Michal Paszkiewicz

review: Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science

Many books are good. Some of those are also good for you. A smaller subset of these are also educational. But very few books have the capacity to change your outlook on reality. Please let me introduce you to "Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science" - a collection of essays edited by William M. R. Simpson, Robert C. Koons and Nicholas J. Teh that can truly open your mind and bring you at least a bit closer to an understanding of the cosmos and existence itself.

This book presents an ontology that states that both matter and structure are important for the scientific explanation of any system (Hylomorphism). It also provides an apparently necessary account of how nature splits at its joints, allows us to explain unity in beings and allows us to explain causality in terms of powers and capacities.

These views result in a theory of everything that doesn't necessarily come in an equation that fits on a t-shirt, but instead explains and validates science at various levels of complexity.

The introduction to the book explains where this book comes from and why it has value at this point in time, which can be summarised in the 4 following points:

  1. There has been a revival in the field of metaphysics and there has been growing interest in the field of special sciences.
  2. Modern insights into Aristotle's thoughts have refuted the bias that has been built up against it over the last two millenia.
  3. Philosophers and physicists have been revisiting ancient philosophy in order to try and make sense of the quantum revolution.
  4. The idea of emergence has driven the special sciences away from unification with fundamental physics and given them autonomy.

After just reading the introduction, I was already enthused with what this book had to offer - when I finished my degree in Theoretical Physics, I was definitely biased against Aristotle's thoughts, I believed in a reality that would definitely reduce into a fundamental physics and I was concerned about other sciences and their scientific methods which differed greatly from those I had learned in physics. Books such as Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind had a large influence over me and suggested that Quantum Mechanics must have some sort of part in the understanding of human consciousness, but at the same time the explanations given were very hypothetical and didn't explain concepts such as Free Will (or even an illusion of it) satisfactorily. I strongly believed in the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and lived in a hope that wavefunction collapse would somehow just solve itself.

The first chapter, written by Xavi Lanao and Nicholas J. Teh, presents arguments against Fundamental Unification - the idea that all science can be reduced to a fundamental physics. This Fundamental Unification is usually assumed to be some future theory that is yet undiscovered, and yet is not based on current physics. Some philosophers, such as Lawrence Sklar, suggest that Biology and Chemistry describe real phenomena in the world and are useful for prediction, but they do not discover how things really are. In the meantime, special sciences are making progress without ever referring to physics. For me, the most novel idea in this chapter was the idea of the Concretist Bridge Principles. These are a reflections of how scientists work towards building a model of a domain and can be summarised by the following steps:

  1. When building a model, one considers information regarding particular material phenomena in a particular experimental context Y.
  2. It is then considered how to construct a computationally tractable model.
  3. To interpret any results, knowledge is required about how to bridge the gap between the theoretical and experimental knowledge.

The authors argue that these principles lead to a science that is dappled - it is divided into small pockets of domains that are explained well in circumstances where they are shielded from external interferences, but they do not provide anything near the Unified ideal that Fundamentalists seek.

The chapter finishes with a discussion on the unification of models and suggests that even if a new model provides a way of describing two different models, it does not necessarily describe the domain any better than the two theories did, and it may even be wrong. This was very understandable for me. As a Software Developer, I have to ensure that business models do not become too generic. If business models become too generic, they lose the power and validation of a more concrete business model. This may then allow a user to put their data in a state that would be invalid for their domain.

The second essay, written by Edward Feser, provides thoughts on the matter of time in Relativistic theories. The fact that working with both Special and General Relativity often results in having to draw Space-Time graphs - where time is treated as just another axis - has led to the now commonly-held concept that time IS physically just another dimension. Taking this into account, some people go even further and extrapolate from this that actually, there is a Block Universe and our travel through time is just an illusion. Feser argues that change and temporal passage are real. In science, one has to acknowledge empirical evidence, and ignoring the constant evidence we have of temporal passage is a foolish way to go about discovering the nature of reality. Furthermore, he argues that temporal passage is necessary for scientific work, so if a scientist reaches the point where they think it is not real, they are getting caught up in a paradox. It is important to not forget metaphysical descriptions when working on a scientific model. You can plot a graph of temperature distributed across space, but that does not mean that temperature actually IS a spatial dimension. This knowledge is not something that can be described in pure mathematics, but requires additional qualitative data, which is needed to bridge the gap between reality and the mathematical model. The additional empirical knowledge we have of time clearly distinguishes it from spatial dimensions and we need to take this into account.

Feser then moves on to discuss a few more arguments for a Block Universe, providing refutations for each. Finally, it is shown that a Neo-Aristotelian position is easily defensible, irrespective of the true reality of time. Presentist theories have been shown to be reconcilable with Relativity by past philosophers, so arguments against a block universe can be found widely in literature. However, Neo-Aristotelianism could also fit in as a philosophy with a block universe. This is due to the idea of potentiality and actualisation - if there is a particular mathematical model for the cosmos, our Universe must be an actualisation of that model. I like to think of potentiality as code I've written and actualisation as a particular instance of that code that is running, but it is far better articulated in Stephen Hawking's question:

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?

The next chapter is Robert C Koons' critique of the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics from a hylomorphic perspective. Although the Many Worlds Interpretation is incredibly popular in science fiction, it is far harder to defend from a scientific and philosophical perspective. To begin with, nothing in a Quantum Mechanical waveform suggests any sort of splitting of branches. Secondly, if all possibilities exist, then it is hard to understand why we see the Born rule probabilities, since the actual probability of any part of a waveform existing will always be exactly a value of one. Thirdly, the theory does not provide any means for figuring out which part of a waveform is the "preferred basis" - i.e. how do we model our own branch of reality.

Koons' essay is by far the most difficult to read in the book and I will probably have to revisit it at a later date to get a better understanding of all the points he is making. The one particular argument that I found very interesting was that Natural Selection couldn't work in an Everettian Many Worlds Interpretation. Since the universes would have started splitting at the beginning of time, we would see genetic mutations early down the chain of evolution that would result in bizarre creatures - in fact, every possible fiction book you would have read would probably have actually occurred somewhere in the multiverse. Since the probability of each waveform existing is the value of one, there would be no difference in the probability of us existing in a universe where we have fairly normal looking animals, a universe where natural selection had gone wild or a universe where all the characters in Star Wars are real. An interesting counter-point I thought of afterwards, was that in a hypothetical Star Wars world, maybe they write fiction where they imagine creatures such as those that exist on our planet. Either way, the absurdity of the position is clear and I haven't actually yet met any physicists who are Many Worlds theory zealots.

Following Koons, Alexander R. Pruss takes up the mantle and proposes the Traveling Forms interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Pruss begins by describing some of the existing interpretations that are available. He groups them into two groups - No collapse theories with a deterministically evolving wavefunctions and wavefunction collapse theories.

Collapse theories currently are suffering from a lack of explanation as to how and when the collapse of the wavefunction actually occurs. The most famous collapse theory is of course the Copenhagen interpretation, which states that collapse is triggered by measurement. The problem with this is that it is difficult to define what could actually constitute a measurement. Another collapse theory is the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber theory, in which collapse is triggered at some particular rate over time. At least one particle's wavefunction must collapse during an experiment, thereby allowing measurements to be taken in the lab, while groups of particles can behave in a statistically regular way. The trouble with this theory is that no spontaneous collapse has been observed in any way, and an additional parameter - that of the rate of collapse - has to be introduced and explained in some way.

No collapse theories include those of Bohmian Mechanics, the Many Worlds interpretation and the Many Minds Interpretation. The author argues that the Many Minds Interpretation leads to absurdities - such as Boltzmann Minds and universes where there is just one mind, surrounded by zombies. Furthermore, the question arises as to which branches of the universe actually have minds and are therefore given a substantial existence. Pruss suggests some solutions to these problems, toys with Bohmian theory and ultimately arrives at his Traveling Forms theory, which solves the problems he discussed earlier. The author finishes by showing how the Traveling Forms theory can also allow us to take non-microscopic levels of reality seriously but also admits to requiring further research to make his thoughts more elegant. Personally, I'm not entirely convinced by the Traveling Forms theory, but I found this essay very mind opening due to the amount of interpretations of Quantum Mechanics that were discussed, of which I had only heard a few before. However, I do feel that I am now leaning towards no-collapse theories, which seem far more beautiful and aren't plagued by unexplained jerky collapses.

The book suggests that neo-Humean metaphysics is the main challenger to neo-Aristotelianism in contemporary metaphysics. Chapter 5 presents arguments against neo-Humean metaphysics and therefore puts neo-Aristotelianism ahead in the game. William Simpson states that there is a revival in causal powers, due to the failure of Humean metaphysics to offer a satisfactory account of the natural world. A causal power can be described as a property of something that allows it to be the cause of some activity that could happen. For example, water can be said to have the power to dissolve sugar. The author finds that in order to reconcile Humean metaphysics with causal powers, Toby Handfield has had to discard Humean Supervenience, and is left with a theory that fails to offer a coherent way of individuating causal powers. This is especially a problem when talking about Quantum Entanglement, where the measure of one particle affects that of another. The Humean principle of Recombination means that if two particles are entangled, they are part of the same process. Going down this rabbit hole, one can eventually arrive at Holism, since most particles will eventually become entangled and it is no longer easy to reduce the cosmos into parts. This then results in the idea that the mind supervenes upon the entire cosmos - the whole cosmos is required to explain how you can have a mind - and Handfield's neo-Humean position is left wanting. The chapter lacks a clear explanation of what neo-Humeanism actually is, so it requires a bit of prior understanding, otherwise the reader is left to infer neo-Humeanism from the arguments. However, the arguments were presented in a very clear and eloquent fashion and are very persuasive.

Now that the cat was let out of the bag, the 6th chapter focuses on how holism can be avoided. Tuomas E Takho begins by discussing substance and the fact that Ontic Structural Realism has caused some problems for the idea of substance. Nevertheless, Takho argues that there will always be a need for at least one substance - the universe. Jonathan Schaffer's version of Priority Monism is presented, which consists of one substance - the cosmos. In this theory, things are arbitrary parts of the cosmos and are not fundamental. Schaffer bases his thoughts on Quantum Field Theory and assumes there are no particles. Classicality in the double slit experiment is only achieved due to the entanglements with the measuring apparatus. Takho points out that this means that Alice and Bob cannot be fully specified without reference to each other - they are actually a composite Alice-Bob system. It is actually impossible to distinguish any single things, as they are all part of a complex field. If the entanglement does not disappear at all, classical mechanics is no longer an approximation, but entirely an illusion.

The author shows that a pluralist ontology CAN be constructed. If there are properties that cannot have two qualitative values at a certain time, there is a way to form boundaries between parts of a system. An particle could be an electron or a positron, but it can't be both at the same time, so it is feasible to draw a boundary between the two and to distinguish them.

It is obviously a part of common sense that we can distinguish objects, but whether common sense matches how reality actually works is a different matter. Chapter 7 begins the second part of the book which discusses the Life Sciences. Chemistry, Biology and other sciences require that distinctions can be made between things - in fact, a major part of the special sciences is finding those distinctions. It is therefore unsurprising that more clues can be found there as to how things can actually be distinguished.

The first life sciences essay is written by Christopher J Austin and Anna Marmodoro and has the title "Structural Powers and the Homeodynamic Unity of Organisms". The first thing I noticed as soon as I stepped into the life sciences section of the book was the amount of words I was unacquainted with. I found myself unable to read in between stations on the London Underground, where I couldn't gain access to the internet to make sense of the sentences I was pulling through. Structural power is a new causal power presented by the authors and suggests that living beings feature this power, as can be seen by the facts that they always remain one, even though their molecular configuration is never exactly the same twice. The word "Homeodynamic" refers to the fact that organisms change over time - some evolve, others age, and most of them grow. The authors explore the weird scenario where organisms comprise of many complex parts, none of which can exist without the others. They suggest therefore that the organs seem to serve the purpose of keeping the organism alive in order to allow their own existence. This chapter also introduces phenotypic plasticity - the phenomenon where organisms can develop in an entirely different way as a reaction to an external stimulus. For example, some water fleas can develop helmets - a feature they do not usually develop - when chemical signals from predators are present. The rate at which an organism can change at is referred to as the "plastic potential" and can be quantified and modelled by morphospaces. Therefore plastic potential and morphospaces play a key part in defining their concept of structural powers. What I really took away from this chapter is that this "structural power" is actually an incredibly useful way to show what it is that truly differentiates organisms from other complex systems in the world.

8th in the book comes another essay by Christopher J Austin, who this time is trying to show that there are empirical grounds for a hylomorphism. The author points out that the inspiration for Aristotle's hylomorphism was in fact his observation of biology. He explores the development of the imaginal disc and shows that the process has to be modelled as a network and therefore the structure is an important feature of the model. The chapter then goes into detail on morphospaces, which is very valuable as an addition to the previous chapter.

David S Oderberg gives us the 9th chapter which discusses form and unity in organisms. A lot of the chapter involved coming up with a way of how to define and differentiate organs, organisms and superorganisms. He introduces the reader to substantial forms, which he claims have only fallen out of favour due to past anti-scholastic prejudices and not irresistible philosophical critique. He defines superorganisms as collectives and states that they contain substantial forms, but do not possess them, giving us a way to differentiate these complex systems. Oderberg then explores many odd cases, such as lichens and slime moulds, which are a collection of multiple species of organisms.

The 10th chapter in the book is an essay by Janice Chik Breidenbach that mainly discusses agency. Agency is the capacity of an actor to act, and can be divided into various kinds of actions - lifting your arm because you wanted to is clearly different to when you raised it due to a twitch. Many philosophers in the past have believed that action is an exceptional causal type and not available to animals apart from humans. Donald Davidson, for example, believes that to act, one must have belief and propositional speech in order to be rational and therefore capable of action. All other creatures are just machines that respond to other events. This is quite a difficult position to hold, as it suggests we suddenly acquire the power to act at some point in our education and it is impossible to draw the line at where that happens. The author argues that agency does not require Davidsonian belief and that it is wrong and unhelpful to suggest action is an exceptional causal type. Farther on, Breidenbach argues that top-down causation is plausible and presents various thought experiments to back her arguments up.

The penultimate chapter is an attempt to reach a theory of psychology that doesn't have a mental-physical dichotomy. William Jaworski presents us with the fact that we have for a long time made assumptions that the dichotomy exists, without any proof that this is the case. People seperate mental health and physical health, or they discuss mental and physical aspects of athletic performance as if they were entirely different things. John Dewey suggests that there needs to be a revision of preliminary assumptions in order to form a full theory of the mind and body. John Searle goes further and thinks that the vocabulary of dualism needs to be abandoned entirely in order to solve this problem. However, this direct rejection of dualist thought is not gaining much acceptance. Searle is unable to state his thoughts without calling upon the dualistic language - for example, he says that mental states are caused by physical states of the brain.

Jaworski states that hylomorphism may provide the solution to the mental-physical dichotomy. He points out that if there is a human in a bag, if it were squashed, it would still contain all the same materials, molecules and particles that it had before, but it wouldn't be a human any longer. It is clear from this that the structure of all the parts of the human body make it what it is. The author thinks that neuroscience is definitely needed in order to explain how people can engage in psychological activities, but it will never have the explanatory power of psychology to explain how people think and behave, just like how particle physics would be a useless tool to explain how a body's organ works. The chapter finishes by showing that the mental - physical dichotomy is no longer needed once one uses the idea of powers and activities in science. Since psychologists and biologists usually use functional analysis (analysis of activities of complex systems into simpler subactivities performed by simpler systems) to describe their domain, this fits perfectly into the hylomorphic vision. The real power of hylomorphism in this case is the ability to validate psychological science and show that the methods that psychologists employ legitimately lead us towards an explanation of how minds actually work.

The final essay of the book is Daniel D De Haan's attempt at showing that the New Mechanist Philosophy (NMP) has much in common with Neo-Aristotelianism and especially Hylomorphism. NMP was developed as an answer to Logical Empiricism, which lead its proponents to dismiss special sciences on the basis that they thought that scientific explanation of a phenomenon outside of physics do not consist in showing that the phenomenon was predictable on the basis of laws of nature. Logical Empiricists would like to deal only with logical and mathematical idealizations of theories of physics. Meanwhile, NMP deals with the real scientific practice, especially in the special sciences. Biologists and Neuroscientists treat their domains as collections of mechanisms and NMP claims that this has merit, especially considering that most of all our scientific knowledge can be understood in terms of discovery and description of mechnisms. The author points out that this mirrors the ideas of hylomorphism, where different structures of matter can result in mechanisms at different scales. The main point on which Hylomorphists and New Mechanist Philosophers can agree on is on their unusual account of emergence which largely differs from strong emergence - in both theories, an organism's higher-level powers cannot violate the fundamental activities that belong to lower systems.

While not everyone may be convinced by (all) the arguments presented in this book, I think that this book is a must read for all scientists and people who are interested in the way our cosmos works. If you do not agree with the ideas, at least take some time to read the arguments presented and figure out why you would disagree with any of the points. Alternatively, you would be left to just "shut up and calculate", as Max Tegmark put so uneloquently. The most impressive thing about the Neo-Aristotelian position is the fact that it is a theory of everything that we are already discovering, rather than a belief in a theory that has yet been undiscovered, but will surely come. I enjoyed every bit of this book and found that when I discussed its contents with various people I came across, the ideas seemed to fit in with their common sense. I'm not sure that this is proof of anything, but I believe that the theory is promising and that we may be seeing more of it in the years to come.


This book can be purchased from Amazon.

published: Sat Jan 27 2018

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Michal Paszkiewicz reads books, solves equations and plays instruments whenever he isn't developing software for Transport For London. All views on this site are the author's views only and do not necessarily represent the views of TfL.