Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Secret Teaching in Aristotle's Natural Science

One of the most common criticisms of "Darwinian natural right" is that Darwinian science denies the cosmic teleology necessary for natural right. For example, in his contribution to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, John West insists that natural human desires can be the ground for a universal morality only if "one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or that they represent permanent truths inherent in the nature of the universe"; but "Darwinism explicitly denies that natural desires are either the result of intelligent design or an unchanging nature." Straussians offer a similar criticism when they quote Leo Strauss's claim (at the beginning of Natural Right and History) that classic natural right depends on an Aristotelian conception of cosmic teleology that has been denied by modern natural science.

This assumption that the human good must be a cosmic good runs through the fusion of Platonic cosmology and Biblical creationism that constituted the Medieval Cosmic Model that dominated much of Western history up to the 19th century. Last summer, I wrote a long series of posts arguing that, in fact, the Socratic philosophers were skeptical of any cosmic teleology, and that they saw the human good (moral and intellectual) rooted in human nature in a manner that would be consistent with Darwinian natural right. Some of those posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

It is often assumed that modern natural science overturned Aristotle's natural science by refuting the cosmic teleology that was fundamental for his science. But this overlooks the evidence that Aristotle did not really believe many of the doctrines commonly attributed to his science. When Thomas Hobbes warned against the "vain philosophy" of the Aristotelian Scholastic theologians, he suggested that their "supernatural philosophy" was not really part of Aristotle's true teaching. He observed: "And this shall suffice for an example of the Errors, which are brought into the Church, from the Entities, and Essences of Aristotle: which it may be he knew to be false Philosophy; but writ it as a thing consonant to, and corrobative of their Religion; and fearing the fate of Socrates" (Leviathan, chap. 46, paragraph 18). Similarly, Moses Maimonides argued that Aristotle knew that there was no scientific demonstration of the eternity of the world, and that Aristotle's apparent endorsement of this idea was a merely rhetorical appeal to popular opinions (The Guide of the Perplexed, part 2, chaps. 15, 25). So some careful readers of Aristotle have concluded that the overt teaching of his scientific writings sometimes contradicts his true secret teaching, which suggests that possibility that his secret teaching might be compatible with modern natural science.

That's the argument of David Bolotin's book An Approach to Aristotle's Physics: With Particular Attention to the Role of His Manner of Writing (SUNY Press, 1998). Through a meticulous analysis of some of Aristotle's reasoning in the Physics and On the Heaven, Bolotin tries to show that Aristotle deliberately uses weak arguments to lead his careful readers to suspect that he doesn't really accept the conclusions apparently set forth in those writings. Bolotin suggests that Aristotle employs secret writing as a rhetorical strategy to protect his natural science from persecution. In the ancient Greek cities, natural philosophers were commonly thought to be atheists, because they seemed to explain the world as governed by purely natural causes with no need for divine powers. Socrates at his trial was accused of being an atheistic natural philosopher. And Aristotle himself was eventually forced to leave Athens to avoid the fate of Socrates. If one takes account of Aristotle's rhetorical strategy in concealing his true views of science, Bolotin concludes, one can see that his true teaching is consistent with modern science, and that it is also in some respects deeper and broader than modern science.

I generally agree with Bolotin. And yet I don't think he gives enough weight to Aristotle's turn away from theological cosmology to empirical biology as set forth most clearly in the Parts of Animals (642a28-30, 644b22-645a37). Here Aristotle indicates that Plato's Socrates was mistaken in identifying the study of nature with the study of cosmology or astronomy and in failing to see how political philosophy could be grounded in the study of biological nature. This is crucial for the question of teleology. Because even if there is no warrant for a cosmic teleology, there can still be an immanent teleology rooted in the goal-directed order of living beings. Like Strauss, Bolotin fails to notice how Aristotle's best examples of natural teleology are biological rather than cosmological (see, for example, pages 19-22, 24, 43-44).

Bolotin concludes his book with a brilliantly formulated summary of his main ideas (pp. 150-52). Because it's so well stated, I'll quote from it at length:

". . . let us briefly contrast what he says openly regarding the topics I have been discussing with the views that I argue he really held. He teaches openly that our visible world has always existed and will always exist; that one of its principles is a substrate that persists throughout all change; that there are also eternal and changeless forms, which by their actin upon this substrate give rise to the natural beings; that the development of a natural being is set in motion for the sake of the good toward which it tends; that the manifest or perceptible character of the world, as for instance the continuity of its bodies and of their motions, is also its most intimate character, even beyond the range of any possible perception; that the up and the down, as they appear to us on earth, are also features of the world in itself, which characterize the places in which light and heavy bodies fulfill their natures; and, more generally, that there are permanent and proper places for the several elements, including earth, whose proper place is the absolutely fixed center of the world. If my arguments have been correct, however, he was well aware of the dubiousness of the claim that our visible world exists forever; he did not believe that any natural beings come into being from a persistent substrate (and all the less, from the action of eternal and changeless forms on such a substrate); he did not seriously claim that the end toward which a natural being tends to develop is in any sense anticipated by the moving cause or causes of that development; he did not believe that the manifest or perceptive character of the beings also belongs to them independently of our perception, but rather focused on it in the belief that the beings as we perceive them are what we properly mean by the beings themselves; in saying that the up and the down and the other differences of place are not just arbitrary designations, but genuine features of the whole itself, he meant by 'the whole' the experienced whole, which exists as such only for human beings; and similarly, in saying that the earth remains unmoved at the center of the world, he meant that what we experience as the stability of the earth beneath us is part of the normal human perspective, within which natural beings are seen in their truest light."

"What emerges from this contrast between Aristotle's surface teaching and his genuine views is that in the former he presented the natural world as being far more completely intelligible than he believed it was. For if the visible world is eternal, and if natural beings result from the action of eternal forms on a persistent substrate, then it can seem intelligible at least in principle why there are the kinds of beings there are. There arises, of course, the question of why the forms are the ones they are; but even this question can appear to be answered sufficiently, if not completely, if everything natural is brought about for the sake of the good. Moreover, if natural motion is directed toward the good, then the tendency of living beings toward the attainment of their mature forms can appear to be explained with the kind of clarity with which we explain our own purposeful actions. Even the rising and falling of light and heavy bodies can appear to have the intelligiblity of end-directed motion if in moving to their proper places they are becoming more completely the kinds of beings they are. And finally, if we accept Aristotle's arguments for infinite divisibility, then at least to this extent, our knowledge need not be limited to the beings as we perceive them, but can encompass what lies beyond the perceptible realm. In Aristotle's serious view, however, natural beings do not arise from the action of eternal forms, and neither is there any other principle that can make intelligible--except conditionally, given that there is in fact an ordered world--why there are any of the kinds of beings that we know there are. As for the growth of these beings, he knew from experience that they typically develop in more or less the way their parents did, and he understood that their development is necessarily somehow coherent if they are to live; but he also knew that he could not understand the full necessity for this development or any purpose directing it. Though he did have an explanation of why lighter bodies tend to rise, his account of this phenomenon relies on the more primary fact, which he did not really try to explain, that the medium in which they do so presses downward. And more generally, he regarded the task of natural science to be the articulation of the manifest character--understood as the truest being--of the given world, a world whose ultimate roots he did not think that this science could ever discover."

"Now to understand why Aristotle presented what he knew to be such an exaggerated picture of the degree of intelligibility of the natural world, we must consider the implications of the limitedness of the achievement of what he regarded as genuine natural science. For his denial that natural science can finally explain the given world--and in particular his acknowledgment that it can not discover its ultimate roots--seems to leave him unable to exclude the alternative that this world might partly consist of, or otherwise owe its existence to, a mysterious and all-powerful god or gods. If there are such gods, as was suggested by Homer and Hesiod, among others, we can not rely on what reason and normal experience indicate as to the limits of what beings can do and of what can be done to them. What I have called the manifest character of things could not be their truest being but at most their usual way of being, and the most important truth about them would have to include their capacity to undergo miraculous change. In other words, so long as this theological alternative is not ruled out, the very assumption that there is nature, or that beings must become and perish in accordance with fixed natures, remains questionable; and the pursuit of a science of nature remains a dubious and perhaps even a wholly misguided one. Aristotle must refute, then, the claims of this theology in order to vindicate the possibility of natural science. And the primary reason for his exaggerating the intelligibility of the world is to indicate what would have to be the case in order for natural science to be able to complete this task itself."

Bolotin's account of Aristotle here supports many of the arguments that I have made on this blog. Aristotle casts doubt on the claim of Socrates (in the Phaedo) that Mind is responsible for all things and for directing all things to what is good. There is no scientific support for such a cosmic teleology. Nor is there any scientific ground for Plato's teaching that there are eternal and changeless Ideas or Forms. Natural science can articulate the manifest order of the world as we know it by experience, and this we can say is nature. But natural science cannot explain the ultimate roots of this given natural world by explaining why it is this way and not some other way. Natural science can take nature as self-evident--that's just the way it is! But this appeal to self-evident natural experience cannot prove that nature could never be in any other way, or that nature as we know it could not have been originally created by all-powerful god or gods.

Bolotin's account of Aristotle suggests that Aristotle is close to David Hume in crucial respects. Like Bolotin's Aristotle, Hume sought a science of nature rooted in a science of human nature that would be free of theological beliefs. As part of this project, Hume could explain religion as a product of natural history, and he could spot the flaws in the cosmological arguments for God's existence. But, still, Hume saw the fundamental contingency and mystery of nature as a given world, the ultimate origins of which are beyond human reason. Hume could not, therefore, prove that nature was not the work of a divinely intelligent designer. Here Hume was in the same boat with Charles Darwin, who fulfilled the Aristotelian/Humean project for explaining the order of nature in purely natural terms, but who could not rationally explain the ultimate origins of nature, because "the mystery of the origin of all things is insoluble by us."

As I have often suggested, we see here the fundamental tension between the natural desire for religious understanding and the natural desire for intellectual understanding. This is, as I think Bolotin suggests, the irresolvable choice between reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem.


Unknown said...

Is the distinction between religious understanding and philosophic understanding that philosophic understanding seeks only to explain human experience and religious understanding seeks to make the entirety of the cosmos intelligible via something like a first cause? I do wonder if the emotions and psychology that underlie the attempt to make the world intelligible as opposed to making human experience intelligible are different. My copy of "36 Arguments" should arrive in the mail soon; I will try and keep this question in mind as I read it.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful post.

A question specifically regarding Leo Strauss' statement in the intro to NRH: From memory I seem to recall that Strauss framed the idea as a question/challenge more than as a statement of fact. In addition, (from memory again) in looking at the places in Aristotle's writings that Strauss cites to support the idea that Aristotlean ethics requires a cosmic teleology it struck me that the references are not clearly consistent with that claim. So, do you think Strauss might have been pointing in that ("your") direction? Certainly, the quote from his correspondence with Kojeve would seem to suggest that he realized the Aristotlean "biological" argument? Of course, if one buys this idea that Strauss recognized this possibility, and found it also inherent in Aristotle, it begs the question as to why he explicitly avoids it or, at most, only hints at it.

Thanks, wbond

Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, I see the desire for religious understanding as striving for some transcendental ground or First Cause beyond nature itself.


In my chapter on Roger Masters in LEO STRAUSS, THE STRAUSSIANS, AND THE AMERICAN REGIME, I agreed with Masters that Strauss cites passages in the PHYSICS that point to a purely biological teleology as opposed to any cosmic teleology. There are some passages elsewhere in NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY that point in this direction.