Universitas
December 2005

No. 12

Is it reasonable to believe in God? Don Boland

The merchant and the middleman Don Boland

Imperfect Science Don Boland

A Note on our article on Transubstantiation Don Boland

St. Thomas and the Problem of Evil Geoff Deegan

God's Beatitude Geoff Deegan

On the Goodness of Being According To St Thomas Geoff Deegan

Centre for Thomistic Studies | Article Index | Recommended Books | Recommended Links

An Imperfect Science

A well known, if not always well appreciated, saying of St. Thomas is: "It does not pertain to the perfection of my intellect to know what many have said but how the truth of things has itself." One might be forgiven for thinking that the mind of the modern academic is fairly accurately expressed by reversing this saying so that it reads: "It does not pertain to my academic excellence to know how things truly are in regard to some matter under investigation but for me to know what many of my learned colleagues have said on the subject." We are of course talking generally here. There would no doubt be many notable exceptions to this pseudo-scientific mentality.

The sad thing is that there is often more respect paid to learning for its own sake than to it as the instrument of truth. St. Thomas is not saying that one should not know what many have said, especially if they have some authority in the particular field of science concerned. Quite the opposite; there was no one more respectful of the sayings of others. Though he was quick to point out that the argument from authority is the weakest kind of argument in philosophy or science his works are filled with references to the authority of Aristotle and other great minds. But such use of the thinking of others was only taken on board in order for him to understand things. The arguments he drew upon and the conclusions he came to were, where possible, ultimately from his understanding of how the truth of things has itself.

The modern mistake, then, consists not so much in the love of learning as in the despair of being able to find the truth. So it is that the discussion never comes to a true conclusion. Much mental energy is expended in collecting the opinions of one's learned colleagues and weaving them into some supposedly original thought of one's own in the fond hope of winning the admiration of one's colleagues or drawing applause from a more general audience. Throughout all this, the intellectual attitude remains a fundamentally skeptical one, mistakenly thought to be necessary to the critical mind.

This is not to say that we can ever hope to be in a position (in this life) of knowing anything perfectly or comprehensively. There is a sense in which we can say that all our science is imperfect science. We should all have the intellectual humility of Newton. It is a fault to overvalue our capacity for truth.

But it is equally a fault to undervalue it. Intellectual modesty, like most virtues, lies in the mean. We do, obviously, know something of the truth and this knowledge of the truth of things has grown with the advance of science. What we do know we certainly know, even if there remain many ways in which we can perfect that knowledge. The original scientists and philosophers, the Greeks, were not in any doubt that science and natural wisdom were founded upon our capacity to know the truth of things. Genuine scientific researchers of today are no different. What is the point of searching for something if you believe that it is impossible to find?

Why is it, then, that many modern thinkers, including highly respected scientists and theorists of science, adopt a basically skeptical attitude? I venture to suggest that it has something to do with the ideas about science and scientific method that have won widespread acceptance since the rise of modern science. These ideas are derived from a notion of science that the Greeks (I am thinking particularly of Aristotle) would have deemed to be inadequate. The nearest thing in the Greek mind to what the modern mind calls now Science is what Aristotle called imperfect science.

It is not that Aristotle thought of this empirical kind of science as wrong or mistaken. He was a dedicated champion of its methods. Indeed, it was the opposite, purely rational, i.e. rationalistic, approach that he regarded as falsifying in natural science. It is not that he did not value highly the knowledge we can have of the truth of things through science based purely upon observation and experiment. It was simply that he regarded it as giving us only part of the truth that we could know about things. It provides us if you like with the materials with which to build the house of perfect science, which he conceived as certain knowledge of the truth of things obtained through insight into all their causes.

It provides the necessary sensible foundation for our thinking but we still need to complete the scientific project by drawing intellectually from these sensed data the forms or "designs" of things (the things' meanings - which Aristotle termed the essences of the things) and their necessary relation to things outside them (as their extrinsic causes). He, like St. Thomas, saw the world of nature like a work of good art, full of significance for the intelligent observer, not just a chaos of impressions without order or form.

Science, as understood since Aristotle's classic definition of it, is "certain knowledge through causes". Such causes, or lines of explanation, he divided into extrinsic and intrinsic, each again divided into two, making the famous four: efficient and final, formal and material. Of these we might say that the modern mind sees value virtually only in one, the material cause in regard to what we know scientifically, insofar as it is interpreted as supplying through our senses (observations) the empirical basis of all our knowledge of nature. However, this strictly speaking intrinsic cause is conceived more after the fashion of something extrinsic to the object to be understood (which in fact inevitably disappears in the scientific process because of the reductionism alluded to below). It thus performs a role rather like an efficient cause from which the object can be made to emanate, or "evolve", in the mind.

There is therefore something of Aristotle's material cause and efficient cause retained in the modern notion of science. This, of course, is a somewhat simplified and strained way of describing something as sophisticated as the modern notion of empirical science. As explained below, this notion is in fact complicated by an overlay of mathematics. But for the moment we can say that there was reaction against and a rejection of Aristotle's reliance upon final and formal causes in the physical sciences.

This was partly due to a misuse of these lines of explanations in the pre-modern physical sciences. Such a misuse was in fact foreseen as possible by Aristotle himself. But it is one thing to criticize a too exclusive reliance upon these causes and another to deny their value altogether. The former is justified; the latter is not and is in fact what occurred. In the result the understanding of the nature of natural science was diminished, affecting our understanding of all human intellectual knowledge, especially Philosophy and Metaphysics.

For Aristotle, indeed, all causes through which we gain insight into the truth of things are interrelated. The formal and material aspects of an object cannot be adequately dealt with independently of one another. This certainly applies to the formal aspect for it depends in origin on the materials. But it is also very difficult to concentrate upon the materials (phenomena) without some idea of the project as a whole to guide one's investigations. To limit science to its imperfect beginning in sense data gathering, therefore, is rather like trying to study the colours used by the artist abstracted from their coordination within the painting.

Thus it is that even in holding to a purely empirical (material) theory of science there is a constant tendency to allow some rational theory (explanation in terms of formal cause) to intrude. The problem then is that it is sometimes a false theory or ideology that is resorted to.

More often than not, though, in modern science this formal structure of things is supplied by Mathematics. For modern Physics does not have quite the same subject matter as Aristotle's Physics. Rather than being pure Natural Science, distinct from Mathematical Science, it is a mix of both, what St. Thomas called a medial science. These are genuine sciences, formally mathematical and materially physical. That is to say they are dependent upon sense observations fundamentally but elaborated according to mathematical forms.

But for Aristotle even pure Natural Science, or Physics, requires analysis in terms of physical forms or essences as well as in terms of material elements, just as the house is not fully understood if it is seen only as a collection or heap of materials. The theorist of modern science, wanting to eschew "metaphysical speculations", is prone to reductionism - attempting to explain things by reducing them to their constituent elements; living things to cells, living cells to chemical substances, chemical substances to physical particles etc. They adopt a "nothing but" language. The human body is mostly only water etc. True, but only along one line of explanation, less it happens than half the truth.

Fortunately, this kind of science, though imperfect, can still be most productive. Curiously enough, it has proved to be a boon for the advancement of the physical sciences in modern times. For it seems clear that it rescued the natural sciences from a situation where they were being suffocated by a kind of formalism in thinking that belonged more to Logic and Metaphysics than to Physics. Thus it was that the modern return to experience and experiment as the basis of science was felt to be a breath of fresh air after the stale atmosphere of scientific thinking of the late Middle Ages. It was also seen by some as a rejection of Aristotle's baleful influence. This is unjust to him for he cannot be held to account for the misdeeds of some of his followers. Indeed, those who were most familiar with his fundamentally empirical approach, such as St. Albert the Great, are rightly credited with being forerunners of modern science.

Modern Science, therefore, came by way of reaction to the over-rationalization of the sciences towards the end of the mediaeval period. Not all, but many thinkers of that time, falling under the spell of the genius of the newly discovered Aristotle, in fact fell into a trap in the study of matters scientific against which he had warned. Neglecting the empirical (and indispensable) side of physical science, and taking for granted many "facts" of science, that were little more than ingenious elaborations on a small base of empirical evidence, they became too rational (i.e. dialectical) in their approach to the investigation of physical things.

This is not a fault that is peculiar to them or their time. There is plenty of it about today in academia and popular scientific journalism. Such a rationalistic approach to scientific questions, though it naturally engenders a false science, is often accompanied by a know all or dogmatic attitude. In the result some react against this to the extent of denying the possibility of any purely rational input into the natural sciences. Limiting themselves to a notion of science that is essentially imperfect they naturally are inclined to adopt a basically skeptical attitude to our capacity to know the truth about things. This is what I believe happened in a most general way at the beginning of the modern era.

Nonetheless, we can be grateful to the early modern thinkers for having preserved science for us, even if imperfect, and to have rescued us from an extended era of false science. We merely look forward to the day when we can rejoice again in, and profit from, an understanding of perfect science.