Conference version of “Reconsidering Abstraction from Matter”

For those who have better things to do than read the 22pp version of my De Koninck abstraction paper, what follows is a slightly edited version of the 15-minute version of the paper which I delivered at the recent III Congreso Internacional de Filosofía Tomista.

photo credit: Pablo Valdebenito

St. Thomas and Modern Natural Science: Reconsidering Abstraction from Matter

1. Introduction to the problem

I would like to begin by thanking Prof. Casanova and the Universidad Santo Tomas for this opportunity to present to you today on the topic of the relationship between the philosophy of nature and the modern sciences.

The goal of this presentation is to outline a rapprochement between the scholastic idea of formal causality and the modern scientific idea of physical law. I will be following St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the ideas of Charles De Koninck as the basis for finding a measure of harmony between pre-modern philosophy of nature and the modern mathematical-scientific approach to inquiry into nature.

Do physical laws resolve any of the problems that were reserved to Scholastic physics to solve using formal causality? I argue that they do not. To show the need for a Thomistic understanding of formal causality let us proceed in three steps. First, we will review the origin of form as a philosophical concept. Second, we will review the origin of physical law as a concept (not historically, but based upon philosophical motivations).  Third, I will point out one of the three elements that Charles De Koninck uses to provide a rapprochement between formal causality and modern science. (The other two elements I will only mention, due to time.)

2. The origin of form

There are two philosophical problems for which formal causality provides the solution. The first is the problem of change. The second is the problem of intelligibility. Form, by solving the problems, is known as the cause of the being and the intelligibility of changing things.

First, the problem of change. This is a classical problem, and has a Parmenidean side and a Heraclitean side. On the side of Parmenides, change or motion appears to be a contradiction in terms. To change is to-be-what-one-is-not, and this looks like a contradition. On the side of Heraclitus, a changing being appears to have no stability whatsoever; there is no principle of sameness in phenomena. Thus, (a) Parmenides: being is one and immobile; (b) Heraclitus: being is constant only in change—you cannot step in the same river twice.

Of course, the Aristotelian and Thomistic solution is the theory of hylomorphism. Form as act and matter as potency provide the causal explanation for the ability to change and the structural realities realized through change. The stability of changing being is preserved by form as a cause. Note, however, that the Peripatetic only knows form through its effects, though the changes permitted by form.

Now for the second problem, the problem of intelligibility. Here we have a similar method for discovering form as the solution to this problem. Just as we recognize that motion exists and then discover form as a necessary condition for the structural reality of motion, so also we recognize that objects of knowledge exist and discover form as a necessary condition for the reality of our knowledge. That is, realism about knowledge demands that formal causes of things be received in some mode by the soul. This need to explain the reality of our knowledge is the driving force that leads St. Thomas to the principle of this conference: <<cognoscens in actu, est ipsum cognitum in actu>>. There is a formal identity between the objects of knowledge (the visible, the inteligible), and the soul.

Here again, Aristotle steers between a hyperrealism of form advocated by Plato and a scepticism about form advocated by nominalism. Form is the necessary condition for preserving what we experience at first about the world: the being and intelligibility of things.

Now, let us proceed to the next step …

3. The origin of physical law

To describe the philosophical motivation for the origin of physical law, I will propose a two-stage shortcut. First, we will revisit Baconian nominalism, and second, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

First, Francis Bacon, the lawyer turned philosopher, provides a striking redefinition of formal causality in his New Organon. He states:

I (have) noted and corrected as an error of the human mind the opinion that forms give existence. For though in nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies, performing pure individual acts according to a fixed law, yet in philosophy this very law, and the investigation, discovery, and explanation of it, is the foundation of (both knowledge and operation). And it is this law with its clauses that I mean when I speak of forms.

Note two things. First, Bacon is a nominalist. What exists are only individual bodies and their individual actions. These alone exist in things or in reality. It is only in philosophy that the law of those actions becomes something inteligible, collected by the mind. Second, note that Bacon redefines form as the very expression in words (or later, in mathematical symbols) that describe this action, change, or motion. These two features will become very important.

Now, to consider the second stage: the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. This is a classic distinction, especially powerful in early modern philosophy. Primary qualities (e.g., according to John Locke) are those which really exist in things and (and this is striking) which our ideas really resemble. The size, shape, texture, and motion of bodies are real. By contrast, the secondary qualities like color, flavor, etc., are not really in things and our ideas of those qualities resemble nothing of the things. (Locke also has a third category: physical powers of cause and effect, action and reaction; the fact that these powers are not really in physical objects is also striking, for it evacuates nature of real causal interaction. But we must leave this aside.)

The two elements (Baconian nominalism and the distinction between primary and secondary qualities) help us to formulate a basic understanding of the modern paradigm of explanation using laws. Notice how these two elements propose replies to the problem of change and the problem of intelligibility, but the answers are very different.

Thus, on the one hand, Bacon denies hylomorphism; his redefinition of form does not solve the Parmenidean and Heraclitean dilema but merely makes the dilema iteself the terms of investigation. The <<physical law>> is a timeless logos of things that are always changing. What exists is the Heraclitean flux, and the mind makes it inteligible through an immobile Parmenidean idea (and if scientists ever discovered one formula for all change, then we would be monistic Parmenides as well).

On the other hand, there is no formal identity, regarding the problem of intelligibility, there is no longer any formal identity between our knowledge and the objects know. Famously, the divide between primary and secondary qualities results in a Berkeleyian skepticism regarding the reality of matter. (Hume and Kant do not exactly improve upon this situation.) What is left for the scientist to do is to progressively and dialectically make better and better reconstructions of the phenomena using theories and models. Without a formal identity of mind and world, on such a philosophical understanding, our very science becomes extrinsic and alien to the things it claims to explain.

Yet surely this is not true; scientists, those closet realists, would never fall for such an epistemological idealism.

4. The rapprochement between form and law

And so we turn to the final part of this presentation. I will descibe how Charles De Koninck attempts to update the notion of formal identity, which implies the Thomistic doctrine of abstaction of form from matter. This is the first element of three elements in De Koninck´s philosophy of science that I find very important, but I will only mention the other two.

Here we must note that Thomistic natural philosophy studies ens mobile, mobile being. In order to do this, the philosopher defines ens mobile using <<sensible matter>>. What does this mean: <<sensible matter>>? It means (counterintuitively) that matter which only the mind can fully understand and which is the principle of substantial and accidental changes. So, it is not called sensible matter because we can sense it; no indeed, we can only understand this matter intellectually. It is called sensible because we discover it through the changes that we experience.

Note, second, that this sensible matter is what St. Thomas, following Aristotle, would call a per accidens object of sensation. A proper, per se object of sensation is, e.g., color or sound or flavor (n.b., the secondary qualities). A common, per se object of sensation is, e.g., shape or size or motion (n.b., the primary qualities). By contrast, the per accidens object of sensation is comunicable only in speech or by the mind; our senses really experience these objects but cannot fully appreciate them. Paradigmatically, the objects sensible only per accidens are substances. We see Socrates and hear him—true statement. But we can do this only because our intellect understands Socrates as a substance and therefore a posible locus of predication; our senses cannot fully comprehend this reality. Thus, scholastic physics defines its object of study with reference to this inteligible source called sensible matter, the substantial principles of physical reality.

Here is where De Koninck notes that the formal object of modern science (especially mathematical physics) has retreated from the full-fledged objects of knowledge known by natural philosophy. So, his strategy to relate formal causality and physical law is to show that, despite these cognitive retreats, physical laws are still defined with reference to sensible matter. This is the first element of his rapprochement. It outines two cognitive retreats.

The first cognitive retreat is to notice that science (and here I will speak only of mathematical physics) defines its object by focusing on the common sensibles, the primary qualities. This is not a classical abstraction (of the formal from the material) but the reverse. It is a quasi-abstraction, because what stands as matter or subject (the common sensibles) are abstracted from what is more formal (the proper sensibles). Yet this quasi-abstraction provides the scientist with a much more mathematically amenable object of knowledge.

The second cognitive retreat is to when the scientist focuses only on the numerical result of the measurement. The measurement defines the natural object formally for the scientist. However, the measurement itself does not make any sense unless it is referred to a what De Koninck calls a background (here he follows Eddington). The mathematical physicist does not study pure number but a measurement, something that must refer to a sensible physical standard.

Yet here is where De Koninck finds that mathematical physics retains a reference to sensible matter. The mind can refer the sensible measurements to some underlying. This “background” of the measurements requires primary and secondary qualities to be understood, yet it is something more than those qualities. This “background” is perceived only by the mind. It is a per accidens sensible object that defines the intelligibility of physical objects. It is what the scholastic would call sensible matter.

However, this is just the first element. This formal object constructed by the scientist using measurements is what De Koninck calls a symbol or symbolic construction. The second element of De Koninck´s rapprochement between scholastic physics and modern physics requires that we note that symbols are derivatively meaningful. Symbols contain meaning only because of natural concepts, or verba cordis. This is another resolution to formal causality. The third element is the idea that formal causality, when compared to the progressing, dialectically revised models of modern physics, is a type of limit. That is, as physical theory progresses in its applicability to phenomena, it approaches form as a noetic limit, the boundary of knowledge. Taken together, although here presented only very quickly, these elements provide a way for the Thomist to reconsider abstraction from matter as a cornerstone in our philosophical and scientific understanding of nature.


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