Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Does Aristotelian Natural Right Require the Cosmic Teleology of the Unmoved Mover?

At the end of August, I will be going to the convention of the American Political Science Association in Washington, DC.  I will present a paper on "The Aristotelian Teleology of Darwinian Natural Right," as part of a Claremont Institute panel on "Natural Right and Classical Political Philosophy," with two other presenters (Glenn Ellmers and Dustin Sebell), two discussants (Catherine Zuckert and Richard Hassing) and a chair (Jason Jividen).

A big part of my paper will be a reconsideration of my argument that Darwinian science supports the Aristotelian immanent teleology of natural right, and that Leo Strauss was wrong in claiming that natural right requires an Aristotelian cosmic teleology that has been refuted by modern science.  I have written about this in previous posts (here , here,   herehere, and here).

Claiming that Aristotle's "teleological conception of the universe" depends on the teleology of "the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion," Strauss cites two passages in Aristotle's Physics--196a25ff. and 199a3-5.  But as I and other readers have noted, those passages don't affirm any cosmic teleology of the heavenly bodies; and, on the contrary, this part of the Physics seems to say that the most evident manifestations of teleology are in the living phenomena of animals and plants rather than the nonliving phenomena of the universe.  So it's hard to see how these passages support Strauss's claims about the cosmic teleology of natural right.

Nevertheless, what Aristotle says elsewhere in his writings about the Unmoved Mover as the divinely perfect actuality that is the universal "mover of all things" (Meta. 1070b34)--including the heavenly spheres--does appear to some readers as a cosmological teleology that might confirm what Strauss says.  Desire for the Prime Mover causes the eternal revolution of the First Heaven, which carries with it the sun, the stars, and the planets.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle asserts that to explain the motion in the universe there must be a divine immaterial substance that is pure mind (nous) and "a mover that moves without being moved" (1072a25).  It moves without being moved by being an object of desire (orexis).  In all things, "nature always desires what is better" (GC 336b28).  And as divine perfection, the Unmoved Mover is the most desirable object that moves all things by being loved.  In its self-sufficient perfection, the Unmoved Mover does not desire or love anything beyond itself.  Its only activity is self-contemplation--"thought thinking itself" (nous noesis) (Meta. 1074b34).

The teleological ordering of nature--acting for the sake of an end--is more clearly manifest in living beings than in nonliving, because animals and plants must grow and develop as self-maintaining organisms for the sake of survival and reproduction.  Consequently, to see the universe as teleologically ordered, Aristotle must assume that the heavenly bodies--the stars, the sun, the planets, and the moon--are not inanimate beings but living beings.  In On the Heavens (De Caelo), he writes:
"On these questions it is well that we should seek to increase our understanding, though we have very little to go on, and we are placed at a great distance from the phenomena that we are trying to investigate.  Nevertheless, if we base our consideration on such things, we shall not find this difficulty by any means insoluble.  We think of the stars as mere bodies and as units with a serial order but completely inanimate (apsychon), and yet we ought to conceive of them as partaking of action and life.  Once we do this, things cease to appear surprising. . . . We must, then, think of the action of the stars as similar to that of animals and plants. . . . This then is the reason why the earth does not move at all, and the bodies near it have only few motions.  They do not arrive at the highest, but reach only as far as it is within their power to obtain a share in the divine principle.  But the first heaven reaches it immediately by one movement, and the stars that are between the first heaven and the bodies farthest from it reach it indeed, but reach it through a number of movements" (292a15-b25).
There are two points here that might lead a careful reader to doubt that Aristotle really believes what he is saying about the divine life and teleological order of the astronomical bodies.  First, Aristotle draws our attention to the fact that we can know very little about astronomical phenomena because they are so far away from us.  Elsewhere in De Caelo, he says that "very few of their attributes are perceptible by sense experience" (286a7).  In The Parts of Animals, he says that while the cosmological bodies "are of the highest worth and are divine," there is little opportunity for studying them because "there is so little evidence available to our sense experience."  By contrast, we have better means of information in studying animals and plants, which are "nearer to us and more akin to our nature," and we live amongst them (644b23-645a5), which sets the science of biology apart from theological astronomy.

The second point that suggests skepticism about Aristotle's cosmology is his comment that while "we" (Aristotle?) think of the stars as inanimate bodies, we "ought" to think of them as living beings.  Why "ought" we assume this?  Aristotle never gives us any scientific explanation of why we should believe that stars and planets are living beings like plants and animals.

In some passages in De Caelo and the Metaphysics, he indicates that the fundamental premises of his reasoning about cosmology are based not on observational evidence but on ancestral myths about the divinity of the heavens that must be accepted on faith.
"All men have a conception of the gods, and all assign to the divine the highest place, both foreigners and Greeks, as many as revere the gods. . . . If, then, there is something divine, as there is, what we have said about the first bodily substance has been well said.  The truth of it is also clear from the evidence of the senses, enough at least to warrant the assent of human faith [pistis]; for throughout all past time, according to the records handed down from generation to generation, we find no change either in the whole of the outermost heaven or in any of its proper parts" (DC 270b5-15).
For his "as there is," Aristotle offers no reasoning other than popular belief in the existence of divinity.
"Therefore we may feel convinced that these ancient beliefs, so much a part of our tradition, are true . . . Our ancestors assigned heaven, the upper region, to the gods, believing that it alone was deathless; our present argument bears witness that it is indeed imperishable and ungenerated" (DC 284a2-5).
Immediately before this passage, however, Aristotle admits that some people "think differently" and believe that the universe is not eternal but had a beginning.

And in the Metaphysics, he writes:
"The ancients of very early times bequeathed to posterity in the form of a myth a tradition that the heavenly bodies are gods and that the divinity encompasses the whole of nature.  The rest of the tradition has been added later as a means of persuading the multitude and as something useful for the laws and for matters of expediency; for they say that these gods are like men in form and like some of the other animals, and also other things that follow from or are similar to those stated.  But if one were to separate from the later additions the first point and attend to this alone (namely, that they thought the first substances to be gods), he might realize that this was divinely spoken and that, while probably every art and every philosophy has often reached a state of development as far as it could and then again has perished, these doctrines about the gods were saved like relics up to the present day.  Anyway, the opinion of our forefathers and of the earliest thinkers is evident to us to just this extent" (1074b1-14).
There are at least two possible ways of interpreting these passages.  Readers can assume that Aristotle regarded these religious myths about the divinity and cosmic teleology of the heavenly bodies as true myths.  Or readers can see Aristotle here as intimating that these superstitious beliefs are false, but he prefers not to openly challenge them.

In either case, Aristotle has not supported these mythic beliefs with observational evidence or demonstrative proof.  And so there is no good reason to doubt that the evidence and reasoning of modern science have refuted this religiously founded cosmic teleology.

It is true, however, that Aristotle does briefly point to some observational evidence for this theological cosmology--that the ancient records of astronomy (perhaps including the astronomical records of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians) show that the outermost heaven of stars has remained unchanged (see the quotation above from De caelo, 270b).  But even this was cast into doubt when astronomers saw what looked like "new stars," or what modern astronomers have identified as a supernova--the exploding of a large star previously unseen that becomes bright enough to be seen for the first time.  Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (II.95) says that Hipparchus saw a nova in 134 BC, and he wondered whether this meant that stars are born and die and thus not eternal.

Beginning early in November of 1572, a supernova was visible around the world.  It was so bright that it was visible even during the day.  This was one of the eight supernovae visible to the naked eye in historical records.  In 1573, Tycho Brahe published his De nova stella, with his careful observations of this "new star."  It remained visible to the naked eye until 1574, when it finally faded from view.  Today, however, astronomers have found the remnant of "Tycho's Supernova," and it can be seen in X-ray light from the Chandra X-ray Observatory.  This is the kind of observational evidence in modern science that refutes Aristotle's theological cosmology of the heavenly bodies as divine and eternally unchanged.

                                               A Video of Tycho's Supernova Remnant

And yet this refutation of Aristotle's cosmic teleology of the universe is not a refutation of his immanent teleology of plants and animals that he bases upon the observational evidence collected in his biological works.  For that reason, Strauss is wrong in saying that natural right depends upon a teleological view of the universe that has been refuted by modern science.

Even those scholars who interpret Aristotle's account of the Unmoved Mover as requiring a cosmic teleology sometimes concede that it is reasonable to ignore this cosmic teleology if we see that the immanent biological teleology can be defended scientifically on its own biological grounds.  See, for example, Charles H. Kahn, "The Place of the Prime Mover in Aristotle's Teleology," in Allan Gotthelf, ed., Aristotle on Nature and Living Things (Pittsburgh, PA: Mathesis Publications, 1985), 183-205.

Aristotelian natural right depends upon a biological teleology that is explained--in his biological works such as The Movement of Animals--as animal movement for the sake of an end through the combination of desire and thought.  For the voluntary action of an animal--including the human animal--we must have an end characterized as desirable and a cognitive specification of how it can be realized.  The good is the desirable, and thus the generic good for each species of animal varies according to the natural desires distinctive to that species, and the particular good for each individual animal varies according to the ranking and organization of natural desires distinctive to that individual with his peculiar temperament and capacities in the particular circumstances of his life.  (I have argued for this in Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature [Albany: SUNY Press, 1998].  See also Mortimer J. Adler, Desires Right and Wrong: The Ethics of Enough [New York: Macmillan, 1991].)

So the generic good for the human species is the inclusive end that encompasses all of the natural human desires, while the highest good for each human individual is the dominant end at the top of the ranking of natural desires that is best for that individual.  For example, the natural desire for intellectual understanding might be the dominant end for a philosopher like Socrates; but for others without Socratic propensities and capacities, the natural desire for intellectual understanding might rank lower than other natural desires.

Strauss disagreed with this, because he taught that the only natural human good is the philosophic life of the philosophic few, because he claimed "man's desire to know as his highest natural desire." And only the philosophic few have "the philosophic desire."  They are the only ones "by nature fit for philosophy." Consequently, the great multitude of human beings who live non-philosophic but moral lives are "mutilated" human beings, who live lives of "human misery, however splendid" or "despair disguised by delusion."  (Strauss, "Reason and Revelation," 146, 149, 176; "Progress or Return?," 122; The City and Man, 53-54.)

Oddly, however, Strauss never offered any demonstrative proof of this strange assertion.  There is at least one place where one might think the proof of the supremacy of the philosophic life has been provided--the end of Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.  But some readers have noticed that Aristotle's arguments there are remarkably dubious.  They are so dubious--particularly, when one considers them in the context of the whole of the Ethics--that the careful reader might conclude that Aristotle does not take them seriously, that he is actually mocking the Platonic arguments for the supremacy of philosophy as a human life that is divine.

I have written some posts on this herehereherehere, and here.


John Farrell said...

Excellent post! I hope your presentation and the panel goes well--and that you write about it afterwards!

Kent Guida said...

Looking forward to reading the final version of your paper. A most important question, which comes up in discussions of practically every philosopher. And you are the only one who really handles it as it deserves.

Jon said...

I, too, am looking forward to hearing more about this. A layman's question or two here: is this why Strauss thought that the US was built on "low but solid" foundations? His disciples Jaffa traces the founding to Aristotelean natural law and you demonstrate that natural law is consistent with modern science; Darwin in particular.

What does science have to say about post-Enlightenment philosophy like the Hegelian historicism embraced by thinkers as diverse as Calhoun and Marx?

Thank you.