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. 

5 comments:

monk68 said...

John,

Nice article, yet as I briefly explained before, Barr simply fails to understand the depth or force of the philosophical critique of his specialty. You have quoted Barr at length on a couple of occasions, so I would like to address what he writes with respect to philosophy of nature. Barr writes, and you quote:

“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.”

There is evident confusion on Barr’s part concerning what Aristotle is doing. In fact the *metaphysics* of Aristotle *is* isolated from his scientific investigations. That is exactly the claim of Ed and other defenders of an Aristotelian PON such as Maritain, De Koninck, Wallace, Ashley, etc. Aristotle *always* interprets the latter in terms of the former. Why? Because the former *are* derived from an epistemologically necessary understanding of the human intellect’s experience of extra-mental reality wherein denial of concepts such as form/matter, substance/accident, potency/ act, and so on; land one necessarily in a violation of the *law of non-contradiction (LNC)* such that one cannot coherently deny the truth of those concepts as mapped onto extra-mental reality without shutting down the possibility of *explanation* per se! The truth of those concepts have nothing, whatsoever, to do with Aristotle’s cosmological speculations or biological investigations; both of which investigations yield conclusions which are only probable rather than demonstrative (and Aristotle was perfectly aware of the probable nurture of his scientific investigations over against his demonstrative metaphysics). Again, this is the point which Maritain, De Koninck and so many others have fought to highlight –and which Barr continues to miss and obscure. Barr is trying to insinuate that something about Aristotle’s limited and particular scientific speculations or investigations pollutes the demonstrative force of his metaphysical apparatus – but merely asserting as much is table-pounding. Where’s the argument for this?

cntd . . .

John Farrell said...

Ray, as Blogger chopped off the rest (due to limits on comment length--and my inadvertently losing it), I'm pasting in the rest of your points as separate comments. JWF.
---------------
What does the fact that the language of A-T metaphysics has changed little since the advent of the modern emperiological sciences have to do with the truth or falsity of that language per se? And why, just because such language “seems from a [modern emperiological] scientific perspective” to be “stilted and awkward for many purposes” does A-T PON bear the responsibility of bridging the dialogical gap? The “perspective” and “purposes” of the modern sciences (so an A-T PON would suggest) are necessarily supervened upon, *both* ontologically and epistemologically, by the categories (form/matter, substance/accident, act/potency) of traditional PON. It is true that the modern emperiological sciences reach into particular and concrete aspects of reality through hypothetical/mathematical modeling techniques which extend beyond the reach of traditional PON; but that extension flows *from* traditional PON and must ultimately be interpreted *by* traditional PON in order to ascertain both the epistemic and ontic value of its findings.

So again, unless or until the emperiological sciences provide an alternative and superior epistemic and ontic framework for interpreting the *results* of their own restricted methodologies, the burden of proof with respect to the proper language for the ultimate ontological interpretation of “scientific discoveries”, lies not with traditional PON (which has worked this out over millennia), but with the modern sciences themselves. In short, Barr needs to recognize that when it comes to *interpreting* the conclusions of experimental-mathematical physics in ontological terms, the modern sciences need to either bend the knee to traditional PON, or put forward an alternative and superior *epistemic-ontological* framework for interpreting their own conclusions - but they have not done so.

Barr continues:

“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.”

Physics *describes* but does not *explain* why things happen as they do. This is key. What we are dealing with here is a debate about the very nature of *explanation*, and Barr does not seem to grasp the centrality of this fundamental question. According to traditional PON, explanation must *necessarily* be according to causes. Too statistically or experimentally-hypothetically-mathematically *describe and predict* the behavior (interaction) of physical things does not speak to that which causes things to behave or interact in just the ways that they do. It describes them – period. It does not *explain* them. One may object to this assessment of “explanation”, but then one had better be prepared to defend what they mean by the very term *explanation*. Ed and traditional PON defenders from Aristotle to the present have spent a very great deal of time considering this question. Have those, like Barr, who practice a modern scientific specialty done the same?

John Farrell said...

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.

John Farrell said...

Ray cont'd:
Barr writes:

“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’.”

All true, but how does this show any deficiency in traditional PON? Contemporary physicists are simply working with an abstracted and denuded concept. They need to submit their findings to the full ontic concept of form as any PON philosopher would insist. Again, modern physics is a *subsidiary* discipline in relation to PON.

Barr continues:

“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’.”

Here again, “interactions” seems to equate to a *descriptive*, rather than a *causally* explanatory account of reality. How does this statement show the superiority of the modern approach or the inferiority of traditional PON? Traditional PON has long considered and explicated the nature of explanation per se. Simply to assert that modern physics “explains” in terms of “interactions” hardly establishes that the “terms” in which modern physics “explain” are preferable or apodictic. In fact, explanations in terms of interaction (so the PON philosopher will argue), must ultimately be explained in terms of causes. Any explanation worth its salt moves beyond the merely descriptive, to the causal. Is the descriptive useful? Yes. Is it ultimately explanatory? No.

Barr writes:

“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.)”

Even a basic understanding of the difference between philosophical species (based on specific difference or property) and biological species (based on anatomical similarity) would easily resolve this alleged conflict. A basic understanding of the open ended nature of “smallest species” within the foundations of logic as derived from Porphyry’s Isagoge would eliminate this confusion. Sigh and alas . . .

Barr writes:

“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.”

If a price has been paid it is at the sociological level, not at the level of truth per se and certainly not at the level of practice – both traditional PON and modern science continue unabated despite their apparent translation problems. In general, what Barr writes here strikes me as mere table-pounding. An A-T philosopher could just as easily assert that sociologically, the modern sciences have paid a heavy price for failing to pay heed to their epistemic and ontological foundations in PON; resulting in vast confusion within modernity (and among scientists themselves) concerning the interpretive meaning for the cosmos and man, of much that has transpired from the 17th century to the present. Gratuitous assertions are properly refuted by gratuitous denials.

John Farrell said...

Ray closing comment:

Barr writes:

“A sustained re-engagement with science would enrich its [PON’s] conceptual and linguistic resources.”

Perhaps, but whether such re-engagement would alter a single thing with respect to PON’s *conceptual* resources is another and more crucial question altogether.

Barr continues:

“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.”

Never was there a more obvious two-way street. *All* of this has to do with a proper (or improper) understanding of the relations between the sciences and first principles which govern the sciences. But this is *exactly* the area in which most modern scientists have been ill-formed or entirely un-formed.

Barr writes:

“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’.”

True, but those implications, their meaning/interpretation must *necessarily* fall within the epistemic and ontological boundaries established by a supervening PON. For physics to appeal to its own linguistic and conceptual resources to establish the interpretation of its own findings is to presuppose that the methodological principles of modern physics are ultimate. But that begs the question. They are *not* ultimate. Modern physics is a branching into the concrete whose methodology and principles are governed by a higher science, namely PON. Therefore, it is more crucial that modern physicists learn the language of traditional PON, than that traditional PON philosophers learn the language of modern physics – even if there is certainly communicative value in the latter.

Finally John, you conclude:

“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.”

True, but difficulty is no excuse for abandoning a task; it only marks the need for fortitude.

Pax,
Ray