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Archive for February, 2010

Meeting 3: Armchair Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas


Issue for Week: Exploring Purpose pt. 1 – Thomism

For this week’s Forum on Chance, Purpose and Progress in Evolution and Religion we started to tackle one of the primary buzzwords in the class title—Purpose—through the lens of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century philosopher and Catholic priest who, among many other important philosophical points, debated the nature of objects and how the definition of an object is purpose, drawing largely on Aristotelian definitions for objects. Thomas reasoned that everything in the Universe must act according to an “eternal law” or God’s plan. To this end, everything in the Universe from the motions and interactions of atoms to societal laws must be governed by this plan. Thomas believed humans must understand portions of eternal law, or natural laws, and that knowing binds of God purpose binds humans to it. Using Thomas’s framework for how purpose plays an integral role in defining an object we discussed

1.) Thomas and Aristotelian definitions for objects

2.) The nature of natural laws

Our first topic to tackle regarding identifying the purpose of humans was to fully understand how Thomas thought that humans were defined. This required a discussion on the four types of causes for objects and that causes could be immediate or lie farther back in a chain of causes, ideas influenced heavily by Aristotle and other Greek thinkers. Aristotle reasoned that an object could be defined by four causes:
1.) Material Cause – The physical composition of an object. Organic life is largely composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.
2.) Formal Cause – The essence or plan of an object. The Constitution is the formal cause of the United States.
3.) Efficient Cause – The cause that brings an object into existence. A hammer is the efficient cause of a nail driven into a board.
4.) Final Cause – The purpose of an object. The final cause of a spoon is to deliver food to the mouth.
In addition to these four types of causes, the cause of an object can be placed on its position in a chain of causes:

1.) Proximate Cause – The immediate cause of a phenomenon. The cause for the 8-ball falling into the pocket on the break is that the 3-ball knocked it in.
2.) Distal Cause – The most basic cause that can be observed. The cue ball caused the 3-ball to hit the 8-ball in such a manner that it fell into the pocket.
3.) Ultimate Cause – The most basic cause, or the “real” cause. The 8-ball fell into the pocket because the billiards player struck the cue ball.
With this understanding then what are the causes for humans. Roughly, the final cause or purpose of humans in Thomist philosophy is God. The class was challenged to come up with Aristotelian causes for humans using what is known about modern biology.

Thomas Aquinas

Material – Dust

Formal – God, created in his image

Efficient – God creates man from dust, woman from man’s rib

Final – Knowing and fulfilling God’s Eternal Law

Forum Attendees (mostly biologists)

Material – atoms, molecules

Formal – Genome, transcriptome, proteome, maternal effects, environment, experience

Efficient – Natural selection (ultimate), Genome, transcriptome, proteome, environment, experience (proximate)

Final – Survival and reproduction

The second major topic of discussion was what the repercussions are for Purpose when we define humans and all objects in this fashion. For Thomas Aquinas, the idea that humans were a part of both spiritual and physical creation and thus natural and eternal law could be known through both ends was very important. It binds humans and their fate towards God, and in fact, under this worldview, without God all of eternal law breaks down. God is the ultimate and final cause for everything. In fact, perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of evolutionary biology to religious philosophy is the removal of God from the final cause of humans (and by extension all natural organisms). For modern evolutionary biologists, the necessity of an eternal law was inconsequential to understanding human purpose, and at some other extreme of belief there doesn’t have to be Purpose [big P purpose] at all.
An interesting ending to our conversation resulted in whether or not the final cause for humans as proposed by Aquinas and the final cause as proposed by evolutionary biology were opposites or if they could remain compatible. While the discussion could not be represented in full in this brief post, the problem of human suffering under a theistic view of evolution can be explained as a necessary component of God’s plan (eternal law) for the universe rather than a tragic outcome of other necessary processes (I’m sure we will return to this problem of theodicy in future discussions).

(Summary contributed by B.H.)

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Monad to Man – Forum Summary

Michael Ruse, author of Monad to Man, was the guest speaker at the second Chance, Purpose and Progress Forum on Monday Feb 8. Here are a few key points and questions raised during the discussion:

Ruse began by stating that he is a ‘committed evolutionist’, his book is not intended as a critique of evolutionary biology but a deconstruction of the complex history of evolutionary biology to better understand the nature biology and science

When asked about the relationship between scientists and philosophers of science, Ruse complained that philosophers of science are often looked down upon by scientists, and accused scientists (present company excluded) of having no interest in philosophy. A consensus was reached that evolutionary biologists are generally more involved in theory/philosophy behind their science because of the nature of their research.

Then came the ‘Molecular vs Evolutionary Biology Issue’: Ruse discussed why molecular biology is much more prominent and well-known while evolutionary biology is often in the shadows. Molecular biology is perceived as much more of a hard science, it is able to attract many more grants and much more attention. In the 1920’s, evolutionary biology was not a university science, it was considered a ‘museum science.’ What must evolution do to gain some Respect?

A brief digression on Social reality and Brute reality led to discussions of science as a social construct. Is science telling us about brute reality, or social reality?

Ruse uses evolutionary biology as model organism to study the concept of Progress. Evolutionary biology has moved from being very Progressive to completely unprogressive. Why?

Hypothesis: because of natural selection and Mendelian genetics. Genetic mutations are ‘random’, directionless, and therefore unprogressive. Under natural selection, what wins wins, there is no ‘better’.

But do evolutionary biologists still secretly believe in Progress? Ruse proposed that part of the removal of Progressive thinking in evolution was part of a concerted effort by specific scientists to gain respect from evolution as a science.

What about biological progress? In the book, Ruse felt it was vital to not reveal his own opinions on progress but rather to focus exclusively on how biologists feel about progress. In evolution, increasing complexity does not imply ‘progress’. In science in general, complexity does not necessarily imply value, instead it is generally held that simplicity is valuable.

And so began the talk of Values.
Social reality has values but brute reality can not have values. How is fact related to value?
Religion holds to the idea that there are genuine values waiting to be discovered. Is science, evolutionary science in particular, a value yielding phenomenon? Are humans more valuable than other life forms? Why?

Key Points

    Brute reality: what would exist if observers (us) were not here to observe

    Natural Category: exists in the brute universe and is given a name in the perceived universe (ex. Atom is a natural category)

    There can be no progress without a ‘value’ statement
    Progress moves towards or away from an end goal
    Progress that depends on circumstance = relative progress
    Evolutionary Biology only defines relative progress
    3 categories:
    Category of things, brute universe, everything
    Category of things we can perceive, perceived universe
    Category of things in our head, ‘social’ universe

Questions to think about:

    Are we the only ones who have ‘values’? (Do dolphins have values?)

    Is it a contradiction not to believe in biological progress but to believe in social progress?

    Is there a brute reality?

    If we were not here (ie. no science, no math, etc.) would there be less to reality?

    If there exists intelligence elsewhere, would they come up with the same mathematics?

    Is math a description or is it inherent to reality?

    Are species a Natural Category? Are social groups a Natural Category?

    Is biology better than it was 100 years ago?

    Can we say science is progressing?

    Is progress/Progress inevitable?

Summary contributed by J.U.

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Monad to Man

The official summary of Michael Ruse’s Forum appearance is quite lengthy, so I thought I’d put up a separate Discuss-Here post in case anyone out there feels an urgent need to comment.

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