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.


Cooperation on the New Edition of an Important Book


I was invited to update and revise two articles for the new edition of the book on the history of the relation between science and religion, edited by Gary B. Ferngren. Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction was first published in 2002 and is a selection of articles from the larger volume entitled The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition. The book became popular and has been used as a textbook for classes on theology and science in many colleges. It’s an honor for me to be a part of the team working on the new edition which is expected to be published at the end of this year (2015).

I was asked to work on the chapter on Roman Catholicism after Trent, which was originally written by Steven J. Harris, and on the chapter on Causation, written by John Henry. I am currently working on the chapter about the Catholic Church after Trent.

Other than this, my paper on Thomas Aquinas and evolution is coming in August. I have finished the first draft of the 9th chapter of my dissertation. Three more chapters to be written… So, the reason that new entries appear on my blog rather seldom is basically that I’m really busy with all these projects. 🙂

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.

Natural Selection in Aristotle and Aquinas

confli3It is hard to find a balance when it comes to our attitude towards the science and academia in the Middle Ages. Opinions vary. We find those who simply regard this period in history as the dark age which only obscured and prevented the development of real science. Others acknowledge the importance of the origin of universities in France, Germany, Italy, and other European countries at that time. And yet, they remain skeptical about the methodology of Aristotelian scholasticism developed in Paris, and Platonic overtones predominant in the medieval science at Oxford. Still others emphasize the importance of the mathematical reasoning of Roger Backon and the origins of new empiricism developed at Paris (Albert the Great, O.P., Peter of Maricourt, and Theodoric of Freiburg, O.P.). They may had been far away from our modern understanding of mathematics and empirical method in science, but we would not be where we are with our scientific development if not their contribution.

aquinas-aristotleWhile pursuing my research on Aquinas’ understanding of causality I came across a passage in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics that blew my mind. Speaking of those who reject teleology (the claim that nature acts for an end) Aristotle refers to some thinkers who suggest that everything in nature happens out of necessity. It may look to us – they say – that things come to be for and end, while they are actually organized “spontaneously in a fitting way,” which helps them to survive, unlike those things or organisms that grew otherwise, which “perished and continue to perish.” (Physics II, 8 [198b 29-32])

This passage from Aristotle, which already looks like the first description of natural selection, was commented by Aquinas, whose definition is even closer to the one formulated by Darwin and modern evolutionary theory. Referring to the same group of thinkers who rejected teleology and argued for necessity of natural events Aquinas says that “they say that from the beginning of the formation of the world the four elements [earth, water, air, fire] were joined in the constitution of natural things, and thus the many and varied dispositions of natural things were produced. And in all these things only that which happened to be suitable for some utility, as if it were made for that utility, was preserved. For such things had a disposition which made them suitable for being preserved, not because of some agent intending an end, but because of that which is per se vain, i.e., by chance. On the other hand, whatever did not have such a disposition was destroyed, and is destroyed daily. Thus Empedocles said that in the beginning things which were part ox and part man were generated.” (In phisica II, lect. 8, no. 253)

ewolucjaThis quotation is striking. Naturally, it would be an unjustified simplification to infer from this passage that Aristotle and Aquinas either developed or accepted the theory of evolution. The empirical scientific data both in antiquity and in the Middle Ages would not support such a claim. On the other hand, however, they were both careful observers of changes and processes of nature, and developed metaphysics and theology (in the case of Aquinas) which can be supportive and serve as a background of evolutionism. This topic is the subject of my paper which is at present in the review of Theology and Science. I hope it will be accepted and published later this year.

Coming back to Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ descriptions of natural selection, we should notice that neither one of them says openly whether he finds the very core of the idea plausible. What seems to be clear, however, is the fact that that they both reject it as interpreted in terms of the necessity of chance (this term is defined nowadays as the “blind” or the “absolute” chance). They would rather argue that nature always acts for an end, which is natural and intrinsic to things and organisms. Those who support Aristotle’s philosophy of nature nowadays, emphasize that chance events at the bottom line of evolutionary processes happen in organisms which by definition strive to survive and produce offspring. Therefore, chance events have to be related to regularity and teleology present in nature.

Moreover, some of the leading evolutionary biologists in the 20th century (Dobzhansky and Ayala) say that mutations alone, if uncontrolled, would lead to the breakdown and extinction of life, rather than to adaptive evolution. They have to be “controlled” by natural selection, which, according to Ayala, is not only a purely negative mechanistic end-directed process that promotes the useful and gets rid of harmful mutants, increasing thus reproductive efficiency. It implies creativity and teleology, that is a production and maintenance of end-directed organs and processes. (See Dobzhansky, Genetics of the Evolutionary Process, 65; Ayala, “Teleological Explanations in Evolutionary Biology,” in Nature’s Purposes. Analyses of Function and Design in Biology, 35, 41.)

Levine_DarwinNow, it becomes obvious that this assertion brought by Ayala is a modern expression of the same idea, formulated in ancient philosophy by Aristotle and developed later on by Aquinas. It would be too much to say that the theory of natural selection goes back to Aristotle and Aquinas. But on the other hand, Darwin himself, a few months before his death in 1882, received from William Ogle a copy of his new translation of Aristotle’s Parts of Animals. In his response to Ogle, Darwin says: “You must let me thank you for the pleasure which the Introduction to the Aristotle book has given me. I have rarely read anything which has interested me more; though I have not read as yet more than a quarter of the book proper. From quotations which I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere school-boys to old Aristotle.”

Darwin died soon after sending his letter to Ogle, and we don’t know if he read more of Aristotle. I’m pretty sure that if he had continued his research, he might have been surprised finding Aristotle’s reflection on natural selection. I think that it proves again that the old folks like Aristotle and Aquinas are not outdated and should not be ignored. My friend from Poland who is a biochemist sent me an information found on Wikipedia which says that: “In recent years, the cognitive neuroscientist Walter Freeman proposes that Thomism is the philosophical system explaining cognition that is most compatible with neurodynamics, [which he explains] in a 2008 article in the journal Mind and Matter entitled “Nonlinear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas.””

Therefore, it is not an anachronism to claim that Aristotle’s philosophy and Thomism are relevant in the context of contemporary scientific, philosophical, and theological debates. Viva Aristotle! Viva Aquinas! 🙂

To begin with…

Few days ago I decided to start my second blog. On the first one, which I write in Polish (zapiski amerykańskie), I share the experience of my spiritual journey, my life in the united States among my Dominican brothers, and my friends. It is addressed to all those whom I left for some time back in Poland. However, I know that some of my American friends use Google translator and read it as well.

This second blog will be dedicated entirely to my studies and all my scientific, philosophical and theological interests. I decided that the time has come for me to share some of my discoveries. I’m excited and I have a hope that my blog will find its audience. I begin from scratch, everything will develop in time.

I am aware of the fact, that some of you who found me here, do not know me yet. That is why, my first post will be about myself, my studies and interests.

So, to begin with…

I am a Polish Dominican brother, ordained to the priesthood back in 2008 in Cracow, Poland. After I had spent three years working in a Polish Dominican Publishing House in Poznan, specifically in a monthly magazine “W drodze” (On the Way), and in the campus ministry, I moved to Berkeley, California, where I started my PhD studies at the Graduate Theological Union.

I am interested in the dialogue between science and theology. I believe more and more that philosophy of science, philosophy of nature, and metaphysics, provide a bridge where to meet these two supposedly opposite disciplines of human knowledge. In my studies I am concentrated on metaphysical aspects of the theory of emergence and complexity in biology, and possible use of these theories in the theology of divine action. As a Dominican I am supporting Aristotelian metaphysics and Aquinas’s theological position. However, I want to bring them into a conversation with the entire historical tradition and contemporary thinkers. For this reason, my research goes to topics such as: causation in the history of philosophy, causation in the scientific explanation, philosophy of science, and analytic tradition, philosophy of chance, and various problems in philosophy of biology. I have made a research on the major contemporary themes in the theology of divine action, based on: determinism, quantum indeterminacy, chaos theory, emergence, evolution and intelligent design. I try to bring these positions into a conversation with the classical Aristotelian-Thomistic stance. I have also spent some time on the contemporary versions of philosophical and theological panentheism and process philosophy and theology. I have lots of ideas in my mind, a whole list of books to be read, and never enough time for all that. 🙂

My advisor is professor Michael Dodds, O.P. who is a faculty member of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and of the GTU in Berkeley, CA. I am also a member of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) in Berkeley, CA. I work with professors Robert John Russel, and Ted Peters. I also stay in touch with professor Terrence Deacon from the UC Berkeley, who is the author of the new and original version of the concept of emergence in biology. My contact with professor Deacon is based on my little background in natural sciences (I studied biotechnology, but never earned a degree in it). I have MA degree in theology from the University of St. John Paul II in Cracow, and the STL in dogmatic theology from the University of Poznan, Poland.

Because of my studies, my pastoral ministry is limited to the minimum. I help in the Dominican parishes in Benicia, CA, and in San Francisco. I do ministry in English and in Spanish.

I love God, and the Catholic Church. I’m trying to work on my spiritual life, and grow more mature in my Dominican vocation among my brothers. I live in St. Albert’s priory in Oakland, CA. I commute to Berkeley on my bicycle. Biking, swimming, classical concerts, music in general (classical, alternative, trip-hop, and many other genera), sea food, and long walks – they all bring some rest when I feel tired with my studies.

I have a loving family back in Poland (my parents, and my sister Joanna, who is engaged with David), and in Dublin, Ireland (my brother Arthur, with his wife Barbara and two daughters: Sophia and Emily).

Like I said, I want to share my discoveries and my scientific, philosophical, and theological interests, and I plan to do it here on my new blog!!! Let’s search for Truth together!!! 🙂