Aristotle, Aquinas & Emergence

I was asked to write an article relating the teaching of Aquinas to contemporary science for the journal Scientia et Fides. I decided to use and further develop the material contained in my doctoral dissertation. I expanded my reinterpretation of the classical notion of emergence, with its emphasis on the role of downward causation, in terms of the fourfold notion of causation in Aristotle and Aquinas, and the theory of divine action offered by the latter. The PDF version of the article is available HERE.

Abstract of the article:

One of the main challenges of the nonreductionist approach to complex structures and phenomena in philosophy of biology is its defense of the plausibility of the theory of emergence and downward causation. The tension between remaining faithful to the rules of physicalism and physical causal closure, while defending the novelty and distinctiveness of emergents from their basal constituents, makes the argumentation of many proponents of emergentism lacking in coherency and precision. In this article I aim at answering the suggestion of several thinkers to redefine emergence and downward causation in terms of the broader Aristotelian view of causation. In addition, I further develop this interdisciplinary conversation to include theological implications of emergentism, analyzed in reference to Aquinas’ understanding of divine action in terms of the same fourfold division of causes—bringing thus natural science, philosophy, and theology into creative and fruitful dialogue.

Keywords: emergence; downward causation; hylomorphism; teleology; Aristotle; Aquinas.



Metaphysics of Downward Causation

I have just finished writing my presentation for the conference on Agency and Quantum Physics in Innsbruck. I’m excited about it. This is the first time that I’m invited to give an hour long talk at the major session of an international conference. The conference begins on March 30th and ends on April 2nd. Here is the abstract of my paper:

Metaphysics of Downward Causation:
Nonreductionist Physicalism versus New Aristotelianism

Mariusz Tabaczek, O.P.

Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA


Many proponents of methodological nonreductionism in contemporary science find the notion of downward causation (DC) a sine qua non of the strong (ontological) version of emergence (EM), which strives to give an account of the irreducible character of the complex levels of the organization of matter. But what for many is the essence of nonreductionist physicalism, carries with it quite a bevy of problematic issues, and becomes a stumbling block and an obstacle for those, who acknowledge the metaphysical and logical inconsistencies of the emergent theory based on the idea of DC. For how can physicalism be non-reductionist? How can DC be reconciled with the causal closure of physics? What do “higher” and “lower” levels refer to? What is causal in DC? What is being caused (acted upon)? What is the very nature of DC?

I will argue that the defense of DC requires from us a broader notion of causation, which goes beyond the efficient causes accepted and described in modern science. I want to argue in favor of the retrieval of formal causation in particular. Its acceptance not only makes EM and DC plausible, but also helps to overcome and replace Humean causation of events with the causation of living and non-living beings, explained in terms of their causal powers and dispositions. I hope to show, in the course of my presentation, that true non-reductionism needs to be philosophically grounded. Yet it can still remain compatible with science provided it values and is open to the reflection offered by philosophy of nature. My position follows new Aristotelianism developed within the analytic tradition, although an explicit reintroduction of formal cause goes beyond it to the original thought of Aristotle.

Dissertation Proposal

Emergence and Divine Action:
Exploring the Dispositional View of Causation
as a New Philosophical Foundation

My dissertation proposal was accepted at the GTU systematic and philosophical theology area meeting on Oct 15. All I have to do is to have it approved by the GTU doctoral council (sometime in November) and then write it. 🙂 Few words of explanation concerning my current research that I wrote in an email sent to a scholar that I am corresponding with online, will serve as a good introduction to the topic of my work.

The reason I got interested in the dispositional metaphysics is its rejection of Humean view of causation and re-connecting with Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of causation. But there is not an easy connection that one can establish between the two I’m afraid. Although some thinkers like Brian Ellis argue in favor of essentialism (see his Scientific Essentialism), they are not ready, nor willing to accept hylomorphism. The other problem is teleology. Molnar speaks about the natural “physical intentionality” of powers to manifest themselves, but hardcore Aristotelians are not satisfied. For them Aristotle’s distinction between active and passive potencies is crucial. They emphasize the character of the active potencies which are causal grounds of certain effects but without being determined to those effects by nature or without requiring any stimulus condition to obtain. (See for instance the paper by Errin Clark, which will be published soon in proceedings of the ACPA conference that took place a week ago in D.C and was dedicated to dispositional metaphysics) But this whole argumentation sounds like another criticism of conditional view of causation which is criticized by several dispositionalists – so they can defend themselves here. But the question remains: how Aristotelian is dispositional metaphysics???

Complex systems approach, emergence and systems theory are fascinating in terms of their re-discovery of complex structures and their holistic approach to reality. But they are stuck with the Humean view of causation which is based on his atomistic ontology of events and his dismissal of the ontology of objects. But one ontology cannot do without the other. Objects have properties (smell, age, physical construction) which cannot be ascribed to events. But acknowledging this requires from us a step beyond efficient causation which is the only one accepted in modern science. But scientists are very suspicious about making this move and buying into formal and final causes. They want to eat the cake and have it. That is, they argue in favor of irreducible complexity in systems theory, while saying – at the same time – that after all everything is explainable at the level of physical particles. They call themselves “non-reductionist physicalists” which I think brings a logical contradiction. If they are willing to buy into formal and final causes they claim – as Deacon does – that they emerge on the way of the growing complexity of the organization of matter, whereas for Aristotle these causes are simply out there all the time and ground all structures and processes not only bottom-up or top-down, but – as my advisor Michael Dodds OP says – inside-out.

My project would be to try to propose dispositional metaphysics as a philosophical base and ontology for Deacon’s emergentism and suggest that accepting a sort of essentialism (not necessarily hylomorphic essentialism) does not contradict science but opens it to philosophy of nature which can help to overcome the causal closure imposed by modern philosophy and science. In the second part of my dissertation I will work on the theory of divine action based on emergentism. I will show that dispositional metaphysics opens the way back to the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of causation and divine action, and God/world relation, which I want to propose as an alternative to the panentheistic theology of divine action based on emergence developed by Arthur Peacocke, Philip Clayton, and Niels Gregersen.

Dominican Colloquium 2014 Berkeley


We are almost at the end of the first Dominican Colloquium organized by the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley: What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? Dialogue between Philosophy and Theology in the 21st Century. The event is really great. Lots of first rate philosophers and theologians from the US and Europe. Lots of good plenary sessions and conversations. We have among us the master of the Order Fr. Bruno Cadore and the provincial of the Province of the Holy Name of Jesus, Fr. Mark Padrez. I’m also happy to meet fr. Michał Paluch, the regent of my Polish province. Both Michał and I presented our papers yesterday. He did it in a plenary session, and I in the evening breakout-session. I think both were successful. Michael spoke on the topic of analogy of attribution versus the analogy of proportionality in Aquinas. His paper provoked a very interesting discussion with Stephen Long who is an author of a recent book on the topic and is present here too. I presented on the powers view of causation and divine action. Several people congratulated me on the paper, the manner I presented it and on the power point presentation that accompanied my speech. Hereunder you can find a summary of my paper. More about the conference on the DSPT website.


A Powers View of Causation and Divine Action: New Aristotelianism in Analytic Philosophy and Theology

Mariusz Tabaczek, OP, Graduate Theological Union

If “God is and God acts”, then “we need a language of causality” – says Michael Dodds, O.P. – showing thus that the connection between theology of divine action and philosophy of causation is indispensable. What is then the present stage of the debate on causation in philosophy? After the rejection of final and formal causes as not observable, not quantifiable, and not capable of empirical investigation in the modern science, the final blow against causation came from Hume, who reduced even efficient causes to the impression of the constant conjunction and the idea of necessary connection in our mind. The contemporary philosophy of causation, following the anti-Humean turn, seems to be concentrated on an attempt to prove the reality and ontological character of efficient causes. Such is the main concern of major theories of causation in analytic tradition (necessary and/or sufficient conditions, counterfactual, probabilistic, singularist, process, instrumentalist, and interventionist views of causation). However, the same tradition brings one more theory, which opens a way back to the more robust philosophy of causation. A ‘powers and capacities’ view of causality defines dispositions and properties of things and organisms as a distinct, basic, and irreducible ontological category, and a source of their identity and activity. The acceptance of powers and capacities can lead to accounts of laws of nature and modality. Moreover, the idea of powers and their manifestations resembles Aristotle’s notion of formal and final causality. In my presentation I will describe the powers view of causation and explore its possible use in theology of divine action. I claim that it may be helpful in reintroducing Aquinas’ view of divine action, his emphasis on the fact that God is not an agent univocal with creatures, and his attempt to find a proper balance between God’s transcendence and immanence.

Innsbruck 2015

I am sharing the great news. I was invited to give a talk at the conference organized by a group of philosophers and physicists working  on a Templeton-project on ‘agency’ in Insbruck, Austria. The conference takes place from March 30 – April 2 (2015) at the University of Innsbruck. I was asked to deliver a talk on the ontology of downward causation (and agency). This is an amazing opportunity for me to both share and further develop my thoughts on the topic of emergence, downward causation and agency. It is also an occasion to make some connections with the Templeton foundation which is one of the major sponsors of the theology and science debate. I am very happy and excited about this invitation. Here is the official website of the conference.


Philosophy of Causation – Vol. 3 – Modernity

The struggle between more theoretical approach to scientific explanation in medieval Oxford and the empirical and causal approach of Aristotle promoted in Paris, prepared the ground for the big change which came with modernity. The advance of the new science brought a gradual dominance of reductionist empiricism and rejection of causal explanation in metaphysics. The third part of the first segment of my special comprehensive exam depicts the way in which this change happened, in reference to five philosophers from that period.

René Descartes (1596-1650)

51U5u9K+ABL._SY300_In order to understand methodology, ontology, and reflection on causality presented by Descartes, the father of the philosophy of classical science, we must remember that he was deeply rooted in Aristotelianism and scholasticism (deeper than it is usually acknowledged). He was particularly impressed with Aristotle’s demonstrative ideal of knowledge best exemplified in mathematics. His ambition was to apply this methodology to the physical sciences: “In physics I should consider that I knew nothing if I were able to explain only how things might be, without demonstrating that they could not be otherwise. For having reduced physics to mathematics, this is something possible …” (Oeuvres de Descartes). In order to make it happen he introduces a dualist ontology in which material substance is subject to mathematical, mechanical and deterministic description, and is distinguished from mind, which is unextended but capable of thought.

Descartes1However, because he was rooted in Aristotle, Descartes saw scientific knowledge being not only demonstrative, but also explanatory, and therefore referred to causal description (even if he understood explanation only mechanistically). Thus, he would put an emphasis on experimentation and value hypotheses, saying in his Discourse that he finds experiments “more necessary in proportion as our knowledge advances.” He was indeed both a keen observer on nature and careful experimenter. He saw hypothesis as: a) being equivalent with mechanical explanation, or b) offering possible explanations of phenomena, or c) suggesting the “true cause” of phenomena based on experimental evidence. But this aspect of Descartes’ method would never hinder nor question his rationalism. In the end he would regard experiments as merely confirmatory and not capable of refuting conclusions that he arrived at by rational insight. He says that: “while our experiences of things are often fallacious, deduction (…) can never be wrongly performed by an understanding that is in the least degree rational” (Rules for the Guidance of our Native Powers). To sum up, we can say that we find in Descartes a philosopher trying to relate his a priori deductions to the actual world which he experienced and in which he performed his experiments. He would find the latter, practical part of his methodology, providing data for analysis and an opportunity for mind to gain an intuition of clear and distinct ideas underlying the particulars it has experienced.

Descartes on StampConcerning philosophy of causation, while Aristotelian ideal of strict demonstration through causes permeates his work, Descartes rejects Philosopher’s fourfold notion of causality. Replacing the complex scholastic system of substantial forms, qualities of various kinds, elements, and other particles, with the clear and distinct idea that bodies are composed of particles in motion, he banishes formal and final causality (the latter he saw as being beyond human understanding). Though he still subscribes to material causality, he reduces it to basic physical constituents (rejecting “primary matter”), and eventually finds himself left with just one – efficient cause. Because it bears the burden of all other types of causation, Descartes develops a more complex theory of efficient causality. He distinguishes between the efficient cause of being and existence of all created things, which he attributes to God (efficiens and totalic causa), and efficient causes of various phenomena of the physical world (they have more explanatory power from the scientific point of view). His view of causation becomes deterministic. He sees the determinism of natural laws built into the efficacy of mechanical motion. Ends are predetermined by God and are opaque to human understanding, but through the laws that God predetermined “as the efficient cause of all things,” we can explain “the effects that we perceive by senses” (Principles of Philosophy).

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Descartes won a great popularity among philosophers of his time. His method, including his causal reductionism, was followed by Hobbes, Gassendi, and Spinoza. However, there is one philosopher who would depart from this Cartesian tradition. Although Leibniz had followed in his early reflection the crowd of philosophers who valued mainly mechanical principles, he eventually changed his mind and become a defender of the plural notion of causality (which he defined in a manner that was peculiarly his own).

Gottfried Wilhelm von LeibnizLeibniz’s early fascination with mechanical philosophy finds its best expression in the paper written in 1677 (On a Method of Arriving at a True Analysis of Bodies and the Causes of Natural Things), in which he states that: “since we may perceive nothing accurately except magnitude, figure, motion, and perception itself, it follows that everything is to be explained through these four.” Here we can see Leibniz who was convinced that through experimentation and observation one can arrive at the mechanical explanation which supplies ultimate “true causes” of phenomena.

About eighteen years later, in Specimen Dynamicum, Leibniz is less optimistic about mechanical character of scientific explanation. Reflecting on the causes of motion, he proposes a new solution through the idea of force. What is crucial here is that he treats force as something prior to extension, present everywhere and implanted by the Author of nature. He distinguishes between active and passive aspects of force, and thus goes back to formal and material causality as defined by scholastics. Active force is of two kinds: a) a primitive active force which is nothing more but the “first entelechy,” and corresponds to the soul or substantial form; and b) a derivative active force which is exercised through limitation of primitive force resulting from conflicts between bodies. Passive force is divided into two kinds as well: a) a primitive passive force which constitutes the very thing and resembles scholastic idea of materia prima; and b) a derivative passive force which is found mainly in inertia and resistance of secondary matter.

Leibniz further develops his defense of plural notion of causality in his justification of metaphysics. He says that matter cannot stand by itself and that mechanism needs intelligence and spiritual substance, for it did not come from a material principle and mathematical reasons alone. Here he introduces a reflection on final causality. There is no doubt that for him God is the ultimate cause of everything in the universe. But he does not follow the occasionalism of Malebranche and acknowledges that God put into things certain properties which explain all their predicates. God’s eternal law is carried out by the activity of creatures.

hqdefaultThese developments of Leibniz’s metaphysics find another expression in his Monadology. The internal forces of monads can be identified with substantial form. When conceived as appetites, they have also a teleological character. The efficient causality of monads is not reciprocal. They cannot influence one another. That is why Leibniz introduces a rather vague idea of the principle of sufficient reason, which is supposed to explain the existence and relations between things (monads) apart from efficient causation (the meaning of both “sufficient” and “reason” is metaphysically unclear). The final cause of the order of monads and their characteristics is God. Although, according to his reflection in Monadology, efficient and final causality are complementary, Leibniz does not escape entirely the problem of determinism, which in his philosophy takes the form of a pre-established harmony.

David Hume (1711-1776)

Despite of Leibniz’s defense of formal and final causality, Descartes’ causal reductionism became more and more pervasive. It was followed by Locke, Newton, Berkeley, and Hume who is regarded by many as the one who gave the final blow to the theory of causation. While Berkeley argued against causal explanations (with reference to any kind of causation) in physical science, Hume generalized his opinion and applied it to natural philosophy and metaphysics, and thus did away with causality altogether. He claimed that given the concept of causal necessity, there is no way of justifying it rationally (causal necessity is not a logical necessity). He questioned three basic assumptions which he believed we accept in our notion of causation: 1) contiguity in space and time between cause and effect, 2) temporal priority of a cause to its effect, and 3) a necessary connection between cause and effect.

{D5079E92-F881-4CAD-98D4-BB94EE48752F}Img100In his Treatise of Human Nature Hume assumes that every idea in our mind is based on a prior impression. That is why in order to justify our idea of causation, we must find the impression that gave rise to it. The idea of necessity has its source in many instances of similar occurrences. It is an outcome of constant conjunction which produces an association of ideas in our mind. Hume emphasizes that the tie of necessary connection “lies in ourselves, and is nothing but the determination of the mind, which is acquired by custom,” and which we tend to project onto the world. Here he gives two important definitions of cause: 1) a cause is “an object precedent and contiguous to another, and where all the objects resembling the former are placed in like relations of precedency and contiguity to those objects, that resemble the latter;” 2) a cause is “an object precedent and contiguous to another, and so united with it, that the idea of the one determines the mind to form the idea of the other, and the impression of the one to form a more lively idea of the other” (A Treatise of Human Nature). Because causal relations are not logically necessary, they cannot be known a priori. In order to determine whether there is a causal relation between A and B we must rely on our experience of similar relations. Thus, constant conjunction or regularity is both necessary and sufficient requirement for causation. Especially if we assume that “we never can, by our utmost scrutiny, discover anything but one event following another” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding).

But Hume’s metaphysical and methodological position, as well as his opinion about causation, are not as clear and transparent as it is usually assumed. First of all, his embrace of the radical empiricism is accompanied by some rational implications. While he states that the mind is concerned only with its own ideas and cannot perceive anything of the reality outside itself (radical empiricism), he adds at one point that all our distinct perceptions are distinct entities (strong realism). Considering Hume’s theory of causation, Don Garrett (“Hume” in The Oxford Handbook of Causation) points towards three possible interpretations of his position: 1) causal projectivism – a projection onto cause-and-effect pairs of an element of felt necessity that does not resemble anything in these pairs, and is derived from the experience of constant conjunction (causation is mind-dependent); 2) causal reductionism – causality is reducible to constant conjunction, but constant conjunction is not alone sufficient for knowledge of causal relations and we have to know, a posteriori, that constant conjunction is what the causal sense detects; 3) causal realism – it is possible to argue that Hume can accept causal cognitivism while rejecting the semantic reductionism that treats causal claims as synonymous with claims about constant conjunction. Garrett claims that Hume “concedes something to the motivations of each of these packages, and he could with some justice be classified as subscribing to any of them, or all of them, or none of them – depending on the details of the more specific definitions that might be proposed for them.”

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

bildKant found himself confronted with the rationalism of Leibniz and the empiricism of Hume, which he regarded as being in accord with Newtonian physics and philosophy, but incorporating to much of skepticism. Therefore, he was looking for a middle way which would implement both a priori elements of human knowledge stressed by rationalists, and the necessity of synthetic judgments based on the experience, emphasized in empirical circles. He sought a synthesis of these two approaches in a new type of judgment which is both synthetic and a priori. The price of this operation was significant. Since we can know a priori of things only what we ourselves put into them, synthetic a priori knowing “has to do only with appearances, and must leave the thing in itself as indeed real per se, but not known by us” (A Critique of Pure Reason).

Taking this position in his critical period Kant consequently and radically changes his way of philosophizing. While before Critique he was concerned with the problem as to how one substance acts on another, the problem of cause and effect, and the problem of space and extension as being constituted only by interaction of substances, in his present reflection substance as a basic explanatory principle is replaced by the a priori forms of sensibility and of understanding (he lists 12 of them). They are understood as the conditions of the possibility of experience, and are valid a priori for all objects of experience.

kants-thinking-capFollowing this methodological strategy Kant wanted to ground the principle of causality in the structure of reason. But in order to avoid the epistemologically disastrous consequences of the Humean criticism, he classified it as a principle explaining the synthetic a priori judgments of science. An event A is the cause of an event B iff there is a universal law which says that events of type A are necessarily followed by events of type B. But because neither the necessity nor the universality of the causal relation can be established empirically, it has to be grounded in the a priori conditions of judgment of a possible experience. Thus we can see that Kant rejects Hume’s view that we first perceive temporal succession between events, and only afterwards we are able to name one of them as cause, and the other as effect. For him the opposite is true. In order to establish an objective order of events in time, we need a priori synthetic concept of cause-effect relationships.

Summing up, we can say that Kant thought he have proved that concepts such as “cause” (“substance,” etc.) “stand a priori before all experience and have their undoubted objective rightness, though admittedly only in respect of experience” (Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics). For him every occurrence has a cause which is a prior event. The effect follows from the cause necessarily, and in accordance with a rule which is absolutely universal. All this is known to us a priori, but not without reference to experience.

Auguste Comte (1798-1859)

auguste_comte_grandeDespite of Kant’s struggle to save causation in epistemology and scientific explanation, the positive method in science and philosophy followed the way proposed by Berkeley and Hume, disposing of the search for causes. Positivists, in place of causes, searched only for correlations between facts which can be expressed in general laws of phenomena. Auguste Comte, who is one of the main representatives of the positivist camp, formulates his famous law of three stages: 1) theological or fictious, in which mind seeks the essential nature of beings, 2) metaphysical or abstract, in which mind replaces supernatural agents with abstract forces, and 3) scientific or positive, in which mind gives over the vain search for absolute notions and studies laws of natural phenomena (The Course in Positivist Philosophy). Although he endorsed the use of hypotheses, Comte accepted them only provided they were open to empirical verification. He stressed prediction rather than explanation as science’s primary aim. At one point he speaks very bluntly, leaving no doubt as to what he thinks about causal explanation: “The basic characteristic of the positive philosophy is that it regards all phenomena as subjected to invariable natural laws. Our business is – seeing how vain and senseless is any search into what are called causes, whether first or final – to pursue an accurate discovery of these laws, with a view to reducing them to the smallest possible number” (The Course).

In spite of his radical rejection of causality, Comte did not reduce his “positive philosophy” merely to induction. He still valued deduction for establishing particular conclusions related to special topics of research, and as an essential tool of making predictions. For this reason, we can venture to say that Comte in fact followed the path of those post-Cartesian philosophers who hoped to steer a middle course between empiricism and rationalism. Nevertheless, it seems that nothing was really able to change the course that philosophy of science took after Descartes, which led to the decline and final dismissal of causal explanation in phenomenalism, conventionalism, operationalism, and the orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics. However, the story does not end up with these trends in philosophy. Causality is coming back on stage with anti-Humean tendencies and the return of realism, accompanied by some contemporary reflections on causality within the analytic tradition. But this is a material for yet another story.