Are Thomism and science incompatible? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Someone sent me this article about Thomism and science by I.M. Skeptical who I will just call IM from now on. In this, he seeks to show that science is not compatible with Thomism. While he is at least quoting the other side, I do not think he really has the issues understood.
At the start, he says in this article that is a response to Thomistic Scholar that Dr. Dennis Bonnette, that since the original article was written, Thomistic scholars are obviously feeling the heat. This kind of armchair psychologizing I find amusing. If a Christian says nothing in response, he has no answer. If a Christian says something, it is obviously because he is scared of what has been stated. This doesn’t put the article at a good start.
As IM continues, he says that there is disagreement on the issue of God, but this cannot really be considered science vs. Metaphysics. After all, there are plenty of scientists who do believe in God. What ends up usually happening in this post of IM’s is that contradiction is asserted when it does not follow. IM does go on to say this:
Science has nothing to say about God, which is a metaphysical claim, so there is no disagreement there. But metaphysics goes far beyond the question of God’s existence. It is concerned with the reality of all kinds of things. In Thomism, movement is explained in terms of the metaphysical paradigm of act and potency. In science, it is explained in terms of the paradigm of mass, force, and energy, which is no less a metaphysical concept. But Thomists disagree with that, because they see metaphysics as being separate and distinct from physical reality. To them mass, force, and energy are science, but act and potency are metaphysics.
All movement in metaphysics is potentiality and actuality, but that can be brought about in terms of mass, force, and energy. It’s not an either/or. Gravity can cause an apple to fall, but that fall is also a case of actuality and potentiality at work. Thus, I don’t see how we disagree with that. While we could debate what a “law of nature” is, that doesn’t mean we don’t see that what is claimed is brought about by them does happen and there are physical consistencies. Actually, we would see this as part of the fifth way.
He goes on to say the following including a quote from Bonnette:
Bonnette attempts to illustrate his thesis of basic agreement by way of an example involving sensation and cognition. It is epistemological realism – the philosophical notion that the object of our perception has external reality. But his example goes off the rails with regard to agreement agreement between science and Thomism. The scientific view is that sensation of an external object creates a neural pattern in the brain, and subsequent cognitive references to the object actually occur by means of neural activity and connections involving that set of neurons. And Bonnette calls this an epistemological nightmare. He insists that knowledge of an external object is “direct”:
While an entire epistemology is not possible here, note that we cannot doubt external reality when it is directly confronted. Doubt arises only when we shift our attention to a judgment about the external object in which what we know is not the object itself. For example, if I close my eyes and wonder whether the lion confronting me is really about to attack me, I am no longer looking at the lion, but at some internal image of it.
IM responds with:
Just to get this straight, as I understand it, the point of agreement here is on an issue of epistemology – namely epistemological realism – not on the science of cognition, which Bonnette apparently holds in disdain. We don’t “directly confront” external reality at all, but the only image we have is an internal image that exists entirely in the brain. And to the extent that our senses can be fooled, it is possible for a false image to be formed, and we certainly can doubt that external reality. How this supports his thesis is a mystery to me.
However, IMs statement would be a science killer if believed. Why not be a solipsist? You could point to the data you get from the world around you, but how do you know that is really from the world around you? Perhaps it is all a hallucination? If the place you start is inside your head, you can never get out. This is why Thomism has been called the common sense philosophy.
Do we know about hallucinations and senses being wrong? Of course, but we start out with the idea that all things being equal, our senses are generally reliable. IMs position is more of a Kantian position which is probably the strongest reply to Aquinas, though I still find it problematic. If IM starts in their head, then all the data that comes in to them supposedly could still just be part of the hallucination. You could never know otherwise.
IM goes on with another quote from Bonnette:
The next area of agreement that he discusses is “metaphysical first principles”, such as the principal of non-contradiction and the principal of sufficient reason. Again, he gives examples that don’t seem to support his own thesis. On non-contradiction, he says:
Even the smallest phenomena must be read as what it is and not as its contradictory – otherwise, the reading would be useless. Claims of contradictory phenomena, such as wave-particle duality, rely on such observations. If a subatomic entity appears as a wave, that same exact reading cannot say it is a particle.
He evades the real issue here. Yes, it’s true that observations of particles only measure one of these properties at a time, but the more fundamental issue is not that these properties are contradictory, but that the subatomic particle is something that exhibits both characteristics. So rather than clinging to concepts of physical substance that are contradicted by observation, we need a metaphysical concept of substance that agrees with what we observe.
All that is being said is contradictions can’t be true. Again, if it is thought that contradictions can be true, then we can all go home. IM is right and Bonnette is right and I am right and if you disagree you are right. Again, reality will all break down. What about the Principle of Sufficient Reason?
Likewise, on the principal of sufficient reason, he reverts to a theistic definition of causation:
Causes are merely reasons for things that do not explain themselves.
Which is just another way to say that everything has a cause except for God. And he insists that scientists always have to find causes for everything. But that’s not really true. At a macro level, things can be said to have causes (in terms of objects interacting with one another according to Newtonian or relativistic physical laws), but at the quantum level, things happen on a stochastic basis, and there is no notion of causality in quantum physics. As it happens, this is a major point of disagreement between science and Thomism, despite Bonnette’s denial.
I love that first line of dismissal as if what Bonnette is saying is all about God. No. It’s not. There is no interaction with the four traditional causes of Aristotle. There is also nothing wrong with finding causes for things. Am I to think that scientists look at the quantum level and say to themselves, “Well, that looks uncaused. Let’s go get a drink.” At this point, my thinking is wait and see what will happen in the future in science.
He also takes care to separate the metaphysical principles at the heart of Thomism from science.
Potency and act, matter and form, finality, essence and existence: Most other Thomist principles are so clearly philosophical that natural science properly says little about them. The exceptions would be materialist denials that substantial forms and final causes exist in nature. Still, those are clearly philosophical, not scientific, claims.
He has no choice but to make this separation, because these metaphysical principles are in direct contradiction to modern science. Act and potency do not explain how things move. They provide a teleological account of movement that was incorporated into the physics of Aristotle, which was the science of the day, but no longer have any explanatory value. Essentialism and forms are a reflection of man’s propensity to classify things, but they are purely conceptual, and don’t even stand up to philosophical scrutiny, let alone scientific. (As modern philosophers note, how many grains of sand can you remove from a dune before it is no longer a dune? As scientists note, at what point in evolutionary history does an ape give birth to a man?)
I always find it amusing that when science has a question, it’s always “Let’s go and find out the answer!” When the question exists in philosophy, “See? That’s proof that it’s false.” Every position has hard questions to answer. How many grains of sand make a dune? Granting evolution, when does an ape become a man?
These are all great questions worthy of study, but none are a defeater. They’re just reasons to keep studying. The same applies to science. He also says potency and actuality do not explain how things move. No one said that they do.
So why is it that Thomists place metaphysics as primary? IM has the answer!
“There is only one reason Thomists hold metaphysics above and separate from science. Metaphysics is the thing that stands between science and theism.”
Again, it has to be fear. Right? Nope. Metaphysics is first because it comes first in order of being. Science is second because it covers specific kinds of reality. Note that in the time of Aquinas, science as we know it would be called natural philosophy. Theology would be called a science for Aquinas seeing as it was a body of knowledge, which is essentially what is meant.
Thus, I find IM’s position not strong at all. He has at least interacted some, but the armchair psychology is the problem. I could just as easily turn it on him and say that he wrote a reply because he is feeling the heat of Thomism. That could be true, but it cannot be demonstrated and is only an ad hominem.
Finally, as a Thomist, I have no problem with science. Whatever is true in science we should affirm. Reality does not contradict.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)