Science’s metaphysical blinkers (again)

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Science’s metaphysical blinkers (again)

  1. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    Thanks for the passages from Augustine and Heisenberg, Jon. Also, I agree with your overall drift and conclusion here. The metaphysical assumptions underlying most popular discussions of “science” and what “science” says or proves are largely unexamined, or poorly examined.

    Years ago, under a pseudonym, I had the temerity to say on BioLogos, under Darrel Falk’s tenure, that I didn’t think the BioLogos folks were deeply versed in the metaphysics or philosophy of science. I made the further remark (which was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back) of suggesting that ID folks were much better trained on the philosophical side (citing Dembski’s Ph.D. in philosophy, Richards’s Ph.D. in Philosophy and Theology, Nelson’s and Meyer’s Ph.D.s in Philosophy of Science), in contrast with most of the BioLogos scientists whose degrees were in natural sciences only. For my blunt assessment, I was immediately banned, and it was many months before I returned.

    My banning from BioLogos in that case doesn’t in itself matter much, since it was really the culmination of a long-standing disagreement between BioLogos and myself over a number of issues. But the issue I addressed was important: If one is going to talk about the relationship between theology and science, or religion and science, or faith and science, one is inevitably drawn into discussions which go beyond “science” or “religion” in any narrow sense, discussions which have to become philosophical.

    Of course, since for some American ECs Christianity appears to be mainly a sort of personal pious affection for Jesus, it may not seem to them that any philosophy is necessary to relate Christianity to science (or to anything else), but for those of us who take their theological bearings from writers like Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Thomas More, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, etc., theology inevitably involves cosmology, ethics, political theory, etc.; all human thought is in some sense related, and philosophy is the necessary middle term connecting talk about God with talk about nature.

    Thus, the philosopher is going to be sensitive to implicit teachings about the world slipped into discussions under the authority of “science”; the philosopher wants to lay bare the difference between the empirical discoveries of scientists and the metaphysical interpretations they put on those discoveries. The philosopher wants to tease apart the empirical evidence for “evolution” from the overarching world-view of “evolution”. The philosopher wants to separate the truly empirical case made by Darwin from Darwin’s many metaphysical and theological pronouncements (found throughout The Origin of Species and his other writings). The philosopher wants to know why “science” does not permit discussions of purpose in living nature, given that such a ban is, comparatively speaking, recent in science, arising only since about the time of Darwin. But such discussions seem to be of no interest to most of the folks at BioLogos.

    For those Hump readers whose natural inclinations are more philosophical than those of the nit-picking population geneticists etc. who dominate the discussions of evolution at BioLogos, I think we can recommend many of the volumes listed under the “Books We Like” section found on this site. Many of these writings show an admirable awareness of the philosophical dimension of faith-science discussions.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      As you know, Eddie, I have no training in philosophy, but it became evident as soon as I entered the origins discussion that without some understanding of it people were trying to put science and faith together in ways that just made no sense.

      I wasn’t targeting BioLogos especially here, but an example from overnight shows the problem: they’re trying to define “evolution,” and Steve Matheson suggested that “change in allele frequency” was good enough: even though it might not cover some areas of evolutionary science, it was good enough for the lay people (and creationist propagandists) on the forum.

      He entirely failed to see that if you can’t define something inclusively, it probably isn’t an entity. Commenting tangentially in reply to someone else (on information and Thomism, as it happens) I pointed out that defining “definition” itself was hazardous without a clear understanding of universals (which would include “evolution”), but he simply responded that I was indulging in “peak pedantry”.

      And it’s for reasons like that that Evolutionary Creation lacks any clear “theory” of how the “evolution” and “creation” (both undefined) might fit together.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        Picking up on your reply, Jon:

        “I have no training in philosophy, but it became evident as soon as I entered the origins discussion that without some understanding of it people were trying to put science and faith together in ways that just made no sense.”

        This is an excellent reason for becoming a philosopher! Socrates became a philosopher in the course of trying to make sense of what various people in his day were saying — about the cosmos, about justice, about the soul, and so on. He started out without the benefit of any academic training in philosophy, and with only a desire for coherent answers to guide him. And just as he had to work through the muddle of incoherent answers that he found in the few “philosophical” written works that then existed (mostly works of early natural science with a materialistic tilt) and that were common in the marketplace of Athens among the Sophists and other would-be intellectuals of the day, so you have had to work through the muddle of incoherent answers found in various books on origins and in the opinions offered in the internet marketplace. You’ve been forced to become a philosopher, willy-nilly, by the inherent flaws in the discussions of the day regarding origins. And in the course of doing so, you’ve offered many sound philosophical arguments.

        One of Socrates’ great contributions to philosophy was to insist that people offer adequate definitions. Your dissatisfaction with the definition of evolution offered by some people is in good Socratic tradition.

        Actually, I find Darwin’s expression “descent with modification” still the most useful general definition of evolution, because it not only corresponds to what the man on the street generally means by evolution (the man on the street generally knowing nothing about “changes in allele frequencies in a population”), but also captures the alleged phenomenon under discussion: species change (are “modified”) due to variations acquired in the process of inheritance (“descent”). It has the further advantage of not breaking down every time scientists change their minds about mechanisms (e.g., when they discover that “change in allele frequency” isn’t an adequate descriptor). It is the sort of useful general definition that Socrates would be looking for, or that Aristotle (had he been an evolutionist) might have offered.

        But to come back to the subject of yourself and philosophy, the point is that you were driven to philosophy, so to speak, by your quest for understanding, whereas most of the leaders of EC aren’t so driven, and don’t seem to think that any philosophy is necessary; according to many of them, all you need is “good science” in one half of your mind and “the eyes of faith” in the other, and as long as you keep those things in their proper compartments, no problems can arise. So the best possible science of nature can say nothing at all about whether there are natural ends, purpose or directionality to evolution, etc., but that’s OK, because we can just pretend that such purpose exists (despite the absence of empirical evidence or supporting argument) on the basis of a non-rational commitment to revealed religion. We can hold simultaneously to a view of the world in which explanations of purpose are unnecessary and without warrant, and one in which they are central; we just can’t give an account of how those two views of the world cohere intellectually. I can’t imagine an approach to truth more opposed to the intellectual attitude of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But it’s the approach to truth apparently favored by evangelical geneticists, biochemists and astronomers in the USA, and by their analogues in British Christian pro-evolution organizations.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “…on the basis of a non-rational commitment to revealed religion. ”

    Or selected bits of revealed religion, as the case may be!

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