The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
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Is Thomism really refuted by modern science?
Last modified on Thu Nov 22 22:27:14 2018


My attention has been drawn to a blog post at The skeptic zone, which in turn discusses a post on strange notions, entitled "Why modern physics does not refute Thomist philosophy." The skeptic zone post instead argued that modern physics does refute Thomist philosophy. This claim obviously not only challenges the original post, but also my own work. Even though I am currently on a brief break from blogging, I couldn't resist formulating a reply. This response started out as intending to be a comment on his blog, but it grew a bit too long, so I have reformatted it to be a bit more self-contained and have posted it here instead.

First of all, I ought to briefly discuss the strange notions post by Dr Bonnette. It can be divided into two parts.

  1. The first part presents the idea that the fundamental principles behind modern science, such as the rationality of the universe and epistemological realism, are also the basis behind Aristotelian philosophy. This is not surprising, since modern science arose out of the medieval university (many trace the history of science back to the likes of Galileo, De Soto and Copernicus -- but who inspired them? Where did they get their ideas from, and draw their basic assumptions? The answer is the high medieval mathematicians and physicists such as Bradwardine, Orseme, and the early experimentalists, who were very much part of the classical tradition).

    The point is that there are many modern philosophical traditions which deny these basic assumptions. In this sense, science and Thomism stand on the same side against the postmodern deniers of reality.

  2. The second part of the article addresses certain aspects of modern physics which are stated to contradict Aristotelian premises. For this, it draws heavily on a paper by Castellano. That paper is well worth a read, and makes some good points, although, as is often the case, it has the weakness of focusing on quantum mechanics rather than field theory. But its main point stands well: it is not the physics itself which contradicts Aristotelian philosophy, but the philosophy which is often taught alongside the physics as though it were necessarily linked to it. There is a difference between the mechanical philosophy and Newtonian mechanics. The mechanical philosophy is not the only philosophical interpretation of Newton's physics, even though historically it was the one that inspired Newton as he developed that physics. Similarly, even though the Copenhagen interpretation was held by the founders of quantum mechanics does not mean that it is the only philosophy consistent with quantum physics (or even that it remained consistent with quantum physics as it continued to develop). The link to philosophy from physics is one of induction. And the problem with induction is that even if you find a philosophy that works, you can never be sure that it is the only philosophy that works. So if one particular philosophy of physics disagrees with fundamental principles, then there is a good argument that you should lay it aside until you can find an alternative which does agree with those principles.

My main criticism of the original strange notions post is not that it goes too far, but that it doesn't go far enough. Certainly science (the raw data) and Thomism (a philosophy, i.e. interpretation of raw data) stand side by side against many modern views. But there are other philosophies which stand on that side of the argument. Answering a few points is not enough; one needs to show point by point that the premises behind Thomism are consistent with contemporary physics, and that the premises behind contemporary physics are consistent with Thomism. A superficial discussion is not going to be enough to convince a sceptic. Particularly when that sceptic has a wrong idea of what the premises behind Thomism are (as so many do).

Which brings me nicely to the post I actually want to respond to. I'll do so in my usual way, by quoting various points in the argument which I find particularly troubling, and explaining why I find them troubling.

The overall purpose of the article is (as I understand it) to argue that

  1. Science uses a different and incompatible class of fundamental concepts compared to Thomism.
  2. Some basic concepts of Thomism, such as causality, have been proved false by science.
  3. Thomists tend to use examples and illustrations that are either now obsolete or which don't actually support their case.
  4. Thomists argue that science cannot disprove their philosophy because the two are disconnected.

My goal here is look at the arguments put forward to support these propositions, and show where those arguments are lacking. For example, the author notes that Thomism uses the concept of act and potency to explain movement.

In science, it is explained in terms of the paradigm of mass, force, and energy, which is no less a metaphysical concept.

  1. The concept of Force, as it was used in classical physics, is now obsolete. OK, we still use phrases such as "The weak force" and the "The strong force", but the theories underlying that are very different from $F = -GMm/r^2$ and so on. The concept of force as originally constructed no longer plays a role in the most fundamental physics.
  2. Mass is reduced to interaction between particles, either interaction with the scalar Boson of the standard model, or self-interaction (including internal binding energy). Aquinas/Aristotle has no difficulty with the ideas of particles interacting with each other.
  3. Energy in modern physics is primarily a label given to distinguish different (meta-)stable states. The label is chosen in such a way that it is conserved through interactions. Aquinas would have been quite happy with the idea of there being different possible states of matter, and us labelling them to distinguish them. The concept of energy is thus a more precise application of Aquinas/Aristotle's metaphysics, rather than a contradiction to it.

But the main problem with this is that act/potency on one hand and force/mass/energy on the other relate to two different concepts in physics. Even in classical mechanics, before we get to things like force, we presuppose a theory of act and potency. A background against which we can measure movement or change. In Newtonian mechanics, this background is provided by what we now describe as two conjugate Hilbert spaces, location and momentum. Additionally, we have a measure that allows us to distinguish the states before and after the change, time, which is also parameterised numerically, and which has its own conjugate variable, Energy. Every specified location and momentum represents one possible state or potentia. At a given time, one of these states is actual. At the next moment in time, another is actual. Of course, we decide which of the states is going to be actual by making use of the concepts of force and so on, but this sits on top of the metaphysical states. The scientists behind classical mechanics might have hidden this background, but it is there.

In quantum physics, of course, the background is different. It is recognised that there are different ways of parametrising space and time, and it is convenient to merge these into a single Hilbert Space, space/time. Similarly energy/momentum form another conjugate Hilbert space. To parametrise the possible states we need one of these (and we can only use one), with space/time being more natural and energy/momentum somewhat easier. We also need a few other parameters such as spin. But once again, this provides us with the background needed to allow any sort of motion, before we get into the mechanics of the motion. We then assume that background when we get to the mathematics, either Dirac's equation in quantum mechanics or the transfer operator in field theory. These equations once again do no more than give us the amplitude that a specified final state will be actual given an initial state. The methods of physics depend on the concept of act and potency (even if not always expressed in these terms by physicists), but build on this to give more precise predictions.

So act and potency refer to the Hilbert space on which we measure change, and "force, mass and energy" allow us to compute which changes can occur. To directly compare one against the other is therefore inadvisable. Modern physicists and mathematicians use different names to describe the background of states rather than "act" and "potency", but the underlying concept is the same. We shouldn't think that just because the words aren't used that the concept isn't there.

The advantage of Aristotle's concept of act and potency is that it is sufficiently general that it can cope with different physical systems. It does not care whether the process of actualisation is driven by classical forces or the exchange of virtual particles. Instead, it tells us that there must be a background against which these processes takes place.

So when the sceptic summarises by writing,

But Thomists disagree with that, because they see metaphysics as being separate and distinct from physical reality,

he is mistaken. Rather, Thomists see metaphysics as underlying physical reality. Metaphysics gives a general framework for what possible universes could be, physics fills in the specific details for this particular universe. Metaphysics tells us that physical theory must assume some sort of background of different states; physics starts by expressing this in a mathematical way.

Dr Bonnette used the principle of non-contradiction to cast doubt on some concepts that often dominate discussions of quantum mechanics, and in particular focusing on wave-particle duality. His point (I think) was that the discussions seem to treat objects as though they are ontologically both waves and particles. However, they are only ever observed as one of these at a time. So rather than adopting a philosophy that embraces a contradiction, we should focus on the observations that at any given time it is either one or the other. Now I don't personally think that Dr Bonnette's example here is particularly good. Quantum objects are neither classical waves nor classical particles, but belong in a different category altogether. But the idea that philosophers shouldn't adopt interpretations of quantum physics which violate fundamental principles such as the principle of non-contradiction when there are alternatives which are consistent with it is a good one.

Our sceptical friend notes that this statement doesn't really advance Dr Bonnette's cause. Here he is in some senses right, and in other senses wrong. He is right in that this particular example doesn't lead us to Thomism, since there are alternative ways of thinking about it. He is wrong in the sense that Dr Bonnette was trying to make a wider claim: that interpretations of quantum physics ought to respect the underlying principles of sound philosophy unless this proves impossible. We should leave aside those interpretations which contradict the philosophical considerations in favour of those which are consistent with it. If the eigenstates that underlie quantum physics can be equated with Aristotelian potentia, then if we adopt an interpretation that contradicts the theory of act and potency, we have a serious problem.

So when the sceptic concludes this section by saying,

So rather than clinging to concepts of physical substance that are contradicted by observation, we need a metaphysical concept of substance that agrees with what we observe,

he isn't helping his own cause. Because Thomists claim firstly that they provide a concept of substance in agreement with observation, and secondly that other approaches to metaphysics fall short, some obviously and dramatically and others more subtly. The concept of substance that agrees with what we observe is one that identifies that particles or systems of particles can exist in different states, and that changes occur when we transition between one state and another. This is just Aristotle's theory of act and potency, albeit expanded in a way that Aristotle himself could never have imagined.

So what of the other bedrock of Aristotle's philosophy, namely the theory of causes. To the Aristotelian, this ultimately is an expression of the rationality of the universe, i.e. that it is possible to understand physical objects. Since science is built on the assumption that we can understand at least in part (otherwise science would be a worthless endeavour), this is not a premise that can reasonably be challenged. But many interpreters of quantum physics do deny this premise, by stating that the physics is inconsistent with all forms of causality. The sceptic is no different:

At the quantum level, things happen on a stochastic basis, and there is no notion of causality in quantum physics. As it happens, this is a major point of disagreement between science and Thomism, despite Bonnette's denial.

I certainly agree that quantum physics is inconsistent with many of the expressions of causality which have been proposed over the past few hundred years. It is also true that quantum physicists don't tend to use the word "cause" in their research papers. But it is a step too far to say that it is therefore inconsistent with all forms of causality. Or that the concept of causality is not invoked even though the word itself is not used.

Let us take the example of a radioactive beta decay, one of the classic cases used to claim that quantum physics is incompatible with notions of causality. A down quark spontaneously decays into a W- Boson and an up-quark. The W- Boson spontaneously decays into an electron and anti-neutrino (there are, of course, also more complicated decay paths leading to the same outcome, but this is the simplest and dominant one). There is no event kicking off this decay. It just happens. So it is claimed that the notion of causality (which is assumed to state that every event needs a cause) is undermined. Except, Aristotelian causality (certainly as it is used in the arguments for God) links substances rather than events. So the W- Boson is the efficient cause of the electron and anti-neutrino. The down quark is the efficient cause of the W- Boson and up quark. Among the final causes of the down quark (its possible decay channels) are the up-quark, electron and anti-neutrino. The conservation of energy ensures that there will always be a cause for every effect. Rather than undermining Aristotelian causality, quantum physics leaves it as the only version of causality still standing.

And, of course, we need some version of causality if we are to suppose that the universe is rational. Dr Bonnette's point stands: our interpretation of quantum physics needs to be consistent with both scientific and metaphysical principles. Which suggests that, if causality is philosophically necessary and only the version of causality found in Aristotelian philosophy is consistent with the science, then we should give at the very least strong consideration to the Aristotelian interpretation of quantum physics.

So the sceptic continues by picking up on a point by Dr Bonnette that science has little direct interaction with many of the the metaphysical concepts. Now, I would certainly state that either Dr Bonnette phrased his statement badly here, or I have misunderstood him, or that I disagree with him. There is a much stronger affinity between the Aristotelian concepts he lists and physical principles. But Dr Bonnette is right to say that equally, materialist denials of form and finality are not scientific. They are built from a philosophy of science, one that doesn't work that well.

But Dr Bonnette certainly seems to be creating a gulf between philosophy and physics which I think is unwise. In part, because he leaves himself open to the sceptic's condemnation:

He has no choice but to make this separation, because these metaphysical principles are in direct contradiction to modern science.

I would fully disagree that the concepts are in direct contradiction to modern science. As I have argued elsewhere, I believe that contemporary physics and Thomism have a very strong affinity with each other. Not quite perfect, but the modifications needed to make the medieval philosophy consistent with the physics are considerably smaller than those needed to be made to the philosophies that inspired atheism consistent. I would also contend that anyone who disputes this either doesn't understand the philosophy (which is the camp the sceptic falls into), or doesn't understand the science (which is the camp that many popularisers of Thomist philosophy unfortunately fall into, even though they are ultimately correct), or hasn't thought it through properly.

The idea of act and potency, for example, is intended to provide a framework in which it is possible to have both change in state and constancy in substance. One can think of the potentia as the different eigenstates of the Hamiltonian; the energy states of the quantum Harmonic oscillator, for example. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it is close enough to be useful. Let us say we have an electron in a Harmonic potential. A photon hits it, and it is excited to a higher energy level. It then emits a photon, and decays into a lower energy level. In each case, the electron moves from one state to another. Aristotle would say that at any given moment, it is actually in one state, and potentially in the others. A change occurs, and one of the potentials is actualised. His system models the physics quite well so far.

Of course, there is (as Dr. Bonnette's article discussed) one additional feature in the physics not in Aristotle's metaphysics, namely superposition. Here we can either take the approach that Dr. Bonnette seemed to adopt and say that the electron is always actually in one state, but the superposition of the wave-function reflects our uncertainty in knowledge concerning the state. Alternatively, we might try to extend Aristotle's framework, and equate the different possible superpositions as additional potentia. But this is a far smaller modification to Aristotle than would be required to make most non-Aristotelian systems of philosophy, which deny act and potency and thus the whole underlying framework of quantum states, adequately describe the physical system.

Efficient and final causality I have already discussed; the various decay channels of particle physics are examples of final causes. Of course, physics goes further than Aristotle by giving us cross-sections for each of the decays. But Aristotle's system provides us with general principles; physics the specifics, and this is another example of that.

Where an Aristotelian would turn to Form as the abstract principle underlying the properties and possible states of material substances, the physicist would turn to the effective Hamiltonian of more complex materials such as solids and molecules. Again, the philosophical concept of form is a bit broader than that of the effective Hamiltonian, but the physical construction sits within the metaphysical principle. The eigenstates of the Hamiltonian play the same role in the physics as the form does in the philosophy. We are able to establish the accidental and essential properties of a substance from both the Hamiltonian and the form. And so on.

So, having dug himself into a hole, the sceptic keeps digging.

Act and potency do not explain how things move.

Nobody claimed that they by themselves explain the how. That is not what they are there for. They provide a general framework which allows us to think about the concept of motion (change). The concept of things move is prior to question of how things move. But once you accept that there is motion, then it is clear that there is a state from which things move from and a state which they move to. And that is what act and potency do for us. Now we need a physical theory on top of that to address the next question, which is which states could they move to in practice. Even modern physics does not explain how things move (depending on which of the various possible meanings you give to the word how) -- how a down quark undergoes beta decay. It only describes that it can and sometimes does, and what sort of decays and interactions are possible, and the probability amplitudes that they will occur. To go beyond that, we need an interpretation of that theory which might (if we are lucky) give an answer to that how. But if that interpretation conflicts with the notion of act and potency, while at the same time the science that the interpretation is trying to explain depends on it, then we immediately have a self-contradiction.

To support his assertion, the sceptic discusses the idea of essentialism and forms, and how they don't stand up to scrutiny. The example he cites is,

As modern philosophers note, how many grains of sand can you remove from a dune before it is no longer a dune?

A dune is not a single substance, but a collection of substances. Thus this is not a good example to use to deny that there are such things as essences of substances. A more pertinent example would be "How many carbon atoms can you remove from an ethanol molecule before it is no longer an ethanol molecule?" And here, the answer is clearly none. As soon as we remove one atom, it ceases to be that substance and becomes something else. Although I could and perhaps should go into far more detail, it is clear that molecules and the other compound objects of physics and chemistry are not inconsistent with essentialism and forms.

So, as we near the conclusion, we come to this.

Thomists give primacy to metaphysics, and science is not only subordinate to that, but it can have nothing to say about what is real and what isn't in metaphysics. Science, on the other hand, makes observations about reality, and any scientific view of metaphysics would hold that the two must remain in agreement with each other to form a coherent whole. In other words, metaphysics must evolve along with scientific understanding of reality. But to the Thomist, metaphysics is static and unchanging.

We need to distinguish between two different things. Our knowledge of scientific and metaphysical theory, on the one hand, and The true scientific and metaphysical theory on the other. The first of these obviously changes as we gain in knowledge. The latter is static and unchanging. Our hope is that our knowledge gradually approaches the true theory.

It is also a bit unfair to say that Thomists regard our knowledge of metaphysics as static and unchanging. After all, Aquinas himself was a development of Aristotle, and modern Analytical Thomists develop beyond where Aquinas went. All of them, of course, adopt some common principles, but there is much diversity in how they explain those principles. I personally agree that the Thomist community need to engage more with quantum physics, and adapt their philosophy as required. But that isn't to say that there is no such engagement going on. Dr. Bonnette's post, and the article he relies on, is one example. Nor is it to say that any adaptation will be major. It might just be a matter of choosing between different schools or approaches to Thomism. One would have to do the detailed work to find out.

The main point is that Thomists regard some form of Thomism as the true metaphysics. That goes almost without saying; if they didn't think that they wouldn't be Thomists. They might be unsure about precisely which form once we get down into the finer details. The reason for that belief is their understanding that Thomism follows from a few basic, fundamental principles: the existence of change, the rationality of nature, the principle of non-contradiction and so on. Whatever our changing scientific knowledge becomes, it must continue to hold to such principles (after all, if our knowledge of science is changing, then change must be a reality). And it is this idea that gives the Thomist their confidence.

Of course, the frustrating thing is that there seems to be a lack of awareness of contemporary physics, and the continual falling back to Aristotelian examples, in most popular presentations of the philosophy. There is some excuse: they are popular, so can't assume that the readers know how to compute a Feynman diagram, or even what a path integral is. But it is still frustrating, when contemporary physics offers such fertile ground for the Thomist to draw from. But equally, Thomist philosophers get frustrated at the frequent ignorance and misrepresentations of their philosophy in the skeptical and philosophy of science literature. Such works don't present good evidence for disbelieving in Thomism, only evidence that the people who wrote them don't understand Thomism very well, or have never thought about how it can be reconciled with contemporary physics, or interacted with those who do address these issues.

In the Thomistic view, on the other hand, metaphysics deals with a completely separate realm of existence.

No. Precisely the same realm of existence. As the sceptic rightly said, in Aristotle's system, metaphysics and physics were in harmony. That is the goal. There was a divergence when classical mechanics emerged (albeit considerably less so than most people of the time realised, since they had a very inaccurate knowledge of Aristotle's philosophy); now they are coming together again. The problem for Aristotle was that he brought in other concepts, such as the four element theory and that force is proportional to velocity and other such nonsense, which don't depend on his metaphysics and which are clearly wrong. What needs to be done is to combine Aristotle's system with genuine physical principles. Rejecting that which is wrong in Aristotle, but being careful not to throw out that which he got right alongside it. Some have been working on this, and I have taken a few tentative steps myself.

Now, contemporary philosophers of science are, of course, trying to come up with a metaphysics that is in harmony with quantum physics. As far as I am aware, they haven't been making much progress. Perhaps they would make more progress if they tried adopting some aspects of Thomist thought.

Whenever a Thomist tells you that there is no conflict between Thomism and science, what he means is that they are dealing with different things.

No, what they mean is that the premises behind Thomism are a subset of the premises behind modern science. Indeed, the most important premises. The point of difference is not in the science, but in the interpretation of the science. For example, during the scientific revolution the mechanical philosophy was adopted. In the context of classical physics, that's a plausible enough idea. The problem is that it is thoroughly inconsistent with quantum physics. So an alternative is needed. The Copenhagen interpretation? De-Broglie-Bohm? Everett? They all have their problems. The Thomist would argue that the primary reason that they fail is that they are built on inconsistent premises. The Aristotelian assumptions that underlie science, such as the objective rationality of the universe and the existence of change (which ultimately imply formal and final causality), but also other premises which deny form and finality. What we need is an interpretation of quantum physics built on Aristotelian principles. Such as this one.



Is Thomism really refuted by modern science? (Further Response)


Reader Comments:

1. im-skeptical
Posted at 17:38:10 Wednesday November 28 2018

blogger

In my article, I said that Thomistic metaphysics was static and unchanging, whereas modern science demands a metaphysical view that keeps pace with our evolving scientific understanding of the reality of the world. Nothing in Bonnette's article gave me reason to think otherwise. As you alluded, his stance (as well as that of many Thimists') doesn't seem to be in complete agreement your own. But now I have to step back and re-assess what I said. Despite what I think I have heard from so many Thomists, perhaps there is room for change in Thomistic metaphysics.

But this brings up another issue. How much can Thomism be adapted to modern science before it can no longer be considered to be Thomism - the philosophy of Aquinas? Would he have agreed with you that a down-quark is the efficient cause of the W boson and the up-quark? It seems to me that this is something of a stretch. It still happens spontaneously, with no apparent triggering mechanism, which is what most of us would regard as an efficient cause.

And it seems to me that you are stretching more than just causality. In dismissing my criticism of essentialism, you side-step the main issue (dare I say the essential issue?). The point I raised is that there is not always clear distinction between the essence of one form and another. Your example is of a case where it is clearly defined, but my examples show that the distinction isn't always so sharp. I asked when an ape gives birth to a man. In evolution (didn't figure into Aquinas' calculus) there is no such distinction. Any dividing line you may wish to draw between one form and the other is arbitrary, and obviously subject to disagreement. But that casts doubt on one of the pillars of Thomistic philosophy.

And of course, there is still the matter of act and potency. You claim that this metaphysical concept is presupposed in all modern physics. Really? It's strange that I never heard any such thing (and I am not altogether uneducated in physics). It's not an underlying concept upon which other metaphysical concepts are based. There are no such dependencies, whether stated or otherwise. It's not something that can be quantified. It adds nothing to our understanding of any system of mechanics. And if you want to claim that it does, then you have to water it down so severely that it wouldn't be recognized by Aquinas.

If I'm not mistaken, his system of metaphysics was teleological. God was presumed, and things were purpose-driven, which is antithetical to any modern scientific metaphysical view. God was said to be pure act. Potency was the ability or tendency to move toward the the final end, which was seen as God's purpose for something in nature. This is what we understood as final causation. Now, you are telling us that these concepts are still presumed in modern science? I think you are mistaken. Or you have changed Thomistic philosophy by drastically that it wouldn't be recognized by Aquinas himself.

1. Scott Lynch
Posted at 17:47:18 Wednesday November 28 2018

Great Post. Metaphysics must be generic.

This is an excellent post. Thank you for writing it.

I think the key is that any good metaphysics must be general enough to accommodate legitimate changes in scientific theory. The mechanism of the pre-Socratics and Descartes depended on physics being a certain way (a system of interacting corpuscles). Platonic, Aristotelian, and Scholastic metaphysics are based on concepts that are sufficiently general to encompass a mechanistic physics, a quantum physics, or some new physics. For all of these physical systems will have to be cashed out in terms of act/potency, form/matter, essence/existence, whole/part, etc.

I understand the frustration with Thomist philosophers not knowing enough about scientific theories. I do think a more thorough knowledge of QFT and GR could be used to help defend Thomistic metaphysics. However, I think that any defense in light of modern physics should be prefaced with a warning that says that whatever these metaphysical truths are valid even if the scientific theories change.

Without that warning, people will think that your metaphysical theory is no longer valid once science has sufficiently advanced. In fact, for that reason, it may not be a bad idea to give compatibility examples of scientific theories that are completely made up (or at least highly speculative) along with real science in order to show how the metaphysics is not dependent on the science, but the other way around.

2. Scott Lynch
Posted at 22:12:21 Thursday November 29 2018

Response to im-skeptical at Skeptical Zone

@im-skeptical

I think you are completely missing the point. It is not that metaphysics needs to be adapted to physics, but rather the other way around. To be sure, any good metaphysical system (such as Thomism) will be built on a posteriori (or experiential) knowledge. In that sense, it must be somewhat based on physical reality, but only in such a generic way that it will hold good regardless of the contingent physical facts of this universe. Now as for reconciling certain physical data with a metaphysical system, no Thomist would argue that you can do this from the armchair. You really do have to get your hands dirty and learn all of the contingent physical facts. Once you have all of the facts, then you can properly cash out your data in metaphysical terms. Before you have all of the data, you can make an attempt, but you must know that it might need to be revised with the acquisition of new data. But that is a revision of your ontological interpretation of specific contingent physical phenomena. That is not the same as changing your metaphysics (anymore than changing the total number of elements on the periodic table changes mathematics). For example let’s say for the sake of argument, that water as H2O is a genuine substance and not a mere aggregate of atoms. Now there could be additional debate as to whether groups of H2O should be considered a substance in their own right due to cohesion of molecules through hydrogen bonding, etc. Or it might turn out that the facts about water make it the case that the relations of the water molecules are truly reducible to the sum of their parts. In that case, a group of water molecules would be best classified as an aggregate. But this flexibility in the classification of water does not mean that the terms “substance” and “aggregate” should be flexible. Similar things could be said for other metaphysical terms. For example, you asked if Aquinas would agree that a down-quark is the efficient cause of the W boson and the up-quark. I cannot say what his ontological interpretation of this specific set of observations would be. Perhaps he would agree with Dr. Cundy. Perhaps he would argue that unstable particles are to be seen as aggregates of stable particles and therefore the cause of the “decay” would really just be an accidental feature of the formal causes of the W boson and up-quark. Perhaps he would give any number of additional possible interpretations. But none of these interpretations imply that quantum “events” do not have causes. If that were the case, we should expect Carbon 12 to undergo radioactive decay. But of course we never observe such a thing. By the same logic, you could argue that a man who brought a bucket of Cesium-137 into a daycare would not be the cause of children becoming sick (since the radioactive decay was completely uncaused). But that is of course ridiculous, and it certainly would not hold as a valid defense in criminal court. It is obvious that the man would be directly responsible for the children becoming sick. Now the nature of this causal relationship must be cashed out in metaphysical terms (since physics often leaves causality out of the picture). As you can see, rejecting metaphysics altogether could have potentially deadly real-world consequences, and any counterintuitive fact about physics should make us question our ontological interpretations or our data, not our metaphysics. Our metaphysics should be tested against logic and very generic observations (e.g. change occurs, things exist, things behave predictably, etc.) It should be obvious why these types of general observations along with logic should remain “static and unchanging”.

3. Scott Lynch
Posted at 22:44:45 Thursday November 29 2018

Book and Blog Concerns

Dr. Cundy,

A few questions about your blog and book. I saw that your book is now only on Amazon for $1200. Do you know when it will be available for purchase again at a reasonable price? I still have not had a chance to get it, but I do want to read it some time within the next year or two. Obviously $1200 is out of my price range.

Also, your Captcha sometimes asks questions that require basic calculus or knowledge of relatively unknown facts. Many people may not know the date of the Council of Nicaea or how to find the minimum of a polynomial function. I fear that this may discourage some people from commenting. Is there any way to make the questions easier?

4. im-skeptical
Posted at 16:25:14 Friday November 30 2018



Scott,

We disagree on what the point is. I think metaphysics does not hold a privileged place mankind's understanding of what is real. It can and should work hand-in-hand with science. Just as we do with science, if we observe some aspect of reality that is not consistent with out metaphysical beliefs, we must revise our metaphysics. You admit that it must be built on observed facts. And yet, the whole concept of act and potency was based on teleological presumptions that are not consistent with modern science. We don't observe act act potency. We observe things behaving according to the laws of physics with no purposeful goal, and no God making things happen. You can say these things are true and incorporate them into your system of metaphysics, but it's based on presumption, not on observation. And please don't try to claim that yours is the one true metaphysics. Modern philosophers are quite happy to develop a metaphysical understanding that is fully consistent with observed reality and science, without making any teleological assumption.

5. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 19:14:46 Friday November 30 2018

Response to Scott Lynch

1) If you search for my name on Amazon.com, you will find two versions of my book. The original version is selling for $1785.90, which indeed seems rather expensive. The new version is selling for a more reasonable $31.99. The link on my site is probably still to the original version. Thanks for letting me know -- I will update it.

2) I can change the security questions. I agree that some of them are a bit strange. (I'm being asked for the year Hitler invaded Poland ... )

3) Im-skeptical, I am currently writing an in-depth response to your comment. I'm about half way through. Once I am finished, I will post it here and at your site.

5. Scott Lynch
Posted at 19:30:18 Friday November 30 2018

Response to im-skeptical

@im-skeptical

How can you possibly say that we do not observe act and potency? Are you saying that change is an illusion? Are you saying that things are not actually one way and potentially another? Do you have any evidence to support this? None that would not undermine your position, I presume. For any truly good evidence would change my mind and therefore undermine your argument by instantiating change. I think you may be seriously misconceiving the Aristotelian-Scholastic theory of act and potency. It cannot change because even the cessation of change would itself be an instance of change.

Metaphysical systems are not about being the “one true” system. There are varying degrees of accuracy. I would argue that Thomism is the most accurate one. That does not mean other systems contain no truth, but they may contain some errors or they may be less clear, concise, and precise. But if a metaphysical system can change with new scientific data, then it isn’t really metaphysics anymore. It is now just ontological interpretations of our particular contingent universe. Maybe one might call that applied metaphysics, but it is not metaphysics as traditionally conceived.

Finally, I think that you are misunderstanding Aristotelian teleology. Aristotle was not beholden to Newtonian deistic theories of teleology where nature behaves by divinely ordained laws. Rather, an object behaves according to its essence or nature, which does not presuppose the existence of God. Why does an electron repel other electrons? It is part of the nature of an electron to do so. We assign a name to this attribute. charge. That electrons do this is not a rejection of modern science. It is merely a way of saying that every time an electron repels another electron, it is not a sheer coincidence (as if an electron could have in principle attracted another electron but just didn’t because of the luck of the draw). That is the heart of Aristotelian teleology. To deny it is to deny that order exists or that it at least could go out of existence at any second. Of course many years of observations for me have proved that this is not likely to happen.

6. im-skeptical
Posted at 03:39:47 Saturday December 1 2018



Scott:

How can you possibly say that we do not observe act and potency? Are you saying that change is an illusion?

- NO. What I'm saying is that we observe motion. We don't observe act and potency. Those things are explanations for how the motion we observe happens. There are other explanations. Act and potency are assumptions you make.

There are varying degrees of accuracy. I would argue that Thomism is the most accurate one.

- That's an interesting statement. How do you determine the accuracy? Do you make measurements? On what basis do you claim that Thomism is more accurate than modern science-based metaphysical systems?

Finally, I think that you are misunderstanding Aristotelian teleology. Aristotle was not beholden to Newtonian deistic theories of teleology where nature behaves by divinely ordained laws. Rather, an object behaves according to its essence or nature, which does not presuppose the existence of God.

- Hold on. Are we talking about Thomism or Aristotelian metaphysics? They are not identical. Aquinas adapted Aristotelian metaphysics to his Christian beliefs. Aquinas believed that the Christian God was the source of all motion. And Aquinas definitely presumed the existence of this God. His entire philosophy, including its teleology and its essentialism is based on that presumption.

7. Scott Lynch
Posted at 04:34:19 Saturday December 1 2018

Response to im-skeptical

@im-skeptical

When you say that we see motion (or change), you are affirming that we see things that are actually one way, potentially another, then they become actually another. That just is the act/potency distinction. Act and potency, or the reduction of potency to act are not explanations, they are terms for observations. Perhaps what you mean to say is that we do not observe the principle “whatever is moved from potential to actual must be actualized by something already actual”. That is essentially the Aristotelian theory of causation in a nutshell. Now you are right to say we do not observe that. But neither do we observe quantum superposition or wave-particle duality. We infer these things from complex observations. Now Aristotelian causality is simply inferred from obvious observations. Frankly, in my opinion, it is sophistry to say that we do not “observe” a rock breaking a window but only the thrown rock and the broken window. While that may be technically true, I highly doubt you would ever throw a rock at a police officer in hopes that it would have no effect.

The accuracy of a metaphysical system is based on its logical consistency and ability to explain phenomena (albeit not in a specific way). For example, if on a metaphysical worldview like that of Parmenides where change does not occur, or like that of Heraclitus where nothing subsists through change, or like that of Hume or other moderns where we cannot use inductive reasoning (because causality is not a knowable feature of the world), you can see how these systems fail to account for basic day-to-day life. If you always have to check your metaphysical system at the door whenever you are doing science or just living your regular life, what good is it?

Finally, Aristotelian teleology is no different from Thomistic teleology. There are differences in the systems as a whole (the essence-existence distinction, for example), but those differences are not particularly relevant to the philosophy of science. Where material reality is concerned, the two systems are very similar. You claim that Aquinas’ entire philosophy is built on the presumption that God exists. I challenge you to find one passage where Aquinas or any other qualified Thomistic scholar uses the existence of God as a premise in an argument which concludes in the acceptance of a fundamental metaphysical concept such as act, potency, substance, etc. You will not be able to find a single one. Why? Because Aquinas famously refuted the only known a priori argument for God’s existence, the ontological argument.

As a word of advice, I would be very careful about making such bold claims about areas of study in which you are not a subject-matter expert. Doing so, especially when you are blatantly wrong, misleads people who are seeking knowledge in these matters and gives knowledgeable people the impression that you are intellectually dishonest.

8. im-skeptical
Posted at 18:31:39 Saturday December 1 2018



Scott:

“whatever is moved from potential to actual must be actualized by something already actual”. That is essentially the Aristotelian theory of causation in a nutshell. Now you are right to say we do not observe that.

- OK. I said that in answer to your question: "How can you possibly say that we do not observe act and potency?" The answer is that we don't.

Frankly, in my opinion, it is sophistry to say that we do not “observe” a rock breaking a window but only the thrown rock and the broken window.

- That's something we can observe. We see the rock breaking the window. That's not an assumption, like your theory of act and potency. Who's engaging in sophistry here?

The accuracy of a metaphysical system is based on its logical consistency and ability to explain phenomena

- And I asked you how you make this determination. How do you judge one system against another? You haven't answered that.

If you always have to check your metaphysical system at the door whenever you are doing science or just living your regular life, what good is it?

- I don't have to. But I would agree that a Thomist must check his metaphysical system at the door if he wishes to engage in real scientific investigation. Science is not based on things like teleology and essentialism.

Finally, Aristotelian teleology is no different from Thomistic teleology. There are differences in the systems as a whole (the essence-existence distinction, for example), but those differences are not particularly relevant to the philosophy of science.

- There is no teleology in secular science.

I challenge you to find one passage where Aquinas or any other qualified Thomistic scholar uses the existence of God as a premise in an argument which concludes in the acceptance of a fundamental metaphysical concept such as act, potency, substance, etc.

- Let's look at Aquinas' argument from motion. It is stated here. I will restrict my criticism to the circular aspect of this argument. Look at statement 3, which states there must be a first mover. Now lok at statement 4, which concludes that the first mover exists. Is this not circular reasoning? He is assuming something has to be first, without considering any other possibility. But that assumption is built into the very concept of act and potency. And it goes without saying that he also assumes this first mover is nothing other than God.

As a word of advice, I would be very careful about making such bold claims about areas of study in which you are not a subject-matter expert. Doing so, especially when you are blatantly wrong, misleads people who are seeking knowledge in these matters and gives knowledgeable people the impression that you are intellectually dishonest.

- I would encourage you to at least try to understand the arguments I make.

10. Scott Lynch
Posted at 02:29:15 Sunday December 2 2018

Response to im-skeptical

@im-skeptical

I am having a difficult time trying to explain this to you because you are refusing to accept the Aristotelian definitions of terms I am making. You are essentially conflating the Aristotelian theory of act and potency with the Aristotelian theory of causation. It shows that you do not understand these topics because the act/potency distinction is uncontroversial whereas the theory of causation is controversial (although I would argue that it is only controversial because of sophist thinking). It is ironic that you accept the more controversial one and deny the uncontroversial one.

Let me ask you two questions.

Do you actually have any hair on your head?

Do you potentially have no hair on your head?

If your answer is yes to both of these questions, then you accept the Aristotelian distinction of act and potency. That is all that it is. If you refuse to acknowledge that (without arguing for why change does not occur, which you seem to reject), then there is no point in continuing the conversation because you are not allowing me to define my terms. Now if you do accept that, then we can have further argumentation about whether or not causation is described as the actualization of a potential by something already actual.

I am not engaging in sophistry because I am not denying that we observe causation, I am merely making the claim that some non-Thomists do deny causation.

I am not going to give a thorough defense of an entire metaphysical system in the space of a blog comment. That is like me asking you to give a thorough defense of quantum field theory in the space of a blog comment. What I have said suffices to show that there are objective standards for judging the veracity of any metaphysical system. I also am not pretending to account for all standards; I simply illustrated a few. If you completely reject all standards of judging the truth of a metaphysical system, then you are a logical relativist, and there is no point in arguing with you.

“Science is not based on things like teleology and essentialism”. Well fine, you can argue that, but I would say you are wrong. To reject teleology and essentialism is to either reject the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) or to propose a sort of Newtonian Divine Lawgiver theory. Rejecting the first is highly controversial, and I assume you do not want to accept the latter (not so I). We can debate these things, of course, but we cannot just assert out of the gate that PSR is prima facie contrary to science.

“There is no teleology in science”. That depends on your definitions of ‘teleology’ and ‘science’. I would argue that it is at least implicit in secular science that things have natures or ways of being (e.g. electrons always have negative charge). If you want to argue otherwise, fine. But then you are no longer doing science. You are now doing philosophy.

Let’s look at your example provided. First of all, who wrote this article? I cannot find the name of the author. This is a very strange presentation of the argument. This makes me feel like it is not a Thomistic scholar (at least not one on par with Edward Feser, David Oderberg, Eleonore Stump, Etienne Gilson, etc.) That being said, let us look at his or her argument.

The first bit says:

Aquinas' Argument from Motion begins with the empirical observation of motion in the world. Hence, this argument is an à posteriori argument, and the conclusion is not claimed to follow with certainty.

If it is an a posteriori argument that does not follow with certainty, then it can hardly presuppose the existence of God. It is strange for him to say that the argument does not follow with certainty, however (which is what makes me think this person is not a Thomist). Most Thomists would say that since the argument logically follows from the Principle of Sufficient Reason, it is as certain as any self-evident principle can be.

Now his third statement,

“Unless there is a First Mover, there can be no motions. To take away the actual is to take away the potential”

does not assume the existence of the First Mover, but rather makes it a premise in a very summarized argument for which he gives a very summarized defense. Naturally, any argument for God’s existence is going to have a conditional premise to the effect of, “if this is true, then God exists”, then argue for the truth of the premise, then conclude “therefore, God exists”. That is hardly presupposing God’s existence. It is arguing for it based on logic and evidential knowledge.

The person providing the argument is essentially saying that anything that has derived causal power cannot impart its causal power without having something impart its power to it. If the thing imparting causal power itself has derived causal power, then this must also receive its power from something else. This can go on until you have an infinite chain, theoretically. Furthermore, even an infinite chain of causes with derived causal power cannot have power on its own accord because there is nothing that is actually giving the power, rather, everything is merely passing on power. As A.D. Sertillanges said, “A paint brush cannot paint by itself, even if it has an infinitely long handle.” Obviously, given this premise, the only way something could have derived causal power is if there is something with underived causal power. Since we do see things with derived causal power, a First Cause (God) in fact exists.

We could go on to quibble over the details, but you cannot simply dismiss the argument as presupposing the existence of God.

I ask you this question. If Aquinas presupposed God’s existence, why did he refute the only proposed a priori argument for God’s existence?

“ I would encourage you to at least try to understand the arguments I make.”

I do understand the arguments you are making. That is why I can see that you are conflating terms and attacking straw men. Furthermore, you are not offering any alternative metaphysical system (at least not in your article) you are merely attacking a straw man version of a metaphysical system that you seem to not understand very well.

11. im-skeptical
Posted at 05:38:27 Sunday December 2 2018



I am having a difficult time trying to explain this to you because you are refusing to accept the Aristotelian definitions of terms I am making.

- I am nor making any argument about Aristotle's philosophy. My argument is about Thomism. Regardless of what parts of it are the same and what parts are different, that's what my argument is about. Why do you keep reverting to Aristotle when the subject of discussion is Thomism?

If your answer is yes to both of these questions, then you accept the Aristotelian distinction of act and potency.

- The Thomistic concept of act is not equivalent to the definition of the word "actually". He believes that God is pure act. That's not the same thing as a state of affairs that actually exists. You are equivocating. Why don't you address Aquinas' concept of act? That's the kind of act that I'm talking about.

I am not engaging in sophistry because I am not denying that we observe causation

- You are engaging in sophistry when you twist my words into something that I didn't say - which you have done several times.

If you completely reject all standards of judging the truth of a metaphysical system, then you are a logical relativist, and there is no point in arguing with you.

- More sophistry. (see previous remark) I NEVER said I reject standards of judgment. I merely asked you to tell me what standards you use to make your judgment. You have refused to answer that question.

That depends on your definitions of ‘teleology’ and ‘science’. I would argue that it is at least implicit in secular science that things have natures or ways of being

- Thomistic teleology holds that there is an intelligence that defines the nature of things. And that intelligence is God. That's what Aquinas says. But modern science rejects any such notion. Don't try to tell me that science is based on these Thomistic concepts. It isn't.

The first bit says:

- Do you not understand that the first bit is actually a preface? It is not part of the argument itself. The argument is presented in section C.

does not assume the existence of the First Mover, but rather makes it a premise in a very summarized argument

- You missed MY point. The first mover is part and parcel of the whole concept of act and potency. And God is obviously presupposed as the first mover. Aquinas does not allow any other possibility, even though there is no logical justification for excluding them other than the concept itself. (Why couldn't there be an infinite series? Because the concept of act and potency presupposes a first mover.) In other words, the argument amounts to circular reasoning.

you cannot simply dismiss the argument as presupposing the existence of God.

- Yes, I can.

If Aquinas presupposed God’s existence, why did he refute the only proposed a priori argument for God’s existence?

- There is a difference between making a presupposition and rejecting a particular a priori argument. Don't you get that?

I do understand the arguments you are making. That is why I can see that you are conflating terms and attacking straw men. Furthermore, you are not offering any alternative metaphysical system (at least not in your article) you are merely attacking a straw man version of a metaphysical system that you seem to not understand very well.

- You missed my point altogether. You equivocated. You put words in my mouth that I didn't say. (Attacking a straw man? Yep.)

12. Scott Lynch
Posted at 18:38:06 Sunday December 2 2018

Response to im-skeptical

@im-skeptical

“You are engaging in sophistry when you twist my words into something that I didn't say - which you have done several times.

More sophistry. (see previous remark) I NEVER said I reject standards of judgment. I merely asked you to tell me what standards you use to make your judgment. You have refused to answer that question.”

I feel like this conversation has taken a bad turn. Let me first start out by apologizing for using the word “sophistry”. I believe you thought I was using that word at you. I was not. I was making a claim that people (such as David Hume) typically do not quibble over the act/potency distinction but do deny that causality is knowable. I was claiming that thinkers like David Hume engage in sophistry by denying causation. I was not saying that you deny causality or its knowability. I was merely saying that you are quibbling over something that should not be controversial (even though you accept the more controversial theory of causality). I can see how my words could easily be misread, so I apologize for my poor word choices.

Furthermore, I know you never said you reject objective standards of judgement. I was making the point that if you did (hypothetically speaking), then there would be no point arguing with you. Since you do accept such standards, what is the point of asking how one can determine the truth of a metaphysical system? It is obvious that if a system is logically consistent, consistent with experience, common sense, science, ethics, etc. that it is going to be more true than a system that is inconsistent in these matters. I do not need to give a full defense of Thomistic metaphysics in a blog comment.

“The Thomistic concept of act is not equivalent to the definition of the word "actually". He believes that God is pure act. That's not the same thing as a state of affairs that actually exists. You are equivocating. Why don't you address Aquinas' concept of act? That's the kind of act that I'm talking about.”

No, I am not equivocating. See Dr. Cundy’s further response blog. He basically says the same thing as my “hairs on the head” example only with a hydrogen atom as an example. The set of all of the potentia for your head would be the set of all hair follicle (with hair/without hair) combinations. The actual state would be the actual hair follicles that have hair in them on your head. You are disagreeing with me, Dr. Cundy, as well as numerous experts on Thomistic thought (such as Dr. Edward Feser) on Aristotle and Aquinas’ definition of Act and Potency. I am sorry to say that you are simply wrong. Now you are right to say that act is not quite the same as the word “actually”, but I never said it is. Act is the state of being that we apply the word “actually” to. Potency is the state of being that we apply the word “potentially” to. You are also right in saying that Aristotle and Aquinas’ Unmoved Mover is Pure Act (and yes, Aristotle does argue for an unloved mover even if his natural theology does not exactly match with Aquinas’). I keep reverting to Aristotle because their philosophies are essentially the same in this regard. See Dr. Cundy’s response blog post. Now to be Pure Act is just to be devoid of any potency. It is not the same as being the set of all combinations of act and potency (being actually red, being actually six feet tall, etc.). I know you did not say this, but it it is a common misconception, so I wanted to elaborate on that. I do not have the space to get into a discourse on Natural Theology and talk about God’s incomprehensibility, etc. For that, see Dr. Feser’s book Aquinas and his book Five Proofs for the Existence of God, the First Part of the Summa Theologiae (Aquinas), and the blog “Reading the Summa”. Those are all helpful resources.

“Thomistic teleology holds that there is an intelligence that defines the nature of things. And that intelligence is God. That’s what Aquinas says. But modern science rejects any such notion. Don’t try to tell me that science is based on these Thomistic concepts. It isn’t.”

Okay, first of all, modern science does not “reject” the existence of God. It merely does not hold a position on the matter. I have never taken a physics course (not even 20th century physics) where the professor said “God does not exist”. Although one professor did use God’s omnipotence to illustrate the physical reality (and not just epistemological reality) of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Secondly, while the Scholastics, including Aquinas, did believe God was the source of all teleology, that was the conclusion of an argument that presupposes the existence of teleology apart from God’s existence (See Aquinas’ 5th Way). Teleology in itself must be argued on different grounds (e.g. the intrinsic order of natural objects). God’s existence can be bracketed off for purposes of discussing teleology in nature. Again see Dr. Cundy’s blog response.

“You missed MY point. The first mover is part and parcel of the whole concept of act and potency. And God is obviously presupposed as the first mover. Aquinas does not allow any other possibility, even though there is no logical justification for excluding them other than the concept itself. (Why couldn't there be an infinite series? Because the concept of act and potency presupposes a first mover.) In other words, the argument amounts to circular reasoning.”

God is not part and parcel to the act/potency distinction. God is a conclusion to an argument that presupposes act/potency, the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the Principle of Proportionate Causality, and other concepts. See Dr. Feser’s book Scholastic Metaphysics. Now I have addressed why an infinite series of hierarchical causes cannot explain itself (the way a paint brush with an infinitely long handle cannot paint by itself). Now maybe I have not answered every possible objection at this moment, but I at least an offering an argument rather than merely presupposing the truth of my premises.

In Dr. Cundy’s response post, he writes,

“You might not think much of Aquinas, but he clearly wasn’t so much of an idiot that he would take as his premise something that presumed his conclusion. The existence of God was not an assumption of Aquinas’ teleology, but a conclusion which Aquinas (but not Aristotle, who shared the same teleology) drew from it.”

I could add to what Dr. Cundy says. You are also claiming that an entire 750 year long tradition of philosophers (some of the most influential in the world) have continually made a mistake that an eight year old might make when first taught about basic logic. That is pretty insulting. It also shows an extreme lack of charity in interpreting arguments presented by other people. Furthermore, you did not tell me the author of that article summarizing Aquinas’ First Way, so I will conclude that you did not meet my challenge.

“Yes I can.”

Well yes you can, but you do so at the risk of looking intellectually dishonest and, frankly, arrogant.

“There is a difference between making a presupposition and rejecting a particular a priori argument. Do t you get that?”

If Aquinas’ First Way can be boiled down to “God exists, therefore God exists”, why would he even bother with the pretense of giving an argument for God’s existence or rejecting someone else’s argument? Surely a bad argument is better than no argument at all if Aquinas is so stupid and intellectually dishonest as to presuppose the truth of his conclusions and try to pass it off as philosophy.

So I still maintain that you are attacking straw man arguments and not clearly understanding the terms that we are using.

May I ask a question? Have you ever read any of Aquinas’ writings or commentators (such as Edward Feser) for yourself? Have you studied him in any depth? I do not mean just skimming the Five Ways in Question 2, Article 3 of the Summa Theologiae. Considering that two people are claiming that you are getting your terms mixed up, you might want to pause and ask yourself if you know Aquinas as well as you think you do.



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