Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Quotes of Note

“Grosseteste most often features in accounts of medieval thought because of his contribution to the scientific method, and for what has been called his ‘metaphysics of light’. Although Grosseteste spoke, in his commentary on the Posterior Analytics, on how to reach a universal principle based on experience (principium universale experimentale), the claim sometime made that he, first in the Middle Ages, devised an experimental method is borne out neither by his theoretical nor his more practical scientific works. The main achievement of Grosseteste’s widely-read commentary was, rather, to help put into circulation the ideas of the Aristotelian treatise which did not guide scientific investigation in the modern sense, but helped rather in thinking about the organization of knowledge.”

John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction
(London: Routledge, 2007. p. 228)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

An Unreasonable Discontinuity

The difficulty arises when concern for the truth of creation, expressed in symbolic language begins to dictate the physical events through which humanity originated. The scientist reasonably asks why it was necessary that humanity suddenly had to be unlike the biological nature which gave him form? The state of original innocence does precisely that. The scientist does not deny the possibility of ensoulment, that is God's associating the individual human person with His own divine existence, making the individual immortal in preparation for a life with God after physical death. Science has no interest in that and no way to deal with it. But since the human biological nature at present is constituted genetically and metabolically the same as all other animal life and when the only reasonable explanation for this is the process of biological evolution, then any interruption of this process seems unreasonable and unnecessary. This is the objection scientists have to creationism and our theology would be well advised to agree.

Joseph, William (2012-02-10). In Search of Adam and Eve (p. 210). Kindle Edition.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On Averroes

It is ironic that the man whom Europeans came to regard as one of the most influential Arab scientists and philosophers of the Middle Ages, was not exactly appreciated in his homeland.

Ibn Rushd (1126—1198), was a native of Cordoba, in Andalusian Spain, and his work covered a broad range of topics in medicine, science and philosophy. He would be known to Thomas Aquinas and other European scholars in the next century as Averroes. And Ibn Rushd was—thanks to Aquinas—destined to have a much greater impact on the European mind than he ever did on Islamic culture.

First, a little context.

[continue reading here….]

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Cloning for Stem Cells Advances

Generating robust stem cells via SCNT, also called therapeutic cloning, was not considered a practical option before the breakthroughs by Mitalipov, Egli et al. The approach was further tainted by the scandal surrounding Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk’s claims of success in cloning cell lines in 2005. A majority of scientists and the public also believe that reproductive cloning should be banned. (The U.S. still has no law that outlaws reproductive cloning.)


Friday, May 16, 2014

Taking Sony Playstation 3s to the Next Level

A few years back I wrote about astrophysicist Gaurav Khanna at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and his low-cost approach to harnessing computer power for modeling black holes.

Why spend a lot of money to rent time on a university supercomputer when you can devise your own by going to Best Buy?

The physicist has not been idle….

(continued at Forbes)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

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.