The return of Aristotelian views in philosophy & philosophy of science: Goodbye Hume?


EXCERPT: . . . It is a commonplace of the history of science and philosophy that this Aristotelian philosophy—which dominated the academic (or scholastic) philosophy of the Middle Ages in the monasteries and universities of Europe—was overthrown by the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a revolution embodied in the works of Galileo, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes. Scholastics had thought of everything in the world as having purposes and goals. The new philosophers of the Scientific Revolution conceived the world instead in terms of mathematically measurable mechanisms.

[...] [David] Hume had a metaphysics of his own—a rather austere one, but a metaphysics nonetheless. His metaphysics denied that there was any necessity in reality at all: Things happen as they do not because of any necessity or essence or ultimate reason, but because they just do. The world is a regular place; things happen in generally unsurprising ways; but this is not an indication of any deeper necessity in nature. Causation—what Hume called “the cement of the Universe”—is just a matter of the “constant conjunction” of things of similar kinds [...] Defenders of Hume’s metaphysics called the summaries of these regularities “laws” and interpreted scientific laws as generalizations of this kind. With the demise of logical positivism in the 1950s and ’60s, Humean theories of cause and law became the foundations of metaphysics in analytic philosophy. Indeed, if you had left the world of philosophy in the 1970s, you might have thought that Humean, empiricist, science-based metaphysics was the only metaphysics worth taking seriously.

Things did not stay like this, however. Aristotelian metaphysics started to return, and the volume under review is one of many books that have come out in recent years defending Aristotelian views of causation, substance, attribute, and even essence and form. How did this change come about? And how can Aristotelian ­metaphysics—which, if the standard history is to be believed, was rejected on the basis of discoveries of modern ­science—be part of a serious, scientific worldview? How can serious thinkers propose “neo-Aristotelian perspectives” on contemporary ­science? [...]

The first factor in the rebirth of Aristotelianism came from an unexpected place: formal logic, in particular the logical theories developed in the 1960s and ’70s by Saul Kripke [...] which led to certain natural metaphysical interpretations. Philosophers had talked for some time in terms of necessary truth as truth in all possible worlds. Kripke introduced a precise way of formulating this idea, and pursued its interpretation into a metaphysics of essence and necessity. [...] Essences are, of course, anathema to Humean metaphysics and to the post-positivist philosophy of W. V. Quine and his followers (Quine himself said that Aristotle’s distinction between essence and accident is “surely indefensible”). But armed with Kripke’s logical and metaphysical framework, people could defend essence against the Quinean critique. [...]

The second area of philosophy in which Aristotelian ideas has returned is the philosophy of causation (or causality): the study of cause and effect. According to Hume’s influential conception of causation, “all events seem to be entirely loose and separate.” There is no necessary connection between distinct existences. Yet Humeans always had trouble with causal relations that were a result of so-called “dispositional” properties: solubility, fragility, and so on. [...] rather than just describing a mere regularity between “loose and separate” existences, as the Humeans say, laws like Newton’s should be understood as defining the nature of properties in terms of their characteristic effects—that is, in dispositional terms. This kind of challenge to the Humean view led to the development of sophisticated theories of properties understood as “causal powers.” This terminology was introduced in an influential book by Rom Harré and E. H. Madden in 1975, and the basic idea has been developed more recently in various ways by George Molnar (Powers, 2003), Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum (Getting Causes from Powers, 2011), and Anna ­Marmodoro (The Metaphysics of Powers, 2010). [...]

A third important factor in the revival of Aristotelian metaphysics comes from the development of the philosophy of science itself. [...] The logical positivists had seen scientific theories as aiming at the statement of laws of nature which were as general and exceptionless as possible. The paradigm was physics: Laws such as Newton’s aim to state the most general truths about how the universe behaves. [...] This idea—­science aims at laws, and laws should be regarded as statements that are as general and exceptionless as possible—came under critical scrutiny in work from the 1970s and ’80s. [...] An influential figure here is Nancy Cartwright, who gave an alternative description of science in terms of the measurement of “Nature’s capacities.” Rather than being something of which one single scientific story could be told—in a “theory of everything,” as it were—the world is, in Cartwright’s image, irreducibly “dappled.” It is made up of a plurality of different kinds of things, about which there is no one fundamental account, only separate accounts for separate kinds of things and their various capacities. This is clearly an Aristotelian picture, as Cartwright herself acknowledges [...]

To these factors must be added a fourth factor, which is often not explicitly credited as an influence on the present rebirth of Aristotelianism: the influence of Catholic philosophy and its own resilient metaphysics.[...] the revolt against the dominant Humean metaphysics in recent decades has led to more dialogue (and even collaboration) between Catholic and what I am calling mainstream philosophy. [...]

I hope that these largely historical considerations begin to clarify why Aristotelian philosophy (in particular, metaphysics) has returned. But I hope they also show how Aristotelian metaphysics can be scientifically defensible....

Science moves too slowly for the impatient..

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