I am grateful to Professor Gould for his invitation to respond to his introductory remarks for this symposium. Professor Gould is especially interested in a framework for philosophical thought and a particular comprehension of nature, that, as he says, held sway for millenia. He refers to this as the “Neo-Aristotelian picture,” according to which “the universe is more like a theatre or play” and “the world is a communion of being as substances at various levels of scale enter in and out of the play as cosmic history unfolds.”
And he is keen for the respondents to answer three questions: (1) How might adopting a Neo-Aristotelian framework as a philosophy of nature help explain the phenomenon within your discipline? (2) How does adopting a Neo-Aristotelian framework help us see reality more clearly, including the divine reality? (3) What is it able to see in nature that alternative accounts cannot? I shall try to provide brief answers to all three questions in this limited space, but it is on question (2) that I shall focus, and in particular on Gould’s suggestion that “the universe is more like a theater or a play.”
By way of preface, I should briefly sketch what I take the marks of a Neo-Aristotelian metaphysical picture to be. As Rob Koons, William Simpson and I write in the introduction to our Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science, such a picture holds that the fundamental entities in the world are substances which belong to natural kinds, each with its own intelligible nature or essence. These substances exercise their agency in the world through their causal powers: active and passive powers through which change is brought about by means of natural necessity. In other words, changes are brought about in the world by the actualization of the potentialities inherent in the natures of these substances. Thus, on this view, the phenomenon of “causation” can neither be deflated to either mere patterns of categorical fact (a view that Professor Gould characterizes as symptomatic of the modern weltanschauung), nor disembodied to yield transcendent and abstract “laws of nature.” Finally, the Neo-Aristotelian view is committed to the reality of teleology: directedness towards an end that is grounded in the nature of that particular substance.
Tracing the Resurgence
The resurgence of the Neo-Aristotelian view has largely occurred on two fronts. First, within analytic philosophy, where there has been a revival of metaphysics quite generally (some of it inspired by broadly Aristotelian considerations), and in particular a growing dissatisfaction with Humeanism about modality and causation, as well as other deflationary accounts of metaphysical phenomena.There is a growing body of research into Aristotle’s conception of science and a renewed sense of how it gives us powerful resources for understanding contemporary empirical scientific practice. In its place (and attendant on the fall of the deductive-nomological model in the philosophy of science), one finds the emergence of various theories of “dispositionalism” that reject reductive Humean analyses of dispositions in favor of causal powers (or capacities) occupying a more fundamental role in metaphysics. And this in turn has led to various projects that—to varying extents—embrace what I have called “the marks of the Neo-Aristotelian metaphysical picture” above.
Nonetheless, it is on a second (and complementary) front that I wish to center my response to Professor Gould’s questions. On this score, there is a growing body of philosophically informed research into Aristotle’s conception of science and—in light of this—a renewed sense of how Aristotelian notions give us powerful resources for understanding both contemporary empirical scientific practice, as well as the scope for investigating overlaps and analogies between disciplines that we would presently regard as paradigm cases of “empirical science,” and other disciplines, including metaphysics. This development has been spurred by the recognition that Aristotle was one of the most significant pioneers of systematic empirical research, and also an incisive commentator on the “relatively self-contained” domains, principles, and methods of different fields of investigation, as well as how these different subject matters might fit together. As Ludger Honnefelder has argued, subsequent Aristotelians such as Albert the Great took Aristotle’s conception of science to count in favor of a pluralistically structured view of science instead of the Platonic tendency to conceive of a grand unified science proceeding deductively. In hindsight, it is clear that it is Aristotle’s view that fits best with contemporary empirical practice.
It is worth noting that in recognizing the enormous relevance of this aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy, one is decisively overturning a long-entrenched caricature of Aristotelian natural philosophy that became current in the early modern period (for, among other things, socio-political reasons): that, in the words of Bacon, Aristotle “made his natural philosophy a mere bond-servant to his logic, thereby rendering it contentious and well nigh useless.” Nothing could be further from the truth: Aristotle was a thinker who was so deeply concerned with empirical knowledge that such concerns also influenced his account of the structure and nature of scientific practice.
The Universe Is Like A Theater
With this background in view, I am now in a position to offer brief responses to each of Professor Gould’s questions. On (1), adopting the Neo-Aristotelian framework as a philosophy of nature helps explain the “phenomenon” within my disciplineProfessor Gould is doubly correct when he says that “the universe is like a theater or a play”; once in its dramatic enactment under the aspect of science, and then writ large, in its metaphysical guise. (the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of physics in particular) because—to my mind—it offers the most compelling approach to characterizing the phenomenon to begin with. It is something of a commonplace (or should be) that in philosophy, at least as much work goes into the characterization of a phenomenon as into analyzing it; and the Neo-Aristotelian characterization of the domains of scientific inquiry as “dappled” or “pluralistic” (and its defense as best fitting with empirical practice) has been powerfully advanced by Nancy Cartwright and various other philosophers of science within the Neo-Aristotelian tradition. On question (3), I take this accuracy of characterization (in conjunction with the complementary metaphysical resources mentioned earlier) to confer its distinctive advantage as an account of nature. Finally, in response to question (2), I will offer a suggestion. It is in Cartwright’s Neo-Aristotelian account of scientific models as being idealized depictions of the natural world—whose domains of application are invariably highly circumscribed and patchworky—that we find ourselves able to recognize most clearly the truth about the perspective on reality that is afforded us by empirical science, a truth that is closely related to Professor Gould’s suggestion that the universe is “like a theater or a play.” In a play, reality (say, an insight into some aspect of the human condition) is conveyed not through a literal mimicking of the play’s subject (say, a murder) by the players, but rather through a dramatic enactment of this subject made possible by style and dramatic convention, and it is only in imaginative perception that we come to understand the reality of the subject matter as it is meant to be conveyed—not as a “window” (with its connotation of pellucid-ness) into the subject, but as an embodiment or eikon of the subject. Something similar is true of Cartwright’s account: scientific models do not give us “literal” descriptions of material reality, but instead function as icons of that reality, into whose embodiment the formal details of a model (such as advanced geometry) are taken up (cf. the way in which the marks on a surface are taken up into the embodied nature of a painting); and on this view, far from being in tension with the predictive/empirical success of such models, the peculiar iconic quality of science is actually responsible for its empirical success. Of course, all this is very much of a piece with a thought shared by many Ancients (Aristotelian and Platonic) and their intellectual descendants: all things can function as eikons of the Creator. If this is correct, then Professor Gould is doubly correct when he says that “the universe is like a theater or a play”; once in its dramatic enactment under the aspect of science, and then writ large, in its metaphysical guise.