Thursday, November 29, 2012

What is science for?

It will undoubtedly prove controversial to say that our approach to science ought to take account of what nature is.

Unfortunately, we live in a time in which the nature of nature has become a topic of dispute, and much of the scientific establishment seems to think that nature can be considered and taught in a way that takes no account of its fundamental ..., well, nature.

In fact, one of the chief problems in discussing science is the equivocal use of the word "nature." To modern thinkers, the word "nature" is merely a reference the cosmos as a whole. It is the sum total or aggregate of all physical objects. But to classical thinkers, the primary meaning of the word "nature" had to to do with the intrinsic order and purpose of things.

The poet Alexander Pope once wrote:
Nature and nature's laws lay hid by night;
God said, "Let Newton be," and all was light.
Here, the word "nature" is used very much on its modern sense. The classical use of the word, however, can be illustrated from a nursery rhyme:
Dogs delight to bark and bite ...
For 'tis their nature to.
Here the word "nature" is used in the classical sense, to mean the inner essence of a thing.

To modern thinkers, the world is like a machine. We live in the wake of the so-called "scientific revolution," which introduced the view that nature was a giant mechanism ultimately reducible to lifeless atoms. In this view, the things of nature have no real essence or purpose, since what they fundamentally are is a collection of dead particles. Natural objects are the particles they can be reduced to, and that is all they are.

To classical thinkers—whether Christian or non-Christian—this was not so. Nature was not a machine; it was an organism. The universe was, in a sense, alive.

In the old view, science was a study of the causes of things, and they believed there were four causes: formal, material, efficient, and final. A formal cause was the metaphysical pattern of a thing. A material cause was what it was composed of. An efficient cause was what brought the thing about or kept it in existence. And the final cause was what it was for, its telos.

In the classical Christian view, man was a creature made in the image of God (formal cause) out of flesh and bone (material cause) who was created by his Maker (efficient cause) in order to enjoy and glorify Him forever (final cause).

But beginning in the 17th century, formal and final causes were jettisoned: There was no metaphysical pattern upon which things were designed, or any intrinsic purpose for which they existed—no pattern nor any telos. There was no longer any why or wherefore. Nature was shrunk down to the dimensions of the instruments by which it could be measured. Now there was only the what and the wherewith.

And with the advent of Darwin, the what itself was eliminated. Nothing was what it was, since everything was always in the process of becoming. All that was left was efficient cause.

The object of the old "natural philosophy" was to apprehend nature. Aristotle, for example, practiced science by naming, defining, and classifying. The purpose of what we now call "science" was to behold nature in its fullness. But in the modern view, the whole point of science is to deconstruct nature—to reduce it to its ultimate meaningless components.

In the classical view, the point of science was to apprehend the mystery of the nature; in the modern view, the point of science is eliminate the mystery of nature.

Science begins and ends in wonder, and wonder cannot be had in an approach whose whole purpose is to eliminate it. It can only be accomplished by viewing nature as a mystery we can never resolve, but only marvel at.


Singring said...
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Singring said...

So your argument boils down to: science is no longer taking into account telos, I don't like that, therefore science isn't doing what it is supposed to do.

Nowhere in the post do you even hint at the fact that there is good reason for science having jettisoned the ideas of purpose and final causes etc. - they are useless. They are not supported by the evidence and have no explanatory power beyiond the mechanistic processes we have evidence for.

You pretend as if somehow science just did away with these concepts because of some philosophical egenda - it did not. It did away with them as it did away with the the ether, phlogiston and all the other quaint ideas of the past that we now find to be utterly superfluous when trying to explain nature and its processes and components.

'It can only be accomplished by viewing nature as a mystery we can never resolve, but only marvel at.'

This is just utterly ridiculous. First of all, if you approach nature as something that can 'never be resolved' - what's the point of doing science? Why not throw your hands in the air and say 'I give up' right from the get go?

Second, if you think scientists today don't marvel at nature and gape in wonder at its beauties and intricacies, you quite frankly don't have the foggiest clue.

For example, in Aristotles and Aquinas' day, the universe was viewed as God's plaything, with stars stuck to a sphere like lightbulbs in a doll's playhouse.

Just yesterday I read an article on a new black hole that has the mass of several billion stars in a galaxy some 8 billion years old. The scientists involved were understandably stunned and amazed by this discovery.

Are you honestly going to tell me that you find Aristotles view more awe-inspring than this? What is to stop us from doing boh - deconstruct and marvel at the universe?

Thomas said...

"In Aristotles and Aquinas' day, the universe was viewed as God's plaything ...."

That could not be more incorrect. For Aristotle, God is pure act--"thought thinking itself"--and doesn't have actively relate to the world in a volitional way. As to Aquinas, he distinguishes between primary and secondary causes that not only make room for natural causes, they presuppose them. (That's why Thomists are known to suppose that there are purely natural causes behind the big bang.)

If you think that the world is simply an expression of God's will and has no genuine imminent nature for Aristotle and Aquinas, you have confused them with the occasionalists: who Aquinas specifically argued against. In other words, you have imputed to them a view they specifically reject.

Singring said...

'If you think that the world is simply an expression of God's will and has no genuine imminent nature for Aristotle and Aquinas, you have confused them with the occasionalists...'

I said nothing of the sort.

I simply said that Aquinas in particular viewed the universe in a way that immediately stifled any kind of inquiry - everything was made by God in some way shape or form to conform to his will and there was nothing for us to discover save to marvel at the supposed 'wonder' of being stuck in this dollhouse.

He is very clear in his discussion of divine providence (question 22, article 3):

'I answer that, Two things belong to providence--namely, the type of the order of things foreordained towards an end; and the execution of this order, which is called government. As regards the first of these, God has immediate providence over everything, because He has in His intellect the types of everything, even the smallest; and whatsoever causes He assigns to certain effects, He gives them the power to produce those effects. Whence it must be that He has beforehand the type of those effects in His mind. As to the second, there are certain intermediaries of God's providence; for He governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures.'

Now, you can go ahead and tell me that this superstitious view of nature with God in charge of cause and effect and able to change his mind and intervene miraculously as he pleases (an anthropomorphic tinkerer) is anywhere nearly as awe-inspiring and wondrous as what we know about the universe today thanks to science.

If you did, it wouldn't surprise me. After all, not too long ago you tried to tell me that Aristotle was onto something when he assigned souls to beings based on whether or not they were capable of locomotion or not.

But I'm sure that, left to Aquinas' and Aristotle's ideas and ideals, we would now be living in a world of marvels much better than what we have today.

After all, 'naming, defining, and classifying' nature clearly would have helped us to invent computers, cure cancer and fly to the moon centuries ago, whereas dull, drab, mechanistic science horribly retarded all this wonderful development.

What a shame those golden dark ages were ruined by those clueless mechanistic enlighteners who weren't just satisfied with saying 'God said it, that settles it'.

Thomas said...

"Now, you can go ahead and tell me that this superstitious view of nature with God in charge of cause and effect and able to change his mind and intervene miraculously as he pleases (an anthropomorphic tinkerer) ...."

Aquinas understands providence as allowing much more room to nature's contingencies than, for example, Calvin, as this quotation shows. For Aquinas, the intelligible forms of things are derived from God, who is pure and total intelligibility. (This is the neo-Platonic, not the Aristotelian, side of Aquinas, and its rather odd that you're lumping Aristotle in here.)

Thus, for example, when we say that someone is good, God is the cause not in the sense that he irresistibly willed that one to be good (as for Calvin or arguably Augustine), but rather in the sense the formal sense: that God is the Good itself, and things imperfectly and indirectly reflect this Good. The passage you quote is explicit on this point: "He has in His intellect the types of everything ...."

It is accurate to say that for Aquinas the intelligible forms of things analogically reflect the nature of God, though they do so indirectly and imperfectly, and that this reflection is providential. But it is incorrect to say that God mandates the kind of cause and effect such that they are direct expressions of his will. That's occasionalism, which Aquinas explicitly rejected. Aquinas manifestly did not think that you could explain natural phenomena by saying simply that God willed it.

It's further very strange to blame Aquinas for impeding the empirical sciences, since Aquinas clearly held--following Aristotle--that nature could be explored rationally through experience without relying on scripture, dogma, etc. Modern historians now recognize the High Middle Ages to be crucial to the development of the empirical sciences. You are behind on the scholarship.

Martin Cothran said...


The quote from Aquinas you provided says nothing like what you say it says. How does having in his mind a metaphysical ordering (the first part of the italicized quote) and assigning certain effects to certain causes (the second part of the italicized quote) "stifle any kind if inquiry"?

Do they just not teach philosophy at all in Germany any more? (Or reading comprehension for that matter?)

What Aquinas says makes no difference at all to how we deal with scientific inquiry. He is simply explaining why it is the way it is, and, particularly God's relation to it. And in doing so he is giving an explanation of why certain causes have certain effects.

It has exactly nothing to do with "stifling any kind of inquiry"--particularly any kind of scientific inquiry, since science depends on a stable, orderly, sequence of cause an effect, which Aquinas is simply explaining.

Your assertion here (it doesn't rise to the level of an argument) is like saying that if someone where to give us the origin and explanation for why chess pieces move the way they do, it would make it harder for us to play chess, which is clearly preposterous.