Circular Thinking

Circular reasoning gets a bad rap in the Western world. Aristotle originated the idea, but I think he overlooked a healthy kind of circular reasoning.

In Prior Analytics (353BC), Aristotle listed a series of fallacious arguments, including “begging the question” or “proving what is not self-evident by means of itself.” This fallacy came to be known as circular reasoning. Here’s an example: The Bible is the Word of God because the Bible says it’s the word of God.

Aristotle overlooked another type of circular reasoning. He was a Greek philosopher and Greek philosophy is based on an image—straight lines—always going forward, progressing. Judaism, on the other hand, imagines life and God as a sphere. The central theme is return, the Hebrew word t’shuvah. It is rendered in English as “repentance.” Repentance is return, or homecoming, routinely circling back to where you started.

In this frame, circular reasoning is healthy. The 16th century rabbi Isaac Luria saw it this way. “The path to the end of all things is also the path to the beginning.” Return is not narcissistic navel-gazing. It’s communal, circling back to outside voices—in Judaism, rabbi and prophet—in order to grow in self-awareness and wisdom.

The Early Church was Jewish for its first 300 years. It too imagined spheres, as in the Corpus Hermeticum, a body of 3rd century texts from Hellenic Egypt. It pictures God as a sphere. This continued through the 16th century. Giordano Bruno described God as “an infinite sphere.”[1] Images depicting the Trinitarian God included a circle. Christians routinely circled back to prophetic voices—priest and prophet—to become self-aware.

So what happened to the sphere image? Two developments. The Western church revived Greek philosophy. It embraced a linear frame. Centuries later, it embraced the Enlightenment. The idea of returning to prophetic voices felt stupid, or backward.

This shift began in the 5th century AD when Nestorian Christians translated Aristotle into Syriac, the language of the Middle Eastern church. A century later, Islam conquered that region. Nestorian Christians taught Aristotle to their Arab captors. Islamic theology embraced Aristotelian rationalism. It made sense. Islam doesn’t hold to a Trinitarian God. God is One Being. He is not a sphere. Circular reasoning seemed backward.

By the 9th century, Islam had overpowered most of the Western world. Aristotle, as well as the writings of two Islamic thinkers, Avicenna (980-1032) and Averroes (1126-1198), were translated into Latin. The Averroes’ influence at the University of Paris was so great that, in 1263, the pope reinstated the ban on the study of Aristotle. It did little good. A linear frame was taking over Western civilization.

Fast forward to Descartes (1596-1650). The Enlightenment. Descartes introduced two lines—faith and reason. Spinoza (1632-1677) elevated reason above the faith line. Reason dealt with facts. Faith dealt with, well, faith. Incredibly, Protestant missions became “the main carriers of the ideas of the Enlightenment.” The Protestant church “came to a comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment.”[2] It went linear.

But is that such a bad thing?

I think so. Imagine a clock face, a circle. At 2:00, write priest. At 4:00, write: prophet. These are right brain prophetic voices. If you want to see how they operate, watch this TED talk. Note the left brain. It has no direct contact with reality. It loves straight lines (no straight lines are to be found in the natural world). Only the right hemisphere has direct contact with reality. The left “re-presents” the right’s real life experiences. It is designed to routinely return these representations to the right brain, which acts as wise sage and—in the words of Daniel Kahneman—crap detector. This is critical, since, left to itself, the left brain is confident in its capacities yet in denial about its own limitations.

The irony is that business leaders get this. Take Pixar. It’s creating a sustainable creative culture, but this requires “an uncommon commitment to self-assessment,” writes CEO Ed Catmull. The company looks to neuroscience, including research indicating we initially see only 40 percent of a problem. Pixar established a “Braintrust,” a roundtable to see the rest. The Braintrust includes outside voices, ensuring healthy circular reasoning.

In 1952, Leo Strauss spoke on “the contemporary crisis in Western civilization.”[3] He said Judaism’s frame could not be assimilated with Western thought. The West is about progress, straight lines. “Progressive man” views return as “barbarism, stupidity.” Return fits Aristotle’s “begging the question,” a fallacious argument we call circular reasoning.

It’s not fallacious. Return was once a central theme of Christianity. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen.3:19). Nature shouts this reality. The earth is a sphere. The solar system is a sphere. The sun “returns” every morning. Our circulatory system returns blood to lungs for renewal. The human brain’s two hemispheres are designed to collaborate, “returning” authority to each other. Circles, circles, circles.

Making your head spin? Early Christians circled back to prophetic voices—priest and prophet—to be self-aware. Inside a spherical image, circular reasoning is a good thing.

 

[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)

[2] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 33.

[3] Leo Strauss, “Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization” Modern Judaism, Vol. 1, No. 1, Oxford University Press, May, 1981, pp. 17-45.

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4 Comments

  1. An excellent summary of how the West turned from outward to an inward intellectualism. The impact on this has had on the evangelical thinking and practice has been immense. However, I believe the new generation has opened a door to recovering this idea of circular reasoning. They are rejecting the idea of linear progress and instead looking to story as the way to understand life. At present they are trying to create their own stories and look to fictional stories, (tv. movies, books) or real stories (autobiographies, reality shows and youTube stars) for guidance and meaning. I believe this provides a great opportunity to tell the greatest story of all (beginning with Genesis and retold by prophets and priest and fulfilled by Jesus). This story is God’s calling us to return to what we once were (Adam and Eve in the garden). His story is another way of speaking of the spherical image and provides meaning and sense to all of life.

  2. Thanks, Mike. You were writing about this concept in general, and one specific application of it is really important. The place I believe this directly applies to our lives as Christians is our constant need to be circling back to scripture (the prophets and more). What we gain from a passage today is not all that God may intend for us to glean from it. Given we learn and grow progressively, we cannot simply read and study the scripture once and move on. It is an ongoing iterative exercise of returning over and over to the scripture to gain more and more from it as we grow in our lives with Christ. Our individual points of reference are different each time we look at a passage, given we have experienced more since we last looked at it. Without circling back, we will be limited in our growth and likely to hold onto an interpretation or application that was meaningful earlier in our lives, and is in need of refinement now.

    One illustration I like to use is the fact that very few of us actually remember words. Instead, we remember concepts and pictures/images interpreted from the words. So, if I were to tell someone how to navigate through a cave, they immediately form mental pictures that fit the words of my description. The mental pictures are formed based on their own past experiences. If they have not visited the cave I’m describing, their pictures will not actually match what they will see when going into the cave. As a result, even when they get to spots and features I described, they will not recognize them, unless they can circle back to the actual words I used in my description, and adapt their pictures to match reality.

    We do the same with scripture. We interpret it based on our mental lens and experience, forming “images,” which may or may not be that close to reality. Returning to the truth in context is the only way I know to refine our understanding and align our interpretations with reality. If we don’t, we find ourselves disillusioned by the ways our mental “images” fail to align with reality, often believing that it’s the scripture that is failing to align.

  3. This essay was a miraculous finding for me last night. a cosmic synchronicity. I googled the name of the
    16th century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, i added two more words: right-left brain thinking, and your writing on “Circular Thinking” appeared. By reading it, I connected a lot of lines in my own thinking concerning early Christian history ( the first three centuries, when Christianity was still a Jewish sect, before the compilation of the New Testament) Your comments on the “Circular thinking”, the “sphere”, etc, illustrated for me what I had in mind but that I couldn’t express!. During the lock-down 2020, I began some research on many of the points you so clearly discuss on this page, that I was electrified reading it! My research was inspired by reading one of the thesis by Dr Mario Sabán, a Jewish scholar who lives in Barcelona, (a scholar with five doctorate degrees: philosophy, psychology, history, theology and mathematics). His thesis on psychology has not been translated yet into English, but when it does, It may transform the panorama of today’s psychology. In his thesis Dr Saban describes the “spheres” and he places Freud and Jung in two opposite spheres on the upper world of Tree of Life. The world of Atzilut. Jung is in Jochmá and Freud in Bináh. Jochmá being the sphere of Intuition-right brain thinking and Binah the sphere of Rational thinking.
    Your reference to further reading at the end is very much appreciated. This was truly divine providence for my own research..

  4. I’m very encouraged to read of your research, Victor, as well as your kind comments. Please keep me posted on what you learn.

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