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Hitting the metaphysical snooze button

One of the major themes of The Last Superstition is the significance of the early modern philosophers’ replacement of the classical teleological conception of nature with an anti-teleological or mechanistic conception. Another major theme is how utterly oblivious most contemporary intellectuals are to the nature and consequences of this revolution – about the motivations that lay behind it, its true relationship to modern science, the surprising feebleness of the arguments used to justify it, and the new and intractable problems it opened up. Most of all, they show little awareness of the deep conceptual problems inherent in the attempt to give a thoroughly mechanistic account of the world, as contemporary naturalism seeks to do. (I argue in the book that the very program is incoherent, so that naturalism, as usually understood anyway, is demonstrably false. I also provide positive arguments to show that a teleological conception of nature is rationally unavoidable – as are the theism and natural law conception of morality that the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition derives from it.)

What is remarkable is how, just over a half-century ago, the problematic character of the modern mechanistic understanding of nature was as evident to many prominent intellectuals as it is utterly invisible to their descendants. Nor am I referring merely to Neo-Scholastics and other Thomists. In the book I quote a lengthy passage from the September 1948 Atlantic Monthly in which the then-prominent empiricist philosopher W. T. Stace – not someone with a religious or Aristotelian ax to grind – described the early moderns’ replacement of a teleological conception of the world with a mechanistic one as “the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world,” and one which in his view necessarily undermined the foundations of morality. Moreover, he realized that this revolution was purely philosophical in character, not scientific, despite its often being conflated with (and thereby deriving an unearned prestige from) the discoveries of early modern science.

Stace thought the meaninglessness of human existence entailed by this picture of the world was something we would have to try to learn to live with. (Good luck with that.) But other thinkers of the day saw that the problems with the mechanistic conception of nature went well beyond its unhappy moral implications. They saw that it was philosophically inadequate, that it simply did not do justice to what we know about the world – indeed, to what we know about the world in part through modern science itself. They often also saw that the criticisms the early moderns had made of their medieval predecessors were superficial and unfair – and again, I’m speaking of non-Aristotelian and non-Thomistic writers here, not those with a Scholastic or Catholic stake in the controversy.

Take, for example, Alfred North Whitehead. In Science and the Modern World, based on his 1925 Lowell Lectures, he judges that the mathematical-cum-mechanistic conception of the natural world, for all its undoubted practical benefits in allowing for the prediction and control of events, is as a metaphysical theory “quite unbelievable,” the outcome of mistaking “high abstractions” for “concrete realities” (pp. 54-55). Groundlessly treating the idealizations of quantitative empirical science as if they constituted an exhaustive description of the natural order has generated an endless “oscillation” of modern philosophy between the three equally unacceptable extremes of Cartesian dualism, materialism, and idealism, as philosophers hopelessly try to make sense of the place of mind in a mechanistic world (p. 55).

Confusing the abstract and concrete is only half the problem, though, in Whitehead’s view. The other half is the difficulty the anti-teleological mechanistic revolution opened up for the understanding of causation and inductive reasoning. As I discuss at length in TLS, for the Scholastics, the main way in which final causality manifests itself in the natural world is as the concomitant of efficient causality. If some cause A regularly generates some effect or range of effects B – if fire regularly generates heat, ice cubes regularly cause the surrounding air or water to grow cooler, and so forth – this can only be because there is something in the nature of A by virtue of which it “points to” or “aims at” B specifically, as to a goal or natural end. If there is no such “pointing” or “aiming” in A – that is to say, if the generation of B is not the final cause of A – then the fact that A is an efficient cause of B, the fact that it reliably generates B specifically rather than C, D, E, or no effect at all, becomes unintelligible. This is, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, precisely why efficient causation became so problematic in modern philosophy: the denial of formal and final causes (i.e. the denial that things have natures in virtue of which they are directed toward certain ends) was bound to result in the skeptical puzzles of David Hume. (Actually, the problem of causation goes back, naturally enough, to Ockham and the early nominalists; in his “originality” as in so many other ways, Hume is vastly overrated.)

Whitehead takes a similar view, arguing that the problem of induction is generated by a mechanistic conception of matter on which for any material particular, “there is no inherent reference to any other times, past or future” (p. 51). Hence, “if the cause in itself discloses no information as to the effect, so that the first invention of it must be entirely arbitrary, it follows at once that science is impossible, except in the sense of establishing entirely arbitrary connections which are not warranted by anything intrinsic to the natures either of causes or effects. Some variant of Hume’s philosophy has generally prevailed among men of science. But scientific faith has risen to the occasion, and has tacitly removed the philosophic mountain.” (p. 4)

By “faith” having “risen to the occasion,” what Whitehead means is that in the absence of any objective, intelligible connection between causes and effects, the scientific enterprise can have no rational foundation, so that scientists who embrace the mechanistic philosophy of nature and the Humeanism that is its sequel in effect carry out their work on the basis of a groundless commitment. Contrary to the standard caricature of the moderns vs. medievals dispute as a conflict between sober rationality and blind faith, Whitehead regards the moderns as the fideists and the medievals, whose Aristotelian metaphysics made nature intelligible through and through, as the partisans of “unbridled rationalism” (p. 9). Indeed, “the clergy were in principle rationalists, whereas the men of science were content with a simple faith in the order of nature… This attitude satisfied the Royal Society but not the Church. It also satisfied Hume and has satisfied subsequent empiricists.” (p. 51)

“Accordingly,” Whitehead says, “we must recur to the method of the school-divinity as explained by the Italian medievalists” if we are to avoid skepticism about induction (p. 44); in particular, we must return to something like the Scholastic idea that universal natures can be abstracted from particulars. Of course, Whitehead himself was no Aristotelian or Thomist, putting forward as he did his own novel process metaphysics. But he saw that something had to be put in place of the inadequate mechanistic philosophy of nature of the moderns, and that there were at least elements in the medieval picture that it replaced – in particular its acknowledgement that teleology is an objective feature of the world – that needed to be revived.

Another writer of this period who perceived the inadequacies of the mechanistic revolution is E. A. Burtt, whose The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (first published in 1924, revised in 1932) is a classic study of the history of that revolution, and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand it. One of Burtt’s themes is the way in which the mind-body problem and the problem of skepticism are natural outcomes of the mechanistic view of nature, which so radically divorces the common sense “manifest image” from the “scientific image” (to borrow Wilfrid Sellars’ language) that there seems no way in principle to bring them back together again. Another theme is the way in which the moderns insisted on forcing reality to fit their method rather than making their method fit reality, and how such “wishful thinking” and “uncritical confidence” underlay their wholesale chucking-out of Scholasticism in favor of a new, purely quantificational conception of nature.

I quote Burtt at some length in TLS and won’t repeat the quotes here. Another writer who briefly made some of the same points was Basil Willey, who tells us in The Seventeenth Century Background (1934) that “this [modern] science has achieved what it has achieved precisely by abstracting from the whole of ‘reality’ those aspects which are amenable to its methods. There is no point in denying that only thus can ‘scientific’ discovery be made. What we need to remember, however, is that we have to do here with a transference of interests rather than with the mere ‘exantlation’ of new truth or the mere rejection of error.” (p. 23) In other words, the fact that a science which focuses only on those aspects of nature which can be analyzed in mechanistic-cum-mathematical terms succeeds mightily in uncovering those aspects (as modern science undeniably has) tells us absolutely nothing about whether nature has any other – non-mechanistic, non-mathematically-quantifiable – aspects. The early moderns by no means disproved the metaphysics of the Scholastics; they simply changed the subject. “Galileo typifies the direction of modern interests, in this instance, not in refuting St. Thomas, but in taking no notice of him.” (p. 25)

Then there is R. G. Collingwood, who in the thirties, in his lectures on The Idea of Nature (and as Marjorie Grene reminds us in her 1964 essay “Biology and Teleology”), saw contemporary biology moving back in the direction of something like Aristotle’s understanding of teleology, apart from which the internal development of an organism is unintelligible (whatever one says about the Darwinian explanation of adaptation, which is an independent question). Grene herself thought Collingwood’s prediction “startling,” certainly from the perspective of 1964, though she sympathized with his view that irreducible biological teleology was real, and presented some considerations in its defense. (Grene’s essay is available in her collection The Understanding of Nature: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology.)

Of course, the reason Grene found Collingwood’s prediction startling was that by the mid-1960s few were decrying the crude mechanism of modern philosophy of nature, certainly within academic philosophy and Anglo-American intellectual life in general. To be sure, Great Books advocates like Mortimer Adler and Robert M. Hutchins had been calling for renewed attention to writers like Aquinas throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties, as had Neo-Thomists like Maritain and Gilson. And even into the early sixties, books like Floyd Matson’s The Broken Image – now totally forgotten (though it received a nice blurb from no less than F. A. Hayek) – decried what the mechanistic revolution had done to our conception of human nature and political science. But these attitudes were getting further and further from the mainstream, and by the end of the sixties were entirely passé. Though modern intellectuals seemed for a thirty-year period mid-century to be waking from their dogmatic slumbers vis-à-vis the mechanistic revolution of the early moderns, they eventually hit the metaphysical snooze button, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Why? Good question. No doubt the reasons are complex, but I would conjecture that the dominant factor within Anglo-American academic philosophy was the influx of European intellectuals into American universities during the thirties and forties, as they fled Nazi tyranny. In philosophy, a great many of these people were beholden to logical positivism and related ideas, and their crude scientism was passed on to their students – students who by the 1960s were dominating the field. In light of the work of Quine, Kuhn, and other critics of positivist dogmas, this scientism would eventually be softened somewhat. But these critiques were generally internal, and did not challenge scientism at the most fundamental level (despite their having resulted in recent decades in a revival of metaphysics as a sub-field within analytic philosophy). In particular, they did nothing to restore awareness of the problematic character of the mechanistic conception of nature inherited from the early moderns.

Or at least, nothing until recently. Fortunately, the alarm clock seems to be ringing once again. As I note in TLS, a return to notions surprisingly similar to the Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas of formal and final cause (even if not always under those labels) can be seen in various areas of contemporary philosophy, and in writers who have no particular interest in A-T metaphysics as such nor any theological ax to grind. To take just a few examples: In philosophy of science and general metaphysics, there is the “new essentialism” of philosophers like Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, Crawford Elder, and George Molnar; in philosophy of biology there is a renewed respect for teleology in the work of writers like Andre Ariew and J. Scott Turner; in philosophy of action there are defenses of the irreducibly teleological nature of action by writers like Scott Sehon and G. F. Schueler; in ethics there is the neo-Aristotelian biological conception of the good defended by thinkers like Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson; and a general trend toward “non-reductionist” forms of naturalism can be seen in philosophy of mind and other sub-disciplines within philosophy.

Again, not all of these writers would see in their views a return to Aristotelian themes, nor would most (or even any) of them support the use to which Thomists would put those views. But however inadvertently and piecemeal, these trends do in fact constitute a revival, sometimes under novel language, of some of the metaphysical ideas of the Scholastics. And of course there are yet other contemporary analytic philosophers whose work is self-consciously Thomistic or Scholastic – for example, John Haldane, David Oderberg, Gyula Klima, Christopher F. J. Martin, James Ross, and other writers sometimes characterized (though not always by themselves) as “analytical Thomists.”

Willey writes: “As T. E. Hulme and others have pointed out, it is almost insuperably difficult to become critically conscious of one’s own habitual assumptions; ‘doctrines felt as facts’ can only be seen to be doctrines, and not facts, after great efforts of thought, and usually only with the aid of a first-rate metaphysician.” (p. 12) The lazy naturalism and scientism that inform most contemporary intellectual life, and which underlie the New Atheism, are precisely such “doctrines felt as facts,” prejudices to which most secularists do not even realize there is any rational alternative. Even with the metaphysical alarm clock ringing once more, today’s dogmatic slumberers may just hit the snooze button yet again. But maybe not. We live in hope.


Comments (23)

Hence, “if the cause in itself discloses no information as to the effect, so that the first invention of it must be entirely arbitrary,

Ed, can you explain a little more what you think Whitehead means here? What does it mean for the first invention of the cause to be entirely arbitrary? And in any event, how could a cause be invented if we are not assuming the existence of an actual inventor? I assume this is a metaphor, but in that case, for what is it a metaphor?

Moreover, to the extent that I'm understanding the complaint, I'm not sure why the modernist needs to admit that the effect of fire is "entirely arbitrary." It's possible to say quite a lot about why fire causes heat, in terms of the breaking of chemical bonds, the release of energy, and so forth. Similarly, the ice cube makes the air around it cold because the molecules of air come into contact with the slower-moving molecules of the ice, which slows them down. That's putting it crudely, of course, but that merely means that there is still _more_ that could be said about this in terms of physics and so forth than I am able myself to say. So I'm not sure where the arbitrariness comes in or what the non-arbitrary alternative is supposed to be.

I'm not sure why the modernist needs to admit that the effect of fire is "entirely arbitrary."

Modernist don't need to admit that at all. There are laws of thermodynamics that require the transfers of heat and cold. So the "final cause" of fire is because entropy acts as formal cause on a material cause, not because of an inherent purpose or directedness within fire.

Hi Lydia, what Whitehead meant is that if there is nothing in a cause A which by virtue of its nature (formal cause) makes it point beyond itelf to B (final cause), then A's status as a cause of B is "invented" by us in the sense that we attribute a causal status to A only as a result of its constant conjunction with B, or whatever. That is, we are left with a Humean position that things are objectively "loose and separate" and that the idea that they have powers to generate each other is a projection of the mind.

Re: what you say about flame and ice, I agree, but notice that the more detail we add to the story, the harder it is to say with a straight face a la Hume that it is "conceivable" that a cause might exist without its typical effect. As I argue in TLS, part of the reason this Humean claim sounds at all plausible is that the examples are typically described in a loose way. We say things like "throwing bricks causes broken windows," and then have no trouble conceiving a case where a brick is flying towards a window and then bounces off or whatever. But when we actually focus on the details, such as the surface of the brick actually pushing into and displacing glass, then it is by no means clear that we can conceive of the one without the other. Same with the flame and ice cases. To conceive of the details, in a precise way, is to see that the effect was indeed generated by the cause rather than being merely conjoined with it, and thus that the cause pointed to the effect in the relevant sense. That is to say, it is to give up the Humean problematic that Whitehead is criticizing.

I don't think I'm a Humean on causality. But I do think it is conceivable that the laws of nature should be temporarily set aside--that fire should not burn by some miracle, as in the case of the three young men in the fiery furnace, for example. So the causality is not purely arbitrary--it is a matter of the physical laws of the universe put together with the explicable detailed physical (yea, even mechanical) properties of the things involved--but at the same time it is conceivable that the effect (the young men's getting burned up) should fail to follow from the cause (their being thrown into the fire). It still seems to me, however, that this is all explicable without recourse to anything particularly Aristotelian, though.

Coincidentally, I just completed reading, for the second time this year, Etienne Gilson's From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, which has been out of print for some time now. (It will, by the way, be republished this Fall by Ignatius Press).

I highly recommend it.

Gilson makes the point that teleology cannot be eradicated from biology without distorting how in fact organisms behave. They are not collections of cells that result in a whole being. Rather the being itself, the whole substance, "causes" the individual cells to work in concert for the benefit of the whole. No mechanistic theory can account for that relationship. This is why the attempt on the part of ID advocates to isolate a part of the organism as irreducibly complex (as evidence of design) is similar to the mistake committed by naturalistic reductionists, who see the organism as a collection of cells rather than a whole being. For unless there is a formal and final cause to the organism, a bacterial fagellum is just a part that presently cannot be accounted for by naturalistic processes. But, apparently, my fingers and toes are still Darwinian, but not the one part of the cells of which my fingers and toes are composed.

"what Whitehead meant is that if there is nothing in a cause A which by virtue of its nature (formal cause) makes it point beyond itelf to B (final cause), then A's status as a cause of B is "invented" by us in the sense that we attribute a causal status to A only as a result of its constant conjunction with B"

I disagree with one premise in Feser's presentation, as I understand it: to wit, that modern scientism rejects transcendence. In fact, nobody rejects transcendence in toto: the difference falls between those who accept transcendence as pointing beyond the intramundane realm ("this world"), and those who as Voegelin put it immanentize the Beyond. Modern scientism still retains transcendence, but immanentizes it. Of course, immanentizing transcendence is not sustainable nor is it coherent (and thus requires elaborate complexity literally twisting itself into string-theory knots). The immanentized transcendence lurking in the quote above, by which modern scientists handle causation, is in the symbolism & mythology of scientific "laws". But of course modern scientists, at least those who stake out the frontiers of this world in order to plug up any holes leading to the Beyond, in their respective fields of Physics and Cosmology, do wondrously torturous gymnastics in their never-ending project of keeping those "laws" immanent.


You mention a point I've wondered about since my reading TLS.

We say things like "throwing bricks causes broken windows," and then have no trouble conceiving a case where a brick is flying towards a window and then bounces off or whatever. But when we actually focus on the details, such as the surface of the brick actually pushing into and displacing glass, then it is by no means clear that we can conceive of the one without the other.

Now, the brick's pushing into and displacing the glass analytically (and even uninformatively, or tautologically, to speak more loosely) guarantees the window's smash. But how does this entail that the brick will not bounce off from the window after my throwing? Of course, IF the brick displaces the glass, it will not bounce off. But is it inconceivable that the flight of the brick, in the given conditions and before the displacing of the glass, will not be followed by the bouncing off? It's like you were saying that because my jumping out of the window in conjuction with my subsequent falling is incompatible with my sticking in the air, my jumping out of the window is incompatible with my sticking in the air.

But, apparently, my fingers and toes are still Darwinian

Please, Frank, let's not get into arguments from silence.

For unless there is a formal and final cause to the organism, a bacterial fagellum is just a part that presently cannot be accounted for by naturalistic processes. But, apparently, my fingers and toes are still Darwinian, but not the one part of the cells of which my fingers and toes are composed.

Hi, Frank, that particular criticism doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me. Isn't the bacterial flagellum itself a functional whole, consisting of parts that work together for the benefit of the whole, in addition to itself being a part of a greater whole? And isn't the fact that it's a functional whole precisely the reason that the ID folks are interested in it? Your criticism would make more sense if ID advocates were arguing for design only of the individual amino acids that comprise it, or something else that displays no function of its own.

There is no reason whatsoever to deny that organisms can have and do have functions and teleology at all different levels. Indeed, elementary biology teaches us that they do. Did we not all learn in our high school biology about cells, tissues, organs, systems, and organisms? Each of these has organization and function at its own level, and this hierarchical organization is of the very essence of biology. There is no reason whatsoever to take it that because someone argues from some particular feature of an organism to design that he is denying that the organism also manifests design by its organization at a higher level of the hierarchy. Indeed, I think it obvious that organisms do just exactly that.

Verum corpus.

The dialectic of truth as conceived within ideality vs. truth as conceived within reality; "power seeking" is qualitatively and categorically different from "truth seeking," yet too, power seeking is itself a particular form of truth seeking.

Truth applied to reality qua reality is the truth that (in the present) is: that which is, is true. The reality that was, no longer is, no longer is true; the reality that is to be, is not yet, is not yet true. As applied to reality per se, solely the reality that (currently) is, is true. (The reality that was and the reality that is to be can still carry "weight" within consciousness, but that is a related subject of psychology and ontology in general, not the focus here.)

Hence, Christ, verum corpus, is the logos (word, idea) made flesh, and additionally, via a certain, qualitative obedience, a certain power seeking, redeems the time.

A genuine faith, wherein Abraham is the original archtype, does not underappreciate the truth that has its locus in reality. It does not overly appreciate that truth either and denigrate ideality (e.g., become devolved via a rank and callous politicization), but too often "truth" is conceived in overly abstract terms as well such that "reality" is given only a grudging respect, in relation to truth as such.

Within the Jewish experience, perhaps, while they have Abraham as a founder and archtype, they do not have the still more intense dialectic of Christ, verum corpus, and therefore experience the dialectic of ideality/reality far less intensely, much more "empirically" and this-worldly, at least not as applied more universally.


There is no reason whatsoever to take it that because someone argues from some particular feature of an organism to design that he is denying that the organism also manifests design by its organization at a higher level of the hierarchy.

And additionally, if you use Frank's logic at higher levels, you get some very odd results: Asserting that the bacterial flagellum in particular is designed entails a denial that your finger is designed. Asserting that the finger is designed is a denial that the hand is designed. Asserting that the hand is designed is a denial that the whole human being is designed. Asserting that human beings are designed is a denial of the fact that God has a grand plan of which individual humans are a part. And so on.

It's such a transparently feeble argument that I have a hard time taking it at face value and believing that a smart guy like Frank would ever be convinced by it on its own merits. It seems to me like a rationalization meant to shore up a stance that was taken against ID for some other reason.

"Asserting that the finger is designed is a denial that the hand is designed."

That's not what I said, Deuce. What I said that the entire organism has a final cause to which the flagellum contributes. Whether the flagellum is irreducibily complex or not is irrelevant to that judgment.


Yes, Vlastimil?

I've got a million things going on, fella. I'll respond to you and to some of the other comments later today. Patience.

To tell the truth, I'm more interested in what Ed has to say about the non-biological examples we've discussed than about the biological dispute that has happened to enter this particular thread. It does seem to me that if one says all the "stuff" that one can say about fire or ice, it just doesn't _add_ anything to say, as well, "Fire has a nature which produces heat." One has already explicated what that means in other terms. Thereby I would imagine that I demonstrate that I'm a modernist at heart. :-)

I'm sorry, Edward. Just tried to make sure you are not discussing this thread only at your personal blog. No hurry.


Since Dr. Feser is busy, I'll answer your question for you:

potency and act

If you want a more thorough answer, you're going to have to wait for Feser.


No problem. RE: your question, first of all, when I talked about it not bouncing off, that was just a way of illustrating some theoretical alternative to its not breaking the glass; I meant "bouncing off as opposed to breaking it." Of course a third alternative is that it might still break it and then bounce back anyway, depending on the variables. My point was that if we describe the causal situation in enough detail, it is by no means clear that we can conceive of the glass not breaking (whether or not it also bounces back -- again, that was just an illustration). But in any case, if we describe the case in even further detail, then the same point would apply to the question of its bouncing back: given even more of the relevant details of the situation (trajectory, speed, brittleness of the glass, etc.), whether the brick would also bounce or not would also be clear, and the purported conceivability of that alternative too would disappear.


What reference to a "nature" adds is the idea that all the stuff you're referring to is not merely a set of accidental features of this or that ice cube, flame, etc. but rather something definitive of a kind. And if one accepts such realism but rejects Platonism, the natural alternative is to see such a nature a la Aristotelian realism as inherent in the things themselves -- that is to say, as a substantial form.

RE: laws of nature being "set aside," it depends on what you mean. From an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, laws of nature are necessary. But that does not rule out miracles, because miracles are not "violations" of laws of nature -- given that the laws are necessary, there can be no such thing -- but rather "suspensions" of laws of nature. To borrow an analogy from Oderberg (in Real Essentialism), a government might allow an existing law to be breached in the sense of not enforcing it, etc., or it might temporarily revoke the law altogether, so that behavior not in accordance with what the law had been is, during the time of revocation, no longer a breach of a law. "Violating" a law of nature is like the first case, but "suspending" a law of nature -- which is what a miracle is from an A-T point if view -- is instead like the second.

So, when you say that fire might not result in the burning of Shadrach and Co., that's true, but it doesn't tell against what I've been saying, since this need not (and should not, from an A-T POV) be interpreted either as a "violation" of a law of nature or as evidence that fire and the like don't have natures in the first place.

No, George, I don't get it. I read the TLS and I even like it, but I remain unclear on that issue.


Thanks. I appreciate your explication, yet not enough to grasp your point as a reply to mine.

Could you provide a relevantly detailed causal sequence from some ordinary event A which would guarantee some ordinary event B in such a way that it would not be an uninformative tautology to say that if A, then B?

Of course, a brick's flying towards a window and pushing into and displacing the glass trivially guarantees breaking of the window. For every pushing into and displacing a window is trivially a breaking of the window. Even Hume would accept that the former without the latter is inconceivable, wouldn't he? But could we supply him with something more interesting? For instance, could we, with sufficiently and relevantly detailed description (say, of the brick's trajectory and speed, of the brittleness of the glass, etc.) reduce the whole flight of the brick and the subsequent breaking of the window into temporally ordered segments (or states or intervals) each of which would guarantee the next one? That is by no means clear.


Ad David Oderberg's Real Essentialism and the alleged necessity of the laws of nature proclaimed in that book. I suspect there is some ambivalence or ambiguity. Consider the pages concerning possibility of transubstantiation of bread (and wine): the accidents of the bread remain, but the substance of the bread has changed. Oderberg says: „By its nature, a substance must have accidents, and accidents require a substance in which to inhere. ... But a suspension of the laws of nature ... allows them to exist without their ... correlate ...“ (p. 156). But how would such a suspension proceed? What exactly does the term "suspension" mean here? This: God could annihilate some natures, e.g. by replacing them with new ones (p. 149). That wouldn’t be the same as preserving all the relevant natures but frustrating their operation – which would be metaphysically impossible.

So, what is annihilated in transubstantiation of the bread? The substance of the bread, right?

Still, the accidents of the bread remain, and at the same time, as Oderberg says, by their nature they require a substance in which to inhere. Thus, the puzzle remains, too – for nothing lacks what it requires by its nature.

Few months ago, Oderberg replied to me, via e-mail (he doesn't mind citing him):

I make in the book a distinction between what is necessary in the order of nature and what is necessary in an absolute sense. God can suspend the laws of nature so that a given substance lacks its proper accidents, and vice versa. Hence the accidents of bread can remain without their proper substance, even though in the natural order this would be impossible. God cannot, in the absolute sense, make a nature such that it possessed accidents improper to it (e.g. a piece of bread made of gold), but He can suspend the operation of a thing’s essence such that its natural operation was impeded. The accidents of the bread do not, in transsubstantiaion, operate so as to inhere in their proper substance. The new substance (God) does not possess those accidents. He is simply substantially present where the accidents of the bread are. The crucial point is the distinction between essence and nature. The latter is essence in operation. But a miracle suspends that operation.
(My italics.)

I also asked him: On p. 155, you say: „no accident is identical with any substance – they are really ... distinct. So it must be possible for them to come apart.“ It seems the rationale here is that generally, if beings A and B are really distinct, then A and B are separable. The triangles aside, aren’t, however, some substances and their properties flowing from their essences really distinct, but inseparable?

He replied:

Actually, I express myself slightly incorrectly on that page. I do not think that if x and y are really distinct then they must be separable, even by God: as I make clear in the book, the form and matter, and the essence and existence, of material substances are really distinct but inseparable. It’s a very interesting question as to which really distinct things are separable and which are not, one I intend to pursue at some stage. But with substance and accidents, I do think they are separable, and I think the reason has to do with whether the separable entities enter are part of the essence of the object to which they belong. For example, the form and matter of a (purely) material substance are inseparable since they both constitute parts of the essence of it. On the other hand, no accidents ever form part of the essence of a substance, not even the essential properties. These latter flow from the essence but are not part of it.
(My italics.)

So, according to Oderberg, something flows in the natural order from the essence, but the essence can be, because of God, instantiated without it. So, it seems, the laws of nature are necessary only in some weak sense: in the natural order, given no God's intervention.

Finally, wrt the first part of this reply (inconceivability), what flows from the nature of the given thing is known according to Real Essentialism rather abductively and probably, not by means of inconceivability of the contrary.

Can I ask something I have never understood about this example? I have heard the explanation of the accidents of the bread remaining, but not inhering in the substance, Christ. But I have always doubted that this explanation - or rather description - can be wholly correct, because the accident of place is taken up by Christ's body. It is sheer nonsense to suggest that the place of what had been bread does is not the place of Christ's body. And as soon as you say that the place which the Host (which is now substantially Christ) is in is the place that the bread had before transubstantiation, you have already said that one of the accidents of the bread, place, is the same accident that pertains to Christ's body now present. But all we mean by saying "it is the place of " Christ body is nothing but saying that the accident of that place inheres in the substance. (Anything else would seem to require saying that Christ is not substantially present there - in that place - and the whole house of transubstantiation falls to bits. But if one accident of bread inheres, why not others?

In fact, don't we mean by saying that the accidents of the bread remain, that the accidents of the bread remain in the same place the bread had been ? If so, then by the very statement of the claim we single out place as different from the other accidents. It is of course ridiculous to say that the accident of place remains in the same place the bread had been. Place does not inhere in place.

Or, we might render the whole thing moot by saying place is not an accident. Contrary to Aristotle's placement (no pun unintended) of it in the categories.

I'm no Whitehead scholar, but I've read most of what he's written. Based on the etymologically informed way he uses English, I would say that in using "invention" he was speaking, not of causes being dreamed up out of thin air by observers in some sort of nominalist procedure, but of their quite literally "blowing in" to their effects from prior events. And this interpretation would agree with his metaphysics of becoming. Under that metaphysics, the basic unit of being is what modern physics would call a quantum of action: an irreducible event. For Whitehead, perdurant phenomena such as persons or atoms are series of such events, which are the only concretely real things. The career of e.g. an atom is for him a temporally ordered society of events, which have enough features in common so that other entities can understand the members of that society as such, and thus understand the society as a coherent whole, and treat it as such.

So taking events as basic, the question Whitehead was particularly interested to answer was: how does one event influence (“flow into,” “blow into” – same basic idea) another? An event is not fully actual until it has finished happening, until all the action – and thus all the agency – involved therein is complete. From that point forward it cannot change. It cannot therefore be the case, he insisted, that a prior event somehow reaches into and messes with a subsequent event, because the prior event, as prior, is from the perspective of succeeding events entirely complete and therefore changeless – it can no longer _do_ anything, except qua exemplar. The prior event can't act upon events with which it is contemporaneous, either, because so far as its contemporaries are concerned it is not yet complete in itself, its character therefore not yet entirely determinate, so that it is not yet knowable to its contemporaries for what exactly it is (that being as yet unclear). It is knowable only to its successors. And it can influence them only as a datum, as a brute fact about the past. How then can a mere fact in any way influence its successors? How can it be more or less relevant to them?

He solved this problem by positing that events begin their process of becoming with an apprehension of all prior events, a “feeling” of their properties and characteristics, with a view to cobbling together their own novel integrations of the values inherited from their past. Each novel event assembles a unique synthesis of its feelings of prior events, that emphasizes some of them at the expense of others, so as to arrive at a final “togetherness” or “concrescence” of properties. These final configurations are on the one hand subjective aesthetic satisfactions experienced by the events themselves, and on the other, as completions of their acts of becoming, form their objective surfaces, that are apparent to their successors. Their final satisfactions are indices for subsequent events of their natures. When B feels the properties of its predecessor A, it is feeling the feelings of A, including A’s feelings of desire for and enjoyment of the ideals it sought to realize in itself. In so doing, B inherits and then instantiates for itself some of A’s feelings and desires. Thus is the order of things passed down from one generation to another.

Among the prior events all novelties apprehend in their first moment of becoming is God. He supplies them with their initial aim at their peculiar optimum, which provides them with the nisus to achieve both aesthetic satisfaction in general and an optimum best fitted to their situation in particular. This Divine influx is indispensable, for without it no creature would feel any particular nisus to realize any particular satisfaction – would not be especially inclined, that is, to reproduce any of the values present in its past – and the order of the world would vanish. As the eternal locus of the realization of the whole Platonic Realm, God is also the source for novel entities of values and ideals not yet realized in the world, and thus of all novelty and creation. So in Whitehead’s system, God influences every occasion, but without wholly determining it. Whitehead cannot therefore fairly be accused of immanentizing transcendence.

I think a case can be made that all the elements of Aristotelian causation are present in Whitehead’s scheme. The mapping is fairly straightforward, but describing it would take a much longer exposition of his metaphysics. Suffice it to say that I am able to understand his system as Aristotelianism applied to events, rather than to substances.


The best person I know about to ask about the metaphysics of transubstantiation is my friend Lukáš Novák, a Czech philosopher. http://www.tf.jcu.cz/katedry/kfi/zkouseni/novak

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