Sunday, September 27, 2015

Thomism and the Ultimate End

In a recent post, I discussed the discord between Thomistic metaphysics and a modern scientific understanding of natural reality.  That generated quite a lot of discussion, particularly from Thomists eager to defend their archaic understanding of nature in light of their theistic philosophy.  Thomists, of course, will deny that there is any discord at all.  But this comes at the cost of having to re-interpret their own philosophy to minimize or explain away those conflicts.  For example, they either have to strain to define Aristotle's four causes in a manner consistent with modern physics, or simply accept that those things are nothing more than a philosophical way of understanding causation that is unrelated to and has no bearing on actual physics.  Choosing the latter makes the four causes superfluous and irrelevant outside the context of philosophical discourse.  The former entails that traditional understandings of the their role must be changed to conform with new knowledge gained from science. 

One of the significant incongruities of Thomism I mentioned is the apparent conflict between teleology and the ultimate thermodynamic end of the universe.  What is the final cause (or the formal cause) that pushes the universe toward its ultimate end state, lacking in any life or any form?  The teleological view of Aquinas was that the universe moves toward the ultimate good, the fulfillment of its divine purpose.
Indeed, we showed that God, through His providence, orders all things to the divine goodness, as to an end; not, of course, in such a way that something adds to His goodness by means of things that are made, but, rather, that the likeness of His goodness, as much as possible, is impressed on things.
Moreover, the reason for the order of things is derived from the diversity of forms. Indeed, since it is in accord with its form that a thing has being, and since anything, in so far as it has being, approaches the likeness of God Who is His own simple being, it must be that form is nothing else than a divine likeness that is participated in things. Hence, Aristotle, where he speaks about form in Physics I [9], quite appropriately says that it is “something godlike and desirable.” - Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Ch. 97
If the ultimate good of the universe is to be achieved by having a diversity of form, which is participation in divine likeness, is this not the end toward which the universe strives?  How does one square this concept with the scientific knowledge that the structure of the universe gradually degrades until there is no structure or form remaining?  Can the thermodynamic death of the universe be seen as the actualization of a potency?  If so, doesn't that require a re-interpretation of the meaning of those things?

Of course, this wasn't a problem for Aquinas, because he didn't have to contend with modern scientific knowledge.  In his day, the state of scientific understanding was virtually unchanged from that of Aristotle's time.  And Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal.  Neither of them knew about where the universe is heading, according to our current understanding.  But the modern Thomist faces questions like this, for which he must produce some kind of response if his philosophy is to be seen as having any relevance in the modern world.  And often, that response involves coming to a new understanding of the principles and concepts of his philosophy.  This was the case with the incorporation of evolution science into the Thomistic worldview, according to ID advocates.

I don't know if Thomists have an answer for this question regarding the death of the universe, but I didn't see any such answers in my previous discussions.  And it seems to me that any such answer would involve a new understanding of what Aquinas said about approaching the likeness of God.

But while Thomists continue to put new coats of varnish on the body of their ancient philosophy, they must eventually face up to the inevitable realization - that all those layers of varnish can't change its fundamental shape so much that it fits with all things we know today that were unknown to Aquinas.  It's time to start over.  And the best place to start is the recognition that metaphysics and science are not separate.  As Aristotle understood, they are intimately related.  The idea that Thomistic metaphysics is immune to any scientific discovery is absurd.

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