The Mystery of Matter

Part II:

Chapter 4: A Thomist Philosophy of Nature?


Our first section could be called a sad, but mercifully short, history of a Thomist philosophy of nature, but one that ends on a promising note. A Thomist philosophy of nature? Just what could that possibly be? Naturally we are going to have to look at this matter in considerable detail, but for now we can define it as a distinctively philosophical point of view of matter, space and time, in short, nature, or the sensible real that is the very subject matter that the physicist, biologist or psychologist looks at from the perspective of his or her own discipline. This is very definitely a philosophy of nature, and not a science of nature, and not some pale appendage to science which forlornly and belatedly follows in its wake. This amounts to saying that there are two very different ways in which to look at nature, and these two ways, if a dialogue could be established between them, could find very interesting things to say to each other. But the obstacles to such a dialogue are enormous. A brief glance at the history of the philosophy of nature will show us why.

We have already seen a number of references to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), and the history of a Thomist philosophy of nature begins with him. Aristotle was both a great scientist and a wonderful philosopher, and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) derived much of his philosophy of nature and his understanding of science from him. Thomas, himself, certainly had no where near the scientific interest of Aristotle, or even the omnivorous curiosity in the field of science of his own teacher, Albert the Great. He was primarily a theologian and philosopher. But the critical point is this: neither Aristotle nor Thomas distinguished their science from their philosophy of it nature. How could they? Science as we know it didn’t begin to exist until the 16th century. Even then it was going to be a long and difficult process for the sciences to discover their own distinctive ways of proceeding, and even the first modern scientists thought of themselves as philosophers of nature.

So when we look at the philosophy of nature to be found in St. Thomas, we are going to see it mixed with various bits and pieces of Aristotelian science and Greek science, in general. The long Aristotelian tradition that stretches from Aristotle to the 16th century is, therefore, an undifferentiated mixture of these two elements, and what is more, it is easy to see how in it blind repetition of supposed scientific findings could take the place of the actual examination of facts. Even on the philosophical side of things, rote often took the place of striving for insight. Since science and the philosophy of nature were so closely bound up with each other for so long, the birth of modern science took on some of the characteristics of the breakup of a long marriage. The modern sciences began to discover their distinctive methods, revel in this newfound freedom and make tremendous progress. They had little patience with a philosophical tradition that would keep them chained to the handed down fragments of Greek science. They needed to go their own way, but having broken with the science of the past, they at the same time broke with the philosophy it was mixed with. While it was true that the scientists did not need a philosophy of nature in order to do science, it was also true that they presupposed certain philosophical principles like the existence of the world around them, and our ability to know it, and that they were led by their scientific work to pose certain philosophical questions. In short, there is an incurable philosophical bent in scientists, not precisely as scientists, but as men and women searching for a wider context in which to place their scientific findings. The history of science then becomes in part the story of the many philosophical partners that science has taken on and discarded over the last 400 years. Even when science did not pick out an already existing philosophy, it often blithely created one out of whole cloth in the image and likeness of science. Science then became the one true way to know things, and philosophy was discredited altogether. We don't need to pursue this chapter in the history of thought in any detail. Jacques Maritain, whom we will meet in a few moments, has carefully examined its philosophical implications, and more recently, Stanley Jaki, in The Relevance of Physics and many essays, with the keen eye of a historian of science, has clearly pointed out the philosophical substructures, both overt and hidden, in the work of many scientists.

What we do need to do is look at what happened to the old philosophy of nature. Angry and uncomprehending of its rejection by science, it withdrew from it. It reflected on its metaphysical foundations, and the principles it had derived from the examination of nature, but it failed to see that it needed a living and vital dialogue with science in order to be stimulated to reflect on the findings of science in its own way, and thus stay alive. The philosophy of nature lived on as a seldom visited province in the world of Thomist philosophy, and its dialect became more and more archaic and less understandable to the outside world. If scientists had wanted to dialogue with it, they could have hardly found it or understood it. This kind of a Thomist philosophy of nature made its way down to the end of the 19th century when a far-reaching renewal of Thomist philosophy began.

By the eve of World War II it had made a brilliant recovery of the revolutionary metaphysics of St. Thomas centered on the act of existence, and it had made substantial advances in other areas, as well, but the Thomist philosophy of nature was not one of them. It existed as an artificial construct composed of the opinions of Aristotle and Thomas that were extracted from their work and put in logical form in order to be better packaged in college textbooks and seminary manuals. But the vital ingredient of living contact with the sciences was still missing. To be sure, it still contained philosophical gems, but they were lost in a barren plain of abstraction. This kind of philosophy of nature was taught in Catholic colleges and seminaries right down to the 1960's, and perhaps there are still places where it is being taught today, but on the whole it produced a profound stupor in both its students and professors.

Thomism as a whole also suffered from bad pedagogy and was too often imposed from without instead of given the chance to capture the minds and hearts of its students from within. With the advent of the Second Vatican Council and the freedom it brought in its wake, this kind of Thomism quickly fell apart, and if anything, a Thomist philosophy of nature disintegrated even more. It could almost be said that even the Thomists, themselves, could hardly believe in it.

All this should not be taken as a demonstration of deep-seated flaws in the principles of this philosophy of nature. I think the situation is much like a banked fire where the coals are still alive under the ashes, or a tree in winter that shows no apparent life, but could blossom magnificently when the spring returns, and this sad history does, as I said, have a promising end. Although the 20th century renewal of Thomism in general did not extend to the philosophy of nature, there was a notable exception. Jacques Maritain, one of the most dynamic and creative Thomists of this century or any other, made a concerted effort to reestablish the foundations for such a philosophy.

Maritain (1882-1973) grew up in Paris in a liberal Protestant setting, and studied both science and philosophy at the Sorbonne, but neither one of them satisfied his deeper aspirations. He went on to discover Henri Bergson, and then, together with his wife Raissa, converted to Catholicism. From that point on they faced a difficult but exhilarating challenge. How could science, philosophy and faith be reconciled? There was to be no ready-made answer to this question, but rather, a long journey of discovery. Unsure of what road to follow, Maritain went off to Heidelberg in 1906 to study new developments in biology with the help of Hans Driesch. It was in that setting that he came to the reluctant conclusion that Bergsonian philosophy was not compatible with the faith he had embraced. He sensed in an instinctive way the kind of philosophy he was looking for, and a bit later, found it in St. Thomas. But the Thomism that Maritain discovered had little to do with the dry scholastic manuals, or even the external structure of medieval thought. Maritain made living contact with the fundamental intuitions that animated the philosophy of St. Thomas, and so he could apply these principles to contemporary situations, as he did with good effect in fields as diverse as art, poetry and politics.

But he never forgot his dream to relate science to philosophy and to faith, and it was one of his major achievements to develop an epistemological framework, a veritable noetic typology in his masterpiece, The Degrees of Knowledge, that maps out the relationship between the sciences of nature, the philosophy of nature, metaphysics, faith, theology and mysticism. Late in his life he called the development of a Thomist philosophy of nature a vanished dream of his youth, but by that he didn't mean that he had given it up as a lost cause, or had had a change of heart about the foundations for such a philosophy of nature that he had laid down, but rather, that time and circumstances had not allowed him to do more in the field of the actual dialogue between such a philosophy of nature, and the contemporary sciences. He did, in fact, make some Interesting applications, which we will look at later, but he saw that so much remained to be done.

Let's try to get some idea of the map of the mind that he created in regard to the sciences and the philosophy of nature. Following Aristotle and St. Thomas, he accepted that when the mind grappled with reality, it discovered three distinct territories: physical reality, or the world of nature, the world of mathematics, and the realm of metaphysics. We have seen that for the ancients, and even for the first scientists, there was not yet any distinction between science and the philosophy of nature, and one of the main tasks that Maritain set for himself was to make that distinction clear, to clarify the epistemological types of the individual sciences, and contrast them with that of the philosophy of nature. Further, he wanted to carry out this process by making contact with the best of the Thomism of the past, and bringing its fundamental principles to bear on this new question.

The sciences have their distinctive ways of trying to Understand physical reality, and this was at the root of their need to break with the old philosophy of nature. But this does not mean - and this is a point that is much more difficult for our modern age to accept - that there cannot be a distinctively philosophical way of looking at this same physical reality. Indeed, our whole first part was devoted to showing that the more scientists pursue the deep issues of their science, the more apt they are to begin to pose questions that point to a need for a philosophy of nature. Naturally, given the history of a Thomist philosophy of nature that we have seen, it is not at all surprising that they did not look in that direction, nor is it surprising that scientists today would, for the most part, have great difficulty believing that there even could be a philosophy of nature. But let's go a little further and see how Maritain describes the differences between the sciences of nature and a philosophy of nature.

Both the sciences and the philosophy of nature deal with the same subject matter, which is the world of nature or sensible beings. But they have very distinctive ways of looking at it. The scientists look at it by way of measurement and observation, while the philosophers of nature look at it from the perspective of its ontological content, the essences of things, or their basic constitutive principles. The scientists focus on "sensible being, but first and foremost, as observable or measurable." (1) The philosophers of nature grasp the same sensible being, but they see this sensible being "first and foremost as intelligible." (2) We will return to these distinctions later and see the delicate instruments that Maritain has fashioned that can be applied with good effect to the dialogue between the sciences and the philosophy of nature. Our task now is to accustom our ears to the texture and feel of the language to be found in St. Thomas, both in his philosophy of nature and the metaphysical vision that underlies it. The following quotes from St. Thomas will help us make a beginning.


Nothing but the divine goodness moves God to produce things. (3)

God does not preserve things in existence except by continually pouring out existence in them. (4)

Since God is very being by the divine essence, created being must be God's proper effect, as to ignite is the proper effect of fire. Now God causes this effect in things not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being; as light is caused in the air by the sun as long as the air remains illuminated. Therefore, as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it, according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things, since it is formal in respect to everything found in a thing. Hence it must be that God is in all things, and most intimately so. (5)

The preservation of things by God is a continuation of that action whereby God gives existence. This action is without either motion or time, just as the preservation of light in the air is by the continual influence of the sun. (6)

Just as the soul is whole in every part of the body, so is God whole in all things and In each one. (7)

Now God and nature and every other cause work for the optimum total effect and for the completion of each and every part, not in isolation but in relation to the entire system. (8)

Nothing among creatures is so weak that it does not share in some divine gift, from which sharing it takes a part so that it has a friendship of shared nature with the other creatures. If all things are united with all things, they not only come together in the one shape of the whole, but they also come together in this fact: that all things are united according to one form, devised by the One who is the Author of all things. For this very unity of all things proceeds from the unity of the divine mind, as the shape of a house that is in the materials comes from the shape of the house that is in the mind of the architect. (9)

Some people presume that because God works in every active thing it is God alone who does the work and that no created power produces anything real. For example, that fire does not burn, but that God does. This is impossible, however. For such a situation would destroy the causal structure and interplay of the universe. And it would lead to positing a weakness in God, since it is from strength that any cause gives the power of causing to its offspring. Furthermore, if causal powers in fact did nothing and God did it all, then things would simply not have any power. They would be shams if you took away their proper activity, for they exist for their work. Thus, when speaking of God's universal causality, we must be careful to safeguard the proper activity of creatures. God attributes power of action to created things, and this is not out of a weakness on God's part, but rather out of God's most perfect fullness, which is sufficient for sharing with all beings. (10)

God wills that human beings exist for the sake of the perfection of the universe. (11)

Human nature is of an excellent making - it communicates with all the creatures. We have being in common with the stones; life in common with the trees; sense knowledge in common with animals; intelligence in common with the angels. Human beings occupy a m place between God and the brute animals, and they communicate with each of these extremes. With God according to intellectuality; with brute animals according to sensuality. (12)

The soul is in the body as containing it, not as contained by it. (13)

The rational creature tends, by its activity, toward the divine likeness in a special way that exceeds the capacities of all other creatures, as it also has a nobler existence as compared with other creatures. The existence of other creatures is finite, since it is hemmed in by matter, and so lacks infinity both in act and in potency. But every rational nature has infinity either in act or in potency, according to the way its intellect contains ideas. Thus our intellectual nature, considered in its first state, is in potency to its ideas; since these are infinite, they have a certain potential infinity. Hence the intellect is the form of forms, because it has a form that is not determined to one thing alone, as is the case with a stone, but has a capacity for all forms. (14)

The entire universe is constituted by all creatures, as a whole consists of its parts. In the parts of the universe every creature exists for its own proper act and perfection, and the less noble for the nobler... each and every creature exists for the perfection of the entire universe. Furthermore, the entire universe, with all its parts, is ordained toward God as its end inasmuch as it imitates, as it were, and shows forth the divine goodness, to the glory of God.. The divine goodness is the end of all corporeal things. (15)

The human body is something supreme in the genus of bodies and is harmoniously tempered. It is in contact with the lowest of the higher genus, namely, the human soul, which holds the lowest rank in the genus of intellectual substances, as can be seen from its mode of understanding. Thus one can say that the intellectual soul is on the horizon and on the confines of things corporeal and incorporeal. (16)

That which can exist, but does not, is said to be in potentiality. That which now exists is said to be in actuality.. The name "matte?' can be given both to what is in potentiality to substantial existence and to accidental existence; that which is potential to substantial esse is said to be prime matter... Matter, however, is said to have existence because esse comes to it, since its own esse is incomplete (or, rather, it has no esse, as the commentator says in On the Soul II). Thus, understood absolutely, the form gives existence to matter... Because form brings existence into actuality, we state that form is act... generation does not come from any nonentity whatsoever, but from nonentity that is an entity in potentiality, as a statue comes from bronze, which is a statue in potentiality and not in actuality. But three things are required for any generation: existence in potentiality, which is matter; nonexistence in actuality, which is privation; and that by which a thing is made to be in actuality, which is form. For example, a statue made out of bronze, which in potentiality to the form of statue, is matter; its shapeless or unformed state is privation; and the shape that allows it to be called a statue is its form. But this is not a substantial form, because before the shape is imposed, the bronze already has existence in actuality, and this existence does not depend upon the shape. Rather, this is an accidental form, for all artificial forms are accidental... Thus the matter destined for a statue is itself composed of matter and form. Therefore, since bronze possesses a form, it is not called prime matter. Matter, however, without any form or privation but subject to form and privation is called prime matter because there is no matter prior to it... It is evident from all we have said that there are three principles of nature: matter, form, and privation. But generation requires more than these. Whatever exists potentially cannot make itself exist actually. The bronze potentially a statue cannot cause itself to be a statue; an agent is needed to bring the form of the statue from potentiality to actuality. Nor can form extract itself from potentiality to actuality. I am referring to the form of the reality generated that we call the aim of generation. In other words, form exists only when the reality is achieved; but whatever does the achieving is present within the very becoming or while the reality is being achieved. In addition to matter and form, therefore, there must be a principle that acts, and this is called the efficient or the moving or the agent cause, or that which is the principle of motion. And since, as Aristotle comments in Metaphysics II (2; 994 b 15), nothing acts without some aim, there has to be a fourth thing, namely, the aim of the agent; and this is called the end. (17)

It is clear that we have quite a gap to bridge from St. Thomas to contemporary science. Even the final selection which comes from St. Thomas' Principles of Nature, leaves us wondering what relevance such a view could have. In Part III we are going to once again look at quantum theory, formative causation and synchronicity, but this time from the perspective of a Thomist philosophy of nature brought up to date with the help of Maritain. But before we undertake that difficult work, a little recreation Is in order in the form of a tongue-in-cheek Thomistic view of the creation of the universe, which might actually help us to penetrate a little more into the Thomistic vision of things.




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Chapter 5