An Aristotelian and Modern Philosophy of Cosmology? (Presentation of 22 June)

The following is a modified-for-blog version of the presentation which I gave at the Segundas Jornadas Postdoctorales e Iniciación de Filosofía at the Institute of Philosophy, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, June 22.


Your comments, criticism, or thoughts are welcome.

An Aristotelian and Modern Philosophy of Cosmology?
A Sketch of Research and Some Fundamental Problems

• Introduction

My presentation today will be a general overview of my postdoctoral project with some philosophical “previews” of where my thoughts are taking me by way of conclusions. The title of my project is: Aristotelian Causes in Modern Cosmology? Charles De Koninck’s Philosophy of Science. This locates my project generally in the philosophy of science and more specifically in the philosophy of cosmology. Since I am still at the relative beginning of the project, I hope the goal of presenting an overview is acceptable. The presentation will also outline one of the first problems that I hope to resolve. I also hope that this overview will provide the opportunity for fruitful comment, critique, and further ideas.

The presentation will survey the following: (1) the motivation and background of the postdoctoral project; (2) the problems and questions that the project aims to address and answer; (3) the current partial solutions and answers that exist in the discipline and what I believe will be a more complete answer to the problems in the field. Specifically: I will discuss the fundamental question in the philosophy of nature, that is, the possibility of change in general, and how this bears on cosmological questions. I will also offer some reflections in connection with the “problem about change in general” and the conditions for an adequate ontology in light of the private language argument. Generally, I hope to leave you all at least disposed to the following conclusion, the hypothesis of my project: there exist philosophical resources in the resurgent tradition of Aristotelian philosophy of nature to coherently and comprehensively provide an ontological and epistemological support to the modern science of cosmology. A modern and Aristotelian (really: a neo-Aristotelian) philosophy of cosmology is possible.

1. Motivation and background of the project

Three themes compose the substance of my research: (c) philosophical problems in modern cosmology; (b) what Aristotelian philosophy can bring to bear on this topic; and (a) the work of Charles De Koninck. I will discuss these three in the reverse order.

(a) Charles De Koninck (1906–1965) was a native of Belgium who spent most of his career at the University of Laval in Québec City. He earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louvain, dissertating on the philosophy of Sir Arthur Eddington. De Koninck later received a doctorate in theology from the University of Laval. He taught at Laval and Notre Dame, and was the dean of Laval’s School of Philosophy from 1939–1956. He died in Rome during the Second Vatican Council while serving as a lay conciliar theologian to Maurice Cardinal Roy of Québec City.

De Koninck’s work testifies to the breadth of his scholarly interests, and recent scholarship has begun to investigate and exposit De Koninck’s contributions in many of these areas. My own project will utilize De Koninck’s works in the philosophy of science in the areas of ontology, epistemology, and human self-understanding. In particular, his approach will help me to navigate between modern claims and two older traditions: the Aristotelian and the Thomistic traditions in philosophy. So much about De Koninck, the particular modern scholar who will help guide my project. I will now turn to more properly philosophical motivation for the project.

(b) The philosophy of nature and metaphysics are historically and of their natures drawn in wonder towards a cosmological account—an attempt to give a ratio or logos of the cosmic whole. Aristotle himself shows how philosophy is both historically and of its nature drawn to such an account in a famous passage from the Metaphysics. In the course of his opening discussion of wisdom, the highest theoretical knowledge, Aristotle says:

For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. ~ Metaphysics I.2

Notably, Aristotle has focused the broad claim from the opening lines of the Metaphysics. Here, the wonder about the “genesis of the universe [kosmos]” is not something that arises as naturally as a desire to know, but this wonder is a cultivated and contingent eventuality. Now, on the one hand, even children ask questions about the moon and the stars. However, on the other hand, there is a disciplined way of asking questions about the genesis of the cosmos that requires answers to prior questions in a certain philosophical order. We begin with what is close by and proceed until we are asking questions about where everything came from—what is “the whole” and where is “the whole” from?

Indeed, some have doubted that answers to questions about “the whole” are possible. Leo Strauss discusses this doubt and notes that, “philosophy or the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge about the whole, presupposes that the whole is knowable, that is, intelligible.” [Strauss, NRH, p. 30] However, this “dogmatic character” of philosophy was overthrown “by the discovery of history or of the ‘historicity’ of human life.” [ibid., p. 31] This discovery, Strauss says, “can be expressed in theses like these:

[W]hat is called the whole is actually always incomplete and therefore not truly a whole; the whole is essentially changing in such a manner that its future cannot be predicted; the whole as it is in itself can never be grasped, or it is not intelligible; human thought essentially depends on something that cannot be anticipated or that can never be an object or that can never to mastered by the subject; “to be” in the highest sense cannot mean—or, at any rate, it does not necessarily mean—”to be always.” [ibid.]

This difficulty of knowing “the whole” can be summed up nicely: “‘Cosmos’ puts a label on an insight about the structure of the whole that is simply not available to sight.” [Seth Benardete, The Tragedy and Comedy of Life: On Plato’s Philebus (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993) 162-163. I thank Richard Hassing for the reference.] This impossibility of grasping “the all” or “the whole”—whether on the part of the object of knowledge or on the part of the subject of knowledge—undermines capital ‘c’ cosmology, that is, the meaning of cosmology which is more or less extensive with philosophy simply speaking. This bigger cosmology would include within itself ethics, politics, physics, anthropology—it would simply be another way of describing philosophy. However, lowercase ‘c’ cosmology is—a strange thing!—a division of this “Cosmology” with a capital ‘c’. This smaller cosmology aims at studying “the universe” or “everything” but not quite the “everything” that the larger cosmology studies. How do we distinguish this “everything” of the universe from the real “everything” that actually includes everything (“the whole” or “the all”)?

The broader scope that philosophical cosmology gives to scientific cosmology is important (and from here on out, by “cosmology” I will mean the scientific discipline). The philosophical older brother provides an adequate context in which cosmology can operate. Within this context, philosophy can learn from cosmology without facile concordism. In virtue of this context, cosmology can contribute to the “universe of knowledge” without reductionism. Through this context, philosophy can integrate cosmology as a contributor to knowledge of “the whole” without a relativism about domains of theory. In reality, to provide such a context is of course an ideal goal—but it seems to be the preferable alternative to theoretic reductionism or relativism.

(c) Historically, the development of the modern science of cosmology was attended with strident methodological debates in the early 20th century. Even current arguments about how to understand the origin of the laws of nature or the nature of time and space are all still fought against a background of concepts that would be familiar to ancient thinkers. Since these debates about the best way to solve cosmological questions, they are of their nature philosophical.

The current philosophical problems of modern cosmology have ontological and epistemological aspects that originate in answers to specific philosophical questions. The ways in which these questions are answered have implications for the character of the philosophy of nature and metaphysics as well as whether and how a broader philosophy of nature leads to a specific cosmology.

We can ask, on the one hand, ask ontological questions about the existence and nature of the object of study of cosmology, viz., the universe. How do we define the universe? What is the nature of its being and unity? Do we know philosophically that it exists as a single whole? On the other hand, we can ask epistemological questions about the possibility and nature of our knowledge of the cosmos. What is the nature of the laws by which we know the universe? Why is an abstract, immutable mathematics applicable to the study of the concrete, mutable cosmos? What is the relationship between the nature of mathematical objects and physical realities?

Before discussing this fundamental problem in the philosophy of nature, let us examine other answers to some of the ontological questions that we have just posed.

2. Analysis of partial solutions and answers in the field; alternative solutions and tentative conclusions

The fundamental philosophical problem in the area of ontology, heretofore almost entirely overlooked, is the problem of change. Simply put, the problem asks how innovation in being, or change, is possible. The famous Parmenidean and Heraclitean paradoxes can be used to show the fundamental character of this problem: A changing being or object seems to implicate a contradiction in its own existence: a changing being is what it is not. Thus, Hegel defines motion in such terms (which sound Heraclitean): “Becoming is the unseparatedness of being and nothing . . . as the unity of being and nothing, it is this determinate unity in which there is both being and nothing.” [Hegel, Science of Logic, §176]

This problem can be described in another way (and this is the classical Aristotelian interpretation of Parmenides): If an object changes, then before it comes-to-be in some state S, it either comes-to-be from S or it comes-to-be from not–S. If the object comes-to-be from S, then it is in state S already and as such cannot change. If a thing is not–S, likewise it cannot change, because in that case S would come-to-be from not–S. But it is impossible for something to comes from nothing. Therefore, change is impossible.

Some scholars have recognized the importance of this problem: philosopher Roberto Unger and cosmologist Lee Smolin, in their jointly authored book The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy, merit particular recognition. In so doing, they have also shown that cosmology needs the aid of what was traditionally known as the philosophy of nature. This is true insofar as cosmology takes the possibility of change for granted, assuming it as an answer to a philosophical inquiry. However, and this is to be carefully noted, Unger and Smolin’s answer to the problem of change falls generally along Heraclitean and Leibnizean lines. That is, they consider the changing of change, which they define as time, to be the fundamental cosmic entity. The other entities of the singularly-existing, unique universe in which we live are to be characterized by the relationships which they bear towards each other (and these relations are intelligible to us by discovering the various physical laws). Unger and Smolin are thus at odds with space-time substantivalists, neo-Aristotelian substance realists, as well as non-naturalists and theists.

What is therefore relevant to this project is that Unger and Smolin have opened up the possibility for considering competing ontological proposals; they have shown that philosophical inquiry is prerequisite to scientific cosmology. The prime competitor to their own view is, as is clear from the history of philosophy, a Thomistic- Aristotelian substantivalist ontology, a version of which is defended by De Koninck. This alternative account, known traditionally as “hylomorphism,” proposes act and potency, especially substantial form and primary matter, as the necessary principles to solve the problem of change. Far from being a medieval throwback, this solution has recently enjoyed a renewed defense in analytic philosophy. The notion of act (i.e., what is) and potency (i.e., what is able to be), allow us to say that some object X that is not–S can become S because before a change, the object X which was not–S possesses the potency-to-be-S, i.e., the disposition or power to become or be in state S.

This basic distinction implies that an object, beyond its observable (i.e., fully actual) properties, possesses dispositions or capacities of some sort within itself. Hence, this solution to the problem of change allows the Aristotelian to expand the notion of the essence of a thing to include both actual and potential parts inside or within the nature of an object. Further, if we observe universal or common behaviors across types of objects, which behaviors we can quantify or qualify in a law-governed way, then there would be a putative connection between the modern laws of physics and the ancient Aristotelian notion of nature or physis.

Indeed, there is a resurgence in neo-Aristotelian metaphysics and the philosophy of nature today that makes such a position plausible. The Aristotelian notion of act and potency in particular, combined with a nuanced understanding of substantial form, promises to go well with recent accounts of laws of physics that state that such laws describe global dispositions in substances, or universal accounts of powers in objects. Aristotle notes in Book XII of his Metaphysics that substances are the first part of the cosmos: “For if the totality of things [τὸ πᾶν] is a kind of whole, substance [ἡ οὐσία] is its first part.” [1069a19–20] Perhaps it is still possible to define the universe as a single, causally interacting set of substances, which we understand scientifically through a network of laws. We would merely have to provide an account of how various laws of nature “cut across” substantial kinds to describe certain of their dispositions in a universal, species-neutral manner.

3. Two closing thoughts

But is this approach believable? Why bring back Aristotelian substance ontology when the sciences, historically, made much progress by abandoning it? This brings me, by way of conclusion, to two points that I hope to ponder further as I develop my project. The first point is connected with the private language argument. The second concerns the nature of predication and a “naïve realism” about the connection between words, thoughts, and things.

The philosopher Roger Scruton draws attention to the implications of the impossibility of a purely private language, that is, the impossibility of meaning that is in principle private or “first person only”, in the following terms:

The ontological consequences are enormous. Not only must we abandon the Cartesian view of the mind; we are also […] led ineluctably towards the view that the mind, like any object of reference, is publicly identifiable. It is therefore a part of nature, and, if we wish to express that thought in the (misleading) modern idiom, we should say that the mind is a physical thing. ~ Scruton, Sexual Desire, Appendix 1

That is to say, the mind is a real thing. It is part of the furniture, as it were, of the cosmos. If this is true, then the ontology that underpins such reference must be proportionately robust. From the point of view of the sciences, the “public” or “third person” reference of terms used in the sciences are meaningful within the same general ambit as the mind which utilizes them. Any scientific endeavor which seeks, within its own proper domain, to elaborate the details of the ontology of “the whole” must at the very least be neutral to the existence of mind—a scientific theory cannot come down on the negative on this score. This is the “test of self-reference”: a scientific theory made by a mind cannot be a theory that denies the existence of mind. This test of self reference also supplies difficulties to philosophical interpretations of scientific theories which make the mind a mere appearance or phenomena—but a special one, an “appearance” that judges all the other appearances!

If the cosmos contains the mind as an object, then how should we think about an ontology capacious enough for mind as well as the object of study pertinent to cosmology and the philosophy of cosmology? The ancient and medieval approach to ontology operated through a logical dialectic: the manner in which predication occurs, the manner in which words are utilized, gives us an insight into the structure of thought, which in turn arises from the structure of the world. Thus, Thomas Aquinas will maintain that the diverse modes of predication flow from the diverse modes of being. [See St. Thomas Aquinas, In Meta., lib. V, lect. 9, n. 890] While there is, of course, no one-to-one correspondence between logical structure and real structure, the method is to take indications from the structure of our speech and thought to discover truths about the structure of being. This “naive predicate realism,” at the very least, motivates the Aristotelian ontology of substance and accident.

However, if correctly refined, this predicate realism is by its very nature ample enough to contain the mind as a member of the cosmos. Clearly, there is room enough in “predicate space” (if I may coin a phrase) for the existence of mind as an object, because within this space it can self-referentially speak about itself. It is unclear that the same is true for the logic of “mathematical space” (or, as they say, abstract “configuration spaces”) that undergirds the workings of and guides the interpretation of modern mathematical physics. If this is true, namely, that “predicate space” is adequate and “mathematical space” not for placing mind within the cosmos, then the interpretation of modern scientific cosmology would depend in part upon connecting the mathematical structures used in its theory to an ontology of substance and accident, which ontology can only be captured by the logic of this “predicate space”.

* * *

This presentation was produced as part of my postdoctoral research project.


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