Why Philosophy Matters
When I began reading philosophy, I started with the so-called moderns and contemporaries. I read a lot of Nietzsche and Kant. Schopenhauer found his way in there, too, that cantankerous and chirpy, old wizard. I enjoyed all their lines of thought, even though they were often dissimilar and conflicting. But I never felt any one of their systems were complete. There were always holes I thought one could poke their fingers through, and every time you did, one of the gaps would widen. And in the parts where they were complete, the conclusions were utterly and distressingly sad. (I’m looking at you, Friedrich.) It wasn’t until I ran into Aristotle, and from there, Aquinas, that I could see where philosophers took a turn they probably shouldn’t have. I guess what I’m saying is I think Aristotle and Aquinas got it right—they “figured it out,” so to speak—and to the extent that people either pulled away or misunderstood the Aristotelian/Thomistic worldview, a very dangerous and stupid mistake had been made. I’ll do my best to outline what happened, and what I think we might all be able to do about it. We, as in all of you who read my blog, looking mostly for kettlebell advice.
First: One needs to understand that many of the arguments we have today are the same as they were back then, when Socrates was around. People used to argue over the reliability of our senses, if change was a thing, or if all of life was an illusion, just like we do now. Parmenides, for example, argued that change is not a thing, and that all existence is timeless. Heraclitus, on the other hand, said change is the only thing, and that all permanence is an illusion. It was Aristotle—or, one could say Plato before him—that split the difference. The reason I focus on Aristotle is because I feel Plato merely accepted both extremes, rather than finding an acceptable middle ground, like his successor. A brief examination of this line of thinking would now be in order, yah?
So, Parmenides argued that since only being exists, and the only thing aside being is non-being, and since nothing can come from non-being, then nothing can change, because being—again, according to Parmenides—can only change if something other than itself causes it to do so. But since the only thing aside being is non-being, and since non-being “ain’t can’t do nothing by itself”, as the philosophers would have it, change cannot occur. That’s the gist of it, anyway. Heraclitus, however, gives the counter-argument, with his cute statement of someone never being able to step in the same river twice—that change is all we know. These are very much separate ways of viewing reality, aren’t they? So, which is right?
Well, let’s take a quick look at Aristotle, before we make up our minds. (We can come back to Plato later.) Because Aristotle says there is something right and something wrong in both accounts, and that the full truth goes something like this: In every being there is a mix of potency and act; there is the way a being could be and the way a being is. For example, I could be over there, and I could be making a silly face, but I happen to be over here, and I happen to be making a serious face. So, while I am “actualizing” my current location and facial expression, I could “potentially” be actualizing a very much different location and facial expression. Change, then, is a potentiality inherent to actualized being. So, how then, does change occur? Well, it’s quite simple, in fact. You need something to cause it—that is, to “reduce that potency to act.” So, all change requires a changer. That’s Aristotle, for you.
To go from sitting here to sitting there, I require the use of my legs, which requires the use of my muscles, which requires the use of my motor neurons, and so on and so forth. Nothing that changes, changes because of itself. BUT—but, but, but—there may, as Aristotle argued, be something such as an Unchanged Changer, that does all the changing, but requires no changer. In more classic terminology, an Unmoved Mover, that which is pure actuality itself. And that would be God. (It’s important to note that “move” in the Aristotelian sense really means “change.”)
So, all that is how Aristotle came to reconcile two diametrically opposed philosophical worldviews and, I would argue, succeeded handily. But Aristotle didn’t stop there. He went on to propose many more solutions and systems than that. For example, The Four Causes—which, by the way, these two notions, the notion of potency and act, and the notion of the four causes, couldn’t be more important for understanding the Aristotelean-Thomistic world view. When you understand these, you have the underpinnings for morality, purpose, happiness, and just about everything. This is why philosophy matters. So, we’ll see if we can tie into those topics later–maybe we will, maybe we won’t. But first, let’s cover the four causes.
Simply put, the four causes are a way of understanding what a thing is. That is, you can’t truly know a thing, unless you know 1) what it is made of (material cause), 2) who or what made it (efficient cause), 3) what pattern it’s in (formal cause), and 4) what it’s for (final cause). To know all four causes of a thing, is to know the thing itself.
Let’s take humans. Because as Aristotle would argue—and Aquinas more fully after him—humans are rational animals. That’s our “pattern” or form. We come from our parents (efficient cause) and are made of all the things we are made of—namely, but not exclusively, matter. Not exclusively? That’s correct. Because we can grasp onto abstract objects such propositions, etc, which are themselves immaterial, there very much seems to be an immaterial aspect within us, as well. Something akin, we might say, to a soul. So, it seems our purpose as humans—that is, what we are for (final cause)—is to use our rationality to figure things out. We know this because rationality is distinctive of us. No other animal has rationality, since no other animal can figure things out to the extent that we can.
So, humans are a composite, then. We’re mostly matter, with a little something of a soul. That’s getting us toward hylomorphism, or Aristotelian notion of the soul, which was also more fully developed by Aquinas. But I don’t want to get into all that, now. Perhaps starting with humans as an example for The Four Causes was more complicated than what was needed. Maybe we should have started with a ball. Let’s go back and use the example of a ball.
So, for a ball, we could say the material cause is rubber, the formal cause all the properties that constitute “ball” (roundness, bounciness, etc), the efficient cause a ball-maker (whoever that is), and a final cause—imagining this is a basketball, say—to shoot hoops with. When you get all of those, you can fairly say you know what a ball is, or at least, in this case, a basketball. Congratulations. You know what a basketball is. You’re a real philosopher, kid.
Now, why in the world does any or all this matter? It matters because the extent you eliminate any of the four causes, and to the extent you don’t see the world through the lens of potency and act, you begin to lose your understanding of reality, and, in particular, any sense of meaning or purpose. The scientific method, for example, does not traditionally concern itself with what is known as “final causality.” This isn’t because there is no final causality, but simply because so many scientists have decided to eliminate final causality from the hunt. Mostly they’re concerned with efficient and material causes—where something came from, and what it’s made of. But even in that sense, scientists aren’t *technically* Aristotelean.
Final causality, however, is linked—indeed, indispensable to—the philosophical notion of teleology, or directedness. Because to say something has teleology is to say it is working toward, or has natural dispositions toward, something else.
Evolution is a fine example, since people sometimes think that Darwin demonstrated teleology (or directedness) doesn’t exist; that all life is merely the result of random mutations acted upon by natural selection, and therefore, no designer is needed. But this is a serious misstep. Because why is natural selection a thing? And why do random mutations occur? None of this, of course, would be possible without many more basic, teleological phenomenon. For example, the “directedness” of protons to be attracted to neutrons. Or, say, the law of gravity, which was Stephen Hawkins’s favorite—why things have certain “dispositions” to do one thing over another, is, as Aristotle and Aquinas would say, teleological. Therefore, the teleological argument is really an argument (if anything) over the “fine-tuning” of the universe, which itself is an argument that, at the cutting edge, comes down to two possible conjectures: Design (God, say), or something like the multiverse. (Only problem with the multiverse: All these multiverse theories would also require “fine-tuning”, so at best they only push the argument back a step.) Evolution just isn’t even relevant; it totally misses the point.
So, because science doesn’t always look for final causes—though it is constantly running into them—that doesn’t mean final causes don’t exist. Obviously final causes exist, and science can’t get away without referring to them, saying things like the heart is for pumping blood, the brain is for thinking, etc. To say something is “for” something is to make a teleological statement.
But remember, these arguments were never meant to be scientific. These arguments were meant to be metaphysical; that is, to operate on principles that science itself presupposes, principles that science couldn’t exist without. Principles like the notion of causality, or that change occurs. If you deny that things have causes, then why look for them scientifically? If you deny that change occurs, then why look for evidence to change your mind about how something works? All this is to say that what is metaphysically argued by Aristotle and Aquinas is based on philosophical assumptions that no scientist can deny without destroying their own enterprise.
But suppose you did deny final causality, like many of the so-called modern and contemporary philosophers have. Suppose you believe that nothing is technically “for” anything and that everything there is happens to be but a meaningless, random occurrence. Well, what kind of philosophical worldview is this? I can tell you what kind of philosophical worldview this is: Nihilism. It is the conclusion—whether they admit it or not—of all atheistic philosophers. And though most atheists tend not to go “full nihilist”, they only avoid doing so because they don’t have the intellectual fortitude to swallow their own existential baby formula, not because they have any philosophical reason for it. In fact, all philosophical reasons on atheism point to nihilism, which is why the atheist philosophers I admire, are those who were brave enough, audacious enough, to admit it. Nietzsche, for example. Of course, I think the nihilistic worldview is wrong at the start, but at least it’s consistent on its conclusion. Because if there is no purpose IN life, then there is no purpose TO life, so we might as well stop acting like anybody is doing any kind of important work—we might as well stop pretending things like “equality” or “justice” or whatever, actually matter. Because how could they matter? We’re all just random assemblies of particles, floating toward an inevitable, all-encompassing, thermodynamic death. So, have a wonderful day, everyone. Byeee.
Another funny thing. I was having lunch with a philosopher friend who teaches at Villanova. I told him the thing that attracted me to Nietzsche and many of the “old atheists” back in my own atheist days was how romantic their notions were; you know, about facing the absurdity of life with dignity and courage and what not. But then it occurred to me: If life is absurd—truly meaningless, that is, which nihilists claim it to be—then why on earth does having dignity matter? What makes dignity, dignified? What makes courage—again, in a completely pointless, purposeless universe—any more admirable than crying in the shower, clinging onto an animal-shaped shampoo bottle? It seems absolutely nothing. Both appear equally valid; though, I would argue the latter response to be more appropriate. For wouldn’t it be much more normal and healthy, upon discovering the world is but a ridiculous accident—the fact that you should never have existed, and soon will never exist again—to be obscenely depressed, disappointed, and freaked out? To be dignified in the face of such an abjectly terrifying realization—that all life is ridiculous—is, I think, itself ridiculous! My God you should want to commit suicide!
Again, most people, even those who are atheists and naturalists, don’t often think all the way down on this. But you can see how throwing out the notion of final causality completely corrupts and undermines any possible notion of significance, meaning, or purpose in life, yes? And with it, morality and the pursuit of happiness. But turn it around. Bring final causality back in. Suppose things do have directedness and purpose. Suppose we are here for a reason. Well, now we can at least debate what that reason may be. We can at least reasonably imagine we DO have some purpose in life, even if we aren’t able to know exactly what that purpose is. And to me—and, I would say to most of us—that’s all we need. We merely need the simply reassurance, the hope, that there is something behind this. We don’t need to know what that something is, to live a good life, or to try. But on atheism, we don’t have any such hope. There’s no reason to be a good person, because it all ends the same way. There’s no reason to improve yourself, because it all ends the same way. There’s no reason to not be a hedonist. Because it all ends the same way. So, why not just do whatever feels good?
So here’s why all this Aristotelean stuff matters, and why rejecting it is a bad idea: The notion of reducing potency to act brings us to God. The Four Causes gives us morality, meaning, and purpose. But hold on—because how do the four causes give us morality—we haven’t exactly covered that, have we? Well, here’s the gist of it (I’ll do more of this in a later post): If we can figure out what something is for, we can also figure out what it isn’t for. So, for example, if humans are rational animals, and our goal is to use our rationality to seek “the good” (ultimately, to seek God) and find happiness, then anything that interferes with that objective is bad. So, slavery, bad. Stabbing someone in the leg, bad. Because all those impair a person’s ability to freely will themselves toward happiness and God, which Aquinas argues to be the supreme end, the final cause, of every human being.
I get there’s no shortage of gray area under this framework, and that’s precisely what it is: A framework, not a blueprint. Such is why we leave it to the moral philosophers to figure the particulars for us, what to do in this or that situation. But we need a framework, and we need it to be objective and binding and real. Else we’re doomed to relativism, and right back to where started with nihilism. So I guess the biggest mistake so-called enlightenment thinkers made was to abandon the gifts that Aristotle gave us, to pretend like things aren’t directed toward particular ends, and to think we only need science to figure out what the in the heck is going on.
As for the quick differences between philosophers then and now, I think Chesterton summed it up pretty well:
“Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind…
Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkelian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists, since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.”