Our conception of nature and the natural shapes our way of perceiving, thinking, and living. Let me explain. On the dominant way of conceiving the world and our place in it today, gifted to us by the Enlightenment thinker David Hume among others, the universe is like a clock—a mechanism—and is wholly composed of bits of matter jutting about in space according to fixed laws of nature. All of life must be explained from within the “immanent frame” of the causally-closed physical universe without appeal to anything transcendent or beyond this world.The language of “immanent frame” is from Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
There is regularity to be sure, but not deep glue that holds it all together. The real existents are the microparts of the universe, i.e., whatever turns out to be the fundamental particles of contemporary physics. Everything “above” the microparts—rocks, potatoes, platypuses, humans, mountains, planets, Pleiades—are “nothing but” assemblies of microparts standing in spatio-temporal relations to each other. The microparts are fundamental, everything else is derivative, a construct of linguistic or cultural practices.
In this dominant story, undergirded by philosophical “isms” such as scientism, materialism, and reductionism, humans are insignificant, a happy accident of a universe unconcerned with the happenings on a remote planet orbiting a rather ordinary star in a mediocre galaxy. Man must chart his own way and seek his own meaning as, paraphrasing Nietzsche, he is cast adrift on a vast sea of nothingness.“Straying through an infinite nothing.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181. Thus, the dominant way of perceiving today, whether one is a person of faith or not, it makes no difference, is what may be called disenchanted: we no longer are able to see the world as it really is, we no longer see the world in its proper light. The world has been emptied, for many, of the divine.For more on our culture’s dominant way of perceiving, thinking, and living today, see Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019). The dominant way of thinking today may be called sensate: we are fixed on the sensory, the material, the physical. Finally, one of the dominant ways of living today is, in a word, hedonism. It is possible, of course, to add God into this picture: God is the creator and sustainer of this clock-work universe. Many Christians in the sciences and philosophers of the modern era did, in fact, conceive of reality in this way. As time went on, however, and science advanced, God, souls, teleology, and the like played less and less of a role. Today, at least in the academy and largely in the West, the universe is all that exists; concrete material reality is a Neo-Humean mosaic of matter in motion, end of story.
What if the world is richer, more mysterious, more complex? These questions, and more like it, prompt us to consider again the nature of nature. Of course, there is another picture of nature and the natural that held sway for millennia. In this more ancient way of conceiving nature and the natural, the universe is more like a theatre or play. 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.The idea of the world of substances as a communion of being is from William M. R. Simpson, “Knowing Nature,” in Knowing Creation: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science, Vol. 1, eds. Andrew B. Torrance and Thomas H. McCall (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 240. On this older story, gifted to us by Aristotle, it is appropriate to speak of creaturely flourishing: chickens flourish when their full potential is actualized, horses flourish when their full potential is actualized, and importantly, humans can flourish too. In this older story, teleology is a fundamental feature of the world and it operates at two levels. First, there is the intrinsic teleology of individual substances. Carbon atoms, moles, magnolia trees, mountain lions, and humans each have essences that pick out the kind of thing they are and guide their development toward maturity as a member of that kind. Second, there is cosmic teleology: cosmic history is directed toward some end or purpose, such as the eventual existence of humans. But that world is gone. The Aristotelian way of conceiving things belongs to a bygone, pre-scientific era. We are all Humeans now.
A new challenge to this narrative is afoot. Aristotelian thought is currently enjoying a comeback in academic philosophy, including its relationship to nature and the natural world. As science advances, a bold and confident group of philosophers and philosophers of science are forcefully arguing that the Neo-Humean account of nature, including its account of object, property, causation, and law, is explanatorily inadequate. See e.g., Tuomas E. Tahko (ed.), Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); and Robert C. Koons, William M. R. Simpson, and Nicholas J. Teh eds., Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science (New York: Routledge, 2018). Some even speak of “Aristotle’s revenge,” given e.g., the phenomenon of quantum holism in physics or irreducible causal powers and immanent causation in biology and psychology.Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge (Germany: Editiones Scholasticae, 2019). Causal powers, essences, teleology, substances, and the like are now back in play in philosophy and theology, and perhaps surprisingly, in science too.
These new, or Neo-Aristotelian, voices are a minority to be sure, but we think an interesting and important minority. In this Fresh Voices series, we have asked some of these leading Neo-Aristotelian philosophers to help us understand what Neo-Aristotelianism is, why it matters, and where its impact is being felt.