Voices February 26, 2019
Scientists doing ‘bad philosophy’ without Aquinas
Aristotle’s Revenge is an important new book from Edward Feser. It dares to treat out-of-fashion philosophical topics that nonetheless remain essential.
The book’s title is the same phrase Feser used as the name of Chapter 6 in his earlier book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (2008). The phrase refers to a curious development in modern science.
Modern philosophers have misunderstood the results of modern science. They thought the success of modern science overturned the ancient wisdom of the philosopher Aristotle.
But “Aristotle has, by virtue of developments in modern philosophy and science, had his revenge on those who sought to overthrow him at the dawn of the modern period,” wrote Feser in The Last Superstition.
The most interesting results of modern science, from relativity and quantum theory to evolution and the expansion of the universe, all seem to suggest we need to return to Aristotelian philosophy, argued Feser.
We can’t fully understand science’s latest results without Aristotle
We can’t fully understand the meaning of science’s latest results without Aristotle. The subtitle of Feser newest book makes the purpose of his argument crystal clear: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science.
What Aristotle did was to think about nature in a uniquely philosophical way. His discovery was that the natural world points beyond itself, to truths which transcend mere matter.
These higher truths are not ethereal daydreams, as if science only supplied us with a basis for wild conjectures about the universe’s deep structure.
Instead, these higher truths form the foundation of a very powerful way of coordinating and integrating all the strangest particular truths discovered by modern science. The higher truths are the basis of a vision of wisdom: a “meta-science” that uses foundational principles to piece together a unified vision of the material world studied by science.
Such a “meta-science” aims at a grand unified theory of our universe. If this “metaphysics” is solidly established on the basis of scientific knowledge, then it deserves the name “meta-science,” or so argued the Dominican philosopher Father Benedict M. Ashley, OP (1915–2013).
Ashley’s greatest book on metaphysics is The Way toward Wisdom
Ashley’s greatest book on metaphysics is The Way toward Wisdom (2006), published near the end of his life. But its argument was continuous with research he did for his second PhD dissertation, published in 1958.
In his dissertation, Ashley made a contrarian argument for the importance of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature. As Feser has also observed, although Aristotelian philosophy of nature is being neglected today, it is an indispensable prerequisite to fully comprehending any unified meaning of modern science’s results.
Ashley argued in 1958 that careful research into the Greek texts of Aristotle, and into the commentaries of Saint Thomas Aquinas on these texts, yields remarkable insights, contradicting the conventional view that Aristotle is scientifically irrelevant today.
Ashley wrote that his research “reveals not only the falsity of the older criticisms of Aristotle as anti-empirical, but also of the newer charge that he neglects mathematics and controlled experiment.”
Ashley admitted that experimentation and mathematization play a “small role” in Aristotle’s science. But they nonetheless still play a real role in Aristotle, despite the polemical denials by the modern philosophers and scientists of this fact.
Interestingly, in Aristotle, they only play a lesser role, “not because he is ignorant of their value, but because he perceived that they cannot form the main structure of a strictly physical science,” argued Ashley.
By “a strictly physical science,” Ashley means a science that knows and understands the physical reality that stands behind any mathematical equation describing the world.
Scientists can only lamely speculate about the deeper meaning of relativity or evolution or quantum theory
The problem is that scientists today have no clear knowledge of what actually lies behind their equations.
They can only lamely speculate about the deeper meaning of relativity or evolution or quantum theory. And when they do so, they end up doing bad philosophy, because they have never been exposed to Aristotelian reflections on the essential principles for a proper “meta-scientific” reflection on reality.
Aristotle saw the “true value” of mathematics and experimentation lies in their indirect exploration of deeper realities: they “prepare and complement genuine physical analysis and proof,” but their indirect methods are no final substitute for such deeper appreciation of meaning, observed Ashley.
Therefore, Aristotle’s early scientific theories should be seen as “fully comparable to the hypothetical systems of Newton and of Einstein,” argued Ashley. Although Aristotle is out of date on particular details, he is nonetheless still methodologically superior to the theories of the moderns.
As Feser similarly recognizes, Aristotelian philosophy remains unavoidable for any modern scientists who want to achieve deeper understanding. Feser’s newest book is a perfect way for them to intensify their exploration of nature.