Communicating substantiality, (pt. III)

On pages 164-71 of his Scholastic Metaphysics, Edward Feser denies the division between natural and artificial forms. One has to read the chapter carefully to see him do it, since it seems like he is simply trying to explain and even defend the difference between them, but the difference turns out to be only that nature and art provide us with good first examples of substantial form and accidental form. This is a Thomistic defense of modern philosophy, though to explain this we need to take a short detour though the old notions of particular and universal agents.

On the older account of things, nature and art where names for, respectively, an intrinsic and extrinsic principle of action. Seeds need only the right conditions to make plants, but pages and ink need more than the right conditions to make books; and since pages need a writer, one assumed that the “intrinsic principle” that nature needed was also some agent cause. Now Aristotle knew that nature needed extrinsic agents too, which is why he said that man came to be from man and the sun, but this agency only helped to buttress the absolute distinction between nature and art since  “the sun” was seen as exerting a mysterious, astrological causality on generation, and the suggestion that we could control this sort of astrological causality would have struck Aristotle as both ridiculous and hubristic. Astrology is fate, and to pretend to control fate is both ignorant and immoral.* And so Aristotle was convinced that nature and art were ontologically distinct on the level of agent causality, since nature traced back to an utterly mysterious sort of natural agency which did not admit of manipulation by any human art, even in principle.

St. Thomas, of course, had a troubled relationship with astrology, though it’s unclear whether he appreciated the full force of the conflict between having both astrological, fatalistic causes and free will. St. Thomas usually addresses the problem by saying the will is a spiritual cause and the stars are not, but this argument collapses as soon as one inquires about the physical effects of a free choice. STA even seems to speak at cross-purposes when he tries to explain himself on this, as in Q. 115 of the Prima Pars, where he starts of with a proof that no body can be a universal cause (a. 1), before going on to prove that the heavenly bodies are universal causes (a. 3).**

But our best guess about nature is now that there is no in principle division between natural and artificial agents. Whatever nature can do, we can do also. There is no special sort of energy that nature can control and we can’t. Soul alone is the universal agent cause of things. But this is exactly what Descartes was arguing for in his cry to “becomes masters and possessors of nature”, namely, It was no longer hubristic or ignorant to lay claim to exactly the same power that nature used to do things, since now soul, and above all the human mind, had been literally exalted in excelsis.

Though this isn’t exactly right. In eliminating the distinction in agency between nature and art, it is just as right to say that nature became art as art became nature. Just as art could do no more than rely on the powers of things to form a unity, so now nature could do no more than this. This left us either having to deny real unitites in nature altogether, or to say that both natural and artificial agents did not suffice to give us the unified beings we actually find. The first option is metaphysical nonsense, and we are forever in debt to Plato in Parmenides for insisting on this (Proclus would later make this the foundational doctrine in theology in his Elements) the second option sees all natural unity as a participation in a divine reality, communicating its being to nature. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity puts the finishing touches on this by seeing this communication of being as intrinsic to God himself.

Objection: But “nature” is still different by the fact that matter has an intrinsic order to being a natural thing, but not to being an artificial thing. Steel has a natural order to whatever-it-is steel does, but not to being a car.

Response: But all “natural” can mean in this sense is “something that some matter was ordered to”, and the only cash value of this is in seeing what we can make out of what. If we made a salmon out of an acorn, then an acorn would “naturally” make a salmon on this sense of nature; if we made an intelligence out of drums of chemicals or microchips, then, mirabile dictu, microchips and drums of chemicals could naturally make an intelligence (and yes, I think this makes me revise a lot o what I’ve said in the past about the ontology of strong AI, though I’m still uncomfortable about the idea of an intelligent machine, which to me would be a finite intelligence existing for another finite intelligence). This leave no meaningful division between the natural and the artificial, though this is a completely different division from the substantial and accidental.

*This belief persists with us as a ghost-like possibility, though not with reference to the heavens but with reference to time itself in movies like 12 Monkeys, Deja-Vu, Terminator III (yes, I watched it).

** Before we chuckle at the ignorance of those poor, astrological medievals, we should take a minute to reflect on our hopelessly confused opinions on the relationship between physical bodies and mathematical laws. Why do we think that nature is determined because the result of an algebraic expression is? When we speak of the causal close of the physical, how does this leave room for the mathematical formalism of the very laws we say are at work in it?


  1. Peter said,

    March 31, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    I’m surprised this issue hasn’t generated debate here.

    Here’s an interesting, related passage (III, q. 75, a. 6, ad 1): “There is nothing to prevent art from making a thing whose form is not an accident, but a substantial form; as frogs and serpents can be produced by art: for art produces such forms not by its own power, but by the power of natural energies. And in this way it produces the substantial forms of bread, by the power of fire baking the matter made up of flour and water.”

    Saw this referenced in a passage in JoST where he writes: “…docet quod formae artificiales sunt accidentia, potest tamen ars applicando virtutes corporum naturalium substantiales formas producere, non virtute propria, sed virtute naturali a se applicata.” (C. Ph., Ph. Nat. I, q. 9, a. 3).

    • thenyssan said,

      April 1, 2015 at 5:53 am

      Bolin’s talk has put me into such a deep think that I can’t debate yet. Every time I try to formulate a worry about embryonic forms, I realize I just haven’t thought through what it means to be a form in the first place. It’s a powerful topic, a true level-changer for me.

      Also, nice quotation.

    • April 1, 2015 at 9:32 am

      This is very a propos – STA is certainly committed to bread being a substance, which makes it the equivalent of what Feser and Stump say about Styrofoam in the chapter I quoted. Still, I have doubts whether this can be made to fit with the rest of his doctrine, or how we can maintain a real distinction between art and nature if we take it seriously. When we end up committing ourselves to bread, styrofoam, Frankensteins, artificial genomes, and even strong AI as all arising “naturally in the relevant sense” (as Feser would put it) then “the relevant sense” seems based on a fundamental misunderstanding.

      One wonders whether JoST has any formal opposition between the “virtus propria artis” from the virtus naturalis. Does the heart use a different sort of virtus, qua virtus, than any other pump? Is the jaw a different sort of lever than a fishing pole or a see-saw? You get the idea- e.g. levers should be divided into where the fulcrum is, not into animate and inanimate levers.

      I get that sometimes organized matter makes substances and sometimes it doesn’t. But calling the product of the first “natural” seems to be just the sort of conceptual confusion that we need to cast out.

      • thenyssan said,

        April 1, 2015 at 1:29 pm

        Aquinas, Father of the Mechanical View of Nature.

        Feser’s fuming, scotch in hand.

      • thenyssan said,

        April 1, 2015 at 1:36 pm

        Why not use chemical reaction as what divides “natural” from artifice-al forms? I might be willing to bite the bullet that anything arising from a chemical reaction is a substance. It explains why baking bread creates a substance and grilling a steak does not.

      • April 1, 2015 at 1:38 pm

        Uh, wouldn’t the char lines be substances?


      • thenyssan said,

        April 1, 2015 at 2:32 pm

        Ok, but then what is the difference between baking bread and grilling a steak? (Don’t say introducing a substantial form)

        In the first we have substances which undergo a chemical reaction. In the latter, only parts of a substance do.

      • Mr. Green said,

        April 3, 2015 at 2:22 am

        Why is it a problem? The substance is natural because it has a nature; the artifact doesn’t (it has an accidental form binding together a bunch of disparate natures). That seems a perfectly reasonable distinction to draw.

      • April 3, 2015 at 9:07 am

        The problem is that the criterion you are setting down makes bread, styrofoam, artificial animals (even new species we make from chemicals off the shelf) all natural things.

      • thenyssan said,

        April 3, 2015 at 12:16 pm

        The acorn–>salmon worry seems overdone. Is that really what we would do? It seems more correct to say that we can decompose the acorn into a more fundamental substance and set the “right conditions” with that substance to give rise to a salmon. The first half of that is no more mysterious than burning a log and the second half might not be any more mysterious than baking bread.

        You’ve said yourself in the OP that nature-artifice and substance-accident are not the same division (a worry: does it matter that I’ve converted into noun forms?). Instead of seeing this as a collapse of distinctions, why not see it as a new taxonomy? Some artifice merely introduces an accidental form (house-building). Some artifice sets the “right conditions” you/Ari speak of in nature generating substance (bread-baking). Each is still derivative of nature, albeit in different ways…and…darnit. I think I just caught up to you on why it’s a problem. Hrgh.

  2. Mr. Green said,

    April 3, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    I still don’t see what’s problematic about that. (Except that “artificial animals” is a contradiction; either they’re artificial and not really animals, or really animals and not really artificial — any more than a test-tube baby is an “artificial” human being.) Is the difficulty that natural causes do not necessarily have natural effects, or artificial causes artificial effects? I guess it can be confusing to speak of a “natural effect” meaning the “effect of natural causes” vs. “an effect that has a nature (i.e. a substance)”, but those are different things, and Feser clearly affirms the difference between effects that are substances and effects that are artifacts.

    • April 4, 2015 at 9:04 am

      If you don’t see a problem in applying the word “natural” to bread, Syrofoam, polyester, gasoline, Tempurpedic mattress foam, plastic (one can go on like this almost forever) then I don’t see how I can make it any clearer. Once one starts using the word “natural” to include bread (as Aquinas does) or Styrofoam (as Feser and Stump do) he has reached a point where the division between the artificial and natural can be seen as simply mistaken.

      Note that, by parity of reasoning, the same problem recurs when we find ourselves having to describe clouds, forests, the ocean, all ecosystems, stars, nebulae, galaxies, the solar system, Earth, and even the Universe as “artificial”. A nebulae, for example, is no more substantial than a cloud; a coral reef or a mountain or a planet is just a heap. You can bite the bullet and call them “artificial in the relevant sense”, but one would be hard pressed to find a better example of ad hoc reasoning. If these are artificial in the relevant sense, then the relevant sense is simply mistaken.

      There is no formal opposition between the substantial and artificial as you claim in your last clause, whether in effect, cause, or any other way. Feser never asserts one. His final conclusion is that art and nature ‘differ’ only because they are good first examples of the difference between what is substantial and what is accidental. It’s clear from the rest of the chapter that this means you can use art and nature to get your bearings on the division between substance and accident, but the latter is the only ontological division in play.

      Feser, Stump, and the argument I give here is a sort of reductionism. The division between nature and art is reduced to the division between substance and accident in exactly the same way that material reductionism reduces mind or person to matter.

    • thenyssan said,

      April 4, 2015 at 9:54 am

      My ah-ha moment came when I tried to express artifice as sometimes giving rise to a new substance and other times not. On my little account above, there ends up not being nature–all generation of substance is just “setting the right conditions.” Artifice is not derived from nature; it’s all there is.

      I started to wonder how this all plays out in the 5th way and the way intellect/will work on matter. I particularly worry about what this does to things having an intrinsic principle of action. Got lost. Will wait for James to post something on it in a year or so.

    • Mr. Green said,

      April 4, 2015 at 1:54 pm

      James: Of course I don’t see a problem with calling bread or styrofoam natural if that’s what they are. And I don’t even know how a relevant sense can be mistaken, unless this is a terminological dispute. Clearly, Feser, Stump, and Humpty Dumpty can define “artificial” as they have done; if you are working from a different definition, then what is it?
      I don’t think the only division is “substance vs. accident” — substances do have accidental forms, as do artifacts; the issue is specifically where the unity of the thing comes from. A box has accidental unity from an “extrinsic” accidental form (apart from what other accidents it has), whereas a boxfish has substantial unity from an “intrinsic” substantial form (apart from what other accidents it has). Feser labels that distinction “artificial thing” vs. “natural thing”, which doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

      Thenyssan: Right, but Feser is using “artificial” to refer to the thing that is generated, not the method of generation. I think that few things are generated by purely natural means, because there are always external conditions; I suppose something like spontaneous radioactive decay would be an example of natural generation that can literally take place in a vacuum, but in real life most events are going to be some sort of mixture.

  3. April 4, 2015 at 10:46 am

    I wonder if perhaps part of a difficulty here is that calling something ‘natural’ is generally done on the grounds of how it unfolds in itself; whereas calling something ‘artificial’ is generally done on the ground of relation to something else. This would raise the question of things that are both natural and artificial — “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” — even if being natural and being artificial are not the same.

  4. John said,

    April 4, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    From an old entry on Feser’s blog:

    Though the substantial form of a thing is the ground of its finalities, a thing’s finalities are in turn essential to understanding its substantial form. For a thing’s substantial form is the intrinsic principle of its operations or activities. But for the Scholastic, operations or activities are understood in terms of the ends toward which they are directed. Moreover, substantial forms are best explained by contrast with accidental forms, and accidental forms are most easily understood in terms of the extrinsic nature of the ends with which they are associated. Hence my frequently used example of a liana vine, which has a substantial form insofar as it is intrinsically directed toward operations like taking in water and nutrients; and of a hammock made out of liana vines, which has an accidental form insofar as the end of serving as a comfortable place to take a nap is extrinsic or imposed from without. The distinction between substantial and accidental forms thus seems to me best explained once the notion of finality, and the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic finality, have already been hammered out.

    Anyone want to comment on this? Mr. Watson or Mr. Chastek?

    • April 4, 2015 at 3:01 pm

      Intrinsic and extrinsic finality aren’t exactly the same as nature and art. Things are food, fuel, shade, energy sources, warm or cold, appropriate environments, etc. by way of extrinsic finality, but all these things would exist without art. Still, let’s grant arguendo that intrinsic and extrinsic finality are best exemplified in nature and art.

      Just because you reduce some A to some B doesn’t mean you have to deny a heuristic role to the A; in fact, we’d expect you’d need to start with the A to get things going. But Feser/Stump/ the argument I’m fiddling with here are all committed to the reduction of the nature/art distinction. So it’s likely that the reduction of nature/art to substance/accident will need to start with the former.

      • John said,

        April 4, 2015 at 4:10 pm

        Thanks, Mr. Chastek.

        What definitions of nature and art are you using here? I find the terms confusing when I go back and forth between blogs.

  5. Caleb Neff said,

    April 6, 2015 at 6:43 am

    I haven’t had a chance to read Edward Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics yet, but reading his blog often (including the archives), I was surprised when you said Dr. Feser denies the division between natural and artificial forms. In my mind, that division constituted the lynch-pin in his critique of Intelligent Design!
    I expect that I should read that book ASAP, because I’m certainly wrong about the argumentation he gives.

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