Friday, September 29, 2006

Nature, Science and Wisdom

This year's American Maritain Association conference is on the subject of

"Nature, Science and Wisdom:
The Role of the Philosophy of Nature"

It will be held Thursday, November 2- Sunday, November 5 in Nashville.

The line-up of speakers reads like a "who's who" of realists in the philosophy of science and philosophy of nature, and includes William Wallace, Stanley Jaki, Anthony Rizzi, Chris Morrissey, Mark Ryland, Ralph McInerny, Jude Dougherty, and Jean DeGroot. (I've omitted many others of merit, I am sure, simply out of my own ignorance.)

Definitely worth taking time out to attend. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Papal Controversy: Faith and Reason

I wrote most of this last week, but didn't get a chance to post it.

With all the controversy, how many people do you think have actually read the offending text? So that you can be one, here it is:

Pope's controversial German speech on reason and religion

The irony has undoubtedly been observed before that some Muslims would protest a statement that Islam is evil by murdering innocents. Almost as if they're trying to prove the charge true.

This weekend I viewed Islam: Empire of Faith, a feature very positive on Islam produced by PBS. According to this documentary, Islam calls for a totalizing unity of life, which would seem to be consistent with the claim I've previously heard that Islam leaves no room for reason—that faith subsumes reason. Certainly Islam has had much more reasonable periods in its history, but was this a true manifestation of Islam? It is clear the Muslim commentators on Aristotle seem to have been good philosophers to the extent that they ignored their faith; perhaps the same is true of their peaceful relations with non-Muslims. I'd really appreciate seeing a full discussion of the issues.

The main thrust of the Pope's talk is not the (alleged) fideism of Islam, but the manifest division of faith and reason in modern Western culture and how this opens the way for violence as arbiter. The Pope traces this division to the gradual dehellenization of Christian thought.

He recounts how the Christian Faith was born from an encounter of Judaism with Greek thought (for example, the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), which allowed formulation of belief in Christ as Logos, Divine Reason. By severing itself from the Hellenic spring of its existence, Christianity has become not only untrue to itself, but has retreated to the subjective world and abandoned the objective world of reason to the amorality and ultimate meaninglessness of modern empiricism.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity.

A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology's claim to be "scientific" would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self.

But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.

In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Faith needs a vital connection to reason. Without it, man loses direction in his life, and the assertion of individual power becomes the sole rule of conduct.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Purpose and Order in Nature

According to conventional wisdom, the dawn of modern science dispelled the gloom of moth-bitten superstition, and banished purposes from nature. But such Enlightenment propaganda leaves out the tradition the modern world inherited from its predecessors. At the heart of the modern scientific conception of the world is the idea that nature is a knowable order. Without this belief, Galileo would never have troubled himself to roll balls down inclined planes. Exploring chemical reactions would be pointless. Geneticists would have no reason to take pains sequencing nucleic acid base pairs. What modern scientists take for granted was established by reason in the ancient world—by philosophy. In Book II of the Physics, Aristotle argues that nature’s obvious regularities—its tendency to act in a given way under given circumstances—reveal an ordering to specific ends:

For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter. If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.1

In other words, although “chance” events often obtain, the natural world is inherently teleological. Scientific laws, modern and ancient, physical, chemical, and biological, disclose nature’s regularities and testify to teleology. That baking soda and vinegar react expansively, and that confetti is almost always attracted to the static electric charge on a balloon show the order and purpose of nature. Far from being opposed to modern science, teleology is its sine qua non.

The ascendance of the Darwinian narrative leaves the situation unchanged. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection encompasses two pieces, chance variation and natural selection: (1) genetic novelty originates in chance, and (2) novel forms less suited to existence tend to fail in passing their genes to posterity. While the latter point may well be a valuable contribution to the scientific understanding of the world, the former point simply puts a name (and a deceptive one) on an unknown. As Aristotle’s classic definition observes, chance is the intersection of two otherwise unrelated lines of causality. Chance itself is not a cause; to invoke chance is not to explain, but to label an unknown. To the extent that any theory relies on chance, that theory is not science, but rather ignorance.2

The champions of chance argue that teleology is an intellectual opiate and kills the quest for the acatual mechanism of change. On the contrary, teleology does not eliminate the need for an efficient causal explanation: just because one appreciates the sublime order of the parts of a horse does not negate the molecular forces that maintain its form. Teleology compliments other modes of explanation.

The source of the many prejudices people hold against teleology is that an order in nature apparently points to

  1. an Orderer, and
  2. a natural moral law (order).

And these are both true. The source of people's fear is the misconception that God somehow imposes the moral order on the world from the outside. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whom would you most trust to write the instruction manual for your lawnmower? Obviously the person who designed and built it. My take is that in the same fashion, revealed moral laws (i.e., the Ten Commandments) are simply God giving us certainty about how to find happiness through the regularities we observe in nature on our own.

The natural moral law is inscribed within creation—it is an integral part of its workings. The "law" we learn simply makes note of regularities in human existence (and in the universe at large) and enjoins us to work with them for our ultimate happiness.

Forget about crime. Forget about sin. Forget about "right and wrong." Disobeying the moral law is worse than a crime: it's a mistake.3 In the same way as one knows better than to spit into the wind, a healthy society doesn't (in my view) encourage certain practices, for example, the taking of any innocent human life, rape, extramarital sexual relations, divorce, contraception, and so many other things that have become accepted in our society. The West is dying because we won't listen to God—yes—but also because we are too full of ourselves and seeking our immediate gratification even to hear nature.

No matter what one thinks about the content of the natural moral law, anyone who values science in the least has to agree that there are regularities in nature. We can argue about what these regularities indicate, but there should be no disagreement that learning these regularities and working with them is the way to find happiness in this world.


1. Physics, Book II, chapter 2, 198b34–199, Hardie and Gaye translation.

2. See also: Providence and Chance and Intelligence Transcends Science.

3. A variation on Talleyrand. "Stupid" might be more accurate.

Classes began last week, so I've been busy laying a solid foundation for the semester. This piece is partially something I've been working on for something else.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Science and Natural Philosophy

One of the tragedies of the modern age is the pervasiveness of the thought of Immanuel Kant. Kant was expert in posturing his philosophy as scientific, but it was not only unscientific, but actually anti-scientific; Kant doesn't believe we can acutally know things in themself! Stanley Jaki writes very well about Kant's scientific shortcomings; see, for example, the book cited below.

The proper way to look at science is as a subset of a broader philosophy of nature. The following quotation is from a book recommended me by Benedict Ashley.

According to the view proposed here it would be inaccurate to regard mobile [i.e., physical] being as open to study by two distinct sciences, one considering it at its general level and the other considering it in a more proper and precise way. Knowledge that begins with general considerations concerning an object naturally tends to become more precise; unless it does so, it remains intrinsically imperfect. The same science that studies the first principles or ultimate causes in a given order of reality tends, but its intrinsic nature and not by any external force, to complete itself by the study of proximate causes. We do not change sciences in moving from a general to a particular level, so long as we do not change objects. What we do is to change the perfection of our knowledge of the object, we are like the man who recognized the distant object first as only a thing and later came to the much more perfect knowledge of it as a squirrel. Particular scientific knowledge is more perfect since it is more specific, although, from another angle, it is less perfect since it is less certain. General scientific knowledge is more perfect in being more certain but less perfect since it is not proper and precise.


Without previous general science, we would not be able to design instruments and arrange experiments to learn more about what we already know in preinstrumental and pre-experimental ways.

Logically prior and presupposed to refined knowledge through experiment and measurement, our general science of nature is thus immune from the revolutions that have taken place in specialized knowledge. Our means of attaining this general science are no better and no worse than Aristotle’s. They are in fact no different from his. The means is human reason itself, unaided by specialized and mathematical techniques, proceeding only by a logical analysis of general experience which our next chapter will explain.

The world we live in is a unified whole. The object of modern science is the same as that of natural philosophy (nature); the only difference is the methodology through which it looks at nature. Natural philosophy uses the ordinary data of our senses. Modern science uses instruments and specialized techniques. But notice that these instruments and specialized techniques rely on ordinary sense data; so we need to understand the general and ordinary sense data before we can use science's specialized ways of knowing. In other words, natural philosophy is foundational to modern science. But the advantage of modern science is that it is more precise.

Vincent E. Smith, The General Science of Nature (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1958), 38, 41.

Immanuel Kant, Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels, 1775) trans. Stanley Jaki (Scottish Academic Press, 1981), 302pp. Paperback reprint, 1992.

Jaki remarks: "The first full translation of a classic which shows Kant's ineptness in science and his weird ideas of denizens on other planets."