Abandoned during the 17th century Renassiance of the new science were Aristotle (Ἀριστοτέλης) and with him the profound Aristotelian theses of the nature of the physical world (physis) and the universe (cosmos). Key among these Aristotelian ideas were the concepts elucidating the nature and principles (arche) of substance (ousia), matter (hyle), movement (kinêsis), change (metabolê), being (ontos), infinity (apeiron), space (chó̱rou), void (kenon), continuum (pleres), time (chrónos), actually (energeia, entelecheia), potentiality (dynamis), extendedness (megathos), cause (aition, aitia) and the four-fold unpacking of causality.
The systematic rejection of Aristotelian doctrine, and the dire consequences of this rejection, for both 17th century and 20th century science, is brilliantly argued and elaborated by Ivor Leclerc in his books The Nature of Physical Existence, and The Philosophy of Nature.
The critical need for re-discovering the ideas of Aristotle as they apply not only to science, but to all human knowledge, is passionately and brilliantly argued by David Roochink in his book Retrieving Aristotle in an Age of Crisis.
Under the profound influence of Neoplatonism with its mathematization of ontology, and the pre-Socratic Greek atomists, with their notion of atoms in the void, the 17th century philosopher-scientists, radically redefined as to be unrecognizable the Aristotelian concepts of substance, change, motion, matter, infinity, void, potentiality, space and, above all, causality.
Let us examine how these 17th century philosophers and scientists conceived of the physical world, the focus of their scientific investigation and in which way and for which reasons they turned against the science of Aristotle. We shall examine individually their key concepts of the physical.
Substance: A Fundamental Concept in Aristotelian Science
Substance (ousia), for Aristotle, refers to a fundamental, primary, independent existent that has within itself its own power or principle of motion, change and generation. It is ontologically independent in that it does not depend for its existence on other higher-order substances, and, qua substance, is characterized as being a particular kind of informed matter (hyle). (Remembering that hyle is not itself an existent, but is an abstract relational term meaning ‘that which can take on a given form’ or ‘can be informed’). Substances are the base of all being. All that can be said of the world is said of substances. Substances are those existents in reality that remain constants through the changes that they may undergo. They are the invariant centers of all changing being.
The philosophical term ‘substance’ corresponds to the Greek ousia, which means ‘being’, transmitted via the Latin substantia, which means ‘something that stands under or grounds things’. According to the generic sense, therefore, the substances in a given philosophical system are those things which, according to that system, are the foundational or fundamental entities of reality.” from Stanford Encyclopedia, Substance (First published Sun Oct 3, 2004; substantive revision Mon Feb 3, 2014)
If there were not unchanging invariant centers of being, no fundamental beings, then all would be change without substance and without identity. Such a universe would be closed to human (or any) knowledge. This is the view of, Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, whose view on this issue was fully analyzed and rejected by Aristotle.
Substance was fundamental to Aristotle’s concept of self-subsistent being (ousia) capable of its own self-generated motion kinêsis and therefore self-generated causal powers. Aristotle held that change was primarily the manifestation of an internal potentiality continually actualized by and within a substance. This is discussed in more detail below under ‘Change’ and ‘Causality’. Again, the modern term substance, with all of its inherited nuances, was not a word used by the ancient Greeks. Instead, they used the word ousia, which is only roughly and, in some ways, unfortunately translated into English as substance in the sense of ontological, causal or explanatory grounding, foundation or basis. This latter combination of English concepts (grounding, foundation, basis), taken together, are close to what the Greeks and Aristotle meant by substance as ousia. Again, see: Stanford Encyclopedia, Substance.)
From an empirical perspective, examining the world directly via our senses and immediate intuition, we see what Aristotle saw: primarily substances about which physical facts may be predicated: terrestrial life forms running across the surface of the earth (the lithosphere), aquatic life forms swimming in the water (the hydrosphere) and airborne life forms flying through the air (the atmosphere.) Beyond the living world (the biosphere), we see environmental substances (sand, clouds, water, and fire) in constant motion. We see storms and feel the power of the wind and surf. There is nothing in all of our observations that would lead us to believe that all of what we see in the world are manifestations of a common single substance or ‘stuff’. Such a viewpoint is not given to the evidence of our senses and our everyday interactions with the world around us.
Renaissance Science: Adoption of Neoplatonism
This view that all of reality consists of configurations of a single substance called matter, was not the result of scientific investigation nor of any form of empirical analysis of the external world. It was the product of a rationalist model of the world conceived by Renaissance philosophers, physicians, and mathematicians, all of whom fully embraced the new philosophy of the day: Neoplatonism.
The 17th century new philosopher-scientists (with few notable exceptions, especially Leibniz) regarded the physical world as entirely composed of a single, uniform substance that they called ‘matter’. Strongly influenced by Neoplatonism, the 17th century philosopher-scientists conceived of matter as passive and complete, therefore unchangeable, and with no metaphysical powers of internal action or motion.
Renaissance Science: Rejection of Aristotelianism
This notion of matter as substance denied entirely the Aristotelian conceptions of substance (ousia) as self-subsistent and self-moving being, as well as his concept of matter (hyle) as the embodiment of potentiality and dependent of the causal principle of form (eidos) for its ontological realization. Most importantly, Aristotle’s concept of hyle did not represent the universal substance of all being nor the substance to which all being was reducible. Rather hyle was an abstract principle that identified that all being must manifest some substance realized in some form. Thus Aristotle did not commit the error of asserting a priori that all of being must be reducible to any particular, universal substance, such as matter or soul, but argued on the contrary that what constitutes the matter of a particular being or class of beings is entirely a scientific question, and furthermore, that the nature of a specific kind of substance defined the subject matter for a given science. Thus the science of life (biology) would be the formal investigation of the principles and laws of living substances.
Materialist Reductionism: Anti-Aristotelian
The modern radical doctrine of materialist reductionism would be entirely rejected by Aristotle as unscientific and a victim of a priori injection into the world of being of the idea of a universal substance as the basis of all being. Aristotle would agree, were he alive today, that the elements each constitute a unique substance and that they can interact with one another to form either simple mixtures in which the separate elements retain their ontological identity, or compounds in which the elements combine to create new substances in which the separate elements lose their ontological identity (separateness, independence).
Renaissance Science: The Continuum of Matter
Matter was defined by 17th century science simply as that which has extension (in its very essence continuous extension in space) and which lacks all metaphysical powers of internal action or motion (has no intrinsic kinêsis). This idea of matter was conceived as a complete, passive, internally changeless, extended, geometrically continuous substance. What can we make of this concept of matter as an extended continuum? Descartes called this continuous geometrical extendedness res extensa, ‘the extended being’, and contrasted it with ‘thinking being’ (mind) which he called res cogitans, which though it exists, exists without extendedness and without the power to move or be moved by res extensa. Descartes held that this extended continuum was infinite, by virtue of the fact that its essence was held to be purely mathematical, and since all mathematical objects are capable of infinite extension in all dimensions, res extensa must be equally infinite.
Renaissance Philosophy: Descartes Mathematical Primacy of res
Initially, Descartes resisted the popular notion that all that was extended was matter. For him, as essentially a mathematician, the essence of res extensa was the mathematical. Thus mathematics (analytic geometry in particular) was the key to the understanding and study of this extended being. But Descartes realized that mathematics itself could only be grasped and applied by the mind, res cogitans. He therefore considered res cogitans as also essentially mathematical in its cognitive capacity, i.e. in that res cogitans was able to grasp and apprehend the mathematical nature of res extensa. Without the capacity of mind to grasp this idea of res extensa as essentially mathematical, there could be no science of the extended external world. Thus mathematics, in this Cartesian view, was necessarily common to both res extensa and res cogitans, though their dualistic ontology was still asserted as fundamental.
Renaissance Philosophy: Spinoza Rejects Cartesian Dualism
Spinoza, seeking a unified approach to all of existence, rejected ontological dualism as conceived by Descartes, and then went on to extend Descartes mathematical argument such as to advance the doctrine that mathematics transcended and therefore unified all of being. Thus Spinoza’s doctrine was a form of monism. But this monism came at the expense of failing to identify or truly solve the ontological distinctions between matter and mind. In this sense, Spinoza’s doctrine may be characterized as a strictly rationalistic, not a scientific, monism. (We will return to Spinoza’s important monistic doctrine of the mathematical nature of all forms of fundamental existence in later pages in bioperipatetic.)
But characterizing res extensa as infinite in its extent raised the difficult problem, known to all students of Aristotle, namely that infinity, according to Aristotle’s deeply reasoned analysis, cannot exist in any form of actuality, it is a concept that applies only to the potentiality of a being or existent (or of a method or process). If res extensa is to apply to the physical world, and not merely to the mathematical abstractions of geometry, then it cannot be infinite.
Most of Descartes’ contemporaries insisted that matter itself must exist in the form of irreducible, geometrically varying elements which they called ‘atoms’ (from the Greek thinkers Democritus and Leucippus, who were the first of the ancient greeks to postulate atoms as the ultimate ‘stuff’ of the world). It is from these early atomists that the 17th century scientists got their ideas about simple, undividable, changeless, impenetrable atoms, moving through the void, and subject to external motion through interactive bombardment.
Leucippus and Democritus are widely regarded as the first atomists in the Greek tradition. … These ancient atomists theorized that the two fundamental and oppositely characterized constituents of the natural world are indivisible bodies—atoms—and void. The latter is described simply as nothing, or the negation of body. Atoms are by their nature intrinsically unchangeable; they can only move about in the void and combine into different clusters. Since the atoms are separated by void, they cannot fuse, but must rather bounce off one another when they collide. – from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ancient Atomism
Motion and the Void
The 17th century concept of matter is that of a unified substance that has no power of internal motion (or kinêsis). Yet motion clearly exists and therefore must be entirely external in its relationship to matter. Matter then, in this view, is moveable, but cannot initiate motion. From whence comes this external motion? How can there be motion in a continuous extendedness, Descartes’ (res extensa) ? The ancient Greeks simply posited continuous external motion to atoms as an axiomatic given. Newton argued in a similar manner that motion was simply given to matter by God, for it is inconceivable that motion can have matter (an unchangeable, passive, inert ‘stuff’) as its origin. (Leibniz rejected this argument of Newton as manifesting the fallacy of deus ex machina.) Descartes (as did Aristotle before him) rejected the notion of atomism, since it entailed the concept of the void, which Descartes denied, arguing that the res extensa was a plenum (a fullness without emptiness or void). Aristotle also denied atomism and the void arguing that the false concept of the void is the consequence of failing to grasp the proper concept of space.
Aristotle’s cosmos was a plenum, and his basic concepts of space and place ruled out a vacuum, whether on a small or large scale. In Physics and other of his works, he launched an impressive number of objections against void space, which he defined as a place devoid of body, but capable of receiving it. Almost all of his arguments were thought experiments, or of the reductio ad absurdum type where the assumption of a vacuum was shown to lead to absurd conclusions. For example, by its very nature empty space is completely homogeneous and for this reason admits no difference. Every part of it is identical to every other part, and so there can be no spatial orientation in a void and no measurement of distance either. from Empty space or ethereal plenum? Early ideas from Aristotle to Einstein , Helge Kragh, June, 2013.
Descartes needed to accept the fact that res extensa must consist of multiple individual entities, each somehow separated from one another. He provided for this separation through an ingenious idea that it is their motion itself that separates elements or objects as the ‘flow’ around in the plenum of res extensa. Their flow patterns define their geometric and temporal boundaries. Thus Descartes through his usual unconventional ingenuity accommodated objects in his otherwise continuous res extensa.
Motion and Change
The hylozoism of Thales (and his followers), held ‘matter as eo ipso moving and on that account animated’ (quoted from W. Windelband, History of Ancient Philosophy). Thus, the hylozoics held that change, as motion, is inherent in the very being of matter. To be matter is to be in motion, and by implication to be in a state of change, at all times.
Heraclitus (like Thales, a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher) believe that all was change, that ‘one cannot step into the same stream twice.’ Does not the stream flow continually and is it not so that at any pair of successive moments, the same water will have disappeared and moved on at any location in that stream. Is it not also true that no two samples of water taken at the same time are the same nor is a given sample the same at the next moment. Thus there is no identity of being either successively or simultaneously. Thus the idea that the world contains constant unchangeable being and identity is an illusion that deceives us and is not the real.
Heracleitus found nothing permanent in the perceptual world, and he gave up search for it. In the most varied phrase he present the fundamental truth of the continuous transmutation of all things into one another. From every realm of life he sized examples, in order to point out the passage of opposites into each other. He described in bold figures the ceaselessness of change, which was to him the essence of the world, and deeded no derivation and explanation. There are no truly existing things, but all things only become and pass away again in the play of perpetual world-movement….This thought is stated by Heracleitus by no means with conceptual clearness, but in sensuous pictures. from History of Ancient Philosophy, Dover Publications, 1956, p. 52.
Parmenides, also a Pre-Socratic, took the precise opposite position. Granting Heraclitus’ position Parmenades argued that change contradicts identity. To be is to be unchangeably what it is, it is to be constant. To change is to cause the being of a thing to go out of existence. Thus, for Parmenides changelessness is the essence of being and change is an illusion that deceives us and is not the real. For Parmenides, the source of the illusion is our senses, which present us with continually changing patterns that we take to be the real. But our senses are blind to the conceptual grasp of the singularity of existence, for all is one, unchanging, without origin, eternal, and indestructible. Windelband presents the Parmenidean doctrine as follows:
Being is unoriginated and imperishable. It was not and will not be, but only is in timeless eternity. For time, wherein perhaps any thing that is, first was and suffered change, is in no wise different from a thing that is. Being is also unchangeable, entirely homogeneous and unitary in quality. It is also not plural, but is the unique, indivisible, absolute cosmic Being. All plurality, all qualitative difference, all origination, all change or destruction are shut out by true Being. In this respect Parmenides has constructed the concept in perfect clearness and sharpness. – from History of Ancient Philosophy Dover Publications, 1956, pp. 60-61
It can be seen from his doctrines of the changelessness of true Being and his doctrine that change is an illusion caused by the senses, that Parmenides strongly anticipated Plato’s doctrines of the realm of Forms as the realm of the Real, and the realm of the perceived world, as ‘the myths of the caves’. Heraclitus’ appeal to the senses through sensual arguments would be taken by Plato of the proof of Plato’s doctrine of ‘the myth of the caves,’ the continuously changing shadows of illusions blinding man from the unchanging real which he cannot turn to see, but can only grasp with the intellect.
For the new science of the 17th century, change was real but existed in only one form, namely motion, change in position or orientation. All motion was thus declared as external to matter, which was itself internally complete and passive, and thus incapable of internally initiated, self-generated, or controlled motion. Here we see the influence of Parmenides as his doctrines were subtly incorporated into the doctrines of Plato and refined by the Neoplatonism, which dominated the Renaissance program of the ‘New Science.’
Aristotle’s Concepts of Potentiality and Actuality
For Aristotle, all being by its very nature required continuous motion, especially the motion of self-actualization and self-persistence. Aristotle’s resolution of the clash between the Parmenidean vs Heraclitian view of being was based on his ideas of essence, potentiality and actuality. Aristotle viewed the essence of a substantial being as the invariant center of change, where change (in all of its modes) was conceived as actualization of a being’s potentialities.
For Aristotle, being is always active. Aristotle recognized several modes of change: change in size or shape (morphological change), change in locus (locomotion), change in properties or qualities (qualitative change), and, underlying all of these, a being’s change from that which is potential to that which is actual. Thus, Aristotle defined change as ‘the actualization of a potentiality in so far as it remains potentiality.’ This seminal idea of change as a passing from a state of potentiality to one of actuality is entirely original with and unique to Aristotle’s Philosophy of physis (the natural world). In the end Aristotle’s doctrine of potentiality came to influence modern theories of the ontology of quantum physics.
Causality: External and Internal
For the new 17th century science, all causality was the result of the motions of bodies impacting with one another. Since all motions are external to bodies, and since all bodies are passive and have no principle of inner action (so self-generated action), all causality must consist entirely of impact-to-impact motion transfers between mutually external bodies. There was one important exception to this rule, and that was the concept of force acting at a distance (i.e. non-locally). The only such recognized force of this nature was that of universal gravity, first conceived by Isaac Newton. But gravitational attraction, Newton realized, could not be accounted for merely in terms of passive, unchangeable matter. Thus gravitation was taken as a metaphysical given created and maintained by God. All causes for the new scientists were motions giving rise to other motions, thus all cause was efficient cause, the action (corpuscular motion) that preceded the subsequent action and of which it is the cause.
For Aristotle, by contrast, all change consists of (can be understood with respect to) multiple aspects of substantial being. There is the matter itself (hyle), the material cause, which can only only actually exist in some form (arrangement of its potentialities qua mater), that is the formal cause, which has acted on the world by virtue of its active nature (as an agent) in a given way in a given context, which is the efficient cause, characteristically (based on its nature as that particular form of being) realizing a new resultant state, which is the final cause. This view of the four causes is most eloquently summarized by Henry Veatch:
“Such, then, is the Aristotelian doctrine of the four causes. In fact, it amounts to very little more than an exfoliation and explication of our common-sense conviction that any change must be the change of something (material cause) from something (privation) to something else (formal cause), the change being necessarily effected by some agent (efficient cause) whose action may be presumed to be of a characteristic sort and productive of a characteristic result (final cause).” – Henry B. Veatch from Aristotle: A contemporary Appreciation, Indiana University Press, 1974 p. 49.
Body and Soul: Cartesian Dualism
Faithfully following the doctrines of Plotinian Neoplatonism (as contrasted with Augustinian Christian Neoplatonism) the 17th Century scientists embraced Cartesian dualism, dividing the universe into two mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive classes of substances or being, res extensa (the extended being or substance, ultimately designating the 17th century idea of matter or body), and res cogitans (the thinking being or substance, ultimately designating the 17th century idea of soul or mind).
The Cartesian ontology of res extensa ultimately set the mathematical foundation for science, whose total focus was to be that of the quantification and quantitative analysis and investigation of matter (which was, to repeat, for Descartes conceptually equivalent to res extensa).
Remembering that Cartesian dualism differed from that of Platonic dualism, in that, Descartes rejected Plato’s idea that mind was the principle responsible for the control and orchestration of the body. Since mind and body were of incompatible non-interactive substances (res cogitans and res extensa respectively) mind could not control nor be responsible for the control of the body. To explain bodily control, it was necessary for Descartes to conceive the control of the body as being based on the idea of body as a machine (the beginning of mechanistic materialism and mechanistic reductionism that survives to this day in 21st century science).
For Descartes, all change was mechanical, ultimately body acting upon body by contact via pushing of one extended body against another. The basic laws of the lever, and its derivatives, the wheel and the pulley. All action then consisted of pushes and pulls under the influence of springs, levers, wheels, and threads (fibers). All of these ideas of motion were compatible with his primitive notion of res extensa, the extended stuff. It was differential motion that defined separate bodies within the extended stuff of physical being. Thus all explanation (actually hypothesis and rationalist theory) was to be based on mechanical reductionism. Cartesian mechanistic reductionism was the rationale (a priori assumption) that all being, animate or inanimate, must consist of complexes of simple mechanical parts. This hypothesis (accepted as clear and certain truth) was applied by Descartes to actions of animals. Essentially reducible to fluid mechanics added to the classical mechanics enumerated above. The brain was the source of active fluids, called animal spirits, which activated the muscles through mechanical forces that resulted in the inflation and contraction of muscles to effect motions of the limbs and thereby locomotion. This was the primitive beginning of reflex theory.
In order to comprehend Descartes’ conception of neuro-muscular coordination, it is necessary to understand his theory of bodily automatism. Essentially, this theory holds that all motions of animals and man are dependent on the operation of bodily structures. The body acts as a machine and its motions are explicable in terms of the laws which govern all physical machines. – from Reflex Action: A Study in the History of Physiological Psychology by Franklin Fearing, Ph.D. Halfner Publishing Co., New York, 1964, p. 20.
Thus, Descartes was the first scientist to postulate the existence of machine-like reflexes, including the reflex arc consisting of stimulus inputs and motor outputs all interconnected through the nervous system. Nerves, filled with fluids, responded to incoming stimuli from the environment, causing the nervous fluids to activate outgoing mechanical effects on the muscular system. Aware of the need for coordination of flexion and extension throughout the neuro-muscular system, Descartes (the penultimate rationalist, unfazed by the absence of evidence) argued for a strictly mechanical model of muscular coordination.
The problem of simultaneous relaxation and contraction of antagonistic muscles, e.g., the coordination of the internal and external recti which turn the eyeball, was explained by assuming the existence of valved channels between the opposing muscles through which the animal spirits were conducted from one to the other. These valves were so arranged that, for example, the inflation of muscle a made impossible the inflation of muscle b and at the same time permitted the sprits of muscle b to flow intop muscle a. – Reflex Action, p. 24.
In Descartes view, this was all the there was underlying animal behavior, which was entirely mechanical and, like all machines, lacked the principle of consciousness. Yet Descartes carefully avoided any such attribution to man’s soul, lest he be subject to censure (and possible persecution) by the Church for denying the sacred soul and its moral primacy and control over the flesh. For Descartes, unwilling to attribute awareness to animals, who had not need of it, only humans possessed consciousness, a manifestation of the soul. Fearing explains that for Descartes:
Consciousness appeared when a beneficent Deity equipped man with a soul which could modify bodily action only through the agency of the animal spirits. – Reflex Action, p. 24.
For details of Descartes idea of the reflex and how it came to dominate psychology unto and including the 20th century, see Fearing’s Reflex Action. Thus all of human action (though not human thought or moral judgement) was reducible to mechanical motions of matter, res extensa.
As for the relationship between res extensa, Descartes held that to the extent that res cogitans is relevant to science, this relevance lies exclusively in its power to grasp the geometric, mathematical nature of the universe, i.e., to grasp, conceptualize and ultimately intellectualize and reify as mathematics itself, the essence of res extensa .
Neoplatonic Ontology of the New Science
Thus emerged the radical and doctrinaire Neoplatonic ontology of the new science of the seventeenth century, a science whose dualist essence and rationale were never abandoned but whose concepts were almost entirely rejected and redefined by modern science. Even in his own day, the Cartesian concept of res extensa was (as we have shown above) challenged by the doctrines of atomism, and soon challenged as well by the Newtonian concept of universal gravitation as inherent in matter as such. Yet even these concepts were formulated as elementary and irreducible. Thus atoms were characterized as impenetrable and indestructible and gravity as a universal irreducible principle which could not be itself accounted for by the simple concept of matter, in its passive form, and was therefore by necessity attributed to God, the creator of all matter.
It is essential that we understand that Descartes’ ontology, his ontological dualism, was an expression of the new scientific spirit of his time to simplify the universe into a minimal set of substances, themselves simple in nature and easily amenable to mathematical treatment. Thus, for the simple nature of matter (or res extensa), it must be imbued with the absolute minimal and necessary features that would not, in themselves, lead to further complex philosophical disputation. Hence its simple nature of mere extendedness, its absence of the power of self-initiated or self-generated or intrinsic motion, its passivity, its receptivity to motion but not a generator of motion. Such a simple substance was what the new scientists of Descartes’ age aimed at. It was undoubtedly an a priori metaphysics subtlety embodying a justification for prior certainty of the essentially mathematical essence of all of existence. Even the concept of res cogitans was exhausted by the mere concept of pure thought, and like matter, incapable of creating motion of the body, in that body was but an instance of res extensa.
Body and Soul: Aristotelian Monism
In sharp contrast with the dualist tradition of Plato and Descartes, Aristotle was a resounding monist, holding that body and soul are not two separate substances but one unified substance where the soul (or psychic being) was the form of the special kind of matter the body (not a stuff but a principle of hyle, a potentiality which is subject to actualization) as the human being, the human life form, the human organism.
By contrast, modern monism, is radically different than that of Aristotle with his mind-soul integration, but holds instead that ultimately only one substance exists, namely matter, and that mind is simply a manifestation of the brain, itself fully material in its nature.
Aristotelian Substance Hierarchies
Aristotle held that substances could contain and be composed from other substances without being reducible to those substances, but rather retain their own nature and laws characterizing them as higher order substances, such as that of a living organism. In his History of Animals, Aristotle also viewed living beings in terms of “a hierarchy of teleological connections” (see Aristotle’s Biology in Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy onLine).
[One] activity is present for the sake of another more basic one; a part that performs a subordinate activity is present for the sake of a part that performs a more important activity. Inhaling and exhaling are for the sake of respiration (which is for the sake of cooling the blood); a wind pipe is present for the sake of transporting air to and from the lung; a neck is present to protect the windpipe. –from Aristotle’s Biology
Hierarchies in Emergence Theory
This concept of hierarchies was fundamental to Aristotle and is also fundamental to the theory of emergence, which is rapidly evolving in modern science as a crucial solution to the false dualism of atomism and holism. Emergence shares Aristotle’s view that laws are hierarchical because the ontology of being is hierarchical. I believe that were Aristotle alive today, he would agree that consciousness is an emergent higher order principle accounting for man’s form of being, man’s substance, as an ensouled body. (For an more detailed discussion of life as an emergent hierarchy, see the bioperipatetic paper entitled Emergence of Life.)
Rejection of Emergence and Hierarchy by Modern Science
Modern classical science holds that materialist reductionism is the sole valid approach to understanding the universe at all levels and across all scientific disciplines. It holds as well that hierarchies and emergence are at best pure conceptual abstractions and lack any ontological reality. Thus modern monism is fully equivalent to and a faithful expression of materialist reductionism.
Water: A Thomistic Approach to Emergence and Causal Powers
When astronomers look for life in the universe, the key compound that they look for is water. Why? Because water, the sine qua non of life itself. It is therefore important to investigate the nature of water, especially with respect to its causal powers, if we are to deeply understand the nature of both emergence itself and of life as an emergent phenomenon. The emergent nature of water is studied from a Thomistic Aristotelian perspective in the important paper, Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics, by Eleonore Stump published as , Chapter 3 in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, Edited by Ruth Groff, and John Greco, Routledge, New York, 2013.
In her paper, Eleonore Stump recommends the book, Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy by Sandra D. Mitchell. Discussing Mitchell, Stump writes:
In her own recent attempt to explain the nature of emergence, Sandra Mitchell says, “there are both faulty assumptions and an impoverished conceptual framework that prevents the character of emergent properties referenced by science to be adequately represented in some forms of philosophical analysis.” – Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics – from Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics, Chapter 3 in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy pp. 48-49
Stump positions the medieval account exemplified most clearly by the ontological views of Thomas Aquinas. Stump asserts:
In my view, the medieval account illuminates a position that has not yet been sufficiently explored in the contemporary discussion but that is worth taking seriously as regards emergence. – from Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics, Chapter 3 in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy p. 49.
Stump deeply elaborates Aquinas’s idea of causal powers imposed on the whole by the virtue of the whole’s substantive form. On this point, Stump writes:
On Aquinas’s view, the substantial for of a whole confers causal powers on the whole. The operations and functions of a substance derive from the substantial form configuring the whole. Furthermore as we increase complexity in systems, even systems of inanimate things, properties arise that are properties of the whole system but not properties of the material parts of the system. – from Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics, Chapter 3 in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy p. 53.
The importance of Aquinas’s views on causal powers of the whole, is such that they ‘dominates corporal matter’ rather than being ‘submerged in it.’ Quoting Aquinas:
And so we see that the form of a mixed body has a certain operation which is not caused from the qualities of the elements [of which the body is composed]. Emphasis by Stump. – from Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics, Chapter 3 in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy p. 53.
Stump contrasts favorably Aquinas’s views on causal powers against those of non-reductive physicalism, as held by Timothy O’Conner and John Ross Churchill in their paper ‘Is non-reductive Physicalism Viable Within a Causal Powers Metaphysics’, and contrasts as well the concept of weak emergence advocated by Mark Bedau in his paper ‘Downward Causation and Weak Emergence’.
In brilliant detail, Stump presents the case of the water molecule as manifesting emergent causal powers by virtue of its dynamic atomic configuration, hydrogen (covalent) bonding, electron sharing and resulting electrical polarization, which give the whole of the water molecule its global properties.
These include its strong surface tension, its hydrophobic effect (that is, its ability to exclude non-polar compounds), and its ability to act as a solvent for other substances. Hydrogen bonds are responsible for these anomalous properties of water. And the structure of a water molecule makes hydrogen bonds possible. – from Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics, in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy, p. 55.
After her excellent analysis of the causal powers of water molecules, Stump concludes with the following remarks:
Consequently, the Thomistic view that I have illustrated with the systems-level properties of a water molecule apply also to the systems-level properties, such as mental properties, of a human being. The systems-level properties are not ontologically basic; they are realized in the lower-level properties of the components of the system. Nonetheless, they emerge at the level of the whole system, and they are or confer causal power on the system as a whole. – from Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics, in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy, p. 65
As a final comment, Stump emphasises distinctive nature of the Thomistic metaphysics regarding the emergence of causal powers of composite substances:
It is the highlighting of the role of the form or configuration of a whole that gives Aquinas’s metaphysics of material objects its distinctive character. In my view, the emphasis on form is a position worth taking seriously. – from Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics, in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy, p. 65
After reading Stump’s paper, I wrote the following personal notes:
Consider: Configuration as the dynamic state of an active process:
- Configuration of the whole is a power of the whole as it emerges from the global internal forces of its matter.
- Thus the atoms of water are moved into their respective positions in response to internal repulsion, covalent bonding, as well as emergent external electrical forces acting on the emerging molecule.
- Under conditions of adequate concentration at normal earth surface temperature as a liquid substance in which adhere the emergent properties of water in its liquid form, e.g.
- creation of a concave meniscus when in contact with a solid container
- the power to act as a solvent
- the power to exhibit buoyancy, where
- the buoyed object, when it floats, displaces a quantity of water whose combined weight equals that of the buoyed object
- the buoyant force acting on a submerged object equals that of the weight of the object. Thank you Archimedes!
- In its solid form, water displays crystalline properties which we see in common ice formations and in the beauty of snow flakes.
- In its gaseous form water displays itself as steam, mist, or as fog or condensation back to its liquid form.
All of these are emergent properties and powers of water molecules in concentrated form.
This paper has been significantly informed by the brilliant writings of Ivor Leclerc, in particular, of his many publications, his two key works: The Nature of Physical Existence, and The Philosophy of Nature. Contemporary philosophy of science has a tremendous challenge to be addressed: reformulating the philosophy of science by fully reevaluating and reformulating the fundamental problems of modern science itself that has led to its current philosophical crisis:
Philosophy is being faced in our time with the necessity for a more thoroughgoing rethinking of the fundamental philosophical problems, concepts,, and categories throughout its entire range, than philosophy has undertaken since the time of Plato and Aristotle. This rethinking will affect science no less deeply than it will philosophy itself. And the consequences for human life will be no less great than were those of the new science and philosophy of the seventeenth century. – Ivor Leclerc, from The Philosophy of Nature , p. 208
The chief roadblock to reformulating the philosophy of nature is the continued profound influence of Neoplatonism, especially its substance dualism resting essentially on a subjectivist base.
Now this task which philosophy is required to undertake demands a profound change in contemporary philosophy, not only in respect to subject matter but also in respect of fundamental theory. For the philosophy of nature entails that nature of the physical be in itself the object of philosophical inquiry and this it is unable to be on the Neoplatonic subjetivistic basis. This inquiry, in other words, can be undertaken only on an essentially Aristotelian basis. – Ivor Leclerc, from The Philosophy of Nature , p. 207
Aristotle was the first advocate of ontological realism in the history of Western philosophy. His insights into and formulation of the questions that need to be addressed in formulating a philosophy of nature, are profound and invaluable in today’s struggles to create a new philosophy of science and philosophy of nature.
In Greek times Aristotle had brought philosophy back to a necessary concentration upon physis, nature, as the object of philosophical inquiry. The profundity of Aristotelian insights into the philosophical issues involved are unsurpassed. We need today to come back to this source, more particularly in respect of the fundamental issues and problems. – Ivor Leclerc, fromThe Philosophy of Nature, p. 208
References (in order of citation):
- Ivor Leclerc, The Nature of Physical Existence, (Muirhead Library of Philosophy) Hardcover – August 3, 1972.
- Ivor Leclerc, The Philosophy of Nature, Catholic University of America Press, 1986.
- David Roochink, Retrieving Aristotle in an Age of Crisis. State University of New York Press, 2013.
- Howard Robinson, Substance in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, First published Sun Oct 3, 2004; substantive revision Mon Feb 3, 2014.
- Sylvia Berryman, Ancient Atomism, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, First published Tue Aug 23, 2005; substantive revision Fri Nov 18, 2011.
- Helge Kragh, Empty space or ethereal plenum? Early ideas from Aristotle to Einstein, June, 2013.
- Henry B. Veatch from Aristotle: A contemporary Appreciation, Indiana University Press, 1974.
- Franklin Fearing, Ph.D., Reflex Action: A Study in the History of Physiological Psychology, Halfner Publishing Co., New York, 1964.
- James Lennox, Aristotle’s Biology in Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, First published Wed Feb 15, 2006; substantive revision Wed Jul 27, 2011.
- Bioperipatetic, Emergence of Life, Published on July 20, 2014 @ 7:41 pm, Latest Update: March 17, 2015.
- Ruth Groff, and John Greco, Eds., Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, Routledge, New York, 2013.
Below is a non-exhaustive chronological list of some of the important books, dating from the early twentieth century to the current decade, representing an intense revival of interest in Aristotelian philosophy and its applicability to modern philosophy of science:
- An Introduction to Logic, Second Edition, Revised, H. W. B Joseph, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1916.
- Logic as a Human Instrument, Francis H. Parker and Henry B. Veatch, Harper, NY, 1959.
- A Portrait of Aristotle, Marjorie Grene, Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1963.
- Two Logics: The Conflict between Classical and Neo-Analytic Philosophy, Henry B. Veatch, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1969
- The Nature of Physical Existence, Ivor Leclerc, Humanities Press, New York, 1972.
- Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation, Henry B. Veatch, Indiana University Press, 1974.
- Aristotle An Encounter, W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Volume VI, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- Aristotle on Nature and Living Things: Philosophical and Historical Studies, Edited by Allan Gotthelf, Mathesis Publications, Inc. Pittsburgh, PA, 1985.
- The Philosophy of Nature: Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, v. 14, Ivor Leclerc, The Catholic University of America Press, 1986.
- Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology, Edited by Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1987.
- Substance, Form and Psyche: An Aristotelean Metaphysics, Montgomery Furth, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1988.
- Substance and Essence in Aristotle: An Interpretation of Metaphysics VII-IX, Charlotte Witt, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1989.
- Aristotle on Substance: The Paradox of Unity, Mary Louise Gill, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1989.
- Aristotle’s Psychology, Daniel N. Robinson, Columbia University Press, New York, 1989.
- Ethics with Aristotle, Sarah Broadie, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991
- The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis, William A. Wallace, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, d.D., 1996.
- Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science, James G. Lennox, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- The Soul and Its Instrumental Body: A Reinterpretation of Aristotle’s Philosophy of Living Nature (Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History), Abraham P. Bos, Brill, Boston, 2003.
- Real Essentialism, David S. Orderberg, Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy, Routledge, New York, 2007.
- Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, Edited by Ruth Groff, and John Greco rout ledge, New York, 2013.
- Retrieving Aristotle in an Age of Crisis, David Roochnik, SUNY series in Ancient Greek Philosophy, ISBN13: 978-1-4384-4519-9, 2013.
- The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science, Armand Marie Leroi, Viking Penguin Group, New York, 2014.
Some Important Papers on Aristotle’s Metaphysics:
- How Aristotelian is Contemporary Dispositionalist Metaphysics?: A Tale of Two Distinctions, Errin D. Clark, Saint Louis University, in Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Dispositions, Habits and Virtues, Pages 85-99, Volume 88, 2014.
Abstract: “Exciting and important work on the metaphysics of causal powers and dispositions is currently under way. Much of it has been branded as a return to Aristotelian metaphysics, since it seems to put agents and their actions back as ultimate principles of reality. Philosophers involved in this work often speak of a ‘categorical—dispositional’ distinction. And sometimes it is suggested that the distinction is, or is similar to, Aristotle’s distinction between act and potency. The aim of this paper is to assess the legitimacy of that suggestion by explicating both distinctions. I argue that even in the recent ‘neo-Aristotelian’ accounts of dispositions a certain idea that lies at the heart of Aristotle’s metaphysics of act and potency is largely absent. This situation is unfortunate, for Aristotle’s idea suggests a surprising relationship between being and power and it flips a certain assumption, still made by many metaphysicians, on its head.” – Errin D. Clark.
New Aristotelianism versus Nonreductionist Physicalism Mariusz Tabaczek, O.P. Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA , Agency and (Quantum) Physics Innsbruck, Austria March 30, 2015.
Abstract: “Many proponents of methodological nonreductionism in contemporary science find the notion of downward causation (DC) a sine qua non of the strong (ontological) version of emergence (EM), which strives to give an account of the irreducible character of the complex levels of the organization of matter. But what for many is the essence of nonreductionist physicalism, carries with it quite a bevy of problematic issues, and becomes a stumbling block and an obstacle for those, who acknowledge the metaphysical and logical inconsistencies of the emergent theory based on the idea of DC. For how can physicalism be non-reductionist? How can DC be reconciled with the causal closure of physics? What do “higher” and “lower” levels refer to? What is causal in DC? What is being caused (acted upon)? What is the very nature of DC?
I will argue that the defense of DC requires from us a broader notion of causation, which goes beyond the efficient causes accepted and described in modern science. I want to argue in favor of the retrieval of formal causation in particular. Its acceptance not only makes EM and DC plausible, but also helps to overcome and replace Humean causation of events with the causation of living and non-living beings, explained in terms of their causal powers and dispositions. I hope to show, in the course of my presentation, that true non-reductionism needs to be philosophically grounded. Yet it can still remain compatible with science provided it values and is open to the reflection offered by philosophy of nature. My position follows new Aristotelianism developed within the analytic tradition, although an explicit reintroduction of formal cause goes beyond it to the original thought of Aristotle.” – Mariusz Tabaczek
- Substance and Essence in Aristotle: An Interpretation of Metaphysics VII-IX, Charlotte Witt, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1989.
Abstract: “Arguing against the received interpretation, according to which essences are classificatory, she maintains that a substance’s essence is what causes it to exist. In addition, Witt challenges the orthodox view that Aristotelian essences are species-essences, defending instead the controversial position that they are individual essences. Finally, Witt compares Aristotelian essentialism to contemporary essentialist theories, focusing in particular on Saul Kripke’s work.” – from the book’s blurb on the back page of the paperback edition.
Fall and Rise of Aristotelian Metaphysics in the Philosophy of Science, John Lamont, Published online: 11 October 2007, Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007.
Abstract: “The paper examines the fortunes of Aristotelian metaphysics in science and the philosophy of science. It considers the Enlightenment claim that such a metaphysics is fundamentally unscientific, and that its abandonment was essential to the scientific revolution. The history of the scientific revolution and the metaphysical debates involved in it is examined, and it is argued that the eclipse of Aristotelian views was neither complete, nor merited. The evolution of Humeian and positivist accounts of science is described, and it is shown how the severe problems with these accounts, together with a revival of Aristotelian concepts in philosophy, have led to the rebirth of broadly Aristotelian accounts of the metaphysics underlying science.” – John Lamont
Copyright © 2014 by bioperipatetic.
Published on: May 1, 2014 @ 10:23
Latest Revision: July 30, 2017 @ 6:53 pm