Some objections to a proposed Catholic view of the universe

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).



  1. thenyssan said,

    August 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Lately you sound like you’re going to rename the blog Just Scotism! Are you just trying to bully Lee and Michael out of their niche market? And when are you going to post the answers to all these questions so I can share them with my students? 😉

    • August 23, 2011 at 7:45 pm

      Nah. Scotus would have as many problems as any Medieval on this score.

  2. G. Kyle Essary said,

    August 23, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Do you know if the audio of the lecture has been made available?

  3. Crude said,

    August 23, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Regarding 1, didn’t Ed at least briefly touch on why this transpired in The Last Superstition – even though he came at the question from the context of Thomism?

    Regarding 2, why is 1 a dead end?

    On 3, why would a hierarchy need a ’cause’ in the way you seem to suggest it?

    On 6, I agree, though that seems more like a criticism of science than an objection to Toma’s project.

    • August 24, 2011 at 6:39 am

      1- Didn’t read TLS, though I did read his Aquinas. If Ed is reading this – I bought my own copy too.

      2 – It’s a dead end because the (physical) universe either is a place or places, or place is essential to it. I’d regard this as a per se principle, but it also follows from the primacy that every system of physics has given to change of place. That said, the sense of place given as per se nota is so vague that it can’t decide between Aristotle’s or Newton’s or Einstein’s account of it.

      In my blogroll, you can read Sean Collins’s “What is Force”, which ends by suggesting a new theory of place.

      3- The argument I gave here only has value relative to Toma’s claim that physical science can “slide into” the Catholic view of the universe. Physical science, however, looks for inner cosmic causes, and there appear to be none for a hierarchy of physical things. Hierarchy add something to mere multiplicity, but the telos of factors like selection an drift appears to be mere multiplicity and not hierarchy.

      A more basic point, which I omitted above but which many of the objections converge on, is that we don’t look at the universe as ordered in a hierarchy. We just don’t. There are some localized hierarchies in various places, to be sure, and even some localized “natural places” (like the womb for a baby) but there is no theory of the universe which reveals some single hierarchy for the universe as a whole, nor is anyone looking for it. No one who contemplates the universe finds that it suggests the picture of a king commanding his ministers commanding the peasants.

      Hey, if nothing else, it killed off astrology as a serious pursuit.

  4. Peter said,

    August 24, 2011 at 5:03 am

    Regarding 2, it has been argued that the natural place of everything is the relatively ordered positions of things with regard to the center of the universe: given enough time, the objects on a planet towards its center, planets towards solar systems’ center, etc., down to the ultimate center of the universe. Hierarchy would be saved insofar as things fit different levels relative to one another, as air is above water, water above rocks, etc. At a bare minimum we don’t want to say that everything is strictly homogeneous, for it is manifest that ice floats and rocks sink. At least where I live.

    • August 24, 2011 at 6:49 am

      Right. Another professor raised almost that same objection and I wondered if it might hold the key. I don’t think it does, however, since even if there is a gravitational center of the universe as a whole it does not serve as a principle of hierarchy for the universe as a whole. St. Thomas had a very good reason why all motions converged to one point as opposed to a point that was light-years away from that point, but the gravitational center of the universe would only be significant if all the galaxies, stars, etc. had to be in the places they are as opposed to some place light-years away, and no theory sees any reason to claim this.

  5. Peter said,

    August 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Another point:

    You have argued elsewhere on a number of occasions that it is a perfection of creation to have a multiplication of species (even if throughout time), mostly in relation to issues regarding evolution. Conversely, would you see this lack of hierarchy as an imperfection? (And what, if anything, does such an imperfection of creation imply about God?)

    • August 25, 2011 at 7:26 am

      I don’t know that there is a plausible response to that. It certainly seems that the sort of multiplicity that natural selection must give rise to cannot be separated from some hierarchy of things, since it is not a matter of mere numerical multiplicity but of diversity in species, at least over the whole of time. That might be a bridge from the sciences to the idea of hierarchy.

  6. August 27, 2011 at 11:38 am

    I just published a paper on that.
    Macrocosm/Microcosm in Doric Thought

    Macrocosm/Microcosm is a law of nature and it is set up hierarchically.

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