I attended a lecture today by Dan Toma, a biology professor who moonlights (with some big-enough names in Catholic Philosophy) as a teacher of what he argues is the Catholic view of the universe, and who claims that the findings of modern and contemporary science can be easily put in terms of this Catholic view. The dominant feature of this view is a hierarchical structure of the universe, ascending from the non-living to the living, and through the various grades of life from the material to the immaterial. Dr. Toma spent much of his lecture articulating the hierarchical theory of the Pseudo-Areopagite and speaking about the various developments that St. Thomas made to it. Dr. Toma argues that this theory of the universe was the common one until the Renaissance, when it was replaced by a different and conflicting view of the universe which reduces all things to material parts. I raised some of these objections in the Q+A (FWIW, I raised only #2 and #3 below. I wasn’t a Q+A time hog).
1.) We change our views of the universe when our old views are no longer persuasive. This persuasion might be forced or resulting from ignorance, but as a view becomes more and more long lasting and widespread, it becomes less and less probable that those who hold it are simply dupes, and the medieval view has been dead for at least 500 years. At the bare minimum, we need to appeal to some pretty subtle causes to explain how it didn’t deserve to die.
2.) The cosmos is a place or places, and so a hierarchy of the cosmos requires a hierarchy of places. In the ancient and medieval view of the world, there was such a hierarchy: the earth was in the well-defined center place and was the place of change, straight motion, and corruption; and the heavens were a place of circular motion, intrinsic immutability, and circular motion. The only way we can have a hierarchical universe now is if we say (a.) place is not significant to the universe, so it is not important that there is no hierarchy of place or (b.) the sort of natural places it still makes sense to speak about (the womb as a place of a baby) can tell us something significant about the universe as a whole or (c.) we need an entirely different account of place. The first two options are dead-ends, the latter requires a great deal of work that I don’t see being done.
3.) While there is still a clear hierarchy in the Cosmos running from the non-living to man, this does not appear to be due to any causes within the Cosmos (St. Thomas was uncertain what cause was responsible for this order of species). Even if we decide to call selection and drift causes (which is not the easiest thing to do, given the role that chance plays in the process) they are only causes of the multiplicity of species and not of a hierarchy or order.
4.) The ancient and Medieval world had intricate accounts of the causal hierarchies that obtained between the heavenly “spheres” and the corruptible world. Such hierarchies are no longer discernible in the universe taken as a whole. There do not appear to be any equivocal causes in physics, and if there are they play a minor role. The sun cannot be said to cause generation as such, Saturn no longer causes the conservation in things, nor is the warlike temperaments caused by being conceived under the influence of Mars. This does not mean, as some have suggested, that St. Thomas’s first way collapses, but it does mean that the sort of hierarchy among mobiles that St. Thomas believed was manifest to sensation is no longer discernible in the universe as a whole.
5.) There is some reason to question whether our ascent to God should run though physical science at all. It was all well and good for Aristotle and St. Thomas to build so much physical science into their philosophical accounts of the world – they had never seen a system of physical science collapse under refutation. We contemporary people have seen two systems collapse: Aristotle’s and Newton’s. Do we even want to work the accounts of physical science into discourses about God and the loftiest things?
6.) It is not clear to what extent contemporary science seeks to understand the world. Such understanding is obviously one of its goals, but there seem to be other goals too which are not altogether compatible with pure understanding. There are a good number of noble lies that every scientist works with for the sake of making things, building a system, gaining power over nature, etc. “Noble lie” is jocose – in fact all they are doing is using dialectical definitions as opposed to searching for definitions of the precise nature of the thing studied. This dialectical way of proceeding makes it difficult for the one who wants to know “what is X?” Too often, the scientific answer to such a question is “I dunno…but let me show you what I can do with it!”
7.) While metaphysics is an account of reality that is distinct from physics, everyone is rather vague as to how our mind gives rise to it. No one has yet given an adequate account of how “separation” or “the third degree of abstraction” can give rise to a concept of transcendent reality as opposed to a vague grasp of physical things (the best account was perhaps Aristotle’s, when he said that there is a divine part of man, which most is man, though he gave no details of the mode of knowing that gives us being as such).