The Methodology of Aristotle's Metaphysics and the Problem of Modern Atheism

Kevin Flannery SJ FAITH Magazine November – December 2010

Fr Kevin Flannery SJ argues that Aristotle, saw human knowledge of the immaterial as that which completes our knowing of the physical rather than being a deduced conclusion from it. He is a founding editor of the New Jesuit Review and a professor of philosophy at the Gregorian university in Rome.

One of the remarkable features of Aristotle's Metaphysics is the absence of any attempt to set out principles, definitions, arguments, and conclusions according to the structure of an Aristotelian science. This is striking because he calls what he is doing in that work 'science' (episteme) and, according to his own Posterior analytics, a science ought to be so arranged. Also absent at key junctures is argumentation itself. An argued transition, for instance, from the analysis of material to immaterial (supersensible) substance - in effect, the transition from physics to natural theology - is not to be found. In the sixth book, Aristotle makes it apparent that the itinerary he intends to follow has as its destination immaterial substance. At thebeginning of the seventh book he tells us that a reasonable approach to that takeoff would be a study of material substance; and, by the end of the ninth book (which completes the study begun in the seventh), we have been led to understand that the immaterial (formal) aspect of material substance is more important than any material aspect. Following the intervention of two books that have little to do with the preannounced itinerary, in book twelve we finally get a discussion of immaterial substance: Aristotle's God, the unmoved mover, thought thinking of thought. But we are never told how we got to that point: what warranted the move from material to immaterial substance?

Now it is perfectly reasonable to argue that this interpretative difficulty has nothing to do with Aristotle's metaphysical methodology but rather with the historical accident that he died before finishing the work and that what we now call "the Metaphysics" is the result of his disciples' attempt to complete the project by appending (among other independent treatises) a treatise on immaterial substance. There are textual indicators to support this thesis. But there is also reason to believe that, even had Aristotle been able to complete the Metaphysics, the gap we find (or feel) would not have been filled by any attempt at logically compelling argumentation.

Nothing in the work as we now have it suggests that he is setting out the principles from which he will eventually deduce the conclusion that immaterial substances exist, let alone that there is one among them which is primary and serves as cause (either final or efficient or both) of things below it. Indeed, since the movement of the argumentation (such as it is) is towards first principles - including this single first principle - and since scientific argumentation is from first principles, any strictly-speaking demonstrative argumentation would have to be limited to preliminary and ancillary issues, such as whether material substances are properly-speaking forms or rather composites, etc. Aristotle's metaphysical methodology is a paraenetic one in which he engages inanalysis that involves concepts proper to the theses to which he hopes to bring his interlocutors (or readers). Having brought these concepts to their attention, he then asks, in effect: "What if we simply cut these things -form, act, intelligibility, unity - off from matter. Does this not give us what all men desire to have: an explanation of why the world is as it is?" He clearly believes that immaterial substances are the best explanation of why things are as they are, but he realises too that, in the end, he can only coax his interlocutors toward them. He cannot compel assent.

This understanding of how metaphysics proceeds helps us to understand why the arguments of theists against modern atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, and co.) are invariably inconclusive and, for one who does not understand the limited potential of metaphysical argumentation, ultimately unsatisfying. Such arguments are certainly worth engaging in, for in doing so we come to understand better the dependence of creation upon its creator; but any argument toward first principles, especially a first principle whose relation with His effects can be described only analogically, must be more of an invitation to take an argumentative leap than to recognise how propositions already held oblige certain conclusions. In science or in philosophy, argumentative leaps are usually bad things; in thiscase, however, they are the only way forward. If they give intelligibility (explanation) to the base from which the leap begins, they are good things.

This Aristotelian approach also helps us to understand how atheism (or, at least, agnosticism) can become as widespread as it apparently has become, especially in scientific circles. This is not to say that atheism/agnosticism has won the day in such circles -just that it is very widespread. The reason for this is that such a position can itself be held in good faith, as far as it goes: one can, without logical inconsistency, maintain that the laws of nature (if completely understood) do (or could) explain the phenomena studied in the sciences. Even complex phenomena, such as the emergence of the human eye, can be explained by studying simpler versions of the same structure and positing some evolutionary succession of events. A scientist might even acknowledge that such a succession ofevents involved huge increases of complexity over short spans of time and yet deny (again, in good faith, as far as it goes) that there is a God. There is nothing inconsistent in saying that nature just works that way and in declining to take the explanation to another level, the level of natural theology.

But there is something incomplete about such an explanation. As Aristotle says at the beginning of the Metaphysics, all men desire to know - and such an explanation leaves us still desiring. The atheist/agnostic cannot in good faith dismiss this desire as irrelevant, for it is what motivates his own investigations and is satisfied when he achieves a more adequate explanation of whatever particular problem he is investigating. Refusing to take the leap that metaphysics indicates to him is a failing: a failing to take the phenomenon of science - including scientific desire - seriously and to follow its lead to whatever explanation it ultimately offers.

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