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Scholasticism II: What’s in a PON?

Ed Feser wrote a thoughtful response to my earlier post on Scholasticism. And I’d like to expand on his comments, as my afterthoughts on Pieper’s point were brief.

I’m a bit puzzled by John’s statement that “Scholasticism presupposes an Aristotelian philosophy of nature that is simply not adequate to support what modern science has uncovered about the natural order,” since I and other writers whose work John knows and respects (e.g. William Carroll) have argued that there is no conflict between an Aristotelian philosophy of nature and modern science. Indeed, we argue that the latter is best interpreted in light of the former. I’m pretty sure John is familiar with those arguments in at least a general way, so it would be interesting to know exactly what he thinks is wrong with them. Unfortunately, he not only doesn’t tell us, but doesn’t give the reader an indication that the arguments even exist! 

First, by “not adequate” I certainly do not mean wrong. Indeed, from our side of the discussion (metaphysics / science), I completely agree that there is no conflict between an Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy of nature (PON) and modern science. I can’t think of any aspect of current science that can’t be accommodated by A-T. And Ed’s tireless efforts at making this clear (especially when it comes to evolution and the desperate inadequacies of intelligent design) should be on every philosophy of science course reading list.  

But simply accommodating modern science is not enough in my view. And that’s what I was getting at. It’s not adequate if a robust philosophy of nature is going to be of service to both sides of the metaphysics/science debate. 

But first, back to Ed’s second point:

I’m also puzzled by the rhetorical question about how an Aristotelian philosophy of nature might be useful in apologetics, given that I never shut up about how crucial the theory of act and potency is to causal arguments for God’s existence, how crucial immanent teleology or final causality is to Aquinas’s Fifth Way, the role hylemorphism plays in the Third Way, etc.  (I’ve explained all this at length in Aquinas and in various academic articles, and of course here at the blog.)

Well, in fairness, here I was not necessarily thinking of the classical Aristotelian–PON. I said a broader philosophy of nature–one that certainly contains/includes the A-T PON, but is not limited to it. And in what ways could a modern PON be inspired by science now? 
What do I mean by that? 

As Stephen Barr pointed out in his essay, The Symbiosis of Science and Metaphysics, Aristotle did not come up with his metaphysics or his PON in isolation. These were informed by his empirical observations as a scientist.  

I think in one sense we have to do the same for a truly robust PON–one that could be of service to scientists –not just philosophers– in interpreting the facts they uncover. And that means drawing upon the findings of modern science to inform it. 
Steve hits on this better than I can–and I’m going to quote extensively from his piece:

Beyond directly theological issues, does modern physics have anything to say to metaphysics, and therefore indirectly to theology? Some might argue not, on the grounds that metaphysics speaks about such general features of reality – of being as being – that it cannot be affected by discoveries of particular contingent facts about the world. And yet, Aristotelian metaphysics, which has such an important place in Catholic thought, was not conceived in isolation from scientific investigation. Aristotle was himself a great scientist and both his metaphysics and science make use of the same technical apparatus of form, matter, substance, accident, potency, act, and so on. Indeed, it was largely as a theory of nature that Aristotelianism first commended itself to medieval Christian thinkers.

He goes on:

It is a great problem that traditional Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics and modern science no longer speak the same language, as they did in the Middle Ages. Indeed, there are many terms and concepts in the language of each that are now almost untranslatable into the language of the other. Some argue that this is the fault of modern science, which restricted its attention to a limited range of questions having to do with the merely quantitative aspects of things and with efficient and material causes at the expense of formal and final causes. While there is some truth in this, it is only a part of the story. The language of Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics has changed very little since the advent of modern science and its vocabulary seems from a scientific perspective quite stilted and awkward for many purposes.

I think this is no small issue. If you polled most researchers, you’d find that formal and final causality mean little to them. But let’s assume that’s their fault for now and move on.

Physics has had enormous success in explaining why things happen as they do in the natural world, but its modes of explanation do not fit neatly into the four-fold classification of material, formal, efficient, and final causes. For example, when physicists explain the electrical conductivity of metals in terms of the “band structure” of the energy levels of the electrons in a crystal lattice of atoms, to which of the four causes does that correspond? As this example illustrates, explanation in modern physics is almost entirely in terms of mathematical structure and involves an enormously rich set of ideas about form. The fact that modern science is nonetheless typically accused by Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysicians of neglecting “formal cause” shows that they are working with a different notion of form than are contemporary physicists and mathematicians. In Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy, the ideas of formal causation and substantial form have a teleological thrust that is largely missing from the physicist’s conception of form, which corresponds more to Lonergan’s broader idea of form as “intelligible structure”.

By ‘typically accused’ I’m guessing Steve is referring to scholars such as Etienne Gilson and perhaps even Stanley Jaki, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment.  

Another example of a linguistic/conceptual difference between Aristotelian thought and modern science is that the former usually envisions the action of one thing upon another (for example fire heating iron), whereas in modern physics the physical world is explained in terms of mutual “interactions”. A third example is that the notions of “species” in Aristotelian philosophy and modern biology are not compatible. Aristotelian species are what mathematicians call “equivalence classes”, so that if A is of the same species as B, and B is of the same species as C, then A must be of the same species as C. However, it does not appear possible in biology to define species in a way that always satisfies this condition. (The existence of “ring species”, such as the Larus gulls, illustrates the problem, as indeed does “speciation” in evolution, whereby all animals are of the same species as their parents and offspring, but not as their remote ancestors or descendents.)


In short, Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy has paid a heavy price for the two and a half centuries in which it largely ignored what was going on in the natural sciences. A sustained re-engagement with science would enrich its conceptual and linguistic resources. This re-engagement cannot simply be an attempt to translate statements of modern science into existing Aristotelian terms. That cannot be done in many cases. Rather, many more Aristotelian/ Thomistic metaphysicians than currently do must learn to listen to and understand science in its own native tongue. Modern physics has made discoveries (e.g. quantum mechanics) which undoubtedly have profound metaphysical implications, but what those implications are cannot be explored unless the physics is understood directly and not “in translation”.

Now, for my part, none of this is necessarily a problem for the points Ed has made repeatedly before. But I would argue that a scholasticism that only reads science in translation is missing an opportunity to make itself richer and more compelling. 

Let me provide an example: A-T PON and the role of chance in evolution.

Now, no one knows better than Ed just how difficult it is to get fellow Christians (let alone materialists)  to appreciate the fact that chance processes in nature (hello, Darwin!) do not conflict with Divine Providence as understood in A-T philosophy. 

Yet–to what end? Ed has probably blogged until blue in the face (or his typing fingers) precisely why A-T can accommodate evolution, and with post after post on why the whole intelligent design enterprise is built on faulty assumptions from the A-T perspective. But even a sizable percentage of Catholics remain hostile to evolution precisely to the extent they fail to grasp the solid points of the A-T perspective. And as such, remain gullible targets for the ID charade.

But they also fail to grasp how scientists understand the role of random events in evolution.

That doesn’t make Ed’s posts a wasted effort. Nor does it demonstrate that a return to scholasticism is ruled out.

But I think it does show how difficult the task. 

One thought on “Scholasticism II: What’s in a PON?

  1. Ray cont'd:
    Barr continues:

    “For example, when physicists explain the electrical conductivity of metals in terms of the "band structure" of the energy levels of the electrons in a crystal lattice of atoms, to which of the four causes does that correspond? As this example illustrates, explanation in modern physics is almost entirely in terms of mathematical structure and involves an enormously rich set of ideas about form.”

    But here again, the traditional PON philosopher will point out that Barr and his colleagues have already *abstracted* from the real to cast the quantitative aspects of the real in terms of mathematics. So from the very start, the nature of “form”, as in *mathematical form*, being discussed by the modern physicist is an abstraction from the concrete or *substantial* form of the PON philosopher. It is a shadow. Is it wrong? No. It is quite useful so long as one recognizes that it *is* an abstraction playing a function in a mathematical model; and that ultimately, such an abstraction will need to be cashed out ontologically in terms of the richer and supervening *form(s)* from which it was abstracted – i.e. substantial forms. So when modern scientists coin a term like “band structure” to stand within a mathematical model by convention, the traditional PON philosopher will insist that whatever conclusions are achieved by use of this convention within a model, will *still* ultimately have to be cashed out in terms of one of the four natural causes discernable by the human intellect through its direct interface with extra-mental reality.

    Barr seems to think that the four causes were a product of adolescent scientific investigation and must therefore be expanded due to the maturity and growing complexity of modern scientific investigation. But he fundamentally misses the point that the four causes are determined as *epistemologically* necessary based upon the human intellect’s interface with extra-mental reality per se – not based upon any particular investigation of this or that aspect of reality in isolation. The introduction of microscopes, telescopes or Geiger counters to extend the apprehensive range of the five senses in no way changes the ultimate dependence of the scientific enterprise – even relativity or quantum mechanics – upon the interface of the (quite humble) five human senses with the external world of which we are a part; and it is consideration of *that* interface which drives the doctrine of the four causes, not anything particular to ancient or modern tools for conducting experiments.

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