The Big Problem With Thomism
Edward Feser, perhaps the greatest proponent of Thomistic philosophy today, dismisses modern science-based cosmological theories, such as those of Lawrence Krauss, as being ignorant of the one true philosophical tradition:
The reason God is necessary and the material universe is not is that he is pure actuality while the material universe is composed of potentiality and actuality, and thus in need of something to actualize it; that he is absolutely simple while the material universe is composite, and thus in need of something to compose it; and that his essence just is subsistent existence itself whereas material things (and indeed anything other than God) have an essence distinct from their acts of existence, and thus stand in need of something to cause them. No doubt some atheists will be inclined simply to scoff at the metaphysical ideas underlying such arguments. But to scoff at an argument is not to produce a rational criticism of it. And since the arguments in question are the chief arguments in the Western tradition of philosophical theology, to fail to produce a rational criticism would simply be to fail to show that atheism really is rationally superior to that tradition. - FeserFeser is, of course, entitled to his opinion. But he seems to be unaware of any alternative metaphysical view that would be consistent with a modern scientific understanding, or he simply rejects such views out of hand because they don't support his theistic beliefs.
I believe that Thomistic philosophy is riddled with logical inconsistencies, and is based on assumptions that are epistemologically unjustified. Perhaps I will devote a future article to some of those problems. But what I would like to focus on in this article are the metaphysical foundations of Thomism.
In the days of Aristotle, science was in its infancy. As an empiricist, Aristotle made significant advances in the way we think about the natural world. He discerned a rational order in nature, and attempted to distill that order into laws that describe how things behave, based on his observations. One of the key assumptions in his view was the idea that the behavior of everything is governed by purpose. Thus, teleological assumptions form the basis of Aristotle's physics, where movement is seen as the actualization of a potency, and the purpose behind it was built into nature itself. His metaphysics was concerned with what what kind of things exist - form, substance, and of course, the unmoved mover that is the ultimate source of motion, but wasn't particularly involved in the affairs of man. For Aristotle, physics and metaphysics were intimately coupled, forming a coherent view of the natural order of things.
Thomas Aquinas was first and foremost, a Christian. As a brilliant philosopher, he sought to bring a strong philosophical underpinning to his Christian faith. He adopted the teachings of Aristotle and elevated teleology to the province of God, who was seen as the ultimate source of act and intention, while nature was demoted in status to become the product of God's will. Thus in the Thomistic view, metaphysics becomes dominant in explaining the order of things, while physics falls by the wayside. No longer is there an intimate coupling between physics and metaphysics. But at least in the time of Aquinas, there was no great schism between the two, mainly because empirical observation had not advanced significantly.
But the state of empirical knowledge has not remained static since the days of Aquinas. Our powers of observation have improved dramatically, and physics has been thoroughly revolutionized. No longer do we cling to some of the basic assumptions upon which Aristotle's physics was built. The teleological basis of movement has been replaced by mechanics, thermodynamics, chemistry, and biology. No longer do we believe that an object in motion must always be acted upon by another object. We observe inertial motion. We observe spontaneous change due to thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. No longer do we see purpose in every event. There is order in natural law, but there is no apparent goal. In fact, by our current understanding of natural laws, the universe will eventually become cold, dark, and devoid of structure. This is a departure from the Aristotelian teleological view of nature, and antithetical to the Thomistic view.
And along with this revolution in science, there has been a corresponding revolution in metaphysics. The metaphysical underpinnings of natural reality must evolve along with empirical science in order to keep a coherent view of the natural order, consistent with the empirical understanding of our time, as was the case with Aristotle. Philosophical works like Burtt's The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science describe this revolutionary change. The key point is that physics and metaphysics must go hand-in-hand to maintain a coherent view of reality.
But the Thomist remains stuck in medieval times, with a metaphysical view that is now completely divorced from physical reality. Thomistic metaphysics could once have claimed an empirical basis, but that is no longer the case. Instead, its basis is entirely theistic. Thomistic metaphysics has become a separate realm of existence where teleology rules and problematic facts of modern physics must be ignored. This separate realm has its own laws. It has severed the ties it once had with science and empirical knowledge. It exists for the sole purpose of justifying the theistic beliefs of its followers.
Ed Feser can arrogantly decry the ignorance of modern scientific views of nature and natural reality all he likes. And indeed, he may be correct in some cases, that modern scientists and philosophers are ignorant or don't understand Thomistic philosophy. But there are certainly many who do. And for the most part, they don't reject Thomism out of irrationality. Rather, they reject it precisely because they are rational, and unlike Feser, they are far more objective in their acceptance of empirical knowledge. Their goal is not to justify and sustain theistic belief, but to gain a realistic, objectively-based understanding of nature and reality.