Edward Feser: Science Needs Aristotle to Explain Nature

aristotle

Slowly but surely, philosopher Edward Feser contends, philosophers of science are rediscovering a need for teleology in the universe over three and a half centuries after they’d ruled it out. And this is leading them back to Aristotle and his theories of forms and causes just as many centuries after they’d banished him from the lab.

Not without a fight; there are still plenty who want to hang on to a reductionist mechanical universe, where the only causes that matter (if any) are material and efficient causes. After all, to introduce directedness into natural events, even in a limited sense, is to admit the possibility of ultimate, divine purpose. Opening the lab door to Aristotle would risk St. Thomas Aquinas slipping in behind him. (Feser, if I remember correctly, is a convert to Catholicism from atheism.) But even some naturalists are beginning to question whether mechanistic suppositions allow them to picture nature as it really is.

Some Caveats

Fair warning: Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science (Neunkirchen-Seelscheid, Germany: Editiones Scholasticae, 2019; Kindle version) was not written for the casual or amateur philosopher. Or, if Feser intended such as me to be part of his audience, he forgot about us a few times. I found none of the arguments so incomprehensible as the last three chapters of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time — a 30,000-word vocabulary will only get you so far. However, some passages will require a second reading to fully understand. And throughout the book, Feser assumes the reader has more extensive reading in philosophical literature than a neophyte would ordinarily have.

For one thing, Feser often refers to arguments he has developed more fully in previous works, which he helpfully lists in his bibliography but which I don’t have in my bookshelves or on my electronics. (I suppose that’s one way to promote your books.) For another, as the book progresses, Feser occasionally brings in references to “famous” problems and counterarguments a non-professional like me would find as obscure as a reference to the “famous ‘Bigby’s Hand’ spells” would be to someone who’s never played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™. (Please, no rabbit holes on this subject.)

In admitting my amateur status, I’m also necessarily admitting I’m not in a good position to evaluate the strength of Feser’s arguments. However, Aristotle’s natural philosophy has proven remarkably robust over the centuries. Although he made some mistakes as a consequence of the state of knowledge in 3rd-century BC Greece, the bulk of his theories don’t depend on such errors for their own validity. More to Feser’s point, Aristotelian thought lies so much in the deep background of science that theories which deny or contradict his end in incoherence or self-defeat, or can’t be sustained without question-begging.

Getting Shut of Church and God

“Natural science,” writes Feser, “… is concerned with the empirical and material world that happens as a matter of contingent fact to exist. The philosophy of nature is not so confined. It is concerned with what any possible empirical and material world would have to be like” (loc. 146-147). In other words, Feser’s quarrel is not with science’s methodology, its epistemology (theory of knowledge), or its success. In fact, Feser charges that some mechanistic conclusions can’t be true without invalidating science altogether. So to charge Feser with being “anti-science” would be not only wrongheaded but fatuous.

Feser’s focus is on problems in the field of natural philosophy. Nevertheless, the title refers to metaphysics, of which natural philosophy is a branch, because the metaphysics the natural philosopher holds dictates the range of allowable conclusions they will draw when answering questions in natural philosophy. This poses a challenge for many scientists because, as Feser explains:

Scientists qua scientists are not experts on philosophical matters. Indeed (and as we will see), where a purportedly scientific claim embodies both empirical and philosophical assumptions, scientists who have no training in philosophy often fail to disentangle these components or even to see the difference between them, and commit philosophical errors as a result. … [U]ltimately the dispute [between Aristotelianism and mechanism] is philosophical, and the mechanistic world picture must accordingly stand or fall on its philosophical merits. (Kindle loc. 910-915)

The problem Aristotle really faces is his associations with Thomism, the descendant of medieval Scholasticism, and the Catholic Church. At least part of the early modern scientists’ political aims was positive: the reorientation of thought “toward a more practical and this-worldly set of concerns” (loc. 1102). However, part was negative: the “dismantling of Christendom’s theological-political complex” (loc. 1093-1101; cit. Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God, p. 75). Getting shut of the Church — and, eventually, getting shut of God — meant “the whole of Aristotle would have to be scrapped, along with the shelves of medieval commentary on him” (Lilla, p. 87).

Despite his own theistic commitments, which he alludes to here and there, Feser goes out of his way to present Aristotelian solutions to natural problems, such as quantum indeterminacy, in a manner nonbelievers can accept. But it’s hard for a naturalist to accept telos, Aristotle’s name for “final cause” (the end to which a change is ordered), without seeming to concede the grounds for St. Thomas’ “Fifth Way”, the Argument From Order (or Design). It’s like a disreputable ex-brother-in-law asking to come live with you long years after your messy and rancorous divorce from your domineering ex-wife.

Aristotle vs. Limitation on Reality

Reductivism plays a large role in the mechanistic view of natural science because the scientific method relies heavily on mathematics. Whatever can’t be reduced to numbers can’t be measured (empiriometric science); at best, they can only be put in relationships with one another (empirioschematic science). Unfortunately, the mechanistic view transforms this limitation on method into a limitation on reality. Its extreme manifestation is in scientism: “If it can’t be measured, it can’t be true. Or at least, it can only be trivial.” Or in eliminativism: “If it can’t be reduced to physical properties that can be measured, it must not exist.”

Aristotle’s forms and essences escape reduction to numbers. They’re properties that don’t exist as physical objects but nevertheless are real so far as they inhere in physical objects; that is, in Jacques Maritain’s word, they’re preter-real. Numbers are real, but only in this manner. You can’t sit down on a chairness; but so long as there are chairs, chairness exists. (Responding to H. G. Wells’ nominalist affirmation, “All chairs are quite [i.e., absolutely] different,” Chesterton replied, “If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them ‘all chairs’” [Orthodoxy, p. 40].)

Then there’s telos, especially if we read it as directedness or intentionality. It’s hard to think of an inorganic compound having such a thing; and indeed, in many cases, any ascribed final cause would be extrinsic. But it’s also hard to think of, say, the microscopic protein bodies which translate mRNA into chains of amino acids as part of a cell’s operation and not regard their activity as purposive — directed — even though we’ve detected nothing analogous to a brain directing their movements.

“The Suicide of Thought”

At a time when many scientists are beginning to treat randomness or chance as a “no-God of the gaps”, signs of immanent intentionality in nature are unwelcome. Therefore, formal and final causes must not be permitted; everything must be reduced to material and efficient causes. Buh-bye, Aristotle. But how can you respond when a neuroscientist asserts in public media that consciousness — the part of the mind that says I, the part that is aware not only of the self but of its surroundings — is a “persistent illusion”?

Neuroscience, no less than chemistry and biology, is often claimed to have vindicated reductionism or even eliminativism. For example, it is sometimes claimed that neuroscience has shown that we are really nothing but our brains, that consciousness plays no role in causing our actions, that introspection is unreliable, that the self is an illusion, and that free will is an illusion. (loc. 8684-8686)

These performative contradictions claim to be scientific but logically deny the scientist’s ability to “know” anything in any meaningful sense, fatally compromising science’s epistemology. The claims are too incoherent to rise to the dignity of error, let alone scientific knowledge. Yet they’re just the kinds of claims we should expect when the mind is reduced to material and efficient causes, and mind-independence is ruled out a priori.

Feser spends the last section of the text eviscerating such “neurobabble.” But even near the beginning, in Chapter 2, Feser essentially elaborates on what C. S. Lewis called “the cardinal difficulty with naturalism” (Miracles, chap. 3) and G. K. Chesterton before him called “the suicide of thought” (Orthodoxy, chap. III). There really is no scientific “view from nowhere.” Scientists cannot leave themselves out of (and unaffected by) the reality they try to describe. A nature without room for mind-reality, let alone mind-independence, has no room for scientists or science.

Conclusion

Feser argues that the mechanistic view can’t ever provide an exhaustive explanation of nature because, in reducing the universe to its quantitative aspects, it leaves out much of what we should properly call “the universe.” It can only give us a wire-frame diagram of a house, not a full, three-dimensional picture, far less the real home in which we actually live. There really is more to reality than numbers. And more natural philosophers are coming to this commonsense conclusion. The “naïve realist” view of nature is not so naïve after all.

As I said before, Feser is trying to give nonbelievers Aristotle without Aquinas, or even Aristotle’s own monotheism. He quotes skeptics and even “card-carrying atheists” in support, and gives due credit to those who are at least moving in an Aristotelian direction. He is critical of mainstream intelligent design because it concedes too much to the mechanistic view. He insists that skeptics need not associate God with immanent, intrinsic teleology. Indeed, you could almost call his presentation “atheist-friendly.”

I don’t know if he has succeeded, though. As I also said before, I’m an amateur at philosophy. I suspect, however, that for at least some scientists and philosophers, keeping science an irreligious club and the universe a God-free zone would take priority. This would lead them to reject Feser’s arguments even if they were irrefutable. Nevertheless, if Feser is right about the trend, it’s possible the future of science will see a rehabilitated Aristotle permitted to explain Nature to us once again. Even at the risk of reopening Nature’s door to God.

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11 thoughts on “Edward Feser: Science Needs Aristotle to Explain Nature”

  1. My area of research was in biological science, but such experience is completely tangential to the task of defining science. One thing I noticed was that many biological scientists were oblivious to their use of mathematics. Many biological experiments measured one continuous variable as a function of two others, z = f(x,y), while their ensuing discussion was of the effects of x and y on z, and of the interaction of x and y on z. However, there was no recognition that the effect of x on z was implicitly, the partial derivative of z with respect to x and that the interaction was implicitly the second partial derivative of z with respect to x and y. The simplest theory in science is: Is z a function of x?, or even more generally: Does z depend upon x?
    Complex theories presuppose a great deal of mathematical relationships inferred from the measurements of prior experiments. As theories, they are conjectures of what mathematical relationships will be inferable from the measurements of future experiments.
    The most rudimentary of the biological sciences is morphological taxonomy, which is the application of the mathematics of geometry and of subsets. In this area of science, the instrument of measurement is often unaided eyesight, while the standard of measurement may appear to be subjective.
    I would recommend the YouTube video by Barr and Sich (beginning at time 1:05) for a good philosophical assessment of science.

  2. Aristotle’s philosophy begins with the human sensation of material reality, from which one’s mind derives an intellectual understanding of the nature of material reality. Modern philosophy, following Kant, begins with the human mind and its categories of understanding into which it fits material reality. As you point out, the resultant distortion of our understanding of material reality affects our understanding of science. This is evident in the common definition of science as the proposal of a theory, which is then verified or disproven by experiment. In contrast, the Aristotelean definition of science begins not with the human mind, but with material reality. Science is the inference of mathematical relationships among the properties of material reality as those properties are quantified through the art of measurement, thereby achieving an understanding of the natures of material things at the level of their common material properties. It is the interdependence of science and the art of engineering, which necessitated their historical mutual development. In awe of the art of engineering, modern man ignores both the brilliance of Aristotelean philosophy in its validation of science as well as the failure of modern philosophy in this regard.

    1. With all due respect, Bob, as someone who has worked in science and done some reading in the history of science, I don’t agree with your definition of science:

      “Science is the inference of mathematical relationships among the properties of material reality as those properties are quantified through the art of measurement, thereby achieving an understanding of the natures of material things at the level of their common material properties…”

      First, observation (important for the historical sciences) is not synonymous with measurement. Second, it is usually the case that experiments are done after the theory tells you what is interesting, as in the Michelson-Morley experiments to measure ether drift, (theory: Maxwell’s equation and Lorentz invariance). The Caloric Theory of heat was very nice, but disproved by Count Rumford’s cannon-boring experiments. I can think of occasions where the theory followed the measurements–Planck’s hypothesis of a quantum of energy to get rid of the ultra-violet catastrophe of blackbody radiation. But that ultra-violet catastrophe was predicted by classical electromagnetic theory of radiation. And many other examples. I myself did one piece of theory in nmr when measurements didn’t agree with theory then extant, but the extant theory preceded those measurements. (Google Kurland-McGarvey equation.)

      Philosophic interpretations are interesting, but unfortunately they can’t be falsified as can scientific theories. There are (at last count, I believe) 15 interpretations of quantum mechanics and all are consistent with theory. This bear of little brain likes to read about the philosophy of science, but I don’t find it useful in understanding what science is all about. Unfortunately most philosophers haven’t done science, so they really don’t understand how it works. Fr. Jaki did his graduate work in high energy physics, so he appreciates how the quantitative sciences operate and thereby, how science is limited.

      Which philosophy of science one prefers is dictated by lots of factors, or, in other words “Chacun a son gout.”

    2. Anthony S. Layne

      “Unfortunately most philosophers haven’t done science, so they really don’t understand how it works. Fr. Jaki did his graduate work in high energy physics, so he appreciates how the quantitative sciences operate and thereby, how science is limited.”

      In that case, Bob K., you might appreciate The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century by Anthony Rizzi, a physicist turned philosopher.

    3. Thanks Anthony, for the reference. That’ll be #2 on my list of books to get. And is Rizzi a physicist turned philosopher, or a physicist who writes about philosophical issues in science?

    4. Bob K., as far as I can ascertain, he still does physics, but more at the administrative and teaching level than in the trenches.

  3. Anthony, fine article. I’ll have to read Feser’s book. But I was prepared to argue on reading the title that you were going to propose that Aristotlean principles be included as part of the scientific method. You did not, so I can’t complain.

    Here’s my point. The methodology of science is fixed: basic principles (assumptions), fundamental theories, auxiliary theories, and most important, empirical confirmation of the preceding. I’ve talked about this in several blog posts to emphasize that science has limits, which are wider than Fr. Jaki’s limits of quantitation. (See, and pardon the horn-blowing,
    https://www.catholicstand.com/unanswered-questions-in-science/
    https://www.catholicstand.com/the-limits-of-science-what-science-cant-do/ )

    My point is that what philosophy says about science, is not science. It can’t be verified or falsified empirically. In short, science can’t explain itself, as many eminent scientists have said. (See for example Wigner’s great article, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Science.”)

    And although teleology (purpose) can be admitted as an interpretation of some scientific phenomena (e.g. “The Bee Dance”), It should not be a scientific principle, because there’s no way to verify or falsify that principle empirically. There are atheistic philosophers (Thomas Nagel for one) who say that teleology should be admitted as a scientific principle, but they are wrong.

    I’ll add the following comment: with respect to Aristotlean philosophical principles (and I’ll be the first to admit I’m inexpert in these), as a quondam practicing physicist, I’ve not found them helpful or insightful in understanding science, particularly the mysteries of quantum mechanics, but perhaps I’ll change my mind after reading Feser’s book.

    1. Anthony S. Layne

      Hi Bob,

      I’ll admit the title is a bit “clickbait-y.” Feser’s argument is hard to summarize in 70 characters or less. I do encourage you to read the book; you’ll probably find it more accessible than I did. As well, you may be better able to evaluate the strength of his arguments.

      I agree with you that philosophy is not science as we currently and almost exclusively use the term. In an older understanding, both philosophy and theology were considered sciences because the term didn’t imply an orientation to pure empiricism; scientia was simply “knowledge.” What a lot of people — including scientists (present company excluded) — don’t appreciate is the relationship between philosophy and science. If there were a better understanding of the epistemology behind the method, perhaps we wouldn’t have neuroscientists who claim to have proven consciousness an illusion! The sciences are more dependent on philosophy than many people know (or at least care to admit), and when the line is crossed, it’s often because the people who cross it don’t realize it’s there.

  4. I once read a poll asking, “is your spouse your best friend?” The choices were, “yes, no, don’t know, I’m not married.” The percent who answered, “I don’t know” was 5%. This is the same percent who claim to be atheists. All polls have a +/- percentage of validity, so atheist fall into this range who are the “smart alecks”. In other words, 100% of human beings believe in God’s existence, therefore the argument is non-existent.

    1. I am an unbeliever of atheism (no pun intended). Am I saying that proclaiming of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is futile – of course not! Am I saying the devil does not exist – of course not! The “unbelievers” are only those who have not fully heard the new and everlasting covenant. Yes, many unbelievers (and us Catholics too) may worship false inanimate idols, but that’s different from those who claim non-belief in the existence of God…they are yanking your chain…or have a gun to their head.

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