Posted by: dacalu | 2 October 2013

Naturalism II (Thomistic Naturalism)

This post is one in a series about naturalism.  Having introduced the general concept of naturalism, I turn to some specific types of naturalism that seem to be common in the general public.  From “Naturalism I”:

Naturalism is a universal claim about what we can meaningfully talk about.

Two Types of  Naturalism

When I talk to students about naturalism, they seem clear that it includes matter and energy (a la Einstein) but rules out entities such as angels, spirits, souls, and ghosts.  The middle ground includes a number of things which may or may not be allowed – emotions, will, and values just to name three.  Naturalists frequently say that these intermediates exist, but only so far as they represent summed or relational properties of matter and energy or useful fictions.

In trying to figure out where people draw the line, I see two historical trends.  I must apologize beforehand.  While I try to have a broad understanding of science, religion, philosophy, and history, I am not a historian of philosophy.  My characterizations are no doubt gross simplifications of the actual thoughts of some brilliant people who have had a profound impact on the history of Western thought.  Nonetheless, I think the broad strokes are correct in terms of how these philosophers have been received.  In critiquing their worldviews, I am really critiquing a naive reception of their actual thoughts.

Thomistic Naturalism

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is arguably the most influential theologian in Christianity.  He certainly ranks with St. Paul and Augustine of Hippo for his impact on how Christians view the world.  Sometimes we follow him; more often it is reactions against him (notably by Ockham, Luther, and Calvin) that color current thought.

In his account of creation, Thomas divides God’s action into a natural and a spiritual creation.  The latter includes the hosts of angels and human souls, while the former includes rocks, plants, animals, and human bodies.  In Aquinas’ system, humans are the only point of overlap between the two realms, and that overlap accounts for our two ways of knowing about the world.  Through our senses we come to see the physical creation that God has made and can reason about God and reality.  We can discover the Natural Law or the consistent rules and proper ends set forth in creation.  Through our intellect (in this case a power of the soul) we come to appreciate eternal truth or the Eternal Law by way of reflection as well as through scripture and tradition.

Hume and other Enlightenment thinkers felt that natural reason and natural laws were useful ways of apprehending a physical universe.  They were skeptical of any other process for arriving at truth.  Their reaction to Aquinas, in conjunction with a rediscovery of Lucretius, led to a strict narrowing of epistemology (how we come to know).  Lucretius (99-55 BC), a Greek philosopher of the Epicurean school, argued for atomism (the idea that the universe was made up of indivisible particles) and eternalism (the idea that the universe always has been and always will be roughly the same) and against interference in the world by the gods.  Reactions to Aquinas and Lucretius came together in the Mechanical Philosophy and the thought of Pierre Gassendi and Rene Descartes, who will be discussed in the next post.

For now, let me suggest that (Anti-)Thomist Naturalism buys into Aquinas’ division of creation into natural and eternal aspects but denies that the latter exists.  The senses, the common sense, and that part of reason which operates based on them exist to make sense of the natural universe.  The intellect, eternal truth, angels, and souls do not signify anything in the real world.

I can see why Thomistic naturalism would be appealing.  It highlights the wonderful cogency and power of reasoning from sense data to knowledge of natural laws while discounting certain dubious arguments for causation by spiritual entities (e.g., angels pushing planets).  I find it inconsistent, however, for two reasons.  First, it is based on a fundamental distinction which is inherently religious (natural v. spiritual) and, second, the concepts of knowledge and natural law imported from Thomas strictly require a spiritual intellect to operate in the way Enlightenment thinkers wanted them to.  I will return to this line of thought in my subsequent post on the Epistemological Argument Against Naturalism.

As a final note, I suspect that the current use of the word supernatural arose from Aquinas’ notion of the spiritual creation.  Because of difficulties defining natural and supernatural, I tend to avoid them.  In my experience naturalists use the word supernatural to mean “things which do not exist but religious people think do” while non-naturalists use it to mean a whole host of things – from ghosts to extra-sensory perception to angels to God to vital essences – but it can be difficult to get two non-naturalists to agree exactly what belongs in that category.

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