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.


Aristotle & Evolution

I want to share the news about my latest publication – an article on Aristotle and evolution published in the proceedings of the 1st Virtual international Conference on the Dialogue between Science and Theology organized by RCDST of Ovidius University of Constanta, Romania.

An Aristotelian Account of Evolution and the Contemporary Philosophy of Biology

The article is also available HERE

Proceedings of the conference



The anti-reductionist character of the recent philosophy of biology and the dynamic development of the science of emergent properties prove that the time is ripe to reintroduce the thought of Aristotle, the first advocate of a “top-down” approach in life-sciences, back into the science/philosophy debate. His philosophy of nature provides profound insights particularly in the context of the contemporary science of evolution, which is still struggling with the questions of form (species), teleology, and the role of chance in evolutionary processes. However, although Aristotle is referenced in the evolutionary debate, a thorough analysis of his theory of hylomorphism and the classical principle of causality which he proposes is still needed in this exchange. Such is the main concern of the first part of the present article which shows Aristotle’s metaphysics of substance as an open system, ready to incorporate new hypothesis of modern and contemporary science. The second part begins with the historical exploration of the trajectory from Darwin to Darwinism regarded as a metaphysical position. This exploration leads to an inquiry into the central topics of the present debate in the philosophy of evolutionary biology. It shows that Aristotle’s understanding of species, teleology, and chance – in the context of his fourfold notion of causality – has a considerable explanatory power which may enhance our understanding of the nature of evolutionary processes. This fact may inspire, in turn, a retrieval of the classical theology of divine action, based on Aristotelian metaphysics, in the science/theology dialogue. The aim of the present article is to prepare a philosophical ground for such project.

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.

The Nature of Scientific Growth

There is an issue within philosophy of science that became the trigger of my interest in this discipline about two years ago. It refers to the question of the nature of the scientific growth. For centuries it was generally acknowledged and approved that the advance in scientific knowledge has a cumulative character. New data were thought to be simply added to already existent and classified knowledge in a linear and somehow predictable growth and development of various scientific disciplines. Such was the  opinion of both methodologists of classical science (e.g. Herschel or Whewell), and more contemporary proponents of logical positivism, verificationism, and empiricism.

khunThis idea of science as a rational and critical inquiry bringing a continuous and steady growth of a publicly verifiable knowledge was radically challenged by Thomas Kuhn, a professor of philosophy of science at the University of Berkeley, whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a “must-read” for every apprentice in the field of philosophy of science. Nothing further from the truth – says Kuhn – than the belief in a cumulative growth of science. He sees it rather as a cycle consistent of several crucial stages. It is true that the larger pParadigmChange_KuhnCycleart of scientific activity, which he calls “normal science,” is essentially puzzle-solving activity within a certain paradigm (a bunch of basic assumptions, rules, laws, their applications, and experimental instrumentation). But there are puzzles that keep emerging on the way that may lead to a growing confusion and a situation in which the old paradigm looses its ability  to solve them. This brings a scientific revolution, which institutes a new paradigm which is able to solve further puzzles. Kuhn is pretty radical in his claims. For him each scientific revolution makes scientists not only to reformulate their theories, but to change the very language they use. Scientific paradigms are radically different and incommensurable. They are like Gestalt switches.

Gestalt switch

Just like you cannot see a rabbit and a duck at the same time, a scientist cannot work simultaneously within two different paradigms. Therefore, according to him, there is no linear progress or cumulative growth of scientific knowledge. The whole debate started by Kuhn raises the issues of historical and sociological aspects of science. We have to acknowledge that, being a fruit of human activity, it is not as certain and objective, as it is commonly thought.

Karl-Popper-Quotes-1Kuhn’s radical ideas where widely debated. Karl Popper and his followers were not satisfied with the idea of the radical disconnection between scientific paradigms. Popper focused himself on the method of falsification, that is continuous challenging and testing of scientific hypotheses. He claimed it to be a way of approaching truth in science, in opposition to simple verification, which seems to be a never-ending quest, for each new experiment may challenge a scientific truth or law that is regarded as a valid and holding. Importantly, according to Popper, falsification needs not to assume Kuhn’s radical incommensurability of paradigms.

lakatosImre Lakatos proposed yet another theory which assumes that every scientific  paradigm consists of a “hard core” made of laws, theories, and experimental methodologies, and a “protective belt” of auxiliary hypotheses. The latter are subject of changes, development, and reformulation, while the former is protected from any manipulations. Lakatos claims that his theory better describes the practice of science and allows for the scientific growth on the way of developing and embracing  new scientific paradigms. Stability of the “hard core” provides a ground of communication between them.


It all shows the complexity of scientific endeavors, and the need of philosophical reflection concerning methodology of science. The reason I am describing all this is that I want to share a very interesting view on the nature of scientific growth proposed by Gerald Holton, and improved by William Wallace OP. Their description shows that the development of scientific theories and laws has no less than four basic dimensions that cannot be neglected.

4 dimensions of science

The x-axis symbolizes the most basic, experimental or empirical component of natural sciences – a domain of an experimentalist.

The y-axis stands for the mathematical or analytical component, which is indispensable to gather, organize, and interpret scientific data – a domain of a theoretician.

The z-axis refers – according to Holton – to the thematic components of scientific discourse – a domain of a philosopher of science. This is a dimension of fundamental presuppositions, methodological judgments and decisions, philosophical convictions, ideological and even theological views. None of these – says Holton – is derived from, or resolvable into empirical observation (x-dimension), or formal analysis (y-dimension). And yet they are present and important in scientific analyses. Holton gives an example of the gravitation attraction and force. The latter is based on the principle of active potency that stands behind the whole sequence of concepts such as energeia, anima, vis, Kraft. It is from these concepts that the idea of force has developed – the idea that had taken on very different meanings for Newton, Leibniz, Herschel, Mach, and others. It shows the importance of philosophical convictions and presuppositions in science.

The t-axis – added by Wallace – refers to the development of scientific concepts in time – a domain of a historian of science.

I find the model presented by Holton and Wallace a very helpful supplement to the whole debate on the nature of scientific growth developed in the 20th century. It is a shame that the extremely high level of specialization of various scientific disciplines prevents the majority of scientists from this kind of analysis and reflection.