Is science “philosophically crude”?

I’m currently reading Timothy McDermott’s introduction to his concise translation of St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, and was interested by what McDermott has to say on the difference between our way of looking at the world and Thomas’s.

McDermott argues that “our unconscious mechanist assumptions” colour “all our thought about the material world”. We want to know how things work, and regard the most fundamental, basically “true” account of reality as lying in understanding the temporal processes of cause-and-effect at the lowest level of observable reality.

This means that when we read Thomas talking (in his “five ways”) about the “first cause” or “unmoved mover”, we assume he is talking about the earliest in a temporal “relay-race” of causes and effects. However, for Thomas it is more a question of “whomever (or whatever) has the idea of the relay-race in the first place“, on a different level of reality from the relay-race itself.

As McDermott writes:

The irony of the clash [between these worldviews] is that each party thinks of the other party’s assumptions as something that it has outgrown. The theoreticians of modern science think of themselves as having rescued human thought from an Aristotelian and medieval anthropomorphism, and having won through to a proper objectivity; Aristotle, followed by Aquinas, thought he had overcome the abstract reductive view of existence found in earlier mathematicizing thinkers, and had won through to appreciation of the concrete variety of what actually exists. For modern science is in essentials a return to a way of thinking found among the earliest Greek philosophers, and a way of thinking which Aristotle and Thomas thought they had outgrown.

McDermott implies that modern science mirrors the “early philosophers” who, in Thomas’s words:

…began somewhat crudely by thinking that only bodies we can sense exist, that the essential substance of such bodies [what they really are] is uncaused, and that they change only [how they are] in inessentials, being now rarefied, now condensed, separating and combining under the influence of attraction and repulsion, mind and so on.

McDermott suggests that our modern view of reality:

…grants objective status to only the lowest level of description of the world (that of physics and chemistry), regarding natural things as more and more complex organizations of coincidences of such simple objects.

This “would strike Aristotle and Thomas simply as developed versions of a view they think philosophically crude”:

For Thomas there is not just one level at which things really exist but many: there are organizations of matter which are not mere products of general laws of attraction and repulsion arranging matter…

What I find exciting about all this is that it puts into more rigorous terms a basic conviction I have had for a long time: that, as Christians, it’s not our job to pick holes in the story told by science, but to insist that it is not the only story that can, or needs, to be told about reality: that there is more than one level on which reality needs to be understood.

3 thoughts on “Is science “philosophically crude”?”

  1. Thank you. Your brief summary is enlightening. The thought that materialism “is not the only story that can, or needs, to be told about reality: that there is more than one level on which reality needs to be understood” is probably the most important insight that I’ve gained from your writing over the years.

  2. I think it’s unjust to neatly throw all the presocratics into the “only bodies we can sense exist” bucket. This seems to take generalizations about the Milesian school of Anaximander and Anaximenes and apply them with a broad brush to all the early philosophers. But Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of souls (see the hilarious Fragment 21B7). And the main thesis of Heraclitus (my favorite presocratic) is that there is a divine universal principle which he called the logos, which “holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it” (Fragment B22).

    We should also not count on Aristotle to be a willing participant in supernatural speculations (see the more absurd parts of the Summa, e.g. questions I.50-64), for which Aquinas enlisted him but for which he isn’t extremely well suited. Aristotle had a high esteem for empirical study; he spent a lot of time in swamps studying frogs, for example. And he (much more than Aquinas) was keenly aware of the limits of speculation about the supernatural. See De Partibus Animalium 644b22:

    “Among the substances constituted by nature, some, we say, neither come to be nor perish for all time, and others share in coming to be and perishing. It turns out that we have fewer ways of studying the first type of substances, honorable and divine though they are; for very few things indeed are apparent in perception to give us a basis for inquiry into what we would like to know about these things. We are better supplied, however, with opportunities for knowledge about perishable plants and animals, since we live among them.”

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