Metaphysics and the Case Against Scientism

Edward Feser’s new book, "Scholastic Metaphysics", makes a strong case for the contemporary relevance of St. Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical reflections on Aristotle

The fundamental structures of reality go beyond what even physics is capable of studying. Modern science has forgotten that humanity actually does possess a tradition of rigorous intellectual inquiry that has been able to probe, painstakingly and fruitfully, beyond physics. The name of this venerable intellectual tradition is “metaphysics,” and the Catholic Church in her universities and seminaries has long recognized its key role in the life of the mind.

In his new book, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Editions Scholasticae, 2014), Edward Feser (website) shows how the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics developed by thinkers who take key ideas from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas is still relevant today. When Aquinas himself engaged in the most heated academic controversies of his own time, he formulated highly influential interpretations of Aristotle. They have become a precious inheritance because of their permanent achievement with regard to clarifying how to fundamentally understand nature.

The great strength of Feser’s book is how well it exposes the shortcomings of the speculations of contemporary analytic philosophy about the fundamental structures of reality. The most recent efforts of such modern philosophical research, shows Feser, are remarkably inadequate for explaining many metaphysical puzzles raised by modern science. In order to properly understand the meaning of humanity’s latest and greatest discoveries, such as quantum field theory in modern physics, an adequate metaphysics is urgently required, now more than ever.

Feser devotes a great deal of space to showing how contemporary analytic philosophy tries to account for the most basic features of reality. However, when he proceeds to contrast its own various theories with those of Scholastic metaphysical research, especially those of the Aristotelian-Thomistic variety, it becomes clear how many advantages the ancient and medieval tradition possesses when it comes to making sense of the universe. Surprisingly, that metaphysical tradition still offers wisdom that bears directly upon many of the most heated philosophical controversies in philosophy today.

Readers interested in stepping beyond physics and exploring what the human mind is capable of doing with the disciplined application of logic and organized thought will enjoy Feser’s book very much. It has four main chapters devoted to four key topics mapping the fundamental structures of reality: potency and act (Chapter 1); causation (Chapter 2); substance and matter (Chapter 3); and essence and existence (Chapter 4).

Feser has a notable flair for being both witty and engaging and for using entertaining and vivid examples. The book demands much from the reader’s intellectual abilities, but like reading St. Thomas Aquinas himself it is always rewarding and exhilarating. Page after page, insight after insight piles up—so many that if you have any philosophical curiosity at all, you simply cannot stop reading.

After all, wisdom is the name for knowledge of first principles, and Feser is able to impart so much of this precious knowledge to his reader because he, at the same time, helpfully informs the reader about the multiple ways of viewing metaphysical controversies. Even if the reader is not convinced by the Aristotelian-Thomistic views on the fundamental structures of reality, he or she will at least go away impressed by the seriousness and depth of the Scholastic metaphysical tradition, which is all-too easily ridiculed in the academy today as allegedly “out of date,” a charge Feser proves is simply not true.

Feser’s book also has a wonderful “Chapter 0” that kicks things off by showing why modern science is not enough. In a brief and compelling way, this chapter shows why serious people need to study metaphysics. Modern science has discernible philosophical limits and Feser enumerates them, before going on to discuss, in the subsequent chapters (Chapters 1 through 4), the advantages of Scholastic metaphysics over contemporary analytic philosophy.

The four philosophical limitations of modern science make it crystal clear why we need metaphysics. If you can be convinced of this need, perhaps you will want to read Feser’s meticulous book and begin to learn the key ideas of metaphysics. So, let me briefly sum up Feser’s case against “scientism,” which is the name given for the theory that there is no kind of knowledge superior to modern science.

Anyone who denies the possibility of a meaningful metaphysics, and affirms instead the alleged superiority of science as what should replace it, is devoted to “scientism.” Again, this is the theory that there is no such thing as a “metaphysics” that can go beyond physics. “Scientism” thinks nothing can attain fundamentals better than modern science. Feser, however, makes four devastating points:

1. The philosophical theory known as “scientism” is either self-defeating or trivial. Feser shows that science depends upon philosophy to justify its presuppositions and its method, as well as to interpret its results. Usually, whenever scientists are caught in the act of making self-defeating “scientistic” philosophical claims (“self-defeating” because they began by claiming that philosophy is dead and we only need science now), when the self-defeating contradiction is pointed out to them, they then claim that, okay, philosophy is allowed, as long as it has “scientistic” presuppositions. But obviously such a claim is trivial, since it rules out dialogue with all other philosophical points of view. It rigs the debate in advance, since it defines those other points of view as “non-scientific,” and unworthy of philosophical consideration, because they do not endorse the superiority of science the way the philosophy of “scientism” does.

But it is a trivial point to establish that your philosophy is the only real philosophy if you have defined anything that is not “scientism” as not being philosophy. Either way—whether “scientism” asserts science’s superiority by a self-defeating philosophical claim, or whether it rigs the debate by trivially defining scientism as the only serious form of philosophy—“scientism” withers as soon as it comes under the burning light of serious philosophical scrutiny.

2. In principle, the scientific method is incapable of a complete description of reality. Modern science in general, and modern physics in particular, is fond of quantifying things with mathematical equations or univocal schemata. But this craze for quantitative description, powerful as it is for unlocking many fundamental secrets of nature, is still in principle leaving out vast sectors of reality from its descriptions: namely, those qualitative aspects of reality that cannot be subjected to empiriometric mathematization or empirioschematic quantification. As the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger recognized: “the mind itself remains a stranger in this picture, it has no place in it, it can nowhere be found in it.” After all, who is applying the scientific method, if not beings with minds?

Clearly, there is here a fundamental aspect of reality that will forever elude scientific description, because the mind cannot be reduced to the merely quantitative, without annihilating all the qualitative features of the mind and of the scientific method that it wields. To maintain otherwise, Feser points out, is like saying we can clean a house by sweeping all the dirt under a certain rug—and then arguing that we can get rid of the dirt under that same rug by applying the very same method. In the same way, the scientific method, by targeting only particular and specific aspects of reality (like the quantitative), guarantees that we are in principle leaving out everything not targeted by that method. To then step beyond that method, by rashly claiming that everything can be explained by and reduced to what that method focuses on, is an unjustified—indeed, a crazy—philosophical maneuver.

3. In principle, the laws of nature discovered by the scientific method offer incomplete explanations of reality. Feser discusses how the much-ballyhooed “laws of nature” presuppose physical things that exist and that operate in accordance with the laws. But even if the “laws of nature” are able to describe how, for the most part, actual physical things really behave, that description is still different from an explanation for why they do what they do.

Are the physical things listening to a decree from God that demands that they follow the laws he prescribes? Hardly. But this puzzle opens up vast arenas of philosophical controversy. Yet we need only appreciate for the moment the difference between a description and an explanation. All too often, the proponents of “scientism” think that because they can write equations for “laws of nature” they therefore somehow possess explanations of physical things. But usually they don’t; usually they are simply confusing mathematical descriptions with essential explanations.

Feser points out that “laws of nature” need not tell us anything about the natures or essences of physical things. Further, they need not reflect the will of God. As ad hoc pattern recognition on our part, they stop short of ultimate foundations and remain merely provisional descriptions—unless in haste we inflate them into unwarranted philosophical deities that pretend to be explanations. As soon as this distinction can be appreciated, the need for the serious intellectual competencies of philosophy will be likewise rightly appreciated. Philosophy is destined to play an indispensable complementary role along with science whenever humanity seeks ultimate explanations for the real natures of things in the most rigorously essential terms.

4. The successes of modern science can in no way vindicate the theory of “scientism.” Impressive technological achievement is the worst, and yet the most popular, of all the arguments for “scientism.” But it is a flat-out non sequitur. The strongest fist or prettiest face is no argument for who should be the ruler of the playground or the student body president, no matter how many people knuckle under or melt in the presence of such dazzling displays.

It is foolish to think that the successes of modern science either prove, or even render probable, the overconfident claim that science alone can reveal to us everything that is real. Feser offers an analogous line of reasoning to expose the fallacy (thereby suitably mocking one of today’s most cherished — and dumbest — cultural prejudices):

1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.

2. Therefore what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is probably all that is real.

If you have had enough of this sort of foolishness, you may look to the tradition of Scholastic metaphysics, which is a bracing alternative to today’s regnant “scientism.” Even contemporary philosophers will be surprised by the depth and rigor of the metaphysical tradition’s most potent Aristotelian-Thomistic reflections, which Feser amply adumbrates in his impressive new book.

For any readers who seek the thrill of thinking through the most serious intellectual disputes about the fundamental structures of reality, Scholastic Metaphysics delivers the excitement. Feser offers an indispensable philosophical toolkit for any mind that dares to contemplate not only the real truths of modern physics, but also everything that in principle, by nature, lies beyond physics’ grasp.

Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction

by Edward Feser
Editions Scholasticae, 2014
290 pages

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.