Thursday, July 12, 2018
Crane and French on science and Aristotelianism
I called attention recently to the new anthology Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science, edited by William Simpson, Robert Koons, and Nicholas Teh, to which I contributed an essay. (If the price of the print version puts you off, you might consider the much more affordable electronic version.) Tim Crane reviews the book in the latest First Things. As I also noted recently, Steven French has reviewed it at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
Crane’s review does not actually say much about the essays in the book, but rather gives an overview of some aspects of the neo-Aristotelian revival that has occurred in contemporary analytic philosophy in recent years. This is a reasonable approach to take given the audience Crane is addressing – namely, educated general readers rather than professional philosophers. General readers won’t have the knowledge of contemporary analytic metaphysics that the essays presuppose, and may be surprised to learn that there even is such a thing as a neo-Aristotelian revival within academic philosophy. Hence it is not a bad idea to focus on bringing them up to speed.
French does discuss the essays in some detail (and of course, his audience does consist of professional philosophers). He is not sympathetic to the overall project of the volume, but he engages with it seriously and raises some interesting points.
French’s main reservations have to do with the extent to which Aristotelian metaphysics departs from naturalism, and the Aristotelian notions of potentiality and substantial form are what give him greatest pause. It seems to me that, at least to some extent, French’s concerns here are question-begging. For the naturalist, a sound metaphysics is one that is implicit in natural science, with natural science interpreted in a mechanistic way (which, these days, essentially means a way that is non-teleological and that gives ontological priority to the microphysical level). Philosophical concepts are considered well-articulated and well-motivated when they can be assimilated to this naturalistic framework.
But of course, the Aristotelian rejects this set of assumptions. For the Aristotelian, the methods to which modern science confines itself give us only what C. B. Martin has called a “partial consideration” of nature, and must be supplemented by, and interpreted within, a metaphysical framework which at least to some extent stands or falls independently of anything the natural sciences have to say. So, a criticism of Aristotelian metaphysics on the grounds that it does not conform to the strictures of naturalism simply assumes precisely what is at issue between the naturalist and the Aristotelian.
However, it would not be fair to French to attribute all of his reservations to a begging of the question in favor of naturalism. He also judges that the metaphors or analogies some of the volume’s authors use to elucidate notions like substantial form are insufficiently clear or helpful. Suppose for the sake of argument that French is right about this. How significant would that be?
French takes it to be fairly significant, no doubt because he is skeptical about Aristotelian notions like substantial form and is looking for reasons to take them seriously. He interprets the metaphors and analogies in question as purported reasons of the sort he is looking for and, finding them wanting, concludes that the authors haven’t made their case.
I don’t myself take the (alleged) deficiency of these particular metaphors and analogies to be very significant, though, because I think there are already ample independent philosophical grounds to endorse notions like substantial form – grounds of the sort one can find set out at length in my book on general Aristotelian metaphysics, or Oderberg’s book on the subject, or in some of the essays in anthologies like the Tahko volume, or the Groff and Greco volume, or the Novotny and Novak volume.
Mind you, I am not blaming French for not engaging here with such books – he’s simply writing a book review, and on another book, after all. The point is just that if he is looking in the present volume for a general defense of notions like substantial form (and maybe he’s not), I think he is looking in the wrong place. I don’t see the Simpson, Koons, and Teh volume as primarily concerned with that. Rather, I take it that its aim is primarily to take general Aristotelian notions that have already been defended at length elsewhere in the neo-Aristotelian literature, and apply them to specific issues that arise in the context of natural science. That’s a more limited aim, and the book should be judged in light of that aim.
And to some extent that is exactly what French does – as, for example, in his remarks about Alex Pruss’s essay on the “traveling forms” interpretation of quantum mechanics. It’s a great essay, and anyone interested in the relationship between Aristotelian philosophy of nature and quantum physics should study it. (They should also study Rob Koons’s excellent recent work on this, including Rob’s essay in the volume under discussion.) French suggests, however, that working out the “traveling forms” model might entail significant revisions of traditional Aristotelian views about material substance. (That is also a concern of mine. But I don’t think Alex is as old-fashioned an Aristotelian as I am, so I don’t think such revisionism would bother him much.)
Commenting on my own essay on Aristotelianism and relativity, French notes that I endorse an epistemic structural realist view of physics, on which there is more to the nature of physical reality than physics can tell us – which opens the door to the Aristotelian metaphysician, who claims to fill in at least some of the gaps left by the physicist. Not unreasonably, French asks:
[W]hy this kind of metaphysics and not some other? Or why any such extra metaphysics at all in this particular case, given that various accounts of how the impression of temporal passage can be reconciled with relativity theory are currently 'on the table'?
But, for one thing, I thought I answered that in the essay. I argue that change, as the Aristotelian understands it, cannot coherently be eliminated from our picture of nature. At an absolute minimum, it cannot coherently be denied that the scientist himself qua conscious subject undergoes change in the Aristotelian sense. But such change entails the distinction between actuality and potentiality; and in something embodied (as I take the conscious subject to be) the distinction between actuality and potentiality in turn entails the distinction between substantial form and prime matter. So, I take the incoherence of denying change to lead, on analysis, to hylemorphism. By itself that still leaves it open exactly how far the substantial form analysis can be applied within nature – here we have to go case by case – but that it has some application I take to be unavoidable on general metaphysical grounds.
For another thing, once we have real change, we also have (given the Aristotelian conception of time as the measure of change with respect to succession) temporal passage. And I mean actual temporal passage, not merely what French calls “the impression of temporal passage.” So, contrary to what French seems to imply, it is not enough for the non-Aristotelian to appeal to some account of how our “impression” that temporal passage is real can be reconciled with relativity. An adequate metaphysics, and an adequate interpretation of physics, must account for the fact that there really is such a thing as temporal passage.
(Much, much more on all these matters to come in my forthcoming philosophy of nature book Aristotle’s Revenge. Stay tuned.)