What is Heard About Nature and the Trajectory of Certain Thomists

Father Benedict Ashley, O.P. notes in an autobiographical sketch that his vision of the relation between his Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and the sort of “natural science” that originated with Descartes et. al. changed over time. At first he took “modern natural science” to have basically zero philosophical significance; the task of the Aristotelian was simply to take the empirical discoveries of “modern science” and integrate them into the framework of Aristotelian cosmology: “In my first phase I saw the task mainly as one of filling in the details in a general plan already laid out. This may appear preposterous, but it really is not so difficult.” But then he slowly begins to think that “modern science” supports an insight of “modern philosophy” into the nature of reality itself — namely that reality is “historical.” This change came for him at the time of Vatican II, and it had the same effect on him that the Council had on many others: “This insight was a liberation, because it made it possible for me to see modern thought and modern culture much more sympathetically than before.” I wonder whether Ashley’s sense of liberation did not incline him to assent to what he saw as an insight more readily. Would he have been more hesitant to assent to his new ideas if they had been less in tune with his age?

Ashley’s first phase is one that I suppose is familiar to most Thomists. Becoming a Thomist nowadays usually coincides with a certain critique of “modern science.” Modern science is a project that begins by excluding all non-metrical aspects of reality from consideration, not because it has any reason for supposing that all reality is quantity, but rather because only the measurable is useful for the Baconian project of the domination of nature. That is, it is founded not an insight into reality, but on a decision. Moreover, since it proceeds by way of hypothesis it’s conclusions are uncertain. Aristotle’s natural philosophy, on the other hand, since it is based on “common conceptions,” i.e. infallible first movements of the intellect, is certain and cannot be refuted by new discoveries. That matter, form, and privation are the principles of nature; that nature acts for an end; that motion is the act of the potential as such, and that therefore everything moving is being moved by another; all these things are certain, and to the extent that modern science denies them it is simply false. Whatever empirical discoveries modern “science” has made (the corruptibility of the stars,  the mutability of species etc.) have to be integrated into the pre-given framework of Aristotelian philosophy.

Now there is much in this critique of modern science that is surely true. And it is a truth that has a lot of Promethean glamour to it, because “science” has a pre-eminent place in our civilization, a place which has ramifications for the way moderns tend to see the whole world including the moral life, politics, and religion. Aelianus of Laodicea catches the exhiliration of attacking this idol perfectly:

One of the great disasters on the road to ruin of western civilisation was the day that the hypothetico-inductive method and its fruits usurped the name of science. For by the nature of the case such reasoning is forever condemned to be not science but opinion.

Those of us who, after an initial study of Thomist philosophy of nature, have turned most of our attention to theological questions, tend to keep the initial view intact. But a number of alumni of my Laval School Thomist Alma Mater who have continued to devout a lot of energy to the question seem moving in the same direction as Benedict Ashley.

James Chastek, for example, writes the following:

It is simply not realistic to think, as many Thomists do, that we can just wait for modern physical theory to fill in the details of the scheme that the philosophy of nature sketches out in advance. Where are the equivocal causes in nature? Where is the primum mobile? The cause of species as such? The one cause of a single time for all moving things? The eternal causes of generation existing in a different place from the corruptible?

Here Chastek is describing his movement away from the initial position in terms of a failure to find in the world what one would be expected given Aristotle’s account of causality. Now this is certainly a strong argument, but  I wonder if it is sufficient. There are after all strong reasons for holding the common conceptions of the intellect are certain. These conceptions however are rather vague and confused and the more one tries to see what follows from them the farther one is from certitude. Thus if one concludes from common conceptions to a certain account of causality that requires (say) a primum mobile, one could either say “well, I know there is one, I just haven’t found it yet” or, “I know that everything moving is moved by another, but perhaps some of the conclusions I have drawn from that were not quite well thought through.” In either case one holds what Aristotle thinks is most certain as most certain and judges less certain things by it. Chastek however goes far beyond this arguing that in fact Plato was right, and there is no certain knowledge of natural things; supposed certain common conceptions of nature are just the way nature happens to appear to the inhabitants of the cave.

Chastek’s Platonism has a lot of things going for it, but I think that (as in the case of Benedict Ashley) what makes it attractive to him is more than frustrations with Aristotle. In my all time favorite Chastek blogpost, he talks about how the works of man reflect the infinite through succession, and that hence there is a desire to do away with the old and make something new. He was not talking about his own project there, but most of what he has posted since gives a bit of the impression of a revolutionary in search of a revolution. Chastek is a brilliant but impulsive thinker, and my worry about his project is that in ‘burning down the forest to fertilize the earth’ he is setting fire to houses and barns. The danger is that one contradicts what one really knows because of something that one does not really know.

A similar but (it seems to me) a more careful project is the one that Sean Collins has begun exploring on his blog. Collins is a brilliant mathematician and physicist as well as a deep reader of Aristotle. In a paper on force Collins offers a radical re-thinking of Aristotle’s philosophy of motion. The stars do not move in the same sense that we can be said to move he argues. What we take to be “inertial motion” in not a change in place of certain bodies but rather a change in the configuration of a certain quasi-substance (what Einstein calls “space”). And the level of content Collins is as radical as Chastek, and I am still struggling with the question as to whether he makes his case, but his method inspires more confidence.* Collins seems to me to remain faithfull to Aristotle’s method even though he comes to different results; that is, he respects the primacy  of the “common conceptions” in the light of which all natural discovery has to be judged. And now Collins has begun a step by step examination of the relation of “modern natural science” and the philosophy of nature. I look forward to seeing his project unfold. There is a lot at stake.


* Of course it is not entirely fair to contrast Collins’s paper with Chastek’s blog-posts; presumably Chastek could give a more methodical presentation of his ideas as well.

2 thoughts on “What is Heard About Nature and the Trajectory of Certain Thomists

  1. Pingback: Stirb zur rechten Zeit! | Super flumina

  2. Pingback: Links R & C 3 | Sancrucensis

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