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Goyette, John - Substantial Form and the Recovery of an Aristotelian Natural Science

Goyette, John - Substantial Form and the Recovery of an Aristotelian Natural Science

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Published by Charles Walter

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Published by: Charles Walter on Jul 28, 2011
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The Thomist 
Thomas Aquinas College
Santa Paula, California
 The aim of this paper is to show the continued validity of Aristotelian natural science in light of the challenges posed by modern science. More specifically, I aim to defend the concept of natureas an intrinsic principle of motion and rest, especially the notion of substantial form that Aristotledeems to be "more nature" than matter.The recovery of Aristotelian natural philosophy must begin with a defense of the notion of substantial form not only because this is the foundation of Aristotelian natural science, but alsobecause it has been systematically rejected by modern science. Of the Aristotelian four causes,the formal cause has been the subject of the greatest attack. Modern science has, of course,always made use of material and efficient causality. And the notion of final causality, althoughcriticized by the founders of modern science as well as contemporary scientists, has never beensubject to the same kind of critique as the notion of substantial form. Newton, for example,endorses the modern rejection of "substantial forms and occult qualities" in the beginning of the
but defends the use of final causality in the "General Scholium" that concludes thework. For Newton the world is a machine, but it is a machine that exhibits purpose: "it is not tobe conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions. . . . Thismost beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel anddominion of intelligent and powerful Being."
 He explicitly defends the inclusion of finalcauses and discourse on divine providence within the scope of natural philosophy.
 Substantialform is abandoned, but final causality is retained. We find something similar amongcontemporary design theorists such as Michael Behe and William Dembski, who argue, contraryto the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, that intelligent design is the only reasonable explanation of theorigin of living organisms. The design theorists do not dispute that living things are meremachines, only that their "irreducible complexity" is a product of blind chance.
 While scientificreductionism goes unchallenged, the claim to explain the order of the world by chance has nevergained universal approval among the proponents of modern science. Reestablishing thecredibility of substantial form, then, is the key to a recovery of an Aristotelian natural science.With a view to this end, I intend to explain and defend the notion of sub-stantial form as anintrinsic principle of motion and rest. In defending the notion of substantial form I shall limitmyself to the form of a living being since we ought to begin by raising the question whetherliving things have substantial forms and only later take up the question in regard to the nonliving.This is the best way to proceed not only because living things are better known to us (and weought, as Aristotle notes, to begin with what is better known to us) but also because the evidenceof modern science seems to indicate that nonliving things ought to be understood as analogous tothose that are living. While Aristotle held living things to be organized bodies, that is, bodies
made up of heterogeneous parts that form a whole, he regarded the elements as homeomeric--simple substances made up of homo-geneous parts. From what we now know, molecules andatoms are also organized bodies with a much greater similarity to living things.First, I shall briefly outline the typically modern position according to which living things can bereduced to the sum of their parts. Second, I shall explain the notion of substantial form byappealing to the distinction between art and nature and by highlighting what I take to be theevidence in favor of the distinction between the substantial unity of a living organism and theaccidental unity of an artifact or machine. Third, I shall address some objections to Aristotle'sposition that are raised by modern science.
 I. Scientific ReductionismThe prevailing tendency of modern science is to view the human body and
a fortiori
all livingorganisms as machines, as wholes reducible to the sum of their parts. The modern position iscaptured by the common description of the human body as constituted by a certain set of materialelements: a human being, we are told, is composed of 80% water, 10% carbon, 5% nitrogen anda myriad of other elements such as calcium, phosphorous, and iron. The unstated assumption isthat the chemical analysis of the human body somehow reveals its true nature. A human being
 mostly water.The view of man as a complex arrangement of particles is somewhat distant from ordinaryexperience, and many people are therefore somewhat hesitant to endorse this view. Thereduction of a living organism to a complex arrangement of molecules is rendered morecompelling, however, by the feats of modern medicine that appear to bridge the gap between thescience of physics and chemistry and ordinary experience. We hear from genetic engineers andmolecular biologists of the promising new techniques by which genetic material can bemanipulated in the interest of healing disease or, better, making improvements in our geneticendowment. On the other end of the spectrum, modern medicine has discovered new and moreways of remedying the defects of old age by replacing the failing organs of the body withtransplants and--what is more amazing--artificial organs. These technological marvels hasten thethought that the human body is nothing more than a complex machine. This raises the questionwhether one can still defend the Aristotelian doctrine of substantial form.II. Art and NatureAristotle defines nature as an intrinsic principle of motion and rest. According to Aristotle, thedifference between natural things and artificial things is that the former come into being andfunction from an intrinsic principle whereas the latter move and rest the way they do owing to anextrinsic principle, art.The difference between the natural and the artificial can be illustrated in a variety of ways, butAristotle suggests that nature as an intrinsic principle is most clearly exhibited by the growth of living things. He points out in the
that the term nature (
) comes from the verb togrow (
). If we compare the growth of a plant with the production of ship we can see thedistinction Aristotle is attempting to convey. When a plant grows, the various parts of the plant--
leaf, root, stalk, flower--are produced from within the plant. In the production of a ship, however,we see that its various parts are produced separately and later added together. In the case of theship, the whole is reducible to the sum of its parts. Of course, a ship does not result merely bypiling up iron, wood, and canvas. A ship is not a mere heap, like a pile of stones. The ship resultsfrom a certain kind of addition, an addition in which the parts are ordered and arranged in a veryprecise way--namely, by the art of shipbuilding. Nonetheless, the various properties andfunctions of the whole ship can be sufficiently accounted for by adding together the propertiesand functions of the parts. In the case of the plant, by contrast, the whole is in some sense priorto the parts. Of course, a plant must have certain very simple parts for it to be at all. Nonetheless,it starts out with few, if any, of the parts that characterize the mature organism. These parts musttherefore be produced by the already existing plant.According to Aristotle, the cause of the growth of an organism is its form or nature. This form issaid to be a substantial form because it makes the organism to be one thing essentially, ratherthan having merely an accidental unity. Artifacts too can, loosely speaking, be said to have aform. A ship has a certain shape and its parts are arranged in a certain way, but its source of unityis extrinsic rather than intrinsic. Thus, one can distinguish between a substantial form (form inthe precise sense) and an accidental form.To help flesh out the distinction between substantial form and accidental form let us turn to apassage where St. Thomas distinguishes between the form of a living thing--its soul--and theform of an artifact: But since the soul is united to the body as its form, it must necessarily be inthe whole body, and in each part thereof. For it is not an accidental form, but the substantial formof the body. Now the substantial form perfects not only the whole, but each part of the whole.For since a whole consists of parts, a form of the whole which does not give existence to each of the parts of the body is a form consisting in composition and order, such as the form of a house;and such a form is accidental. But the soul is a substantial form; and therefore it must be the formand the act, not only of the whole, but also of each part. Therefore, on the withdrawal of the soul,as we do not speak of an animal or a man unless equivocally, as we speak of a painted animal ora stone animal; so is it with the hand, the eye, the flesh and bones, as the Philosopher says (DeAnima ii, 1). A proof of which is, that on the withdrawal of the soul, no part of the body retainsits proper action; although that which retains its species, retains the action of the species. (
I,q. 76, a. 8)According to St. Thomas an artifact can be said to have a form, but it is a form that belongs tothe artifact as a whole and not to each of the parts. The form of a natural thing, on the other hand,is not only the form of the whole but also the form of each of the parts. This is what we shouldexpect from the manner in which an artifact comes into being; its parts come into beingseparately and are only later added together to produce the whole. The form of an artifact, then,is a
of the fact that the parts are brought together; it is a form consisting in "compositionand order." The form of a natural thing, however, is the
of the being of the parts. Again,this is evident from the fact that its parts come into being
parts of a larger whole. But St.Thomas adds further proof: when the soul departs at the time of death, the parts cease to be whatthey are. When a man dies, the hand, eye, flesh, and bones corrupt, they lose their properfunction and therefore cease to be what they were. Thus, the generation and corruption of a

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