Friday, January 1, 2016

The rise of Aristotle

Many of those with whom I encounter through comments on the internet usually turn their nose up when confronted with the Aristotelian-Thomistic (Scholastic) philosophy that I espouse. To them, Scholasticism is simply a relic of an antiquated and outdated philosophy. It was what a group of people were forced to think about the world before the advent of science, before we became “enlightened.” They say that terms like actuality, potentiality, final causality, essence or form, have long been relegated to the dustbin of failed and superfluous philosophies, especially since science no longer has any use of them. As physicist Sean Carroll has said, “This kind of Aristotelian analysis of causation was cutting edge stuff 2,500 years ago. Today we know better.” Moreover, others also claim that the only people who even resurrect these antiquated and esoteric ideas and concepts are apologists, trying to mask their arguments in obscure and archaic terminology so as to confuse their interlocutor—while simultaneously making their philosophy seem sophisticated.
I maintain that all this is false. First, the individuals I know who are Thomists espouse this philosophy precisely because they genuinely find it to be the only valid metaphysic, and not because they simply want to prove God’s existence. I myself was sincerely enamored with the Thomistic concepts that I read in Edward Feser’s book Aquinas, and found said concepts and philosophy to be a convincing and necessary ontological description of reality.

Second, and more importantly regarding this post, it is actually the case that Scholastic philosophy is seeing a major revival as of late. Now this might not seem like a big deal to the “skeptic” currently reading, since the number of adherents of a position does nothing to entail the validity or efficacy of said position—and I would agree. However, what’s interesting about this resurgence is the fact that most of the individuals who are returning to the concepts inherent in Scholasticism are not theists, and are not really in the Scholastic “camp” at all. Rather, this revival is mostly led by philosophers of science (yes, science) who see that a return to certain Aristotelian concepts is a necessary step towards a valid ontology.
Let us survey this resurgence. First, there are philosophers who claim that efficient causality necessitates that objects must have intrinsic dispositional properties—what they call “powers”—that are directed towards the generation of certain effects. While they don’t refer to this as final causality, this is essentially a return to that very notion. This has been promulgated by analytic philosophers like John Heil, in From an Ontological Point of View, C. B Martin, in The Mind in Nature, George Molnar, in Powers: A Study in Metaphysics, and Stephen Mumford, in Getting Causes from Powers and Dispositions. Furthermore, biologist J. Scott Turner, in The Tinkerer’s Accomplice, and philosophers of biology Marjorie Grene and Andre Ariew, in The Understanding of Nature, argue for a return to an Aristotelian notion of inherent teleology.

Second, essentialism—the belief that things have an inherent nature or essence that accounts for them being what they are—has seen a revival among secular philosophers as well. Philosopher of science Brian Ellis, in The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism, and philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, in Inference, Explanation, and Other Frustrations, put forward an Aristotelian essentialist interpretation of the results of the hard sciences like chemistry and physics.
Moreover, in recent analytic philosophy there has been talk of what are called categorical and dispositional properties (see here). As Edward Feser notes, these are really just different names for act and potency. The categorical properties of a thing being the properties that it actually instantiates—that is, the way it actually is—and where dispositional properties of a thing are properties that will manifest under certain conditions—that is, the way something can potentially be. These properties are discussed at length by Ellis, Mumford, Martin, and Molnar, all mentioned above, as well as analytic philosophers Galen Strawson and D.M. Armstrong,

Note again that these philosophers are secular and are not Scholastics, Thomists, or even Aristotelians. They are simply analytic philosophers who see that something like an Aristotelian philosophy—though they use different jargon than Aristotelians—of nature is a necessary framework for intelligibility of reality. The claim, then, that Scholasticism is nothing but an outdated and antiquated philosophy, mostly promulgated by apologists and charlatans, is blatantly false. Aristotelianism is on the cusp of a resurgence, and the naysayers would do well to sit up and take notice.

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