Hitting the metaphysical snooze button

One of the major themes of The Last Superstition is the significance of the early modern philosophers’ replacement of the classical teleological conception of nature with an anti-teleological or mechanistic conception. Another major theme is how utterly oblivious most contemporary intellectuals are to the nature and consequences of this revolution – about the motivations that lay behind it, its true relationship to modern science, the surprising feebleness of the arguments used to justify it, and the new and intractable problems it opened up. Most of all, they show little awareness of the deep conceptual problems inherent in the attempt to give a thoroughly mechanistic account of the world, as contemporary naturalism seeks to do. (I argue in the book that the very program is incoherent, so that naturalism, as usually understood anyway, is demonstrably false. I also provide positive arguments to show that a teleological conception of nature is rationally unavoidable – as are the theism and natural law conception of morality that the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition derives from it.)

What is remarkable is how, just over a half-century ago, the problematic character of the modern mechanistic understanding of nature was as evident to many prominent intellectuals as it is utterly invisible to their descendants. Nor am I referring merely to Neo-Scholastics and other Thomists. In the book I quote a lengthy passage from the September 1948 Atlantic Monthly in which the then-prominent empiricist philosopher W. T. Stace – not someone with a religious or Aristotelian ax to grind – described the early moderns’ replacement of a teleological conception of the world with a mechanistic one as “the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world,” and one which in his view necessarily undermined the foundations of morality. Moreover, he realized that this revolution was purely philosophical in character, not scientific, despite its often being conflated with (and thereby deriving an unearned prestige from) the discoveries of early modern science.

Stace thought the meaninglessness of human existence entailed by this picture of the world was something we would have to try to learn to live with. (Good luck with that.) But other thinkers of the day saw that the problems with the mechanistic conception of nature went well beyond its unhappy moral implications. They saw that it was philosophically inadequate, that it simply did not do justice to what we know about the world – indeed, to what we know about the world in part through modern science itself. They often also saw that the criticisms the early moderns had made of their medieval predecessors were superficial and unfair – and again, I’m speaking of non-Aristotelian and non-Thomistic writers here, not those with a Scholastic or Catholic stake in the controversy.

Take, for example, Alfred North Whitehead. In Science and the Modern World, based on his 1925 Lowell Lectures, he judges that the mathematical-cum-mechanistic conception of the natural world, for all its undoubted practical benefits in allowing for the prediction and control of events, is as a metaphysical theory “quite unbelievable,” the outcome of mistaking “high abstractions” for “concrete realities” (pp. 54-55). Groundlessly treating the idealizations of quantitative empirical science as if they constituted an exhaustive description of the natural order has generated an endless “oscillation” of modern philosophy between the three equally unacceptable extremes of Cartesian dualism, materialism, and idealism, as philosophers hopelessly try to make sense of the place of mind in a mechanistic world (p. 55).

Confusing the abstract and concrete is only half the problem, though, in Whitehead’s view. The other half is the difficulty the anti-teleological mechanistic revolution opened up for the understanding of causation and inductive reasoning. As I discuss at length in TLS, for the Scholastics, the main way in which final causality manifests itself in the natural world is as the concomitant of efficient causality. If some cause A regularly generates some effect or range of effects B – if fire regularly generates heat, ice cubes regularly cause the surrounding air or water to grow cooler, and so forth – this can only be because there is something in the nature of A by virtue of which it “points to” or “aims at” B specifically, as to a goal or natural end. If there is no such “pointing” or “aiming” in A – that is to say, if the generation of B is not the final cause of A – then the fact that A is an efficient cause of B, the fact that it reliably generates B specifically rather than C, D, E, or no effect at all, becomes unintelligible. This is, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, precisely why efficient causation became so problematic in modern philosophy: the denial of formal and final causes (i.e. the denial that things have natures in virtue of which they are directed toward certain ends) was bound to result in the skeptical puzzles of David Hume. (Actually, the problem of causation goes back, naturally enough, to Ockham and the early nominalists; in his “originality” as in so many other ways, Hume is vastly overrated.)

Whitehead takes a similar view, arguing that the problem of induction is generated by a mechanistic conception of matter on which for any material particular, “there is no inherent reference to any other times, past or future” (p. 51). Hence, “if the cause in itself discloses no information as to the effect, so that the first invention of it must be entirely arbitrary, it follows at once that science is impossible, except in the sense of establishing entirely arbitrary connections which are not warranted by anything intrinsic to the natures either of causes or effects. Some variant of Hume’s philosophy has generally prevailed among men of science. But scientific faith has risen to the occasion, and has tacitly removed the philosophic mountain.” (p. 4)

By “faith” having “risen to the occasion,” what Whitehead means is that in the absence of any objective, intelligible connection between causes and effects, the scientific enterprise can have no rational foundation, so that scientists who embrace the mechanistic philosophy of nature and the Humeanism that is its sequel in effect carry out their work on the basis of a groundless commitment. Contrary to the standard caricature of the moderns vs. medievals dispute as a conflict between sober rationality and blind faith, Whitehead regards the moderns as the fideists and the medievals, whose Aristotelian metaphysics made nature intelligible through and through, as the partisans of “unbridled rationalism” (p. 9). Indeed, “the clergy were in principle rationalists, whereas the men of science were content with a simple faith in the order of nature… This attitude satisfied the Royal Society but not the Church. It also satisfied Hume and has satisfied subsequent empiricists.” (p. 51)

“Accordingly,” Whitehead says, “we must recur to the method of the school-divinity as explained by the Italian medievalists” if we are to avoid skepticism about induction (p. 44); in particular, we must return to something like the Scholastic idea that universal natures can be abstracted from particulars. Of course, Whitehead himself was no Aristotelian or Thomist, putting forward as he did his own novel process metaphysics. But he saw that something had to be put in place of the inadequate mechanistic philosophy of nature of the moderns, and that there were at least elements in the medieval picture that it replaced – in particular its acknowledgement that teleology is an objective feature of the world – that needed to be revived.

Another writer of this period who perceived the inadequacies of the mechanistic revolution is E. A. Burtt, whose The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (first published in 1924, revised in 1932) is a classic study of the history of that revolution, and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand it. One of Burtt’s themes is the way in which the mind-body problem and the problem of skepticism are natural outcomes of the mechanistic view of nature, which so radically divorces the common sense “manifest image” from the “scientific image” (to borrow Wilfrid Sellars’ language) that there seems no way in principle to bring them back together again. Another theme is the way in which the moderns insisted on forcing reality to fit their method rather than making their method fit reality, and how such “wishful thinking” and “uncritical confidence” underlay their wholesale chucking-out of Scholasticism in favor of a new, purely quantificational conception of nature.

I quote Burtt at some length in TLS and won’t repeat the quotes here. Another writer who briefly made some of the same points was Basil Willey, who tells us in The Seventeenth Century Background (1934) that “this [modern] science has achieved what it has achieved precisely by abstracting from the whole of ‘reality’ those aspects which are amenable to its methods. There is no point in denying that only thus can ‘scientific’ discovery be made. What we need to remember, however, is that we have to do here with a transference of interests rather than with the mere ‘exantlation’ of new truth or the mere rejection of error.” (p. 23) In other words, the fact that a science which focuses only on those aspects of nature which can be analyzed in mechanistic-cum-mathematical terms succeeds mightily in uncovering those aspects (as modern science undeniably has) tells us absolutely nothing about whether nature has any other – non-mechanistic, non-mathematically-quantifiable – aspects. The early moderns by no means disproved the metaphysics of the Scholastics; they simply changed the subject. “Galileo typifies the direction of modern interests, in this instance, not in refuting St. Thomas, but in taking no notice of him.” (p. 25)

Then there is R. G. Collingwood, who in the thirties, in his lectures on The Idea of Nature (and as Marjorie Grene reminds us in her 1964 essay “Biology and Teleology”), saw contemporary biology moving back in the direction of something like Aristotle’s understanding of teleology, apart from which the internal development of an organism is unintelligible (whatever one says about the Darwinian explanation of adaptation, which is an independent question). Grene herself thought Collingwood’s prediction “startling,” certainly from the perspective of 1964, though she sympathized with his view that irreducible biological teleology was real, and presented some considerations in its defense. (Grene’s essay is available in her collection The Understanding of Nature: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology.)

Of course, the reason Grene found Collingwood’s prediction startling was that by the mid-1960s few were decrying the crude mechanism of modern philosophy of nature, certainly within academic philosophy and Anglo-American intellectual life in general. To be sure, Great Books advocates like Mortimer Adler and Robert M. Hutchins had been calling for renewed attention to writers like Aquinas throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties, as had Neo-Thomists like Maritain and Gilson. And even into the early sixties, books like Floyd Matson’s The Broken Image – now totally forgotten (though it received a nice blurb from no less than F. A. Hayek) – decried what the mechanistic revolution had done to our conception of human nature and political science. But these attitudes were getting further and further from the mainstream, and by the end of the sixties were entirely passé. Though modern intellectuals seemed for a thirty-year period mid-century to be waking from their dogmatic slumbers vis-à-vis the mechanistic revolution of the early moderns, they eventually hit the metaphysical snooze button, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Why? Good question. No doubt the reasons are complex, but I would conjecture that the dominant factor within Anglo-American academic philosophy was the influx of European intellectuals into American universities during the thirties and forties, as they fled Nazi tyranny. In philosophy, a great many of these people were beholden to logical positivism and related ideas, and their crude scientism was passed on to their students – students who by the 1960s were dominating the field. In light of the work of Quine, Kuhn, and other critics of positivist dogmas, this scientism would eventually be softened somewhat. But these critiques were generally internal, and did not challenge scientism at the most fundamental level (despite their having resulted in recent decades in a revival of metaphysics as a sub-field within analytic philosophy). In particular, they did nothing to restore awareness of the problematic character of the mechanistic conception of nature inherited from the early moderns.

Or at least, nothing until recently. Fortunately, the alarm clock seems to be ringing once again. As I note in TLS, a return to notions surprisingly similar to the Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas of formal and final cause (even if not always under those labels) can be seen in various areas of contemporary philosophy, and in writers who have no particular interest in A-T metaphysics as such nor any theological ax to grind. To take just a few examples: In philosophy of science and general metaphysics, there is the “new essentialism” of philosophers like Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, Crawford Elder, and George Molnar; in philosophy of biology there is a renewed respect for teleology in the work of writers like Andre Ariew and J. Scott Turner; in philosophy of action there are defenses of the irreducibly teleological nature of action by writers like Scott Sehon and G. F. Schueler; in ethics there is the neo-Aristotelian biological conception of the good defended by thinkers like Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson; and a general trend toward “non-reductionist” forms of naturalism can be seen in philosophy of mind and other sub-disciplines within philosophy.

Again, not all of these writers would see in their views a return to Aristotelian themes, nor would most (or even any) of them support the use to which Thomists would put those views. But however inadvertently and piecemeal, these trends do in fact constitute a revival, sometimes under novel language, of some of the metaphysical ideas of the Scholastics. And of course there are yet other contemporary analytic philosophers whose work is self-consciously Thomistic or Scholastic – for example, John Haldane, David Oderberg, Gyula Klima, Christopher F. J. Martin, James Ross, and other writers sometimes characterized (though not always by themselves) as “analytical Thomists.”

Willey writes: “As T. E. Hulme and others have pointed out, it is almost insuperably difficult to become critically conscious of one’s own habitual assumptions; ‘doctrines felt as facts’ can only be seen to be doctrines, and not facts, after great efforts of thought, and usually only with the aid of a first-rate metaphysician.” (p. 12) The lazy naturalism and scientism that inform most contemporary intellectual life, and which underlie the New Atheism, are precisely such “doctrines felt as facts,” prejudices to which most secularists do not even realize there is any rational alternative. Even with the metaphysical alarm clock ringing once more, today’s dogmatic slumberers may just hit the snooze button yet again. But maybe not. We live in hope.
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