On recovering teleological conceptions of the cosmic whole

Recently, Sancrucencis has defended his claim, made in his excellent lecture on the nature of freedom, that Descartes is the source of the modern conception of freedom. The reason for this is that Descartes advanced in an exemplary fashion a non-teleological conception of nature. The Cartesian claims we no longer inhabit a cosmos, a whole marked and formed by beneficent and beautiful order.

This non-teleological conception generates the basic problem of a defense, from first principles, of moral norms. Sancrucensis points us to Leo Strauss’s formulation in the opening of Natural Right and History. The original question at issue is how we conceive of the whole: “From the point of view of Aristotle—and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?—the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved.” Since the original question has been answered, by modern science, in favor of the mechanical-material, the problem of moral naturalism and dualism quickly results (to which latter category Strauss wrongly assigns all modern Thomists, as Sancrucensis notes).

My dissertation director Richard Hassing, in an article to which I will refer shortly, also cites this passage of Strauss on the original question and provides in a gloss a key Aristotelian text from which it springs:

There are some who say chance is the cause of this heaven and of everything in the cosmos. For they say that the vortex and the motion which distinguished and arranged the all into this order comes to be from chance. (Physics, II.4, 196a25–28; cf. 199a3–5)

This text contains the Aristotelian “cosmological problem”: is mind/nature prior to chance as ultimate source of cosmic order? (I discuss this problem in §3 of my dissertation.) Aristotle’s answer is that since nature/mind are causes prior to luck and chance as the per se is prior to the per accidens, and thus whenever luck and chance are causes, nature and mind are still there somewhere and first. St. Thomas gives a supporting argument ex convenientia at this juncture:

The cause of the whole universe seems to be prior to the cause of some part of the universe, since any part of the universe is ordered to the perfection of the universe. But it seems to be inconsistent that some other cause is prior to that which is the cause of the heavens. Hence it is inconsistent that chance is the cause of the heavens. (In Phys., II, lect. 10, n. 237)

The argument from fittingness given by St. Thomas in the second paragraph amounts to maintaining that it is incongruous that the part is not by chance but the whole is so. We would need a strategy to take this argument beyond mere fittingness. The strategy for establishing the cosmological thesis—that nature and mind are causes prior to chance in the cosmic whole—would be twofold. First, if what comes to be by chance exists on a cosmic scale and if there are ends at the cosmological scale, then mind or nature would necessarily be prior causes. This is the route taken by De Koninck, to which Sancrucensis refers, in De Koninck’s The Cosmos. Alternately, a direct proof of the existence and nature of the causality exercised by a first per se mover of the cosmos (whether itself moved or unmoved) could establish the cosmological thesis.

Sancrucensis also notes that it is “not entirely clear what Strauss himself thought about the issue of that basic problem,” namely, the dilemma arising from a non-teleological view of the universe in the wake of the victory of modern science with its Newtonian and Darwinian modes of explanation. For further explication of Strauss’ approach to this problem, I recommend Richard Hassing’s review/article of Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right, with subsequent reply by Arnhart and response by Hassing (all available here). The issue of this exchange is the extent to which Darwinian biology is compatible with an Aristotelian conception of normative ethics flowing from the understanding of the noble and good in human nature. In this context of his review, Hassing delineates six core philosophical problems that underlie the dilemma framed by Strauss, as well as a helpful appendix of eleven core texts from Strauss’ corpus. While his exegesis of Strauss is lapidary and clarifies what Strauss himself thought, it also leaves the problem unresolved (cf. his response to Arnhart, p. 42). The article also points out the bookend to the modern conception of freedom that corresponds to the Cartesian source, in a context where Hassing (in parallelism to arguments proposed, e.g., by Plantinga against the Dawkinists) is discussing the adequacy of the Darwinian proposal for understanding our own desire for speculative truth as a part within “the whole” cosmos:

If any philosophic notion attends the conception of modernity and modern science in major thinkers from Machiavelli through Nietzsche, including Darwin, it is that the whole is not beneficent. The universe, falsely regarded with wonder and reverence by the Greeks and Medievals, is in reality “an indifferent and largely homogeneous otherness, in part edible, in part dangerous” (Leon Kass, in The Ethics of Human Cloning, p. 28).

Here is Nietzsche, with his customary moderation:

‘According to nature’ you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power—how could you live according to this indifference? (Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 9)

In the face of this, it is human will and human creativity—in one form or another—that counts . . . . And it seems that we have two forms of willful creativity: an early modern, Baconian-Cartesian, and a later, Nietzschean-Heideggerian form. The Baconian-Cartesian form is most conspicuously exemplified today in the unsettling implications of genetic science . . . . In the Nietzschean-Heideggerian form, powerful poetry is ultimate. My present point is that, according to this account, truth could be deleterious to life (Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorisms 1–23). In particular, the scientific truth of Darwin’s theory could be bad for reproductive fitness, because it destroys our inspiring beliefs. According to Arnhart, “Darwinian theorists can explain the Mosaic law as promoting the reproductive interests of the Jews” (DNR, p. 259). Did Moses and his people understand themselves in this way? Would it have worked if they did? We don’t have to be Nietzscheans to see that the answer to these questions is, no. In view, then, of the cosmological or cosmo-theological question, we cannot assume a simple harmony between scientific truth and reproductive success. (Hassing, “Darwinian Natural Right?” p. 145)


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