There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word.Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, Chapter XXIII
Bruce Charlton is right–our disagreement with the World comes down to metaphysics. How does one choose a metaphysics? Rather, how does one choose between rival metaphysical assumptions? One cannot derive metaphysical beliefs from something more fundamental, because there is nothing more fundamental. One’s metaphysics must not conflict with experience, but that is a low bar; many systems provide some way of reading the observed facts. There are also internal checks. Whitehead says that a metaphysical system should be coherent, meaning not only that its parts don’t conflict, but that they all interrelate and co-depend. Metaphysics should also cohere with our scientific, psychological, aesthetic, and religious thinking. When one find oneself appealing to the (univocally) same concept when making sense of a quantum field theory calculation, when understanding the motives of an agitated friend, and when arguing that the Back to the Future sequels weren’t very good, one is inclined to accept that a concept with such reach has metaphysical validity.
What is the metaphysics of contemporary man? By his way of talking, he believes the universe has three basic components. First is “matter”, which is fundamentally a conglomeration of particles of some sort, although convenience leads us to give certain arbitrary groupings of particles their own names. (Like the ancient atomists, one probably must also posit space as an independent entity to make this work, but this will not be an important issue for what follows.) Second, there are “the laws of physics”, spoken as if actual entities rather than descriptions, which tell the particles how to move. The laws of physics at least logically pre-exist matter, because they created the universe ex nihilo. Finally, there is moral quality, which inheres in groups of people independent of their choices (free will is not required for moral quality), leading some to be identified as oppressors, others as oppressed. This moral quality does not seem to be grounded in a utilitarian calculus or neutral accounting of violations of some deontological moral law, but to be a primitive feature of the world. Finally, contemporary man believes truth is completely objective. He has shed all remnants of 20th century liberalism and postmodernism with its supposed multiplicity of “truths” and valid perspectives. No one may question “the science” (the truth of the first two components of the universe) or “justice” (the truth of the third).
This is, of course, grossly incoherent. However, the schemes of the materialist philosophers are not much better. They all have serious problems.
- Most obviously, the two “hard” problems of contemporary philosophy: consciousness and quantum mechanics. Regarding the first, materialism can’t explain consciousness (qualia and intentionality). Descartes and Brentano proved it, and it’s one of the best-established truths in philosophy. Some drastic change is needed to incorporate mental-like qualities at the base level of ontology. Hence the wild speculations of the panpsychists (who make phenomenal experience the inner essence of the most fundamental things) and process philosophers (who make intentionality–“prehension”–the inner essence of the most fundamental things). Regarding the second hard problem, reading the postulates of quantum mechanics one realizes that one is dealing not with a theory but with a recipe, which would seem to be a great opportunity for the philosopher who can make sense of it all–the double slit experiment, noncommuting operators, entaglement, etc. However, having read many books on the subject, I conclude that all interpretations of quantum mechanics on offer are either crazy, self-inconsistent, ugly and ad hoc, or all three.
- These philosophies have seldom-recognized but serious issues of helping themselves to metaphysical categories to which they have no right. For example, dismissing levels of being and causality as mystifications and then claiming that the laws of physics can explain the universe and that my atoms are more fundamental than, more real than, or “ground” me.
- They claim, reasonably enough, that we should try to read off metaphysical principles from physics, but in fact they usually just read their seventeenth century mental pictures of matter into physics. Those who embrace John Wheeler’s “it from bit” program (information as the fundamental reality) make a more serious effort to read off from physics, but they read off not the actual findings of physics (which will be expressed as information no matter what physical theory is true) but its particular manner of representing the world. I’ve actually read some mad enough to affirm that the base-level of reality is a vector in an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space! On the other hand, if we admit that physics gives us only relations between observables and mathematical structures of we-know-not-what, then we must ask if we have any other sources of information, or if we are back to Kant and his unknowable noumena.
The metaphysics of modern man is not very compelling, which presents an opportunity for us. Furthermore, this is an area that is not heavily guarded. Modern man will not listen to arguments that the sexual revolution was a bad thing; his conditioning kicks in, and he starts shrieking “fascist!” The firewall doesn’t really check for metaphysical propositions (as long as you don’t bring in God too soon). That makes it an even better opportunity. Best of all, overturning contemporary metaphysics overturns everything. Great, so let’s all become metaphysicians! The problem, of course, is that metaphysics is hard, and our alternatives–neo-Platonic, Scholastic, or Process–have some coherence problems of their own.
What does Barfield mean in the quote at the top of this post? It means that it is not enough to show that belief in God and the soul is consistent with modern science and engineering, and with modern knowledge of ancient history and other cultures. The easiest way to do that is to argue that these things are unrelated, address different subjects, use different categories, speak different language games. Even if this argument succeeds, it is an argument that religion is irrelevant for most of our mental life and that the universe is not a very coherent place. Let us say you want people to believe in God, and you define God as “pure act”. Then it is not enough to have an understanding of act and potency that makes this phrase comprehensible (although I am not altogether sure the Scholastics have achieved even that). It must be the same ideas of act and potency, following the same rules, that you use to make sense of black holes, heart transplants, and economic depressions. Admittedly, every area of thought invokes the idea of the state an object is actually in, as opposed to what it possibly might have been in. However, this bare concept of act has no natural quality of purity or degree. On it, men are no more fully actual than stones; they are just actually different things. The idea of degrees of actuality requires a richer understanding of act and seems only to appear and do real work in natural theology. Similarly the idea of a “pure perfection”. We usually think of perfection with reference to an external or (assuming intrinsic teleology) internal standard, but when that standard is met, no more purity can be asked for. Perfection transcending particular standards seems to come out of nowhere and only when natural theology needs it. If people found that they need one of these ideas (in the full version that points to God) to make sense of the structure of the world around us, they would naturally become theists. (Similarly, metaphysical principles that come out of nowhere to do theological work, such as the principle of proportionate causality, which otherwise only makes nuisance for us as we try to explain away all the obvious counter-examples.)
Unfortunately, Scholastic thought, confronted with the disproof of Aristotelian science, has largely retreated from the empirical world, using the “different subjects, different categories, different language games” type of argument. The findings of science are dismissed as merely quantitative, so that, by a new form of the doctrine of double truth, almost no alteration is needed to Aristotelian natural philosophy. I don’t think this dismissal works. Modern science does have a qualitative dimension, is not meaningless math; the ancient understandings of motion, light, and chemistry are not even qualitatively viable given available observations. Nor is it only a question of a false theory being replaced by a truer one. In some cases, we have advanced in clarity and are able to recognize our former “common sense” belief not as a superseded false theory but as a jumble of vague ideas, poorly defined terms, unrecognized distinctions, and unstated assumptions. When the Scholastics tell me that I should abandon Riemann’s understanding of curvature, Maxwell’s understanding of color, or Cantor’s understanding of actual infinities in favor of “common sense”, they should first show that this common sense is a real alternative of comparable conceptual precision and explanatory power. Each of these topics deserves a separate post, but the main point is that even if it is true that a correct ontology is nearly independent of a scientific and/or mathematical representation of the world, and hence provides no insight into these representations, this would be a very disappointing conclusion, a nearly hollow victory.
I believe the non-materialist metaphysical systems also have internal problems of vagueness, of two main types. First, each posits a most fundamental level of being–Plato’s Forms, Aristotle’s substance, Whitehead’s actual occasion–but has trouble telling us how to identify instances of it. Two and a half millennia ago, Parmenides managed to stump Socrates by asking him if there is a Form of hair or dirt. Confusion remains regarding what types of objects are full substances (statues? photons? rivers? gases? planets?) and which groupings of spacetime events are actual occasions. Second, non-materialist philosophies are often holist, regarding wholes as ontologically prior to parts. Then they must explain how the properties of parts are grounded in those wholes. Whatever the faults of atomism, it does provide an easy-to-understand explanation for how my posture is grounded in the location of my atoms. But if I am prior to my parts, then my substantial form should ground the properties of my parts, e.g. the spins of my nucleons. How does it encode this information?
What I’ve written will probably sound excessively harsh toward Scholastic metaphysics in particular, but that is only because it is the system that I had most wanted to believe, that I have studied the most, and whose unfinished work therefore most vex me. It may yet turn out that the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus is entirely correct and is exactly what we need to establish the coherence of the world, but it will require a profound sharpening of its basic concepts to be truly ready for this role. Perhaps our age of mathematical physics and analytic philosophy is indeed the one wherein such work could be done, but it will be no matter of minor clarification and adjustment. A genius on the order of Aquinas or Scotus himself may be needed. How the prospect excites me! But alas I am not that genius.