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Philosophy against Misosophy



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G. K. Chesterton once defended the amateur against the professional by aphorizing that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly” (What’s Wrong with the World [1910]; Part Four, Chapter XIV, last sentence).  And so in the spirit of this site’s “workshop” character, I am posting my notes toward an investigation (that began as a book review last year) which, unfortunately, I do not see myself returning to, at least not in the near future.  The importance of the question, and of the sources that have led me to a provisional answer, outweighed my hesitation to publish this draft, shortcomings and all.  In displaying this unripe fruit, I acknowledge that I may have overlooked as many important sources as I’ve cited, or misinterpreted the latter.  I invite interested readers to show whether either of these potential failings of mine is more than a theoretical possibility. 

Anthony Flood

Posted October 15, 2006


Modern Atheism: Catholicism’s Frankenstein Monster?

Notes on David Ray Griffin’s Implicit Counterpoint to Thomas E. Woods

Anthony Flood

Thomas E. Woods has written a book with an ostensibly Catholic apologetic purpose.[1] By locating the roots of the West’s choicest fruits (science, law, education, charitable institutions, economics, etc.) in the soil of Western Christianity, Woods offers an eloquent, if indirect, apologetic for the Catholic faith. By indirect I mean that his observations do not so much argue for the truth of what Catholics believe as challenge those who are sure that what Catholics believe is false.  Presupposing that it is irrational to malign one’s own benefactor, Woods’ challenge trades on his reader’s being a beneficiary of the civilization that the Catholic Church built.  In one of its chapters, however, he has unintentionally documented the way in which the Catholic Church, while building Western civilization, planted, seeded, and watered the garden of that civilization’s weeds, namely, materialistic mechanism, upon which it is now in danger of choking.[2]

Woods never comments on this dialectical reversal, whose irony cuts much more deeply than does his correction of popular ignorance of, say, what really happened in the Galileo episode.  In recent decades scholars have been paying increasing attention to extra-scientific influences in the rise of modern science.  What Woods’ narrative leaves unasked is whether science—sustained, experimental study of nature—not only might have developed other than the way it did, but whether such an alternative was already incipient in Western Europe. 

In fact, Catholic divines nipped that alternative in the bud ostensibly because they deemed it incompatible with revealed truth, and more pragmatically because any loss of their spiritual monopoly was bad for business.  That is, science as “a self-perpetuating field of endeavor” was “enabled by a Catholic milieu” (76) because Catholic divines prevented another milieu, equally Western and arguably on the way to establishing that field of endeavor, from flourishing. 

The historical record suggests that soon after the theologians backed the mechanistic horse in that derby, its owners discarded the supernaturalist operating instructions that the theologians packed into the box. The price of the victory for science was the enthronement of the early modern worldview from which the late version, with its mechanistic atheism, followed as the night the day. Any role, therefore, that the Catholic Church may have played in mechanism’s social ascendancy, however unintentional, cannot fail to be of interest to admirers of Woods’ book, including those who, like the present writer, share many of his values.


The heirs of Western Europe’s scientific revolution are presuppositionally and publicly atheistic. There is no common, public language for using, as opposed to merely mentioning, the word “God,” except when denouncing the God of orthodox Christian theism.  The Constitution of the European Union, for instance, will not acknowledge its Christian inheritance.   Christian morality is rejected, nowhere more consequentially than in the cultural enthronement of a contraceptive absolutism.  The latter’s logic will soon make the matter moot for long before the heat-death of the cosmos there will be no Europeans.  Muslims of various ethnicities, fruitful and multiply-ing, will occupy lands once named European and pay taxes to the central governments of Rome, Paris, and Berlin.  But there will be no Europeans, let alone Christians.  Their eschaton is nihil.  There is evidence that this is a concern of the current Pontiff.

At the root of this racially suicidal outworking of presuppositions is the philosophy of mechanism.  Ironically, Catholic divines, jealous of the Church’s social prerogatives, backed mechanism against its main rival, the hermeticist, magical, neo-Platonist philosophy, now commonly viewed as a footnote, if that much, to the history of science.  Indeed, the whirlpooling of the hermeticists down the memory-hole is essential to the reception of theses like Woods’.  That is, the historical defeat of the hermeticists is virtually total, in the cognizance-obliterating sense.  Specialists and hobbyists aside, whereas our contemporaries may at least have heard of Descartes and Newton, the names of Bruno, Ficino, Paracelsus mean nothing to them.  That victory has left standing only two unequal players in the public square; on one side, the high priests of mechanism enthroned in the halls of academia, often in symbiotic relationship with government; and on the other, the high priests of supernaturalism who wonder why the ungrateful heirs of the mechanistic philosophy did not stay within their laboratory instead of boring through its walls to chew up the rest of the academic scenery.

The most famous representative of hermeticism was Giordano Bruno, whom the Inquisition physically incinerated in 1600.  By 1700, the year of Newton’s Principia, the rival philosophy had been socially incinerated.  Newton, himself much influenced by the Third Tradition, eventually formulated his under-standing of gravitational pull in a way that did not offend the hegemonic mechanists who suspected the notion of giving credence to the hated notion of “action at a distance.”  During the intervening century, mechanism went its merry way “protecting” classical theism’s utterly transcendent God, disen-chanting nature in the process.  The mechanistic philosophy became a monster that would one day bite the paps that gave it suck.

Modern atheism is as Western as modern science, and both have a common source.  Ironically if unwittingly, the Church made the ascendancy of atheism possible by championing the mechanist against the hermeticist: She insisted on the having the exclusive right to say just when God interrupted the workings of His Created Machine, which we are otherwise to approach as if there were no such interruptions.  Unfortunately, this stacked the deck, psychologically if not also logically, in favor of suppressing all reference to a divine interrupter.  The cultural success of the application of the new scientific method only increased pressure on supernaturalistic dualists, and body-mind dualists to boot, to give up one member of the “duo” in favor of a materialistic monism.  This has put defenders of classical theism—the only kind that have mattered for most of the West’s modern history, but not the only kind possible—on the defensive, constantly defending their place at the table of serious intellectual discussion. 


According to Woods, the Church is due great credit for establishing the modern scientific enterprise in the West by insisting that Her children understand the relationship between God and the world in certain ways and not in others.  That is, She fostered modern science by:

(1) affirming the doctrine of creation out of nothing, i.e., creatio ex nihilo (CEN), without which the notion of inertial motion has never arisen in any culture,

(2) favoring observation and experimentation over speculative inference about what one anticipates finding in the universe,[3]

(3) de-animating nature so that we view it, for scientific purposes, as non-experiencing, subjectless, extended stuff (into which God may, of course, infuse animae or souls or intervene miraculously in other ways). Consequently, according to Woods, “it was up to the Scholastics of the High Middle Ages to carry out the depersonalization of nature, so that, for instance, the explanation for falling stones was not said to be their innate love for the center of the earth.” (79) Except for human beings, created things are not self-creative.  Thus the source of the mind-matter bifurcation.

(4) “disenchanting” Nature so that she is seen as, essentially, a machine that can be taken apart, examined, and put back together without requiring one to ask about the machine’s origins. 

This cosmology was opposed to that of every other civilization which, in one way or another, (1) affirmed (a) creation out of pre-existing finite, non-divine actualities, some or all of which may be creative subjects themselves and therefore (b) a charmed or enchanted, intersubjective cosmos; and (2) consequently failed to establish science as an ongoing cultural enterprise as did Western civilization uniquely.

Woods follows in the footsteps, and draws attention mainly to the work, of Father Stanley Jaki (b. 1924).[4]  Early in Science and Creation, Father Jaki previews his thesis:

Great cultures, where the scientific enterprise came to a standstill, invariably failed to formulate the notion of physical law, or the law of nature.  Theirs was a theology with no belief in a personal, rational, absolutely transcen-dent Lawgiver, or Creator.  Their cosmology reflected a pantheistic and animistic view of nature caught in the treadmill of perennial, inexorable returns. 

The scientific quest found fertile soil only when this faith in a personal, rational Creator had truly permeated a whole culture, beginning with the centuries of the High Middle Ages.  It was that faith which provided, in sufficient measure, confidence in the rationality of the universe, trust in progress, and appreciation of the quantitative method, all indispensable ingredients of the scientific quest.

. . . The future of man rests with that judgment which holds the universe to be the handiwork of a Creator and Lawgiver.  To this belief, science owes its very birth and life.  Its future and mankind’s future rest with the same faith.

The apologetic import of this research is clear: contrary to the village atheist, the Catholic Church has been a champion, not an enemy, of scientific rationality.  Science is not so much a Western enterprise as a Christian one that developed under the impetus of distinctively Christian generative ideas“The appearance of modern science in the Catholic environment of Western Europe,” Woods writes, “was no coincidence.” (114) Woods’ implicit appeal to scientists is that they ought to show Mother Church more respect, if not filial affection. In their general apostasy, they are more like prodigal sons.[5]

Granted, a definite approach to nature was required if it was to be studied, and certain other approaches would have made science impossible.  The Jaki thesis concerns history, the realm of contingent truth, but Jaki implicitly claims to have found a necessary one. That is, after all, the significance of Woods’ “no coincidence,” is it not?  This enterprise entails these ideas as presuppositions.  Absent the latter, the former cannot happen.  But even if an event strictly entails its concrete conditions and if modern science’s was 17th-century Catholic Europe, it does not follow that what we call the scientific enterprise was incapable of variable instantiations.  That is, in 17th-century Catholic Europe there were men who affirmed a general theistic philosophy (no one would call them atheists), but not the one that the Roman See underwrote at its seminaries.

Jaki argues that certain ideas were necessary conditions of the emergence of science and embedded in the Catholic worldview.  But all that was necessary was the operation of a universal mind, not an exnihilator who, in accordance with an eternal blueprint, “imposed laws” on what had not one iota of independent existence.  The idea of an exnihilator in whom all power resides led to evacuation of all self-creativity and self–determination from finite individuals.  The supernatural was conceived as so transcendent, so independent, so nonrelative to the finite, that its role in the creative advance of the cosmos became superfluous.  And then dubious.

A “rational orderly universe” “indispensable for the progress of science” means no interference by subjectivity (unless God’s).  This set the stage for conceiving the elements of the universe as “dead” or inert. They were molded in accord with a blueprint.  Sensationism restricts range of what counts as relevant evidence, thereby undermining assent to the very supernaturalism that allegedly set this logic in motion, for minds and souls are not possible objects of sense perception.  They eventually become topics of inference, like the God of the cosmological argument.  Combined with dualistic interactionism, the reduction to materialism cannot be avoided.

The force of Woods’ Jakian apologetic gambit depends, of course, on the positive charge that attaches to science, for the latter it is potentially a witness for the prosecution.  He is on firm ground if he believes that most of his readers admire science as a source of progress, abstractly considered apart from ultimate ends.  They will therefore tend to impute that positive regard to whatever helped make it possible, in this case the Catholic Church.  But I believe this is to survey things from the wrong end of the telescope.  Many people are existentially “out of sorts” because they have assimilated modernity’s presuppositions into their marrow, and modern science is central to them. 

Granting arguendo the broad historical conclusion at which Jaki arrived, I contend that if today’s scientists are the Church’s prodigal sons and daughters, it is in part because Her effort to protect Her claim of exclusive mediatorship between Christ and man unwittingly spawned the Frankenstein monsters of sensationism, dualism, materialism, and atheism.  And even if some of their 17-century ancestors acknowledged their filial debt, most others soon regarded Her as so much scaffolding to be discarded.

Jaki is deservedly famous for championing a thesis that had been accepted, if not widely acknowledged, for most of the previous century.  For example, in 1925, mathematician, philosopher of science, and creator of the speculative philosophy of organism (“process philosophy”) Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

. . . the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement . . . [was] the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive convic-tion, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: —that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. . . .

When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilisations when left to themselves there seems but one source for its origin.  It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.  Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. . . .

In Asia, the conceptions of God were of a being who was either too arbitrary or too impersonal for such ideas to have much effect on instinctive habits of mind.  Any definite occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot, or might issue from some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things.  There was not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being. 

I am not arguing that the European trust in the scrutability of nature was logically justified even by its own theology.  My only point is to understand how it arose.  My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.[6]

Is there sufficient evidence for the view that the hermeticists did not believe that “every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner” and therefore lacked what Whitehead (and Jaki after him) say science requires?  I don’t know.  If there isn’t sufficient evidence, however, we are not entitled to conclude that medieval, i.e., Roman Catholic, theology, was a necessary condition of science. 

Woods follows Jaki in arguing that stillbirths of science in various non-Western cultures were due to “lack of belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with constant physical laws” (76-77). Surely, however, as Eastern Orthodox history attests, a “Christian milieu,” not lacking such a belief, is not a sufficient condition of science, for it did not develop there as it did in the West.  What the record shows is that science was developing in Western Europe and might have developed along different lines had it not been for the role that medieval theologians played in theologically and socially marginalizing the alternative.

According to Woods, following Jaki, God “imparted” motion to the celestial bodies upon creating them which, encountering no friction, continue to move.  I wonder whether one can even properly conceive of an electron that did not move.  For it is subatomic particles—not possible objects of thought in the 17th century—and not celestial bodies that have formed modern science’s Archimidean point. 

Jaki argues that inertial motion is modern science’s fundamentum, and no other culture came up with it because it believed in an everlasting cosmos, not one which had motion imparted to it by an exnihilating deity.  Therefore, Woods concludes (following Jaki): “Insofar as science is a quantitative study of things in motion and the first law of Newton is the basis of other laws, one may indeed speak of the substantially medieval origin of modern science.” (84-85)

According to David Ray Griffin, the “mechanistic view of nature . . . had become a Frankenstein monster, destroying not only its creator—the extremely supernaturalistic version of the Christian faith—but the possibility of any significantly religious view of the world whatsoever.”[7]  In a defense of panexperientialist physicalism, Griffin lists several reasons for questioning the presumption that “vacuous actuality” characterizes nature’s fundamental units.  One reason

is the recognition, recently emphasized by historians of science, that the “mechanical philosophy of nature,” according to which the units of nature are wholly devoid of experience, spontaneity, and the capacity for influence at a distance, was adopted in the seventeenth century less for empirical than for theological-sociological reasons, such as defending the existence of a supernatural deity, the reality of supernatural miracles, and the immortality of the soul.  For example, this idea of nature’s elementary units, according to which they were wholly inert and (in Newton’s words) “massy, hard, and impenetrable,” proved (to the satisfaction of Boyle, Newton and their followers) that motion and the mathematical laws of motion had to have been impressed upon these particles at the beginning of the world by an external creator.  The fact that this strategy eventually backfired, as this idea of matter eventually led to an atheistic, materialistic worldview, has long obscured the original theological motives.[8]

Brian Easlea, one of Griffin’s chief sources for this period, has argued that hermeticism’s magical, neo-Platonist philosophy of nature threatened to develop scientific inquiry and experimentalism in a way that tended to undermine belief in the Church’s claim of exclusive mediatorship between God and man.[9] If action at a distance, for example, was a natural potency of all things, then perhaps Christianity’s evidentiary miracles are not break-ins from beyond.  Perhaps Jesus was perhaps no more than a magician.  Miracles conceived as “supernaturalistic” invasions into the natural order set up an intolerable intellectual tension, one that Hume eventually relieved to the detriment of Christianity.[10]  In short, magic was a threat to establishment of throne and altar[11]

The rejection of the transcendent, voluntaristic creator would thereby undermine the basic assumption upon which the authority of the church rested.[12]

The Church’s theology excluded ruled out all notions of natural attraction at distance, leaving only direct contact. Mechanists therefore struggled to make gravity, the apparently mutual causal influencing of mind and body, and the organic form of growth cohere with this theological posit.  They were not obviously superior to the hermeticists on these points.[13]

Citing Hugh Trevor-Roper, Griffin argues that the scientific revolution of the 17th century owed more to neo-Platonism and to hermetic mysticism than to rationalism:

Because the mechanistic view of matter became incorporated into a fully materialistic, atheistic worldview, many have assumed that this idea was originally adopted in the 17th century for anti-religious or at least extra-religious reasons.  Nothing could be further from the truth.[14]

Received opinion has it that hermeticism was an anti-scientific philosophy that would have led to another of science’s many “stillbirths” and at worst to social upheaval.  Science, however, could have developed as a going enterprise under the impetus of similar, but not the same, ideas that would not lead to the ironic, dialectical reversal experienced under mechanism. 

This Third Tradition championed experimentalism, animism, pantheism or panentheism, divinely implanted powers, effect at a distance, nonsensory perception, and pansophism.  Echoing Trevor-Roper, Griffin claims that tradition was “extremely influential upon attitudes, methods, and actual discoveries of what is called ‘modern science’” and gave vent to the “impulse to look for mathematical regularities.”[15] The Third Tradition, not just the mechanical one, was interested in moving away from scientia contem-plativa and toward scientia activa,[16] but also held that it is dignified for man to operate as magus to control destiny.  This the Church found understan-dably intolerable.  In reaction to it, She unfortunately tarred the whole tradition with an anti-Christian brush, apparently unmindful of the equally anti-theistic philosophy that She was thereby fostering. 

“Although the so-called scientific revolution of the latter seventeenth century retained the emphasis on mathematics,” Griffin writes,

its adoption of the Democritean view of matter made nature’s units seem intrinsically incapable of embodying mathematical patterns.  This fact necessitated—or allowed—the . . . explanation of the “laws of nature” in terms of supernatural imposition.  With the transition to the fully materialistic worldview, the Divine Imposer was dropped, but the notion of vacuous bits of matter “obeying” external laws was retained.[17]

Father Marin Mersenne was a major figure in ascendancy of mechanistic philosophy of nature. The hermeticist magical tradition was the enemy because it “denied supernatural character of the miracles upon which the Catholic Church was built.” (RSN 125) That is, events could be miraculous only if they were naturally impossible—which tends to undermine the credibility of any testimony in their favor.  That is, if they were supernaturally possible, then they were highly improbable. “Nature reduced to any interplay of mechanical forces was the salvation of science: it was, for religion, a new guarantee of its transcen-dence and its dignity.”

Jaki’s claim that  “Insofar as that broad creedal or theological consensus is the work of Christianity, science is not Western, but Christian” (84) leaves at least two matters undecided: (a) whether the theism of the neo-Platonic magical spiritualist tradition (which no more than orthodoxy held “a pantheistic and animistic view of nature caught in the treadmill of perennial, inexorable returns”) could not have founded and fostered science as going enterprise and (b) why Eastern Orthodox cultures, whose deity is also a “personal, rational, absolutely transcendent Lawgiver,” did not do so.[18]

Jaki’s many books and articles do not take seriously (I welcome correction) either (a) the Third Tradition, alternative to the mechanical philosophy which, for all Jaki has shown to the contrary, could have developed science as a going enterprise; or (b) the enervating cultural and spiritual effects of that mechanism.  Jaki’s (and Woods’) silence on this imply that the triumph of mechanism was an unalloyed blessing, even though its sensationism left no intellectually respectable way by which awareness of the Holy could be understood.  Awareness or experience of God could only be a private matter.

As Woods relates the story, what gives popular currency to the “myth” that the Church is intrinsically hostile to science is a misreading of the transcripts of the Galileo affair.  Had the astronomer merely held Copernican heliocentrism only hypothetically, Galileo would not have been viewed as having “usurped the authority of the theologians” (71) who feared they could not reconcile that position with scriptural verses that strongly suggested geocentrism. 

Now, how much weight a laborer in a field of inquiry ought to assign to a body of evidence falls presumptively within the competence of his fellow laborers to adjudge. That is, “usurpation” describes the attempt by laborers in another field, a hermeneutical one at that, to determine the degree of tenacity with which an astronomer should hold an empirico-mathematical judgment.  Yet that is the role these theologians took upon themselves.

Woods dubs the censure Galileo received at the hands of theologians “unwise” because it “tainted the Church’s reputation” (74).  The author of the article on Galileo in the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia, went further, declaring that “it is undeniable that the ecclesiastical authorities committed a grave and deplorable error, and sanctioned an altogether false principle as to the proper use of Scripture.”[19] What Galileo’s observations and calculations rendered problematic, however, was geocentrism, not Holy Scripture. 

The theologians, however, did not see how they could reinterpret Scripture in the light of heliocentrism or any other nongeocentric viewpoint, for that matter.  Galileo, however, was condemned for suggesting that it was their problem.  This discredits the suggestion that concern for the canons of empirical inquiry alone motivated the Holy Office.

By arguing that Galileo only brought trouble on himself when he affirmed categorically what his inquisitors believed merited only hypothetical status, their present-day defenders overlook a salient fact.  The accumulating evidence would eventually not only tip in favor of the hypothesis that Galileo championed, but would also go on to render heliocentrism itself obsolete.  (“Obsolete,” yes, but still more adequate to the evidence than was geocentrism.  Surely the cosmology that has displaced heliocentrism is not more acceptable to believers in Joshua’s idle sun?) 

Therefore, an inquisitor who believed that the Bible did tell us “how the heavens go” as well as how to go to heaven would soon realize that the problem of interpreting those recalcitrant biblical verses was only postponed, not solved.  Mankind would soon learn that the sun is no more “fixed” than the earth, so Bellarmine’s implicit demand for evidence, while displaying admirable “theoretical openness” (72), still burkes the central question: within whose competence do such matters fall?

Woods does not reveal his position on this issue of theological monitoring of scientific and scholarly investigation, even though its relevance to his chosen topic is obvious.  For before Western science settled into sensationist, dualistic, and materialistic patterns of thinking, it had logically severed itself away from its foundress, Mother Church, to the detriment of both institutions, and its first complaint concerned this strain of inhibiting theological protectionism.

As early as the patristic period, Christian thought, albeit typically only by implication, began the de-animation of nature—that is, the removal from our conception of the universe any conception that the celestial bodies were themselves alive, or constituted intelligences in their own right, or were unable to operate in the absence of some kind of spiritual mover. (93)

Of course, the de-animation did not limit itself to disabusing mankind of the idea that planets could think and feel.  De-animation, or as Jaki terms it, “deanimization”“nature had to be de-animized” if science were to be borngoes much further: it renders matter utterly vacuous [Whitehead], thereby saddling the future of science with the mystery of the evolution of life and of consciousness.  The evolution-creation controversy, with all its acrimony, can be laid at the feet of this deanimation campaign.  Woods continues:

Scattered through the writings of such saints as Augustine, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, and John Damascene are statements to this effect.  But it was only later, when scholars began applying themselves more deliberately and consistently to the study of nature, that we begin to see thinkers who consciously conceived of the universe as an entity that was mechanistic and, by extension, intelligible to the inquiring human mind.(93)

Woods overstates things when he virtually identifies the intelligible with the mechanical.  There was no shortage of men in the neo-Platonic magical spiritual tradition who with equal deliberateness and consistency applied themselves to the study of nature who thought mechanism a distortion of reality.  The  decision to favor a de-animated universe over one in which anima was universal was indeed a conscious one, but its spurs were provided less by science than by theology and politics.  The resultant disenchanted universe has not been more hospitable to theistic belief.

“During the twelfth century in Latin Europe,” writes Dales [as Woods cites him], “those aspects of Judeo-Christian thought which emphasized the idea of creation out of nothing and the distance between God and the world, in certain contexts and with certain men, had the effect of eliminating all semi-divine entities from the realm of nature.”(93)

It certainly did—leaving only the divine itself to be eliminated.  “Distance” protected God so much that His relationship to the world become more and more attenuated the more “distant” he was thought to be.

* * *

What makes the development of science impossible?  The conception of (a) the universe as organism, (b) dominated by a pantheon, and (c) eternal cyclical recurrence.  That is, a culturally dominant animism would have made science impossible.  Science requires the cultural reign of an anti-animistic philosophy.

Mechanism, however, eventually made it impossible to continue.  Mechanism is not adequate for science’s continued progress.  Surely Woods the Catholic apologist can see the danger in anchoring an appreciation of Catholicism in such a transient contingency as the birth of modern science. 

It “conceived of the divine as immanent in created things” which made “the idea of constant natural laws foreign” (77) But immanence is not identity, and Woods must know that Catholic theology has a notion of God’s immanence in creation. Transcendence ruled out the idea that created things “had minds and wills of their own” for that “all but precluded the possibility of thinking of them as behaving according to regular fixed patterns.”  The implication is that the universe can be orderly and predictable only if it is evacuated of all subjectivity. 

The denial of any, even rudimentary, subjectivity (if not “minds” and “wills”) to the fundamental entities of the cosmos is the denial of any self-determination on their part.  And this is to affirm determinism, the past’s exhaustive efficient causality of the present.   Determinism is a congenial philosophy for a certain approach to nature, but augurs disaster for any humanistic science.  And thus the stage is set for the bifurcation of nature into extension and mind.  Dualism becomes a live option.  Enter Descartes.

Creatio ex nihilo requires a certain notion of omnipotence, one that deprives creatures of any self-creative power.  Exnihilation promotes divine voluntarism, for nothing can withstand God’s will.  Might makes right.  This in turn promotes nominalism, which informed the Protestant revolt.  Interestingly enough, Eastern Orthodoxy escaped an analogous experience, just as it did not see the birth of science).

Supernaturalism paved the way for mechanism by gutting nature of subjectivity.  If, as Jaki says, this was necessary if science was to get established, then arguably the cost was prohibitive.  Mind, life, subjectivity become exceptional “special creations” that God throws onto an essentially mindless, lifeless, vacuous, subject-less stage.  The Church claimed the authority to decide when and where those exceptions, those interruptions of the natural order, occurred (e.g., miracles or sacraments).  They become of doubtful probability.  No better way to bias metaphysics toward materialism is conceivable. 

* * *

The world does not look designed as from blueprint.  When I see photographs of a galaxy, I am struck by its relative disorder, spontaneity, and divergence from ideal frequency as I am by order, regulation, and exemplification of ideal frequency.  Christian apologists rarely acknowledge this ambiguity. 

Granted that a realm of finite individuals is insufficient to account for cosmic order, yet to invoke a legislator who imposes order coercively is unnecessary.

Transcendence guards against pantheism, but not against atheism.  For that a sound concept of divine immanence is necessary.

“Allah could not be restricted by natural laws.” (79) Could Jehovah?  Woods holds up for derision the Muslim idea of God’s “habits,” seemingly unaware of Whitehead’s use of that term to describe the origin of “laws.” Let the sage speak to this point at length:

Two conclusions are now abundantly clear. One is that sense-perception omits any discrimination of the fundamental activities within nature. For example, consider the difference between the paving stone as perceived visually, or by falling upon it, and the molecular activities of the paving stone as described by the physicist. The second conclusion is the failure of science to endow its formulas for activity with any meaning. The divergence of the formulas about nature from the appearance of nature has robbed the formulas of any explanatory character. It has even robbed us of reason for believing that the past gives any ground for expectation of the future. In fact, science conceived as resting on mere sense-perception, with no other source of observation, is bankrupt, so far as concerns its claim to self-sufficiency.

Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature; science can find no aim in nature; science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. These negations are true of natural science. They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of physical science lies in the fact that such science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience. It divides the seamless coat—or, to change the metaphor into a happier form, it examines the coat, which is superficial, and neglects the body, which is fundamental.

The disastrous separation of body and mind which has been fixed on European thought by Descartes is responsible for this blindness of science. In one sense the abstraction has been a happy one, in that it has allowed the simplest things to be considered first, for about ten generations. Now these simplest things are those widespread habits of nature that dominate the whole stretch of the universe within our remotest, vaguest observation. None of these laws of nature gives the slightest evidence of necessity. They are the modes of procedure which within the scale of our observations do in fact prevail. I mean the fact that the extensiveness of the universe is dimensional, the fact that the number of spatial dimensions is three, the spatial laws of geometry, the ultimate formulas for physical occurrences. There is no necessity in any of these ways of behavior. They exist as average, regulative conditions because the majority of actualities are swaying each other to modes of intercon-nection exemplifying those laws. New modes of self-expression may be gaining ground. We cannot tell. But, to judge by all analogy, after a sufficient span of existence our present laws will fade into unimportance. New interests will dominate. In our present sense of the term, our spatiophysical epoch will pass into that background of the past which conditions all things dimly and without evident effect, on the decision of prominent relations.

These massive laws, at present prevailing, are the general physical laws of inorganic nature. At a certain scale of observation they are prevalent without hint of interference. The formation of suns, the motions of planets, the geologic changes on the earth, seem to proceed with a massive impetus which excludes any hint of modification by other agencies. To this extent sense-perception on which science relies discloses no aim in nature.[20]

I am not aware that Muslims believe in CEN any less ardently than do Thomists, let alone Orthodox.  As Whitehead scholar Elizabeth M. Krauss put it:

The widest environmental analogies are those provided by the society dominating the cosmic epoch: the so-called “laws of nature.” Thus Whitehead is not reduced to postulating either a mechanism of externally imposed law or a crude Aristotelianism of internally determining substantial forms. Regularity is spawned by regularity; ordered environments tend to propagate themselves analogically, because regularity in the past is prehended into present occasions which form the social environment out of which future occasions will grow. [21]

The position against which the foregoing is set was expressed by James A. Sadowsky, a philosopher whom Woods admires and cites:

[T]he laws of physics are the laws of God.  They are laws, however—not legislation.  They are the laws of God because He it is that decrees the existence of the entities whose nature it is to obey those laws: had He wanted other laws He would have had to create other things.  He can create beings that observe other laws, but He cannot legislate alternative laws for the same kind of being.  This shows how nonsensical it is to ask why God did not make the laws of nature different from what they are.  To ask for a different set of laws is to ask for a different universe![22]

It seems to me that if the regularities we intellectually grasp in nature are not to be understood as the result of divine legislation, then we should cease calling them “laws.”  The mechanistic worldview that the Church championed against the hermeticists logically excludes the possibility that bits of matter have the subjective potential to listen to God (“obedience” from the Latin oboedire, “to listen”).  The “laws of nature” may be settled usage for atheists and theists alike, but it insidiously replicates confusion. The personalistic context of law as expressing the relationship of ruler and ruled persists even though that relationship is deemed to be wholly inapplicable.

Panexperientialist panentheists like Griffin, however, do affirm the obediential potency of nondivine actualities as well as the self-creativity that characterizes their responses to the divine lure.  Following Whitehead, however, they prefer to call the nature’s macroregularities “habits” that hold only for cosmic epochs.

Anselm’s distinction between potentia ordinata and absoluta is specious, because the former is reducible to the latter.  “. . . He [God] has therefore bound Himself to behave in a certain way . . . .” (80)  That fuels the problem of evil, orthodoxy’s other great source of embarrassment.  For if even on the Sabbath, Jesus noted, one spontaneously rescues an animal that has fallen into a pit, to suggest that God’s failure to rescue a child in the same situation because of a self-imposed “binding obligation” is to impute to His mind a legalism compared to which Phariseeism is positively Franciscan.  We implore you, Lord, unbind Yourself! 

But He is perhaps not so bound.  Lacking a localized body, He cannot coerce localized bodies to move as bodies, no matter how morally urgent the need to do so.  For He would if He could.

Woods says Ockham “emphasized God’s absolute will to a degree that was unhelpful in the development of science” (80).  It was, however, a latency awaiting logical explication.  It is ineffectual to call a halt to it. “Don’t develop potentia absoluta in that direction!” won’t do.  The damage was done.  Scientists couldn’t care less about potentia absoluta.

As long as one affirms “God’s freedom to create any kind of universe He wanted” (80)—and as long as the denial of that divine freedom is equated with atheism—problems cannot be avoided.

Aristotle had posited an eternal universe, whereas the Church taught that God had created the world at a moment in time, out of nothing.  Aristotle also denied the possibility of a vacuum.  A modern reader could easily overlook the theological implications of this point, but a great many Catholics, particularly in the thirteenth century, did not.  To deny the possibility of a vacuum was to deny God’s creative power, for nothing was impossible to an omnipotent God.  (89-90)

That depends on how one understands “omnipotence.”  An eternal universe could be one in which God never finds himself without a field of finite entities.  The actual, concrete state of the universe at any moment, however, depends partly on God and partly on the creativity of all the non-divine actualities.

Duhem: the Parisan Condemnations of 219 Aristotelian propositions in 1277 “represented the beginning of modern science.”  Modern science begins with ecclesiastical inhibition?[23]  This episcopal act had “a positive effect on the development of science,”(91) for it forced

thinkers to break out of the intellectual confinement that Aristotelian presuppositions had fastened upon them, and to think about the physical world in new ways.  By condemning certain aspects of Aristotelian physical theory, they began to break Western scholars of the habit of relying so heavily on Aristotle, and gave them an opportunity to begin thinking in ways that departed from ancient assumptions.(91)

This overlooks the equally condemned neo-Platonic tradition’s potential to break them of that habit.

After the condemnations were issued, scholars were now required to concede that the all-powerful God could indeed create a vacuum.  This opened new and exciting scientific possibilities.(92) 

I’m not sure if “exciting” was the word used by the scientists who had their minds canalized, on pain of excommunication, to describe their experience.  And certainly subsequent scientists did not believe that the continued affirmation of a vacuum required the affirmation of God.

Another condemned Aristotelian proposition was that “the motions of the sky result from an intellective soul.” (92) This condemnation “denied that the heavenly bodies possessed souls and were in some way alive—a standard cosmological belief that had enjoyed currency since antiquity.”  Consequently the cosmos was disenchanted, gutted of all subjectivity except in those bodies into which God allegedly infused souls, thereby creating anomalous facts and fostering mind-body dualism.

One incontrovertibly good by-product of the ascendancy of mechanism was the end of the anti-witch craze, but what worldview do we have to thank for that in the first place?

Solicitous of God’s transcendence, the mechanist philosophers and their theological backers unwittingly turned God into a smiley face on a helium-filled balloon, always there, to be sure, but ever further away from the day-to-day action. Atheism is, of course, the last thing Catholics divines would knowingly promote.  Only by facing its reversals squarely, however, can Catholics hope to promote a synthesis of the Christian worldview and the scientific that improves upon the one we've inherited.


[1] How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization [Regnery 2005].  Numbers within parentheses in the body of this review refer to pages of this book.  All other citations are made in the footnotes.

[2] In my review of Woods’ The Church and the Market, I noted that his “treatment of their interface [i.e., of Austrian economic methodology and Catholic dogma] . . . reminded me of some outstanding philosophical issues whose exploration was not to Woods' immediate purpose and so falls outside of the scope of any fair review of his book. I have therefore reserved treatment of those issues to a future essay.” Anthony Flood, “A Profound Philosophical Commonality,” LewRockwell.com, April 23, 2005.  This is my attempt at such a treatment.

[3] Woods lauds St. Albert the Great’s “insistence on direct observation and—for all his admiration of Aristotle—his refusal to accept scientific authority on faith were essential contributions to the scientific frame of mind.” (95) That is, the modern “scientific frame of mind” is sensationist, and has banished religious experience, which is inherently non-sensationist, from Modernity’s public square.  Another unintended consequence of good intentions.

[4] Science and Creation, viii. 

[5] The presumed value judgment, of course, is that this promotion of science was a good thing.  Science is a great benefactor of mankind, the Catholic Church is her alma mater, and this nurturing merits appreciation. Both sides should stick to their knitting, but perhaps occasionally compare notes.  As Pope Leo XIII affirmed in Providentissimus Deus, “[n]o real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist provided each keeps within his own limits.”  Pius’ words occasioned in the mind of the late neo-Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould the notion of “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

[6] Science and the Modern World [1925], The Free Press, 1997, 12-13. My emphasis.—A. F.

[7]  David Ray Griffin, Two Great Truths, Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 61.

[8] David Ray Griffin, “Panexperientialist Physicalism and the Mind-Body Problem,” Journal of Conscious-ness Studies, 4(3), 1997, 252.  Griffin cites Brian Easlea, Witch-Hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy: An Introduction to Debates of the Scientific Revolution 1450-1750, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1980; and Eugene Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modern Science: Belief in Creation in Seventeenth-Century Thought, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.

[9]  Easlea, Witch-Hunting.

[10]  After Hume, classical Christian apologetics can never attain plausibility; it must ever settle for parity, if they can get that, for the presumption against the occurrence of miracles is virtually unanswerable.  Of course, “an orderly natural world” is “the backdrop” for recognizing a miracle but, as Hume interjected, it is also a reason for regarding its occurrence as extremely improbable.  Without the Church’s cultural hegemony to even out those odds, atheism tends to win.

[11] Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000, 112; hereafter, RSN.

[12] RSN 118.

[13] RSN 116.

[14] RSN 119.

[15] RSN 112-113.

[16] RSN 113.

[17] Griffin, “Panexperientialist Physicalism,” 265.

[18] In a yet-unanswered e-mail to Father Jaki (June 28, 2005), I asked him whether in his view “the cultures on the eastern side of the Great Schism fail[ed] to develop science as a going enterprise because they were insufficiently Christian in their worldview, or insufficiently Western, or for some other reason.”  Perhaps a reader would care to answer that question, or point me in the direction of an answer. [Father Jaki passed away on April 9, 2009.--A.F.]

[20] Whitehead, Modes of Thought [1938], The Free Press, 1968, 154-155.  My emphasis.—A.F.

[21] The Metaphysics of Experience: A Companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, New York: Fordham University Press, 1998, 104.

[22] “The Christian Response to Poverty,” The Social Affairs Unit [London], 1986.  Online version.

[23] In an article on Fr. Jaki, Fr. Paul Haffner writes: “The beginning of science as a fully fledged enterprise took place in relation to two important definitions of the Magisterium of the Church. The first was the definition at the Fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215, that the universe was created out of nothing at the beginning of time. The second magisterial statement was at the local level, enunciated by Bishop Stephen Tempier of Paris who, on March 7, 1277, condemned 219 Aristotelian propositions, so outlawing the deterministic and necessitarian views of creation.”  “The Pope’s Physicist,” Sursum Corda, Spring 1996, pp. 66-73; an excerpt appears online “The Origin of Science.”