Edward Feser’s new book, Aristotle’s Revenge, is a goldmine of thoughtful reflections on how best to understand modern science.
How is science possible at all? If the world is ordered, and stable enough to be intelligible to creatures with minds like ours, then the possibility exists.
But as we do science, we find ourselves pushing up against the most fundamental concepts conceivable. Why is the universe even intelligible to us?
Modern scientific method can only take us so far with questions like that. Some ideas transcend the realm of nature.
Our experience of nature yields much to wonder about
Our experience of nature – oceans, dolphins, trees, birds, mountains, insects, stars, galaxies, and so forth – yields much for us to wonder about.
But we don’t just wonder about what is within nature. We don’t just wonder about how to understand all the details of nature’s rich diversity. We also wonder: how is there purpose in the universe?
Even if nature seems incapable of answering such questions, our curiosity keeps inquiring. Scientific knowledge of nature thereby becomes the occasion for further philosophical investigation.
Fundamental philosophical questions take us beyond fundamental theories in physics, chemistry, or biology. And yet this realm of the “beyond” is still deeply connected with the fundamentals of all the scientific disciples.
As Feser recognizes, the most fundamental concepts allow us to grasp what makes modern science possible at all.
But by this he doesn’t mean that scientists need to understand metaphysics before they can do any experimentation. What he means is that the most fundamental concepts describe the very structure and intelligibility of the universe at its most foundational level.
are aware of them or not, the truths articulated by these concepts lay at the deepest
roots of modern science’s greatest successes.
That’s because the foundational truths are not just physical but also metaphysical. They even allow us to think beyond nature.
Aristotle’s fundamental ideas illuminate all interesting debates
Feser devotes six chapters and over 450 pages to showing how Aristotle’s fundamental ideas illuminate all the most interesting debates currently taking place among scientists and philosophers over puzzling discoveries of modern science.
Aristotle’s foundational ideas are vindicated, especially when illuminated by St. Thomas Aquinas’s classic explanations and developments of them. Yet many modern scientists and philosophers wrongly think that Aristotle’s concepts are overthrown and rendered out of date.
Feser’s book painstakingly demonstrates just how wrong that claim is. For example, take the fundamental concept of teleology, which refers to the range of purposes that philosophy and science can discern in nature.
Plato thought that all teleology in nature was externally imposed. An example of the idea of such extrinsic teleology would be a watchmaker, who designs and constructs a watch. For Plato, the creating God is the ultimate watchmaker: nature is his watch.
But Aristotle corrected Plato by pointing out that the teleology we observe in nature is better described as intrinsic teleology. A prime example of such internally unfolding teleology would be an acorn, which naturally grows into an oak tree.
Aquinas harmonized both of their approaches. He spoke of nature’s creatures as being internally structured by Aristotle’s intrinsic teleology. But creation itself was extrinsic in relation to God.
The universe’s Aristotelian teleology is thus a Platonic idea in the designing mind of God.
God is the creator, externally granting and concurring with the actual existence of nature. Yet he leaves creatures free, to act according the range of their natural essences.
Darwinian evolution necessarily presupposes Aristotelian teleology
That’s just one example of why the title of Feser’s book speaks of Aristotle taking his “revenge” on any critic who thinks modern discoveries displace him.
In the last sentence of the book, however, Feser wisely points out that the avenging Aristotle is nonetheless best seen as “a magnanimous victor.” For his is not a murderous revenge, killing off any science that aspires to banish teleology (or other allegedly “outdated” metaphysical notions).
Instead, Aristotle’s philosophical insights magnanimously encourage modern science to keep flourishing. His ideas can embrace all new discoveries concerning the diverse aspects and essences of nature.
Aristotle still wins victory by equipping us with the fundamental concepts needed to make sense of any new discoveries. Modern biology, for example, cannot be understood with Platonic ideas of merely extrinsic design.
But we will rightly understand nature, if we appreciate how Aristotle already understood it best: from the inside out.