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Scholasticism and Quantum Mechanics: A Question for Readers

November 26, 2014

I have been listening to some online lectures about medieval theology, and am currently working through the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas as part of his proofs of the existence of God.  These are very much introductory lectures, so I don’t expect the lecturer to go into great detail or deal with subtleties.  However, as I listen to his examples and explanations, some possibly naive counter-examples from quantum mechanics come to mind.  For instance, discussing the principle that nothing can change without being affected externally, I immediately thought of the spontaneous decay of atoms and even of particles (e.g., so-called proton decay).

This might be a very naive question: my knowledge of quantum mechanics is rusty and probably out of date, and I know much, much less about scholastic metaphysics.  So can any of our readers point me to some useful references on this specific topic?  A scholarly article would be best (given my time constraints) but a book would work as well.

As a very partial payment, I include Calvin’s opinion on metaphysics:

reality(Image copyright 1992, Watterson.)

 

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65 Comments
    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      November 26, 2014 5:07 pm

      Both look very interesting, particularly the second. Thanks!

  1. November 27, 2014 1:18 pm

    My problem with the Scholastic view of matter is that substance and form, as understood by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, doesn’t seem to be reconcilable with atomic theory. Traditionally, substance, or substantial forms, deal with what a substance “really” is (e.g. wax or water), whereas the accidents or accidental forms (e.g. liquidity for melted wax or water, solidity for cool wax or ice, color added to the wax, etc.) are merely properties sort of riding along on top of substance, but not affecting the underlying reality of what something is.

    Without our current understanding of atomic theory, there isn’t really any difference between substantial and accidental forms. An element is what it is because of the number of protons in each atom (and to a lesser extent, the number of neutrons, which affects the behavior of certain isotopes). The number of protons determines the number of electrons; this determines the number of valence electrons; and these determine how the atoms combine with others to make compounds, what wavelengths of light they reflect (and thus color), and pretty much every other property except for mass. “Waxness”–presumably a substantial form–is as much determined by valence electrons (that’s why the constituent elements that make up a molecule of wax combine) as are things like color, smoothness, texture, solidity/liquidity/gaseousness depending on temperature, and so on, which are traditionally “accidental” forms.

    I guess one could argue that quarks are “prime matter” where their “flavor”, “color”, and fractional electrical charges are their substantial form; but I’m not sure what you gain from that.

    I’ve actually read Feser’s blog at times, and I’m convinced that his understanding of physics is really weak. In the linked article, for example, his argument seems to boil down to saying, “Just because we can’t find a cause for quantum phenomena doesn’t mean there isn’t one.” In one of his books, Mortimer Adler basically said the same thing. Thing is, Bell has shown that you can’t have local unknown variables in quantum events. Bohm’s interpretation would give you the possibility of unknown variables (thus taking out the random, seemingly acausal, aspect), but at the price of locality (in short, such variables would be global, and not tied to a specific location; so you lose any predictability, anyway).

    Feser says, ” Why do the electron transitions occur in just the pattern they do? Because that’s the sort of thing that happens in anything having the substantial form of a hydrogen atom, just as gravitational attraction is the sort of thing that naturally happens in anything having a substantial form of the sort typical of material objects.” But this is just a philosophical way of saying, “Quantum events happen because that’s just the way fundamental particles are.” Which is not an explanation, and not a cause! And as I said above, it’s not clear how there is such a thing as a “substantial form” of a hydrogen atom. The hydrogen atom is two up quarks and one down quark, held together by gluons, and the electron circling it is fundamental, also serving as the sole valence electron. Unless you want to call that pattern of lower-level particles a substantial form, there ain’t no such critter. And if you do let “pattern” be “substantial form”, you are, in my judgment, talking about something very much different from what Aristotle meant from “form”, substantial or otherwise–you might as well call the spelling of a word its “substantial form”. Finally, since part of what makes a hydrogen atom what it is (the electron, without which it’s just a loose positive ion) is also what makes it combine with other atoms, display certain properties, etc., there seems no real distinction between substantial and accidental forms, even if one allows a definition of “form” as “pattern”.

    I frankly don’t see how the Scholastic metaphysical view of matter can be reconciled with basic atomic theory, let alone quantum mechanics.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      November 27, 2014 1:33 pm

      Turmarion, yes, my reading of Feser seems to be that he is weak in physics. Unfortunately, the guy he is in critical dialogue with does not seem to understand philosophy, so the debate is going nowhere fast.

      Your concerns seem valid, but I am wary of agreeing with you completely because of my ignorance. The terms “substance” and “form” sometimes seem to be pointing towards material essence, and at other times to metaphysical properties. Aquinas was clearly moving away from Aristotle’s materialism, but I am not sure where he was going or trying to go.

      • November 27, 2014 1:59 pm

        The terms “substance” and “form” sometimes seem to be pointing towards material essence, and at other times to metaphysical properties.

        Well, yeah, that’s it in a nutshell. I’m not sure that anyone is exactly sure what Aristotle meant, since commenters I’ve read are all over the place on it; and from the parts of Aristotle I’ve read myself, sometimes he seems onto something, and sometimes I have to say I don’t know what he’s even talking about. I’m certainly not sure Aquinas’ interpretation is the same as what Aristotle meant; and though I wouldn’t expunge teleology altogether, I think that Aquinas, because of his religious commitments, tries to make teleology do more than it actually can–certainly, he takes it beyond what Aristotle intended, IMO.

        It is true that some of Feser’s interlocutors are rather ignorant about philosophy. The problem is that Feser is guilty of the same thing in reverse, i.e. plunging in and making all kinds of statements about something without really understanding what he’s talking about, and having an attitude that is–ahem, let’s just say, “less than humble”–about it.

        I have only the equivalent of a minor in physics, and while I’ve taught elementary, non-calculus based physics at the high school and college levels, I’ve never done research or gone to great depth, so I’m upfront that I’m not an expert. I know at least one guy on another blog I frequent who is an engineer and has a much more extensive background in physics than I do, and he’s much harsher on Feser than I am. In any case, I am very suspicious of Scholastic philosophy in its current form of dealing with modern physics; and I’m rather skeptical that it could be modified or reformed enough to take account of modern physics without being altered to the point of unrecognizability.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          November 29, 2014 9:46 am

          “I’m certainly not sure Aquinas’ interpretation is the same as what Aristotle meant”

          The lecture I am listening to argues that it is not, because Aquinas tackles a question that Aristotle ignored: why things exist. For Aristotle (again, from the lecture) matter was eternal, and so he glossed over the question of existence qua existence. Aquinas, with his religious commitment to creation, is led to ask the question of why things exist. I think this change in perspective would lead to a significant reinterpretation of the Aristotelian categories.

          In commentary on other posts (particularly on transubstantiation) others have made this point. I cannot find these discussions off-hand, and I remember not understanding the distinctions that were being drawn. But again, it seems to boil down to this question of the relationship between metaphysical categories and material reality.

          I must say that abstract mathematics is much easier: we start by writing down really careful definitions, and we tend to agree on them and hold ourselves to them. Philosophers seem to be a bit looser with their definitions: perhaps because they are trying to explain things in analogical terms.

        • November 29, 2014 11:43 am

          I know at least one guy on another blog I frequent who is an engineer and has a much more extensive background in physics than I do, and he’s much harsher on Feser than I am.

          There are also frequent commenters on Feser’s blog who are professional physicists, who are not ‘harsh’ on Feser in this way. One I know does active research in astrophysics, or was doing it a couple of years ago. ‘A couple of guys have such-and-such attitude to X’ tells us practically nothing about X. Usually it says more about what they’re bringing to the table than what they’re putting on it.

          I suspect mostly the issue ends up being naivete all around. The kinds of incompatibilities vaguely waved at here are the kinds of incompatibilities that, as a purely structural matter, can’t be rigorously established without a thorough grasp of the scholastic ideas, a solid understanding of the scientific accounts, and the resolution of a number of complicated problems in philosophy of physics. Since nobody actually has this under their belt, people are inevitably going to be stumbling around. The problem gets compounded through a failure to be careful about distinctions; scholastic terminology, as such, for instance, is not designed to explain but to establish what is required to explain. The levels are easy enough to distinguish, and it doesn’t even take much intelligence to see that one would logically have to avoid conflating them even to raise the question of compatibility or incompatibility properly — and yet people get going in their arguments and conflate them. There are lots of other examples of this, in both directions. And that doesn’t even get into the willful misunderstandings that increase everyone’s impatience — the kind of commenter, to take an example from another field, who stubbornly insists for days of argument that Thomistic hylemophism denies that brain activity is a kind of thinking, in contradiction to all evidence, or, more closely related to the point, the kind of commenter who insists that modern physics has completely done away with the concept of cause but at the same time refuses to clarify how one gives a complete and adequate account of causation, or how one handles basic ethical problems in scientific research, without any kind of appeal to causation at all.

          I’m unconvinced, though, that any of this is any significant problem. Obviously the rational thing to do is to argue it out; obviously on such a complex topic people will err and occasionally get heated; obviously it would be absurd to expect anything more than a first clue or glimmering of a possible path in a comments thread on a blogpost. So what really ends up being the problem? Again, it just seems to be naivete all around.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          November 29, 2014 12:06 pm

          All true, and all useful things to keep in mind. One problem I have had with the new atheists is their often casual dismissal of complex and subtle questions because they do not make sense in their oft-times naive naturalistic thinking. In the opposite direction sins are also legion.

          Alas, however, it does not get me much closer to understanding the fundamental conundrum I asked: do the categories of scholastic metaphysics still work when trying to explain quantum mechanics.

        • November 29, 2014 12:32 pm

          Very true, unfortunately!

          I do think it’s worth pointing out that ‘Do the categories of scholastic metaphysics still work when trying to explain quantum mechanics?’ is an ambiguous question, which can mean:

          (1) Do the scholastic categories work when trying to explain how the field of quantum mechanics itself can be an explanation of things in the real world?
          (2) Are the scholastic categories useful in trying to explain particular concepts from the field of quantum mechanics?
          (3) When the world is explained in terms of quantum mechanics, is there any direct translation between scholastic concepts and at least some of the concepts used in the quantum mechanical explanation?
          (4) When the world is explained in terms of quantum mechanics, do quantum mechanical explanations eliminate the arguments for accepting the scholastic categories in the first place?

          Each of which is a different question, and would require a different kind of answer.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          November 29, 2014 5:58 pm

          For what it is worth, I think my original question is closest to (4). Aristotelian metaphysics is empirically grounded, and an attempt to explain (or provide categories to use in explaining) the world around us. Quantum mechanics has expanded the reach of our empirical understanding, so we need to ask if these categories are still grounded in, or at least compatible with, our broader notions of the world.

        • November 29, 2014 3:38 pm

          A couple of guys have such-and-such attitude to X’ tells us practically nothing about X.

          That’s true, of course, Brandon. My point was to admit that I don’t have huge depth in physics, and that at least one person I know with a much better understanding of the issues at hand interpreted Feser the same way I did. It’s quite possible that other physics people who also have a much deeper understanding of the physics than I do are more positive to Feser.

          I agree with you that there’s a lot of naivete all around, and that there will be much “stumbling around” in trying to resolve issues like this. Certainly, and more broadly, philosophers and scientists seem to do an awful lot of talking past each other. This is understandable, since various technical terms (such as “form” in philosophy, or “force” in physics) don’t mean what they mean in ordinary, everyday language. You’d just about have to have a degree in philosophy, with a concentration in Thomism, and a degree in physics; and that’s a tall order.

          I would say, in regard to atomic theory, that one might make it work from a purely Aristotelian perspective. Aristotle, to the extent that I’m understanding him correctly, in contrast to Plato, thought of the forms as more or less existing in the matter which they informed, rather than as being transcendent archetypes existing beyond the material world. From that perspective, one could redefine “form” as “pattern”, and allow “substantial” and “accidental” forms to overlap, or maybe merge them. That would tweak Aristotle, but not do too much violence to him.

          I don’t think that works for Aquinas, though, since he (insofar as I understand him) seems to view the forms in a more Platonic way, as ideas in the mind of God. Because of his teaching on transubstantiation, he is also committed to a model of substance vs. accidents that is not pattern-based, but which sees accidents as a sort of “sheath” around substance, the latter being more “real” or at least more fundamental.

          I have also seen it argued that Platonism would work better in reconciling traditional philosophy with modern science. The author at the link just given is a physicist, so there’s that, FWIW. I think, though, that this kind of thing will take a long, long time to sort out.

    • Curio permalink
      December 12, 2014 5:35 pm

      A well respected experimental and theoretical physicist with Thomistic sympathies has written on Bell’s theorem.

      http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0310098

      But I think, fundamentally, it’s an issue with philosophy of science and not science as such. What can and can’t mathematical physics tell us? A developed knowledge of the particular details of physics is not necessary to answer questions such as this.

  2. trellis smith permalink
    November 27, 2014 1:20 pm

    Love the cartoon,, It is often been suggested that I suffer from selective hearing…

  3. November 27, 2014 1:50 pm

    I also notice Feser says this, my emphasis:

    In particular, it is sometimes thought that Aristotle and Aquinas maintained that no object can persist in any local motion unless some mover is continuously conjoined to it as an efficient cause. But in fact they denied this; their view was that an object will tend to move toward its “natural place” simply by virtue of its substantial form, and will do so even in the absence of that which imparted this form, and thus in the absence of that which is the efficient cause of their local motion. To be sure, the idea of “natural place” is a piece of Aristotelian physics (as opposed to metaphysics) that is obsolete; and the violent (as opposed to natural) motions of objects were thought to require some conjoined mover. But all of that is beside the point. For the point is that Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s principle of causality in fact did not presuppose that local motion as such requires a continuously conjoined physical cause.

    Now my understanding is that the exact reason that Aristotle hypothesized intelligences associated with the planets; because otherwise they couldn’t remain in motion! That seems to contradict what Feser says here about objects moving to their natural place. Even worse, he uses the idea of things moving to their natural place because of their substantial form, and then turns around and admits that the very concept of “natural place” is obsolete! I mean, reasoning like that would be almost a good satire, except that Feser takes it seriously.

    He doesn’t even give a citation in Aristotle to support his case. He rarely does, in fact–usually, he says, “Read my book!” Seriously. How hard would it be to have an FAQ page on his blog that deals with things that come up a lot like that, and that is reasonably concise? He also has a bad habit of taking physicists who disagree with him to task and more or less implying (or sometimes explicitly saying) that they’re too dense to understand his philosophy, or maybe even grasp their own field. I mean, really!

    Farther down the page given, commenter Beignltself:

    I did learn this from Feser’s book: if you accept A-T metaphysics, the 3 arguments are not idiotic.

    This is the main problem I have: I can find no common ground.

    For example, if I bring in empirical evidence shared by us all, I am met with screams of “empirical evidence is not permitted!”

    Which just leaves me scratching my head. If our shared experience of the world is excluded, how can we even have a conversation?

    As I said, I used to read Feser’s blog frequently, and this is a good description of a lot of the discussions. Aristotle’s idea of form, substance, and accidents, were developed to explain empirical reality. Feser, as you can see in the linked post, denies that anything in empirical science can falsify the substance/accidents aspect of A-T philosophy. If that’s true, then Aristotle didn’t even understand his own philosophy; and if it’s not falsifiable, how is it better than any other philosophical account of reality, except if one says, “The Church said so!” (which isn’t even really true, as such, but that’s another matter)

  4. Mark VA permalink
    November 27, 2014 9:29 pm

    Professor Cruz-Uribe:

    This is my opinion: in the background of your question is a fascinating, yet elusive interface among several disciplines (science, history, scholasticism, and philosophy, at the very least). I tend to agree with Turmarion that, as it stands now, this interface is somewhat of a mess.

    Thus, I think that directing this question to someone who is an accomplished scientist and a Brother, may be a more fruitful way to go. I propose that Brother Guy Consolmagno S.J. PhD, may be just the person who can point you in the best possible direction:

    http://vaticanobservatory.org/about-us/personnel-and-research/73-personnel-and-research/brother-guy/325-brother-guy

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      November 28, 2014 8:29 am

      An interesting suggestion, though nothing in his biography suggests extensive training in medieval metaphysics. Also, I am a little loathe to presume on our (tenuous) academic bond to drag him into this. However, if you can get him to respond, please post it!

  5. November 28, 2014 8:37 am

    Likewise, I don’t think that it’s possible to reconcile Scholasticism and modern physics, whether of the Newtonian or the quantum variety. Scholasticism not only assumes a universe governed by Aristotelian physics (which is totally wrong), it also assumes that the universe is very tiny and geocentric. Earth must be in the center of the universe in such a scheme, because of a misguided Platonic belief that what was impure and bad was closest to the ground (i.e., hell), whereas the farther one went from the ground the more celestial things become (i.e., heaven). It’s a very theological and anthropocentric way of looking at the universe, one that doesn’t have any bearing on the way the universe actually is; that is, large, mostly empty (unless one counts dark matter) and indifferent to human concerns. I asked my physicist father about this issue, and he agrees; if you’re using Aristotle as the basis of your physics in any form or fashion, your conclusions are going to be wrong by definition.

    In order for humanity to progress in astronomy, we had to shed the preconceived notions of Aristotelian physics, Platonic idealism, and Ptolemaic astronomy, which was incredibly difficult because of the amount of theological significance that had been invested in these concepts. Galileo and his contemporaries refused to give up the perfectly circular Platonic orbits and the various equants, epicycles, and deferents that made the Ptolemaic system work on paper, because doing so would mean realizing that they were wrong about a lot more than just the position of the Earth and the Sun.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      November 28, 2014 12:36 pm

      You are making a fundamental category error in confusing physics and metaphysics. They are obviously related, but not (necessarily) intimately tied together. So in particular, while Aquinas knew Aristotelian physics, you cannot simply dismiss his metaphysics by claiming it is wrong since Aristotlian physics was wrong.

      Also, contra some of the prejudices implicit in your writing, both Aristotle and medieval physicists were empiricists. The errors in Aristotelian physics took a very long time to become “obvious.”

      • November 28, 2014 3:59 pm

        “You are making a fundamental category error in confusing physics and metaphysics.”

        Actually I’m not. As with magic and witchcraft, we simply don’t see the universe in the same way that people did in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or even the immediate post-World War II period and that’s the origin of the confusion. For pre-modern Christians, heaven was literally up in the sky, and hell was underground; they weren’t considered to be in another plane of existence the way modern Christians tend to think now, but realms that operated relatively close to ordinary human society, even if they weren’t readily accessible. As I said before, for pre-modern Christians, the universe was very small and viewed through a theological lens, containing a number of concentric “spheres” that were fixed and unmoving. The stars were believed to be stuck onto a firmament or dome that was also non-moving. Unusual astronomic phenomena were assumed to be signs from God that humanity needed to shape up in some way (ditto for earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other earth-based disasters). Today, we know that the universe is much larger than we previously thought; new exo-planets are found on a weekly basis, the enigma of dark matter suggests that much of the content of the universe is invisible (at least to any instruments were currently have), and we even have probes that have left the solar system altogether. A large universe is theologically problematic, which is why so many Christians refused to give up the geocentric model for so long. Aside from a handful of die-hard geocentrics, modern Christians can’t ignore the fact that their universe bears no resemblance to the one that existed for most of Christendom.

        Aristotelian science makes if you live in a pre-scientific world, but once we started applying the scientific method towards the natural world, it began to unravel. This became evident to Galileo when he pointed his crude telescope towards Jupiter and discovered the existence of satellites that didn’t revolve around the Earth (Aristotelianism says that everything has to revolve around the Earth), and the discrepancies have only been getting worse since then. I admire Aristotle because he was one of the first people in recorded history to attempt to do empirical research, but let’s get real; almost all of his conclusions were wrong. The Church can claim that there is no contradiction between reason and faith, and that the former helps confirm the latter, but when the underpinnings of its theology are based on scientific conjectures that were discredited several centuries ago, it’s a claim that’s difficult to take seriously. You seem to want to have it both ways, to be able to accept modern quantum theory while not discarding Scholasticism, and it’s not going to work because these models are fundamentally incompatible.

      • December 16, 2014 4:42 pm

        re: You are making a fundamental category error in confusing physics and metaphysics. <<<<

        Yes.

        Metaphysics does normative work, probing reality to discover the indispensable methodological stipulations and ontological presuppositions of our descriptive sciences. It generates concepts through various degrees of abstraction, variously predicating them (e.g. univocally, equivocally, analogically, apophatically, etc) of one reality vs another, often a putative (even primal or ultimate reality) vs an actual reality.

        As a heuristic device, its terms provide conceptual placeholders for those realities that might confront us with various degrees of epistemic indeterminacy and/or ontological vagueness. They're inescapably tautological, not descriptively untrue, necessarily, just uninformative.

        Instead, they provide epistemic virtue, helping us to think clearly, to disambiguate concepts, to distinguish categories, to integrate methodologies, philosophically, thus fostering (via norms) ongoing inquiry, but they don't provide empirical data, positivistically.

        They thus need not run into difficultly with empirical sciences and, as our descriptive sciences advance, may generate new concepts, abstractions and norms to pave the way forward for inquiry.

        With so many systems with various implicit and/or explicit epistemological and/or ontological presuppositions, I've little temptation to inhabit this one or that to discern its in/efficacies. I do offer this one litmus test for a preliminary sort of epistemic wheat and chaff: How much normative impetus does any given perspective accord to its hermeneutic in our diverse spheres of human concern, i.e. religiously, practically, morally, politically, etc? How stridently, polemically, ideologically, tendaciously, insistently, aggressively does this or that cohort urge its views on others and with how much self-assurance (epistemic hubris vs humility)?

        I have observed no too few who, overenamored with principles of causation and sufficient reason, rather facilely extrapolate these methodological stipulations and their implicit ontological presuppositions into "self-evident" metaphysical necessities. That epistemic turnpike, travelled aware or unawares, forces a a realist lane change, from moderate to naive, by moving past the metaphysical highway's double yellow lines of logical and onto-logical necessities, the latter category which may or may not successfully refer to reality.

        Put differently, moderate realists, including Thomists, Scotists and process-relational thinkers, all, one way or another, refer to three ontological modes. To keep it simple, the first two are possibility and actuality. A truly moderate realist will either implicitly or explicitly treat the third category, vaguely, employing, in place of necessities, probabilities, as 1) our metaphysics remain hypothetical, 2) our epistemologies – fallibilist and 3) from what physical reality did we ever manage to abstract the concept of necessity in this pervasively emergent cosmos?

        Yet infallibilisms continue to creep.

  6. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
    November 29, 2014 10:16 am

    Starting a new thread to keep the boxes from shrinking:

    LM, I have a hard time unpacking your argument because it contains things I agree with side by side with historical interpretations that belong to a 19th and early 20th century progressivist reading of history that the historical facts themselves do not support. Going through your argument in no particular order:

    “You seem to want to have it both ways, to be able to accept modern quantum theory while not discarding Scholasticism, and it’s not going to work because these models are fundamentally incompatible.”

    No, I want to take scholastic metaphysics seriously since: a) it was an important development in the history of intellectual thought, b) it plays an important role in Catholic understanding of the sacraments, and c) it is not clear to me that changes in scientific understanding have invalidated it. As I said, listening to the lectures on the subject have raised some complicated questions that I want to see addressed.

    You keep asserting that scholastic metaphysics and modern physics are “fundamentally incompatible” but beyond a rather condescending argument about the premodern weltanshcauung you have never really made the case. (Consider instead the careful arguments that Tumarion makes above.) Yes, ancient and medieval scholars constructed a very different model of the universe than ours. That does not, a priori, invalidate the metaphysical categories they constructed to understand existence, being, motion, space, etc. For all his speculation about the celestial spheres, Aristotle was trying to understand the material existence around him on Earth and create a philosophical for understanding it. These are what I am interested in and they stand apart from his physics. They may be wrong because physical phenomena he did not know about show that they are incomplete or incorrect.

    “A large universe is theologically problematic, which is why so many Christians refused to give up the geocentric model for so long.”

    Why is a large universe “theologically problematic”? Because it “does not care about us” as you said in an earlier post? I do not think Christians have ever thought that the universe cared about them: they thought (and continue to think) that God cares about them, which is very different.

    I am not sure how to interpret your assertion about “many” Christians refusing to believe in geocentrism. There was the sad Galileo affair (and the Church gets a lot of deserved blame for that one) but astronomy and the Church continued through the 17th century to get along at various levels. As the evidence mounted for heliocentrism, it became the accepted explanation. Were there holdouts? Probably. Did the Church have its collective head shoved up its collective medieval posterior on the subject? Only in rationalist retellings of the history of the period.

    • November 30, 2014 10:31 am

      A large universe is theologically problematic for the same reason that an old universe is, namely that there are numerous Bible verses that suggest otherwise. While the Bible does not explicitly state that the sun revolves around the Earth, it definitely says that the Earth is in a fixed position and doesn’t move (see Psalm 93:1, 1 Chronicles 16:30, Job 9:6), while the sun is mobile (see Job 9:7, Psalm 19:4-6). For example, the miracle of Joshua stopping the sun is accomplished because the sun can move, but not the Earth. From these and other Bible verses, it’s not hard to see why a geocentric model made theological as well as common sense, since pre-modern people had no reason to believe that the Earth moves. You and I have grown up in an age of space flight, satellites, and deep space probes, so the idea of a large universe seems commonplace and not controversial in the least.

      I don’t think that Scholasticism’s physics can be separated from its metaphysics, which is why I keep bringing it up. Aquinas’ Summa contain numerous (incorrect) speculations about the natural world, which bolster his metaphysics. These pre-modern assumptions about how the world works may have been de-emphasized, but they’re still definitely there and key to how the system works. For example, Scholasticism and Aristotelianism assumes a “first cause” but that’s completely unnecessary from the perspective of modern physics Accidents, essences, and the like are also based on a pre-atomic understanding of reality. Aquinas thought that these categories were based in empirical reality, but today we know that they aren’t. One can “spiritualize” away this discrepancy and only apply them to religious truths, but that’s not how Aquinas saw it.

      Scholasticism could be reconciled with quantum physics, but only if certain aspects of the former are changed or ignored. Given that attempts to reconcile Catholicism and various other modern philosophies (e.g., Hegelism, Kantian ethics, liberal democracy) were smacked down in the 19th century, I don’t think that reconciling Scholasticism and quantum physics is going to be any more successful. If some Thomism is supposed to be the “perennial philosophy” then there’s really no room for new insights.

      I doubt that a person who is conversant in Scholasticism and physics will arise, simply because physicists tend to be overwhelmingly atheist, agnostic, or otherwise unaffiliated with a formal religious body (http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/), and don’t care about metaphysics. I think most of them would agree with AJ Ayers in dismissing metaphysics, because it doesn’t describe empirical reality, even if it is logically consistent with its own internal premises. When you say scientists need to simply become more conversant with the metaphysics, this leads to the question of which metaphysical system is most accurate. After all, I doubt that Islamic or Jewish metaphysics reach the same conclusions as Scholasticism, and Eastern religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism operate on a completely different set of metaphysical assumptions than the Abrahamic faiths.

      • Mark VA permalink
        November 30, 2014 5:43 pm

        L.M.:

        I wonder what Max Planck (a physicist of the greatest caliber) would have said about the “metaphysical” views of those contemporary physicists, who subscribe to this or that form of materialism:

        http://www.todayinsci.com/P/Planck_Max/PlanckMax-Quotations.htm

        • November 30, 2014 7:46 pm

          @ Mark VA

          Max Planck considered himself a deist towards the end of his life, so I don’t think he’d fit the criteria for being considered an “orthodox Christian.” I can’t speak on the specifics of his belief system or his metaphysics, but he did say that he didn’t believe in “a personal God, let alone a Christian God.” I would say he eventually migrated to what we would call today the “spiritual but not religious camp” and his beliefs were unique to himself.

        • Mark VA permalink
          November 30, 2014 10:06 pm

          L.M.:

          Yes, I’m aware of this fact.

          My point was that it is certainly possible to be a world class physicist, and still admit to the possibility of a transcendent “dimension”, even if it does exclude a personal God.

        • December 2, 2014 11:15 am

          I don’t doubt that one can be a world class physicist and believe in the transcendent, but doing so doesn’t add to one’s understanding of the universe, because the current model we have doesn’t require the existence of metaphysics to make sense.

      • December 12, 2014 7:51 pm

        “A large universe is theologically problematic for the same reason that an old universe is…” etc, etc

        I’m going to stop you there.

        Do you know how large the Medievals thought the universe was? To be sure, they thought it was smaller than our modern conception of the universe, though just about anything would be smaller than ours as the universe is essentially infinite in all directions in our model.

        What did the medievals think? Well lets look at The Almagast, a document written the the second century which the Medievals based much of their understanding of the solar system from. It states:

        “The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point. ”

        In other words, the ancient Greeks (and the Medievals after them) believed in a large universe the same as we do. To be sure their model had the problem of not having an infinitely large universe, but it was still massive and the Earth’s size compared to it was so small as to be insignificant. Some Medieval sources estimated the radius of the univers to be 120 million miles (see South English Legendary) which, though laughably small in comparison to our understanding of light years, is still massively, massivly large to the conception of a Medieval Scholar.

        Simply put, check your facts before you make wild claims.

        • December 13, 2014 8:06 pm

          The universe described in “The Almagest” ends at the (nonexistent) sphere of fixed stars. No Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto, not to mention no astroids, comets, planetary moons, Kuiper belt, Oort cloud, much less the star systems and exo-planets that exist beyond the solar system. Even if you factor in the sphere where God/the Unmoved Mover supposedly resides, the Ptolemaic cosmological model is pretty tiny compared to what we now know is out there.

          My beef is not with Aristotle, Ptolemy of Alexandria, or medieval scholars, since there was only so much they could know about the universe without advanced mathematics or telescopes. I even understand why they would think that the earth is unmoving and at the center of the universe, since that’s what our senses indicate to us. My problem is with modern people who insist on sticking their heads in the proverbial sand by ignoring the ongoing evolution of our cosmological model or try to shoehorn it into an obsolete philosophical framework.

        • December 15, 2014 7:24 pm

          I merely wish to point out that we are not going from a “tiny universe” model to a “large universe” model, but rather from a “huge universe” model to an “infinately large universe” model. The medievals knew just as well as we do that compared to the rest of the universe the Earth is an insignificant mote of dust.

  7. John Cahill permalink
    November 29, 2014 8:00 pm

    It is quite possible to reconcile Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics with quantum theory by positing, as Alan Wolter, OSF did many years ago (late 60’s) a concept of hylosystemism in place of hylomorphism.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      November 29, 2014 9:56 pm

      Meaning what? Sorry, but obscure terminology is of limited usefulness to me at this juncture.

    • December 19, 2014 9:59 pm

      I took this as akin to a substance-process like approach? Or, perhaps, like what Jim Arraj suggested – deep, dynamic formal fields?

  8. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
    November 30, 2014 10:00 am

    I have now reread Feser’s blogpost and read through ALL the comments. (These were far worse than our most interminable comment threads—I want medal, or at least a lollipop.) I have also read the first article by Oderberg, which does not directly address quantum mechanics but provides a very nice discussion of cause in scholastic metaphysics by responding to some challenges to Aquinas’ arguments.

    With respect to quantum phenomena, much of the disagreement seems to revolve around disputes about what constitutes a “cause”. Quantum mechanics describes mathematically and experiments confirm empirically objects (individual particles, etc.) that change in a nondeterminate fashion: there is nothing that can be pointed to and say, in the terms of physics, this “caused” the change. Physicists and people using physics, therefore point to this as a self-changing object (or a self-actualizing potential) which violates Aquinas’ central premise, that every potential is actualized by something (else) that is already actual.

    Defenders of scholastic thought respond by either trying to argue about the metaphysics underlying the interpretation of the mathematics of quantum mechanics, or by expanding the definition of a cause to find one which proves that these quantum phenomena are in fact caused by something else. So far, both arguments seem to me to founder (or more honestly, leave me perplexed) on a definition of cause and the properties of cause. For instance, must a cause occur simultaneously with the effect, or can a cause be temporally antecedent to its effect? At one point, Feser seems to assert that both are possible, and Oderberg seems to want causes to be simultaneous with effects. Must a cause be determinate? This later question seems to be very important, because “randomness”, well described mathematically but mysterious physically, seems to be a constituent part of the universe. Or at least, of our current explanations of the universe, but repeated attempts to remove it—e.g., by looking for “hidden variables”—have failed, in the sense they lead to predictions that are contradicted by empirical experiments.

    So let me get back to the real basics: what is a cause? What criteria help us determine what is a cause in a given situation and what is not.

    • Nick permalink
      November 30, 2014 9:10 pm

      “what is a cause? What criteria help us determine what is a cause in a given situation and what is not.”

      According to Hume, we cannot really know. But, realistically, we make assumptions based on observations. If a billiard ball hits another and the second one goes into the pocket, we assume the blow caused the ball to move.

      If the removal of an action stops the effect, we can often assume the action was the cause, or at least somewhere in the causal chain. If the failure to sacrifice at dawn stops the rising of the sun, blood sacrifice is necessary for dawn, if not directly responsible.

      If not adding yeast to bread stops the bread from rising, we assume yeast makes bread rise

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
        December 1, 2014 8:14 am

        These are all macro/human scale examples; the question of cause becomes much more complicated when dealing with things on universal or atomic scales. But, just to complicate things, here is an example Oderberg discusses: given a body moving in a vacuum, is it changing? It is certainly changing position, but there is no instantaneous cause keeping it moving, so any cause must be temporally antecedent. Or the decay of a particle or any quantum effect of similar nature: what is the cause you can remove to stop the action from taking place?

        • Nick permalink
          December 1, 2014 6:52 pm

          body moving in a vacuum– whatever started it moving

          quantum decay — whatever caused the high energy, unstable concentration of matter, for example, fusion in a star

          the cause is only “temporally antecedent” in the same sense that a baseball’s motion just before it lands is further from the cause than the same baseball’s motion was just after leaving the thrower’s hand

          if someone is injured when they stumble on a bomb that has been buried since WWII, the cause is far removed from the effect, but the bomb is no less the cause. If I allow my arteries to clog with fat, the cause of my heart attack is not only the final donut I ate that pushed my poor heart over the edge, but its many delicious friends along the way.

          In a given system, some information is said to be random if it cannot be predicted in any way based on the knowledge inside the system. The interesting claim made by some interpretations of QM is that there are some kinds of effects, at a micro scale, that are fundamentally random, whose cause is not only unknowable, but does not, in fact, exist.

          Important here is the notion of scope. To borrow an example from John Haught, http://www.salon.com/2007/12/19/john_haught/ The kettle is hot because I want tea, but it also hot because heat is exciting water molecules. An has left a decaying Uranium atom because energy was highly concentrated, and the laws of entropy and molecular stability force it to leave the Uranium atom in a different state. But exactly what path the electron will take is something we can only determine probabilistically, given our current understanding. If there is in fact no cause for the exact position of the electron, then its position has no external cause. Hawking, among others, will come to Aquinas’s defense here with his notion of “Adequate Determinism” http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/adequate_determinism.html — basically, at a macro scale, quantum randomness doesn’t matter.

          It is possible to imagine a scenario featuring some interpretations of Quantum Mechanics in which there is no cause of an event, but that does not mean that determinism is not a useful way to describe the world and the laws we are nearly always concerned with.

          for a good cursory overview of Quantum Mechanics in the philosophy of determinism, check out http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/

        • Mark VA permalink
          December 1, 2014 9:37 pm

          Nick:

          I truly like your examples – lively and approachable.

          Let me ask you this: could “indeterminism” be put under a question mark, if we allow for more than the familiar three “unfolded” dimensions (for example, a fourth dimension, “perpendicular” to the familiar xyz coordinate system, and a fifth “perpendicular” to the fourth, etc.?):

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Kaluza

          I would think that if we do allow such extra dimensions, then we could hypothesize that all events have causes, some observable by us, and some not observable by us (due to them being “hidden” from our observable three dimensional space). What do you think?

        • Nick permalink
          December 2, 2014 7:01 am

          Mark: I’m pretty sure the answer is yes, but I don’t really know.

          The dimensions above 4 creep me out, but that’s just my bias.

          I have enjoyed following the polemics of Peter Woit, a physicist whose complaint over the years has been that string theory has accomplished little and become mired in the speculative, at the expense of potentially more productive research. http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/

          A recent comment on the string theory debate http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/string-theory-and-the-no-alternatives-argument/

        • Mark VA permalink
          December 2, 2014 8:41 pm

          Thank you, Nick, for your reply.

          So it’s a definite “we have no clue” – I got the same feeling. Except for the extra dimensions, which I like – it’s all those 90 degree turns that somehow appeal to me.

          Now, I got the perfect song for this conundrum – “The Existentialist Polka” by Chicago’s finest punk polka band, the “Polkaholics” (btw, one of those guys is a respected academic):

          “Am I here? Am I there? Am I really anywhere? Really Anywhere? … The Existentialist Polka!”

        • Nick permalink
          December 2, 2014 11:10 pm

          Cheers, not on the same level, but some fun with “why” questions https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjmtJpzoW0o

  9. Nick permalink
    November 30, 2014 9:04 pm

    I don’t think spontaneous decay is very different from ice melting. Matter is in one state and entropy moves it to another. As in decaying uranium, a high energy state was produced by previous reactions. That high energy state has a tendency to release energy and move to a lower energy state.

    ” the principle that nothing can change without being affected externally” well, what counts as external?

    If external is defined in the most limited sense, then decaying Uranium violates this, as does cooling tea. This is if the internal system is, say, everything physically touching, or chemically bonded to, the objects in question.

    If we take external to be broader, say, a causal change, such as entropy over time, or heat dissipation, then the question is much more interesting. Can there be an effect without a cause? The logical rules we use do not allow such a thing, we can only think of effects as having causes.

    • Nick permalink
      November 30, 2014 9:13 pm

      we can only describe events over time as being part of a causal chain. This is why free will is such a head-scratcher. It sure feels like we have it, but our logical system does not allow a cogent description of it.

  10. Mark VA permalink
    December 1, 2014 6:49 pm

    Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

    Regarding your question: “For instance, must a cause occur simultaneously with the effect, or can a cause be temporally antecedent to its effect?”:

    Some time ago, I had the pleasure of reading an excellent, non-technical summary of the current state of the String Theory, by the physicist and author Brian Greene:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elegant_Universe

    I was impressed and educated by its lucid introduction to the likely number of “dimensions” (possibly eleven), and its helpful suggestions on how to think about the the concept of “dimension”.

    The overall impression I got from reading this book, is that the level of our questions about space and quantum phenomena, are somewhat historically analogous to the level of the questions about the square root of negative one, before Caspar Wessel came on the scene. Great insights leading to more questions, tantalizing clues, and stubborn walls. Throw scholasticism into this mix, and, to my taste, we’ve got a potent and not yet ready for consumption brew.

    Perhaps a new “cartographer”, who is neither a physicist or a philosopher, will come on the scene, and ferment this brew to perfection. I even have the name of the bar worked out, where we’ll imbibe this long awaited insight: “Brewstring”.

  11. December 1, 2014 10:48 pm

    David: I have now reread Feser’s blogpost and read through ALL the comments.

    You’re a better man than I, David–I never can make it through a complete thread on his blog. You deserve a medal and a lollipop! ;)

    I think you’re right about the ambiguity of the meaning of “cause”, especially in Aristotelian philosophy. To an extent, this is baked into Aristotelianism. It’s important to remember that Aristotle’s principle formal training was in medicine (his father was physician to Philip of Macedon) and biology. While his physics is mostly useless, his biology is still largely sound after over two millennia (for example, he realized that dolphins nurse their young, unlike fish). His bias towards biology is evident in this view of potentialities that actualize (the way an embryo develops, e.g.), things seeking to fulfill their nature, and teleological levels of causation (why something happens) as being privileged over lower levels (how something happens).

    This is a problem in relating his thought to modern physics. To use Nick’s example above, modern physics doesn’t care that you put the teapot on the burner in order to heat water for tea; it’s interested only in the thermodynamics of how water comes to a boil. For Aristotle, final and efficient causes (why something is done, and who or what does it) were more important than formal or material causes (the change of arrangement or movement of the actual thing in question). Given that the entire model of modern physics has actively expunged teleology as Aristotle understood it, it is understandably hard for Scholastics and physicists to talk to each other, since they’re not even speaking the same language. Heck, I’m a believer, and yet my training in physics makes me rather suspicious of Aristotle in areas like this.

    As to the quantum physics, Nick makes some interesting points, but the big problem there is that quantum physics disagree sharply over how Q.P. should be interpreted. Is a quantum event truly uncaused? Or is it somehow “caused” by the observer (i.e. Schrödinger’s Cat)? Or is it a collapse of a quantum superposition of states? Or is there a multiverse in which there’s a separate cosmos in which each outcome is actualized? Or do you have non-local determinism (i.e. Bohmian interpretation)? Or what? Some interpretations are perhaps more reconcilable with Scholasticism than others; but as yet there’s no clear consensus in physics as to which interpretation is to be preferred. Some even advocate dispensing with interpretation, taking the attitude that as long as Q.P. works, it’s best to avoid freaky philosophical interpretations of its meaning. So it’s a bit of a conundrum.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      December 2, 2014 7:50 am

      ” Some even advocate dispensing with interpretation, taking the attitude that as long as Q.P. works, it’s best to avoid freaky philosophical interpretations of its meaning.”

      Or, to quote an old song by Rush: “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” The problem in my mind about not talking about the metaphysical interpretations of QM is that it precludes any discussion of the underlying metaphysical assumptions in “just using it.” At its worst, it leads to a degree of arrogant disdain towards all metaphysical questions.

      • Nick permalink
        December 2, 2014 11:13 pm

        Reminds me of the infinity debate, which was left by the wayside because infinity “just works” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controversy_over_Cantor%27s_theory

        Also, on the nature of causality, it seems to me like cause and effect are logical tools we use to describe interactions. What is a relevant cause and effect depends on what question we are trying to answer and what we will accept as a given that we do not question. Feynman has a great talk related to this in a video I linked above

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          December 13, 2014 11:49 am

          Well, infinity is still dangerous in the hands of the unwary. In fact, the math department at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, will not let students use infinity in arguments in class until they pass a short test to earn their “infinity license”.

        • Mark VA permalink
          December 13, 2014 6:26 pm

          That’s very interesting, Professor Cruz-Uribe.

          Could you please point me in the right direction, so that I can get a flavor of this “infinity license”?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          December 13, 2014 7:43 pm

          Alas, I while I learned about it from the faculty there, they have almost no information about it online that I can find.

  12. Dante Aligheri permalink
    December 3, 2014 1:11 am

    Turmarion,

    I am curious that you bring up Plato as a better alternative than Aristotle, something which has been tried before during the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino and others. Now, before reading that comment, I was going to ask you that if we must get rid of the ideas of form and prime matter what happens to the classical understanding of God – Being Itself, Form of the Good, Being Beyond Being, etc. I have visited your blog occasionally, and, based on what I’ve read, your position on God’s nature is still very much the classical theism of the long tradition – i.e., not an open theism.

    I’d feel that form was an attempt (in many ways reminding me more of Piaget than physics) to explain differentiation and our recognition of difference and similarity, an attempt to shore up the reliability of our thinking especially given the radical skeptical distrust given to sense perception at the time.

    In a way, it has always seemed to me that we need something like form. I’m not sure I can bring up physics to back this up (not my field by a long shot), but it seems we’ve always wanted to reduce the universe into one sort of fundamental thing whether it’s Democritus’ atoms or Thales’ water and abstract its qualities apart from it in a kind of anarchic state. If we grant that there must be something at root, uniform stuff without any constraints on its behavior, then we need something like form to differentiate and organize it. And I know that at least in biology they sometimes talk about emergentism where new properties appear out of a system which are greater than the sum of its parts. Athanasius tried to make a similar argument when he said that a universe without “design” (not to be confused with Paleyesque intelligent design theory) would be all hands or feet, and I’ve always thought his simple idea stimulating, if not exactly convincing, in some kind of imposed organization. Even strings would not be shapelessly uniform but act according to whatever properties they have and the interaction of the various dimensions which implies some kind of behavior.

    It still seems appropriate that we should at least try metaphysically to separate raw prime matter and the qualia which gives it shape – if we have this great need to reduce the universe to “the one,” the Brahman, of sorts. And yet we also know that the buffer of experiences tells us the universe is not “one,” that something stands between undifferentiated unity that we feel must exist at some level and the world we know. I wouldn’t say this is physical or even rational, but it’s always seemed to me this buffer is best explained by the monotheistic transcendence preserved by the divine energies or something similar. Or, maybe, prime matter is a mental abstraction?

    As a side note, I’ve also read Feser’s blog from time to time, even tried to comment exactly once before getting inundated from some well-meaning, if slightly zealous commenters, and I’m always shocked at how much traffic every post gets in a fairly quick amount of time. Getting through even one is a chore and a half. Kudos to that achievement.

    • December 13, 2014 2:10 pm

      I am a Platonist and very much a classical theist, Dante, and I think Ficino and company were on the right track, at least.

      I think the one big thing about Plato is that he allows more mystery and uncertainty as to what “form” is, exactly. Plato locates the Forms outside this world, into which they mysteriously enter our world, instantiating imperfectly here, like the shadows in the cave cast by the light behind the captives there. Aristotle, if I understand him, tends to view form as more of an abstraction that exists only in the material world, though it’s not material itself.

      In a discussion on another blog, and in a totally different context, I said that I think the difference between essentialism (of which Platonism and Aristotelianism are examples) and nominalism (which of course says that there is no such thing as universals, such things being merely convenient terms) is, to borrow from Kant, an antinomy of pure reason. In short, I think there are problems with any given form of essentialism, some of which even Plato recognized–for example, if there is a Good, is there a Bad? And how, exactly, is matter in-formed by the Forms? On the other hand, I agree with you that we need “something like” form, and a distinction between raw matter and qualia. It doesn’t seem to me that either essentialism or nominalism can give a complete account of the world. It seems to me that it’s something beyond pure human reason to explain.

      The main problem I have with essentialism as applied by Aristotle is that he wants to take it beyond what we can reasonably know. Plato kept it relatively vague and mystical; but Aristotle spoke of who some people just by nature–by their essence–were of course fit to be slaves; how women were naturally inferior to men (he even thought women had a different number of teeth than men, apparently not ever bothering to count his own wife’s teeth!); and so on. His master, Plato, by contrast, had women as equals to men in his Republic, and never, to my knowledge, tried to justify slavery as based on some people’s nature. Once more, I do believe there are transcendent archetypes; we just need to be very careful in what we use them for.

  13. Daniel permalink
    December 12, 2014 5:22 pm

    Ed’s response to this post: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/12/causality-and-radioactive-decay.html

  14. December 12, 2014 9:57 pm

    Hard to imagine anyone else could miss the point as badly and consistently as Turmarion does here. Or at least it is until you read LM’s comments. Jeez.

    There’s so much wrong with this discussion that it would take a long blog post to unpack it all. So, I’ve written up a reply here:

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/12/causality-and-radioactive-decay.html

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      December 13, 2014 11:37 am

      A very long post; feel free to respond either here or there. As everyone knows, I tend to not censor posts unless things get way out of hand (a magic line that get crossed with shocking suddenness at times). This post by Professor Feser is going to get under people’s skin, so let’s try to keep comments on topic and avoid ad hominem attacks.

      • December 13, 2014 1:55 pm

        Cross-posting from Dr. Feser’s blog:

        For what it’s worth, on the Vox Nova site my main issue was with substance vs. accidents, which can’t, it seems to me, be reconciled with atomic theory. Quantum mechanics has nothing to do with that. Every observable property of any material object except for its mass is sufficiently explained by the configuration of its valence electrons and the energy state of its molecules: color, texture, solidity, liquidity, gaseousness, conductivity, and so on. It’s hard to see how there is any meaningful distinction between substantial and accidental forms, or how “form” in the Aristotelean sense is even meaningful, unless you either mean by “form” a “configuration of subatomic particles” by “form”, or use the term of the properties of quarks.

        As to quantum physics and causality, I will have to read some more and give that careful thought.

        Dr. Feser, you say the following:

        The quantitative description physics gives us is essentially a description of mathematical structure. But mathematical structure by itself is a mere abstraction. It cannot be all there is, because structure presupposes something concrete which has the structure.

        The eminent physicist Max Tegmark would disagree. His Mathematical universe hypothesis holds that external reality itself actually is a mathematical structure. I’m not sure if I agree with him or not, though the hypothesis is interesting; and I’d assume you’d disagree with him. The point is that it’s not intrinsically absurd to say that mathematical structures are more than just abstractions. In fact, following Kurt Gödel, I’m a mathematical Platonist. That is, whether Tegmark is right or not about the universe, I believe that mathematical structures are not mere abstractions developed by humans, but real, objectively existing things that would be there whether humans existed or not, though they exist outside our world (or as our world, if Tegmark is correct).

        For example, Einstein is commonly taken to have shown that our world is not really Euclidean. This could only be true if there is some concrete reality that instantiates a non-Euclidean abstract structure rather than a Euclidean abstract structure. So, physics itself implies that there must be more to the world than the abstract structure it captures in its purely mathematical description, but it does not and cannot tell us exactly what this concrete reality is like.

        I’m not quite clear on what you’re saying here; but according to Einstein and Minkowski, the actual world we live in is the instantiation of a non-Euclidean structure. We just can’t directly perceive what’s beyond the Euclidean part of it. For example, if two-dimensional beings (à la Flatland) lived on the surface of a vast sphere, they would think they were on a plane, because any observations locally would differ so little from what you’d get in a flat surface that the difference would be undetectable. For example, lines of longitude would appear to be truly parallel, for a large enough sphere, though of course they’d eventually meet.

        Now if Flatland astronomers viewed very, very distant objects–say flat stars–they would notice that the measurements were inconsistent with a flat, Euclidean surface. For example, if two extremely distant objects were observed along “parallel” lines of longitude, it would be discovered that they were closer together than they should be (because lines of longitude converge). They could deduce from this that their Euclidan model was wrong and that they lived in a non-Euclidean world. That would be exactly true, since a positively curved surface such as a sphere is indeed non-Euclidean.

        Please note: 1. This would not be an abstraction, since the non-Euclidean curvature of their “Flat” land would be demonstrable empirically.

        2. The fact that this could be shown only mathematically and not actually visualized by 2-D beings doesn’t mean their spherical world is not an instantiation of a non-Euclidean structure, since that’s exactly what a spherical surface is.

        Finally, Dr. Feser, I admittedly spoke of you in somewhat strong terms on the Vox Nova thread. That was inappropriate, and I apologize. I do think the tone on some of your blog threads is rather pricklier than ought to be the case; but that does not excuse me. I do not claim expertise in either physics or Scholastic theology; but I do still think there are some major problems with Thomism-Aristotelianism, especially in regard to modern physics. I could, of course, be wrong. In any case, it is something for further study when I am less pressed for time.

        I end by saying that I’ll look into the issues at greater depth when I have the time and resources to do so, and to say that while I’m still in strong disagreement with you on many of the issues here (pending the time to delve more deeply), I will try to make it cordial disagreement.

    • December 13, 2014 8:09 pm

      @Edward Feser

      I understand what you’re trying to say, but I don’t agree with your conclusions. Not understanding and not agreeing are two different things.

  15. Daniel permalink
    December 13, 2014 2:02 pm

    If you look at Feser’s common fallacy B “Conflating genus and species”, you get to the heart of the problem here, I think. Stating that because atoms can decay spontaneously therefore is not caused, confuse what is really only one notion of causality with every form of Aristotelian causality that could be at issue here. Here Feser mentions a formal cause and an efficient cause: “The decay thus has a cause in the sense that (i) it has a formal cause in the nature or substantial form of the particular Pb210 atom, and (ii) it has an efficient cause in whatever it was that originally generated that Pb210 atom (whenever that was).” He applies the same reasoning to locomotion.

    So the bottom line here is that not all forms of change must have an external efficient cause, but can stem from the substantial form of an entity (which itself has an efficient cause). And to grasp this point, you need to have a fully developed understanding of Aristotle’s four causes as Feser lists here:

    “For example, where the notion of “cause” is concerned, Scholastic metaphysicians distinguish between formal, material, efficient, and final causes.”

    While those who bring up such arguments from physics typically hold to this notion of cause:

    “Now, those who criticize Scholastic metaphysics on scientific grounds typically operate with a very narrow understanding of causality. In particular, they often conceive of it as a deterministic relation holding between temporally separated events. They will then argue (for example) that quantum mechanics has undermined causality thus understood, and conclude that it has therefore undermined causality full stop. ”

    Cheers,
    Daniel

    • December 13, 2014 8:40 pm

      The decay thus has a cause in the sense that (i) it has a formal cause in the nature or substantial form of the particular Pb210 atom….

      Maybe some of it isn’t conflation, but how one conceives of the concept. To me, the formal cause seems more like a tautology. To say the decay of an atom of Pb210 has a “cause” in “the nature or substantial form of the particular atom” seems to say that it decays thus because it is its nature to do so. Which is saying that this isotope of lead decays because it’s that isotope of lead; which really tells us nothing.

      In fairness, everything, pursued far enough, becomes a tautology. Why does the apple fall to the ground? Because of its weight. What is weight? The force it experiences on Earth. What is this force? It’s the acceleration due to gravity. What’s gravity? The attraction of every particle of mass for every other in the universe. Why does mass attract other mass? Because it attracts other mass. To put it another way, it just does.

      To me, anyway, it seems that at least some of Aristotle’s causes really boil down to saying, “Because it just does.” That’s not what I’d consider a cause; but even if you want to call it that, it’s not something that seems to give useful information. If you asked me, “Why is this apple red?” you probably wouldn’t consider it an explanation if I said, “Because apples are red.” I’m just tautologously restating what you said. If you ask me, “Why does this isotope of lead decay thus?” and I respond, “It does so because of its substantial form,” what have I actually told you? If I said, “The rock fell from the cliff side because the rock below it was weakened over time by weathering,” that’s an explanation, a cause; if I said, “The rock fell because it was in its nature to do so”, i.e. “It fell because it fell,” few would consider that an explanation, let alone a cause.

      • Daniel permalink
        December 14, 2014 10:26 am

        “To say the decay of an atom of Pb210 has a “cause” in “the nature or substantial form of the particular atom” seems to say that it decays thus because it is its nature to do so.”

        If I understand Feser correctly (I am half way through his Scholastic Metaphysics and I’m trying my best to the concepts straight) I believe a scholastic would talk about such formal causes in terms of powers in conjunction with final causality which defines the end or range of ends of such causal powers. So Pb210 has a causal power to decay into another type of atom. Defining that an entity has a power is a key indicator that it could have a substantial form. The causal powers of a substance are potentialities towards a definite range of actualities (final causes) which define its range of possible changes that can cause externally or within itself. So the statement is not a tautology.

        Note, as far as I can tell, this description should not be interpreted as in competition with descriptions of these events from physics or chemistry. The underlying operations happening at the chemical level and at the atomic level are presupposed. In fact, even if the underlying understanding from physics or chemistry were to change, the descriptive facts provided about causal powers would not be impacted. That said, if the physics or chemistry were to find that the reason why Pb210 decays is not because it has a causal power, but because of some other factor, then the metaphysical description might change.

        What the metaphysics is trying to establish here, though, are what counts as inorganic, organic, animal, or human substances and how one can define them. Physics cannot tell us what differentiates a living entity from an inorganic entity. In fact, Ed had a post recently on a physicist who claimed the distinction between living and inorganic is completely false. We are all just simply chemical processes. And if you were to believe that all reality is ultimately reducible to physics or chemistry, then that conclusion would logically follow, I think. And if you don’t believe that, then you have to start looking outside of chemistry and physics for solutions to these problems.

        Is this all merely descriptive sleight of hand? I don’t think so. Unless you are committed to materialism. I think the place where this discussion really takes off is in the mind/brain debate when one defines human rationality and intellect. Is mind completely reducible to the chemical processes of the brain?

        Cheers,
        Daniel

        • December 14, 2014 12:18 pm

          [A] scholastic would talk about such formal causes in terms of powers in conjunction with final causality which defines the end or range of ends of such causal powers. So Pb210 has a causal power to decay into another type of atom. Defining that an entity has a power is a key indicator that it could have a substantial form.

          See, right here; maybe I’m being dense, but I’m not quite sure I understand what this even means.

          The causal powers of a substance are potentialities towards a definite range of actualities (final causes) which define its range of possible changes that can cause externally or within itself.

          This seems to be saying, “Every substance has a set of unique properties, as a result of which it behaves in one way, not another, in given circumstances.” For example, water and mercury are both liquid at room temperature; but while water becomes solid at zero degrees Celsius, mercury doesn’t. Analysis of the molecular structure of water and mercury explains why this is; Scholastic philosophy, not so much.

          That everything has certain properties according to which it can behave or manifest in some ways, not others, seems common sense enough; but the complicated Thomistic analysis of it doesn’t seem to me to add anything to that understanding, and still seems to me to be a tautology. “Any given thing can exist and behave in a limited number of ways.” Well, yeah, obviously; but how does bringing in actualities and final causes help anything?

          Is mind completely reducible to the chemical processes of the brain?

          No, I don’t think it is. I think you can demonstrate that without the complexitis of Scholastic thought, though. As a mathematical Platonist, I have no doubt that mathematical entities, while immaterial, are real and objective. Since our mind can grasp these entities, it must itself be immaterial. If that’s the case, it must not be completely reducible to chemical processes in the brain. I realize that not everyone agrees with mathematical Platonism; but this is at least one approach in terms of the immateriality of the mind.

      • December 18, 2014 8:27 pm

        “To me, the formal cause seems more like a tautology. To say the decay of an atom of Pb210 has a “cause” in “the nature or substantial form of the particular atom” seems to say that it decays thus because it is its nature to do so.”

        Exactly. Formal cause explains nothing. It tells us only what we think we already know. We can say the final cause of a heart is to pump blood. But we don’t look at an object (heart) and guess its final cause (pumps blood). We observe what it does empirically. Then we take those observations and assign a final cause — a purpose. Final cause describes and generalizes our empirical findings. It doesn’t explain. In fact, we must know a heart’s actions in context — and find it independently of final cause — prior to assigning that final cause. Feser sometimes claims we must assume final cause to make sense of anything. But that’s simply false. Aristotle argues for final cause only because he observes facts in nature, facts that support the principle and fashioned it in his mind. He didn’t pull it out of thin metaphysical air. Feser states that his metaphysics is not based on empirical findings — that is, he does this when it’s convenient for him. But final cause is a piece of his metaphysics that absolutely depends on empirical findings. Here we move from the physical to the metaphysical, contrary to Feser’s claims.

        Suppose a prosecutor argues before a jury, “Do you know why this defendant murdered Mr. Smith? Because he intended to do so. That was the defendant’s final cause. If you’re looking for a reason, that’s all you need to know.” Do you think a jury would accept this as a reason? A motive? Of course not. But that’s what Feser expects of us.

        It’s not metaphysics. It’s evasion.

  16. Dennis permalink
    December 14, 2014 10:00 am

    “The rock fell because it was in its nature to do so”, i.e. “It fell because it fell,” few would consider that an explanation, let alone a cause.
    This, in all demonstrates that you have no understanding of what it means by the formal cause, because any instance of matter is an instance of the form, and any form of matter is an act/potency composite.
    The rock fell because it was in it’s nature do so, seeks to say that it retains an identity through the change, but the change happens, however, this change, the falling of the rock in towards that which it is related with, gravity that is. For instance, a batch of dough cannot become a whale, or a baby whale or a sperm for that matter, before that thing can happen, what needs to take place is a substantial change, where the essence of the thing is totally destroyed, this by no means is tautology, but it is a very simple, and some might call it a trivial point, but it is by no means a claim that is useless.
    This is the explanation if this is something you cannot get or have not understood, then you’ve just not understood the formal cause and you will have to go back to Parmenides and Heraclitus and see what they are arguing before Aristotle comes to resolve the debate.
    “Hard to imagine anyone else could miss the point as badly and consistently as Turmarion does here. Or at least it is until you read LM’s comments. Jeez.”
    I did not want to agree with this because I thought you were actually interested in the argumentation, but it seems that you are just not interested, this is the basic thing that New Essentialist philosophers have argued, time and again, that matter has different causal powers and dispositions, and cannot do something beyond it’s capability(Act/Potency). The distinction of the formal cause is relevant, because EVERY single instance of matter displays a physical intentionality, and every individuation of matter is limited to it’s causal powers and dispositions, unless of course you believe matter is omnipotent, and also, that it can do what it in essence does not have, this is just some of the absurdities that one has to accept should they deny the formal cause. But then again, I do not know why I answered you here, maybe it’s to simply point to you that you are simply missing the WHOLE point if you think that the formal cause does not give you an adequate understanding of matter works, and how the form relates to it.

    P.S. Sorry about the double post, I had to correct some crucial grammatical errors.

  17. December 14, 2014 3:43 pm

    Aristotle was a biologist by training, and tends to think in those terms. Thus, IMO, he uses “cause” in ways that most moderns wouldn’t. What he calls “formal cause” is more what I’d call “description”. For example, from the Wikipedia article on the four causes:

    A change or movement’s formal cause is a change or movement caused by the arrangement, shape or appearance of the thing changing or moving. Aristotle says for example that the ratio 2:1, and number in general, is the cause of the octave.

    It seems odd to me to say that the ratio of 2:1 causes the octave. I’d say that to say that the 2:1 ratio in frequency exists between two notes an octave apart is more a description than a cause. Aristotle, being a biologist, tends to think of things actualizing their own nature–kind of like a plant or animal–but to me that’s an odd way to look at an inanimate object or a numerical ratio.

    Another example of Aristotle’s biological thinking:

    An event’s final cause is the aim or purpose being served by it. That for the sake of which a thing is what it is. For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.

    That makes it sound like the seed wants to become a plant, or a boat wants to sail or the ball wants to come to rest at the bottom. “Aim” and “purpose” seem to presuppose a mind or will. I get what Aristotle is saying; but I think the way he frames it is rather confusing.

    [A] batch of dough cannot become a whale, or a baby whale or a sperm for that matter, before that thing can happen, what needs to take place is a substantial change….

    I deny that there even is substance above the sub-atomic level. Even Dr. Feser seems to admit that this is a legitimate reading of Aristotle, though I don’t think he necessarily agrees with it:

    [S]uppose it’s true that, as you put it, “every observable property of any material object except for its mass is sufficiently explained by the configuration of its valence electrons and the energy state of its molecules.” It does not follow that there are no substantial forms. The most that this would show is that the true substances — entities with substantial forms — are to be found exclusively at the micro level rather than (as Aristotelians historically have supposed) also existing at the level of ordinary everyday objects. Being a stone, for example, would be an accidental form of the particles that make up the stone, with (some level of) particles being the entities that really have substantial forms. (my emphasis).

    From this perspective, which is what I hold to, there is no substantial change from “dough” to “bread” to “me” if I bake a loaf of bread and eat it. Rather, the molecules of the dough are rearranged in the rising and baking process, and rearranged again when I digest it and my cells assimilate it.

    • Dennis permalink
      December 15, 2014 12:09 am

      “That makes it sound like the seed wants to become a plant, or a boat wants to sail or the ball wants to come to rest at the bottom. “Aim” and “purpose” seem to presuppose a mind or will. I get what Aristotle is saying; but I think the way he frames it is rather confusing.”

      No, certainly not, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/09/teleology-revisited.html

      I am really sorry to say this, but you have not even understood what it even means by teleology.

      It seems odd to me to say that the ratio of 2:1 causes the octave. I’d say that to say that the 2:1 ratio in frequency exists between two notes an octave apart is more a description than a cause. Aristotle, being a biologist, tends to think of things actualizing their own nature–kind of like a plant or animal–but to me that’s an odd way to look at an inanimate object or a numerical ratio.

      You can only actualize something, if it is *potency*, if it is not in potency, then there is nothing to actualize and it is ALREADY an actual! There is no self-motion required from the rock to fall, in towards something which instantiates gravity. The nature of the thing, is then a certain principle and the cause of stability in the thing, and it is directly present in it. Or, it is IT. In other words, distinction is present within the things that are found in nature, or natural substances. The thing you should be looking at now, is the universals.

      “Being a stone, for example, would be an accidental form of the particles that make up the stone, with (some level of) particles being the entities that really have substantial forms. ”

      I don’t see what you’ve said here that disagrees with the formal cause.

      “From this perspective, which is what I hold to, there is no substantial change from “dough” to “bread” to “me” if I bake a loaf of bread and eat it. Rather, the molecules of the dough are rearranged in the rising and baking process, and rearranged again when I digest it and my cells assimilate it.”

      It is only because you’ve misrepresented Feser’s position, and taken the quote out of context, an aggregate of parts, presupposes substantial forms at some level of the composition, this is not hard to get.

      “….A third point is that the Scholastic metaphysician would hold that the *micro-level parts are in a substance only “virtually” rather than “actually” in the first place, and in a sense depend on the whole as much as the whole depends on the micro-level parts.* Spelling all this out and responding to the usual objections is not something I can do in an already lengthy combox discussion, though — again, interested readers are referred to my book Scholastic Metaphysics.” – Edward Feser

      So, you do not even understand what it means by *substantial change*…..? You’ve still not understood the formal cause. Please go back to Parmenides and Heraclitus, study what they are arguing about, and then let Aristotle enter. And let me add, you are stil not dealing with the physical intentionality that New Essentialists have been constantly speaking of, let’s even grant that you deny it, but you are only reaffirming it by what you write, I don’t see how any of what you said goes against the formal cause but only ends up supporting it.

      It’s Christmas season, and I’m with Dr. Feser here, please purchase a copy of Scholastic Metaphysics.

  18. Daniel permalink
    December 14, 2014 5:26 pm

    @ turmarion December 14, 2014 12:18 pm

    Looks like I need to restart the thread.

    “Analysis of the molecular structure of water and mercury explains why this is; Scholastic philosophy, not so much.”

    I’ll let Ed do the talking here since I am no expert: Here is a quote from “Scholastic Metaphysics”:

    “To say, as Boyle or Locke might have, “Opium causes sleep because the corpuscular constitution of opium is such that, when ingested, sleep results” — or, to use modem language, to say “Opium causes sleep because the chemical structure of opium is such that when ingested, sleep results” — is hardly more informative than saying “Opium causes sleep because it has a dormitive power. (Cf. Des Chene 1996, p. 24, n. 5; Woolhouse 1983, p. 112) If the former statements are neither tautologies nor completely uninformative — and they are not — then neither is the later. Of course, the critic might reply that statements of the former sort are not intended by themselves to provide a complete explanation, but simply to make a general point about what a correct explanation will have to involve, whatever the empirical details turn out to be. But as I have said, the same thing is true of the attribution of causal powers.”

    Metaphysics operates at this level of description, which is why it is in the realm of philosophy and not science. As a more general statement, most scientists are not aware of the philosophical presuppositions inherent in their methodology. Ed often points out that the default philosophical presupposition in modern science seems to be Humean. Now you cannot use science itself to analyze these Humean superpositions. They are pre-scientific in nature and yet assumed in the scientific method. Comparing Humean philosophy with Scholastic philosophy would be a more appropriate endeavor I think.

    Cheers,
    Daniel

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