The ascription of powers to individual beings is a radical rejection of modern physics, which locates causality in fundamental forces and fundamental particles. Physics sees individual beings, the things of the world around us, as like eddies in a river, arising from underlying immutable causes and only appearing to have a persistent being of their own. What permits these neo-Aristotelians to turn against this doctrine, which has been responsible for so much scientific and technical progress in the modern world?
The answer is that the last century of science has partially recapitulated Aristotle’s teachings on nature, for the most part unwittingly. Since roughly the turn of the twentieth century, the scientific enterprise has focused not only on the elemental, but increasingly also on large-scale phenomena: solids, fluids, organisms, ecosystems, human behavior, and computing machines. Scientists have often maintained that these systems cannot be understood solely in terms of action at the lowest levels of organization. Thus one hears of “systems theory” or “the theory of complex systems,” of “holism,” “irreducibility,” “downward causation,” “information theory,” and other musings from scientists that assert, to quote the physicist Philip Anderson, that “more is different” — that “the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe.”
These challenges have unknowingly echoed Aristotle. For Aristotle’s science was concerned primarily with the difficulties that arise when we try to discern the causes of beings, of wholes. A return to his ideas, then, is no mere conceit of the fusty halls of academic philosophy, but a clamor coming from science itself. Seen in this light, the claims in Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science do not seem quite so radical. Indeed, one could claim that the authors are attempting to make more explicit what many scientists have been dancing around for a century.
That this trend, and especially its connection to Aristotle, has gone largely unrecognized by scientists is due to several factors. First, science and the philosophy of science have become increasingly departmentalized and siloed, not only from each other but even within disciplines. Second, fewer and fewer students are engaging in any meaningful way with historical texts. Third, practicing scientists are facing increasing demands to turn out original research that attracts funding, leaving little time to reflect on perennial questions about nature. And so scientists return again and again to the same Aristotelian themes — parts, wholes, causes, purposes — reinventing the wheel without gaining traction on the critical question over causality.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor