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.


CTNS Conference 2016

Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences organizes a conference on this Saturday:

The Annual Russell Family Research Conference
Saturday, April 16, 2016

Steps to a Metaphysics of Incompleteness

It is dedicated to the work of Terrence Deacon from the UC Berkeley whose theory of emergence is one of the main topics of my doctoral dissertation. Deacon will present the paper he wrote together with Tyrone Cashman. Then there will be four scholars responding to the paper. I am one of them. Go to the website to get more details:

The Annual Russell Family Research Conference
Saturday, April 16, 2016

Philosophy of Causation – Vol. 2 – Middle Ages

The second part of the written part of my Special Comprehensive Exam takes us back to the Middle Ages. It proves that by no means it was a dark age, and that the modern science has its important predecessors in those working in the field of natural philosophy at that time. My summary gives a small insight into the complexity  of their ideas, and the importance of the causal reflection in their explanations.

Causality in Middle Ages

The first important center of science and philosophy in Middle Ages was located in Oxford. Its main representatives followed the Pythagoreans and Plato, fostering mainly the mathematical component. They searched for explanations in mathematical terms, trying to relate them to Aristotle’s causality.

robert-grosseteste-1-sizedOne of the first thinkers of that school, Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1168-1253), who tried to emphasize both the role of mathematics and the indispensability of experience and experiments (“in thought if not in deed”), which are supposed to verify or falsify the outcomes of physics. But he did not present any procedure of verification. It is also doubtful that he made real experiments. He would value a demonstration involving all four causes, but he thought they should be somehow quantifiable and amenable to mathematical treatment. (He presents an analysis of four causes of thunder: 1) the formal cause is “rumbling sound in clouds,” 2) the material cause is “quenching of fire in cloud,” 3) the efficiency involved is described through the mechanism that produces the thunder (clouds, vapor, fire in air), 4) the final cause (according to Pythagoreans) is to terrify those detained in the infernal regions.)

download=176443-Cook_Roger-BaconRoger Bacon (ca. 1214-1294) was a disciple of Grosseteste. He claims that mathematics is not only essential for understanding all sciences. Without it we are not able to understand the world. Although, following his teacher, he states that mathematical reasoning must be supplemented by experience to make its intuitions certain, it is again questionable whether he performed real experiments. But it needs to be noticed that he, supported by John Peckham (ca. 1230-1292), brought an important contribution to optical sciences (even if their appeal was more towards experience than experimentation). They were also committed to a realist philosophy of science and were looking for causes of phenomena.

William_of_OckhamThe 14th century science at Oxford further questioned realism and remained under the influence of the nominalism of William of Ockham (ca. 1287-1347), who would challenge the reality of Aristotelian “common natures.” Terms such as quantity, motion, time, space, velocity and causality, had for him no other real referents than an individual substance. In this situation only the mathematical approach was able to survive (it developed analyses similar to those employed in 17th century science), while the experimental and causal components were somehow neglected. This turn brought a development of calculatory techniques and kinetics. Indeed, it was the Medieval Oxford where an important development of the philosophy of motion was reached by a series of thinkers such as: Ockham, who associated motion with successive positions of body in motion (res relativa, forma fluens); Walter Burley (ca. 1275-1344), for whom motion was res successiva, that is something real, over and above moving object, having its causes and effects (not only forma fluens but also fluxus forme); Thomas Bradwardine (ca. 1290-1349), who equated motion with “speed of motion,” and thus brought a mathematization of motion; William Heytesbury (before 1313-1372/73), who introduced important kinematical rules called “mean-speed theorem;” and Richard Swineshead (fl. ca. 1340-1354), who is associated with an anonymous Tractatus de motu locali difformi, in which we find a description of four causes of local motion: “the material cause of motion, or the matter of motion, is whatever is acquired through motion; the formal cause is a certain transmutation conjoined with time; the efficient cause is a ratio of greater inequality of the moving power over resistance; and the final cause is the goal intended.”

The other center of medieval philosophy and science was located in Paris and remained in an opposition to Oxford. Its main thinkers did not trust mathematics as much as the empirical temper of Aristotelian tradition (rediscovered at the University of Paris). They believed in man’s ability both to come to know the world of nature and to discover and name the causes of its phenomena. Thus, it was the academia in Paris that gave start to the reflection on dynamical problems, supporting the origin of a systematic science of mechanics, which already had its kinematic component established at Oxford.

AlbertusMagnusThe philosophical foundation of the Paris movement was offered by Albert the Great (1193/1206-1280) and his ingenious pupil Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274). The first one of them, a leading scientist of his time, emphasized the role of observation and empirical reasoning. He saw the object of mathematics being an abstracted entity rather than an ontologically antecedent form. He emphasized the importance of the search for causes of natural things in the oft quoted passage from his De cello et mundo in which he says that: “In natural science we do not investigate how God the Creator operates according to His free will and uses miracles to show His power, but rather what may happen in natural things on the ground of the causes inherent in nature.”

Aquinas’ great contribution was his explanation of the way in which all four causes can be used in the demonstration in natural science. In his commentaries on major philosophical works of Aristotle Aquinas brings important development of the theory of four causes. He lists four types of formal causality, and introduces the distinction between essentia (essence, Aristotelian prime matter informed) and esse (existence). Following Avicenna, he defines four types of efficient causation and introduces important distinctions between principal/instrumental, and primary/secondary causes. He explains the way in which one thing can have many per se causes, cases of reciprocal causation, and those of things being causes of contrarieties. He also develops Aristotle’s reflection on the modes of causation, and provides an important commentary on Philosopher’s doctrine of necessity and chance. He shows that the problem of a chance event described in terms of two lines of causality crossing at a certain point of time and space cannot be resolved by tracing back each line of causality. Such operation will not provide an answer to the question of the proper (per se) cause of a chance occurrence.[1]

Developments of philosophy of causation presented by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas encouraged others to embrace more consciously and ardently philosophical realism in their science. Peter of Maricourt (fl. 1269) was a great experimenter who named magnet’s poles after the celestial poles and developed a methodology of falsification. Theodoric of Freiburg (ca. 1250-1310) who was a Dominican Friar concentrated himself on the search for the causes of rainbows and radiant phenomena. Although he emphasized the importance of all four causes in scientific explanation, he concentrated mainly on material and efficient causes. In his study of rainbows, he made an attempt on duplicating natural processes under controlled conditions, and thus gave the foundation to laboratory experiments. He also challenged Aristotle proposing his own use of induction which brings him closer to the modern experimental method than anyone else at his time.

The condemnations of Aristotle of 1270 and 1277 in Paris gave a fresh impulse to construct new hypothetical schemata for “saving the phenomena.” This brought a new realist analysis of local motion, developed by Jean Buridan (ca. 1310-after 1358), who claimed that it is real and independent of the thing moved and the place, and spoke of a virtus derelicta (“force left behind”) which he called impetus; Albert of Saxony (ca. 1316-1390), who speculated on the doctrine of impetus and the cause of the acceleration of falling bodies; and Nicole Oresme who would address the same problems in his writings. Interestingly enough, all three of them sowed seeds of the Copernican revolution, saying that both the hypothesis of earth in rest and the one with earth in motion, save the phenomena (but they refused to develop the second opinion). Oresme was also the first to develop an analogy between the workings of a clock and the universe, the analogy which would return and become very powerful with the mechanical turn in science.

Middle Ages brought one more opinion on causality, which remained in a radical opposition to the developments proposed in Oxford and Paris. Medieval occasionalism, linked to kalām, which is a type of philosophizing in Islam, developed by Al-Ash‘arī (d. 935) and Al-Ghazālī (1058–1111), denied any kind of causation in creatures, attributing it to the only true agent, God. This position was opposed by Averroes and Aquinas who argued that it deprives natural things of the actions that belong to them.

This story shows the ways in which the philosophy of causation, which had its roots in antiquity, was developed in Middle Ages. This movement prepared the stage for the Renaissance and the origin of the classical science, philosophy, and methodology which brought a dramatic change in philosophy of causation and more generally in philosophy of nature and metaphysics. I will describe them in the third episode which will be coming soon. 🙂


Hegel and Whitehead – part 1: Panentheism

I have just posted a new sub-page on my blog, which will contain abstracts and links to my official publications. I will try to explain the content of each one of them in several steps.

rtas20.v011.i04.coverMy first article in English was published in May 2013 in Theology and Science, a journal edited by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley. It’s title is quite sophisticated: Hegel and Whitehead: In Search for Sources of Contemporary Versions of Panentheism in the Science–Theology Dialogue. You can read an abstract here.

First of all, what is panentheism about? It all goes back to one of the main concerns of our reflection about God, which has been the source of struggle for theologians  over the centuries. On the one hand we acknowledge that God is totally different and unlike anything that we know by our sensual experience and intellectual reflection. God is totally and absolutely transcendent. He is omniscient (knows everything), omnipotent (can do everything), eternal, and above all – unchangeable. Therefore – according to St. Thomas Aquinas – while our relation to God is real and changes us, this same relation on the side of God is only a relation of thought (reason), because it cannot change God nor add anything to His essence which is pure act, without any hint of potentiality.

On the other hand we have to acknowledge that God is radically immanent, that is He is present in the world and all its aspects. Saint Thomas defines the very act of creation as a total dependence of every creature in its being on God. God is the source of the very existence of everything. Were he not present in contingent beings at every moment of their existence, they would perish at once. They actually exist because they participate in the infinite being of the Creator.

image-question14-largeAnd here comes the question: how does one bring God’s transcendence and immanence together into one model of His divine action? One of the possible answers goes back to Pseudo-Dionysius (5-6th century), and was further developed by St. Thomas Aquinas. It names three ways of our speech about God. The positive way enables us to formulate positive statements about the Creator. We may say for instance that God is good, and His goodness is revealed in creation (God’s immanence). But at the same time we must acknowledge that He is not good in the way that we are good. In other words, God’s goodness is unlike our goodness. This is the way of negation. Following it we realize that it is more appropriate for us to say what God is not, rather than what God is (God’s transcendence). And yet the connection with our human categories is not totally rejected. The third way – the way of eminence – saves it, claiming that God is good, but in an eminent way, which goes beyond any kind of goodness known to us. God is the source of all goodness, as His goodness is identical with His essence. This way of speaking about God is based on the doctrine of analogy, which I hope to explain in a separate entry.

This way of bringing together transcendence and immanence of God saves both of them and supports the classical Thomistic model of God- world relationship which I describe on the left side of the diagram below (click on the image to view it in a higher resolution).

UntitledAquinas’s view of God-world relation remained in a radical opposition to pantheism (the middle model on the diagram), which assumes that the world is God and God’s essence is exhausted in the world taken as a whole (an idea coming back today in the New Age and other “ecological” spiritual movements). However, commonly accepted and supported throughout the centuries, the classical model of Aquinas has been recently accused (beginning from the late 19th century) of overemphasizing God’s transcendence. God who does not have a real relationship towards His creation – says the main charge – is not the God of love. If creation cannot affect God, then He is not concerned with what is happening in the world. He is a God of philosophers, but not of the Bible.

As a remedy to this crisis, some theologians proposed a new model of God-world relationship – panentheism. It suggests that the world is in God (a link to pantheism), and yet God is more than the world (a link to classical theism of Aquinas). See the right-hand model on the diagram above. Proponents of this version of God-world relation suggest that because the world is in God, it has to affect God, therefore He is not unchangeable anymore, and His eternity is affected by time. Moreover, when creating the world God decides to limit his omniscience and omnipotence, in order to make a space for our freedom and contingent events in the world. He is not a detached ruler, but a fellow sufferer who understands. And yet – according to panentheism – God is still transcendent, because He is more than the world.

mothergoddessearthThe panentheistic model has become very popular, and found many applications in contemporary theology, especially in the circles of theology and science debate, where it seems to be suitable in explaining theological implications of contingency and indeterminacy of natural events. However, at the same time, it raises some basic and crucial questions. The first and the most important among them refers to God’s transcendence. If the world is in God and affects God, then it has to share God’s essence (God’s nature or substance), which challenges the truth about God’s transcendence. Moreover, if creation of the world changes God and limits some of the attributes which are substantial for His divinity (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, eternity), it is hard to agree that He is still the God we believe in. If this is the case, then the claim of panentheism’s proponents, who say that it gives right to both God’s transcendence and immanence, simply does not hold.

Contemporary panentheism has many faces and versions. The truth is that it also has a long historical tradition, especially in the philosophical reflection on God and God-world relationsip. It’s roots go back to ancient Egypt and Greece. In my article I concentrate on two philosophical versions of panentheism: the one which was proposed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the other developed by Alfred North Whitehead. The former philosopher may be regarded as the father of the modern version of panentheism, while the latter has become very popular in the contemporary science-theology dialogue. I ask the question of the possible relation between their versions of panentheism and the nuances in their understanding of God’s transcendence and immanence.

That’s it for now. It is a prelude to the main body of the article which I hope to summarize in the next episodes under the same title: Hegel  & Whitehead.