I’ve done a bit on Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics in the past, and it underlies some of the discussions I have here and at places like Peaceful Science – for example, on why the evolution of life is almost certain to involve far more than current theory can see, even at the natural level. I suppose many readers will still not have a handle on it, though respected Thomist philosopher Ed Feser comes up quite a lot in discussions, more often in the mouths of ID supporters that ECs, who don’t seem to like philosophy for the most part. Here is a quote from Ed, replying to those who say those important elements in A-T thought, matter and form, cannot be identified by science, and so are probably unreal.
Yet such remarks simply beg the question against the Scholastic position… Though there is nothing in the actual findings of modern science that is at odds with hylemorphism, the tendency of both philosophical naturalists and of scientists when they are wearing their philsophers’ hats has been to read an essentially anti-Aristotelian philosophy of nature into science and then to read it back out again as “confirmation” of the dubiousness of hylemorphism and related doctrines. In particular, nothing that smacks of final causes, substantial forms, or the like is allowed to count as scientific in the first place. (Scholastic Metaphysics, p188-9)
This expresses very well the limitations in the foundations of modern science that are applicable beyond the particular question of Thomistic philosophy. Substitute words about “design” for those about “hylemorphism” in the paragraph above, and it’s clear why design is not only inapparent in science, but can’t even be defined satisfactorily. Likewise “information”.
And of course, the same is true of God himself, whom science excludes by its methodology, but of whom many say that, if there was evidence for God in nature, they would accept it – but because there isn’t, the methodology must be sound.
This is not merely an issue involving atheistic scientists: it puts scales on the eyes of Christians too, even when they acknowledge God as Creator. “Design” becomes, to them, something so hidden in nature that they conclude God must be deliberately concealing himself. The metaphysical basis of science is seldom seen at all, let alone seen as the cause of this theological conclusion.
It’s a conclusion that flies in the face of nearly all historical theology. Only this morning in my daily reading in the Church Fathers (kindly supplied to me by Nick Needham) St Augustine writes on Rom 1:18:
He foresaw that someone would ask how the knowledge of truth could be gained by those to whom God had not given the law. And he wasn’t tongue-tied about the wellspring from which they were able to gain it; he openly says it was through creation’s visible works that they came to know the Maker’s unseen attributes. And, most truly, in keeping with their great and ongoing abilities to search out such things, that is how they were able to find God.
He is typical of the theological mainstream until recently. This, as the reading’s heading in my reader says, is the doctrine of general revelation. But my point is that it is not only Christians or IDists who say that the metaphysical underpinnings of science more or less guarantee that naturalism will be read out of science, because it was read into it. To return to Feser, the insistence that “we don’t find any mechanisms of design in nature” is as blind to what design must be as a source critical to A-T metaphysics that he quotes:
Where in physics, or chemisty, or biology do we find something answering to the description “something in a material object that actualizes its potential to be a dog [or a hydroigen atom, or a sodium chloride molecule]”?…
The answer is, undoubtedly, “nowhere.” But the reason is nothing to do with empirical science, and everything to do with its usually invisible metaphysics. Once agins, substitute “design” or “purpose” or “God” in that sentence and the conlcusion, and the reason for the conclusion, is the same.
If science were truly isolated from scientist’s general worldviews it would be less important, but people do not work like that. The scientist views the natural world scientifically by habit, in the same way that I find it impossible, even a decade after retirement, to stop seeing people as medical cases.
The conceptual snare is not entirely inevitable, though, because some brave souls do their science on their own philosophical principles, having done the work of getting educated in philosophy. Feser quotes Werner Heisenberg, who on several occasions described quantum science in Aristotelian terms, because he considered only these adequate to the task. For example:
The probability wave of Bohr, Kramers, Aleter… was a quantitative verion of the old concept of “potentia” in Aristotelian philsophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.
Or “potency” and “act”, in A-T jargon. Heisenberg saw that atomistic metaphysics was just incapable of making sense of the quantum world – just as it also fails with regard to mind, life and, I would suggest, evolution. But unlike a few great physicists like him, most biologists – and most Evolutionary Creationists in particular – don’t really “do” philosophy, if indeed they don’t regard it as mumbo-jumbo complicating common sense.
As a result, the concepts of form and final causation, even though an obvious conclusion from the concept of creation held unequivocally by Evolutionary Creationists, seldom get linked in any coherent way to the workings of the biological world. They really have no way of allowing even inherent teleology, apart from God’s direct actions, into biology – hence the kneejerk insistence that ID people can’t give an account of the “mechanisms of design”, no doubt to the great frustration of those like Bill Dembski, whose grasp of metaphysics is far more sophisticated and whose concept of design happily embraces Aristotelian inherent (created) teleology as easily as direct divine action.
I will therefore say, as I’ve said many times before, that science and faith will never be properly reconciled without a major adjustment in the metaphysics of science – or at least of tjose of us, scientists or not, interested in the reconciliation.