Natural Science vs The Philosophy Of Nature – Edward Feser

October 16, 2012

Two Adirondack chairs sit vacant on a dock along the misty shore of the Androscoggin River in Turner, Maine. Alright, it has nothing to do with hylomorphism, the philososophy of nature or the natural sciences but I have identified a good place to go and think about them. Bring a friend, there are two chairs.

This was a response that Ed Feser had on his website and highlighted a difference that many atheists tend to blow by in their assumptions of how the world works. Let me reblog it here:


A-T (Aristotelian/Thomist) philosophers usually distinguish between natural science on the one hand and the philosophy of nature on the other. Philosophy of nature is essentially concerned with general metaphysical questions about how it is possible for there to be an empirical world of the sort we experience in the first place. Its results are held to be necessary rather than contingent. Natural science is concerned instead with the details of how the actual world happens to work. It’s results are contingent, at least in one sense. (I’ll explain that qualification in a moment.)

So, for example, the Aristotelian theory of act and potency is a paradigm example of philosophy of nature. Its aim is to explain what makes it possible for there to be a world of changing things at all, contra the claims of philosophers like Parmenides and Zeno. Whatever substances happen to exist in the empirical world — that is to say, whatever the scientific facts turn out to be — they will all be composites of act and potency. That is a presupposition of there being any empirical world for scientists to study in the first place. So, it is not the sort of thing that could meaningfully be refuted by empirical science; it is subject only to philosophical analysis and criticism.

The periodic table of elements, by contrast, is a finding of natural science, and tells us how the actual world happens to be. But it could have been different; the elements could have been other than the ones we find are correctly described by the table. So we need to rely on careful empirical investigation to confirm it, unlike the theory of act and potency, which is so general that it would apply to any empirical evidence in the first place, whatever it turns out to be.

(The promised digression: To be sure, there is a sense in which A-T regards the laws of nature as necessary. But what that means is that “laws of nature” are taken by A-T to be shorthand for the ways things will tend to act given their essences, and this is not a contingent affair. Given that there is in fact such a thing as helium, there is no way even in principle for helium to have properties other than the ones it does have. Still, the world could have been such that no helium existed in the first place. End of digression.)

So, philosophy of nature is more fundamental than natural science and its business is to investigate the necessary presuppositions of natural science. Thus, questions in philosophy of nature and questions in natural science have to be kept carefully distinguished.

Now, the question of whether there are formal and final causes is not a question of empirical science, but rather a question of philosophy of nature. In fact, A-T holds that the form/matter composition of material objects is just an application of the general theory of act and potency to the analysis of concrete empirical substances. The empirical world has to be made up of hylemorphic (matter/form) compounds, on this view, at least at some level of description.

Natural science can certainly help us to determine what the formal causes of specific things are and which entities turn out to be true substances with true formal causes (e.g. a stone) and which merely accidental arrangements without true formal causes (e.g. a pile of stones, say, or an artifact). But whether there are any form/matter composites at all and thus whether there are any formal causes at all is not a question for natural science, but rather for philosophy of nature.

The dispute between A-T and a “mechanical” conception of the world, then, is at bottom a dispute in philosophy of nature rather than natural science. Hence, for example, atomism (a precursor to mechanism that Aristotle himself responded to) wants to deny that the ordinary objects of our experience are true substances, and thus to deny that they have formal causes. The atomist wants to say in effect that they are more like piles of stones than like stones — mere collections not united by any principle like substantial forms.

The A-T theorist will reply that even if this were correct, the atomist (or any mechanist of another stripe, for that matter) is going to have to arrive at something with a form/matter composition at the bottom level of material reality (the atoms, or whatever). Whatever the details turn out to be, hylemorphism [hylemorphism or hylomorphism (Greek ὑλο- hylo-, "wood, matter" + -morphism < Greek μορφή, morphē, "form") is a philosophical theory developed by Aristotle, which conceives substance as a compound of matter and form.] of some sort or other must be true, and this is something we know from philosophy of nature rather than natural science.

The only remaining question is whether we find true Aristotelian substances, true form/matter composites, at higher levels than the bottom level. But once we’ve admitted formal cause of some sort, the whole motivation of the mechanist view — to get rid of such causes entirely — goes out the window, and thus the pressure to get rid of formal causes wherever one can elsewhere in nature is removed.

So, to return finally to your question: When you ask whether there are examples of formal causes being useful, I would answer as follows. First, if by that you mean to imply that the question of whether any formal causes at all exist is a question of natural science, then that is a category mistake, because it is in fact a question in the philosophy of nature. And it is at that level that the A-T/mechanist dispute has to be resolved. Naturally, I would say that the A-T view is the correct one.

If on the other hand what you mean to ask is about whether formal cause — the reality of which at some level is taken for granted for philosophy of nature reasons — can be fruitfully applied in any more specific concrete cases in the natural sciences, then I would say “Yes, everywhere in the natural sciences, and there are lots of examples.” But arguing about that is probably pointless unless the more general philosophy of nature questions are settled first.

For example, in philosophy of chemistry, one finds writers like Scerri, Hendry, and van Brakel arguing against reductionism, and claiming that the chemical level of description cannot be either defined in terms of the physical level, or eliminated in favor of the physical level. For example, the periodic table cannot in the view of some of these writers be derived from quantum mechanics.

The A-T philosopher will say “Look, here we can see that formal causes exist even at the level of chemistry. That’s what the chemical level of description gives us, in effect — substances that cannot be reduced to their microlevel parts.” The mechanist will reply “No, no, we can give some sort of reductionist, or eliminativist, or supervenience-oriented account if only we work at it hard enough.”

Who is right? I would say the A-T philosopher is, but the debate clearly reflects certain background philosophical assumptions, and therefore it has to be settled at the philosophical level rather than the empirical one, even if empirical considerations play a role. And that is true of every example that could be offered — in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, wherever.

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