

From the Bring Back Reason series.

Science or Philosophy

When faced with such problems in empirical science education one might object that it is not fair to criticize the empirical sciences for philosophical shortcomings. The empirical sciences are not philosophy. These separate disciplines have different methods and many topics addressed in empirical science are not pertinent to philosophy and vice versa. If the problem is that someone is picking up bad philosophy from studying empirical science perhaps that is because other aspects of his education are being neglected. Specifically why not teach the subjects that lead to a sound philosophical formation in an age-appropriate way, specifically classical logic and the study of nature in the younger years followed by realist philosophy when the time is right.

There is a fair amount of validity to this criticism. The lack of a proper philosophical education can in no way be blamed on the empirical sciences. As has been said above, it’s worth noting again that the problem is not with what is known through the empirical sciences. Granted, the use of certain words—like matter, substance or nature—in equivocal ways can be problematic and sow confusion. But it is certainly possible to sort this all out and teach the correct philosophy that will help a student to contextualize properly what he learns from studying empirical science. Teaching classical logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics properly is a key step to doing just this.

Notes Toward a Philosophy Sequence

A sound philosophy sequence, by itself, is not the complete solution to the disunity and reductionism in contemporary education. Adding philosophy alongside an educational curriculum and experience that is largely anti-realist in its thrust is not enough. Ideally, classical logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics will form the backbone of a broader reform effort to teach each subject so as to educate for realism (more on this soon).

Even so, a sound philosophy sequence is critically important. It is the most direct step in restoring the full scope of human reason and order among different academic disciplines, setting the stage for overcoming the Cartesian object-subject division. A good philosophy sequence entails an age-appropriate scientific training in correct metaphysical thinking. It builds directly upon the efforts highlighted above to help children appreciate nature and think of substances and accidents in classical terms. Some people involved in the classical education movement have gone back to Aristotle for content and have employed considerable effort in developing curricula aimed at conveying this content to children.

Here are a few general points about teaching philosophy to children:

Texts 

In our efforts to restore the teaching of logic at The Heights School, we have reviewed several logic texts and programs. Some are very good; none is perfect. We use the Logic texts from Memoria Press to assist our teachers in conveying the subject to the students. Memoria Press divides logic up into separate courses in formal and material logic. In teaching this to the students here, we integrate these two branches of logic into one course. We also use the text The Art of Argument: An Introduction to the Informal Fallacies by Aaron Larsen and Joelle Hodge in English classes. Much that is included in Memoria’s Material Logic text is foundational for and can be included in a natural philosophy class.

Teachers

Regardless of what curriculum is used, a good teacher is crucial for the success of the program. In some ways teaching logic is analogous to teaching math. Classical logic is a unified body of knowledge best conveyed in an orderly way with an eye both to the internal coherence of the subject and the personal abilities of each student. Like math it also builds upon itself in a cumulative way, leading to more advanced understanding. Younger children study mathematical operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) and numbers, then progress to algebra, and finally are ready to tackle calculus. Analogously young children study nature and language, progress to logic and natural philosophy, and are then ready to study metaphysics. Both calculus and metaphysics are subjects typically taught near the end of one’s high school career and in college. And just as a good algebra teacher should also have a solid grasp of calculus, so as to know where the study of algebra leads, so a good logic teacher should have a sound knowledge of metaphysics, so as to know where logic leads. Students will often ask questions that will require an answer from levels of natural philosophy or logic which they have not yet reached. The great teacher can describe the next vista because he has experienced that view already, even if he doesn’t climb that particular mountain with his students. 

Sequence

The scientific study of logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics advocated here should take place over several years beginning in 8th or 9th grade. There are topics in the study of logic, such as logical fallacies, that can be introduced earlier. And it is never too late to learn sound philosophy. People much further along in life describe learning classical logic as helping them to order all their learning up to that point, correcting bad habits of thought they had only sensed intuitively before.

Formal and Material Logic

Classical logic is divided into two branches, formal logic and material logic. As mentioned, formal logic is mostly about the structure of arguments and material logic is about the content. Both are important. And it is important to teach both in a scientific way, i.e. a way that presents the subject matter systematically and comprehensively. Some insist that we should teach formal logic before material logic. While it is probably best to begin with formal logic, it is important that the study of material logic not be far behind. Ideally, students will study both formal and material logic at the same time, and over the course of several years. This is especially the case if they are also studying the empirical sciences simultaneously as the study of logic helps properly contextualize the empirical sciences (more on this shortly). Logic is not the type of subject that you simply learn and then put aside. It is more like math in that you need to continually study it. Over time the study of logic develops good habits about how to think about reality. Learning classical logic properly develops intellectual virtues—stable dispositions that enable one to see reality in a complete way—avoiding narrow-minded or reductive patterns of thought.

Logical Fallacies

It is also beneficial to cover logical fallacies with students. Logical fallacies are sources of incorrect reasoning, such as criticizing the source of an argument rather than evaluating the argument on its own merit. Examples of such fallacies are an ad hominem attack (“He is a convicted felon! How can you possibly take seriously what he has to say?”) or a tu quoque statement (“How can you tell me that riding a motorcycle is too dangerous when you rode one when you were my age?”). But teaching logical fallacies is not the same thing as teaching logic in a complete way. It is easier to teach logical fallacies than to teach formal and material logic in a scientific way. Unfortunately, many logic programs are content to stop at only teaching fallacies. This is a critical mistake. We should not substitute mere teaching of how to avoid incorrect reasoning for a complete study of correct reasoning. A carpenter studying how to build a house would benefit from learning about common mistakes made in home construction, but learning only about these mistakes will not prepare him to build a house. He also needs to learn how a home is built, from the foundation to the roof and all the components in between.

Modern Symbolic Logic?

Classical logic is not modern symbolic logic. Modern symbolic logic is worth studying on the collegiate level for those interested in this subject, or needing to know it as part of their other studies in philosophy or mathematics. Most people will not study modern symbolic logic and there is no good reason why they should have to do so. Classical logic is essential for everyone to study so as to be a well-educated and broad-minded person. Peter Kreeft in his logic textbook Socratic Logic explains quite well the difference between classical logic and modern symbolic logic. Kreeft’s book is outstanding and can be used to teach logic especially to college students who did not learn logic in high school. It is probably not the best textbook for learning logic in grades 8, 9 and 10 when it is most important for students to begin to do so.

The Elements of Sound Philosophy

Sound philosophy corrects errors picked up from studying empirical science; further, it fosters a broad and open-minded approach to thinking about reality. This approach avoids reductive patterns of thought in general and specifically corrects the four reductive errors students tend to pick up from studying empirical science today:

  1. Everything is just little particles
  2. The classical meaning of the word substance does not apply objectively to the real world
  3. There are no such things as natures
  4. Living things are machines

The following are a few examples of content covered in a good philosophy sequence that prevents and corrects the above four errors:

The Ten Categories

The ten categories, first articulated by Aristotle, provide a complete paradigm for how we comprehend being. Everything we can say about something has to do with at least one of the ten categories: substance, quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, time, place, posture, and possession. In learning these categories, students perhaps are first thinking of them as a way to classify the different ways we can say something about a particular thing. But much more is going on here. The paradigm of the ten categories draws attention to each individual thing as it exists in reality, first as a substance and then according to its accidents. From this perspective thinking in terms of atoms or other small construction units is not a problem. This type of thinking falls under the category known as “quantity.” As long as one keeps in mind that analyzing the parts of a thing is only one way to consider the thing there is no problem doing so. The framework of the ten categories itself is a great defense against allowing atomic theory to take on more importance in one’s mind than it should. Atoms are interesting and knowing about them is valid, but there is much more to what is there than simply these component parts. Likewise learning about the ten categories helps a student to think accurately about the substantial existence of a thing, as a fundamental aspect of its existence in which its accidents are rooted. So learning the ten categories helps avoid the first two errors highlighted above.

Simple Apprehension

In classical philosophy students study what we have already mentioned as simple apprehension. They will learn about how knowing things starts with sense perception leading to a mental image, and that the intellect abstracts from this mental image a concept through which we know a thing’s nature. This is based directly on what is sometimes called the moderate realism of Aristotle (as opposed to Platonic Realism which identifies what is real primarily with the realm of the forms). This reinforces a correct understanding of substance and accidents, directly counter to the second error highlighted above. We only sense the accidents but the knowledge that we abstract is knowledge of the substance. Our knowledge of a thing refers to what the thing substantially is, according to its nature. Thus this also corrects the third error highlighted above.

The Tree of Porphyry: The Hierarchy of Being

In classical philosophy the Tree of Porphyry is a useful way to organize substances according to their different levels of being or notes. On the bottom level is “substance” and “material.” A mineral is a material substance and thus has these two notes. Up one level is a plant such as a tree. A tree has three notes: substance, material and living. The additional note of “living” means that the tree is on a higher ontological level than a non-living material substance. As we have seen this refers to a deeper metaphysical reality: that the tree is more “in act,” has more esse than a rock. Up another level is an animal like a dog. The dog has four notes: substance, material, living and sentient. In addition to being alive it also has a rich sentient live, including sensory experiences and emotions. Up another level is a human. A human person has five notes: substance, material, living, sentient and rational. In addition to the sentient live a person has reason. A diagram can help summarize:

Human Substance, material, living, sentient, rational
Dog Substance, material, living, sentient
Tree Substance, material, living
Rock Substance, material

Learning about these different ontological levels of being helps especially with the fourth error highlighted above. A student who is taught to see reality in this way is not as likely to reduce a living thing to a mere machine.

The Four Causes

Another topic covered in classical philosophy is the four causes. We have already noted that people tend today to overemphasize efficient causality and ignore formal and final causality. Restoring a complete understanding of causality is a defense against adopting all four of the errors highlighted above. As has already been shown above, it makes no sense to think of things as mere conglomerations of particles if one looks at an object seeking to know not just its matter but also its form. A study of causality only makes sense when a classical understanding of substance and accidents is assumed. A consideration of the natural forms and finality built into a thing’s nature is tremendously helpful for recovering a sense of the natural. And, finally, the difference between formal causality in a living thing and artificial formal causality analogously present in manmade things is critical to understanding what it means to be alive and to think properly about technology.

An Overall Confidence in Reason

The methods of the empirical sciences are one way to seek true answers to certain questions. But human reason is broader than just this method. A study of realist philosophy trains a student that the truth exists and that using reason well to find it is important. This confidence in our ability to know what is true is even conveyed by a study of the logical fallacies, where a student looks at common sources of erroneous thinking. Students trained in classical logic are thus much better equipped to understand the empirical sciences in their proper context. They will not seek to seek explanations of reality from these sciences that are beyond the scope or ability of the hard sciences. This inoculation against weak materialism sets the groundwork for greater confidence in everything they know, whether they prove it through mathematics, logic, or experimental data.  

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

Mentor’s Compass


An educational video series to guide your conversations with your son or mentee.

Learn More