Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Response to Peter Millican's Critique of Aristotle

Reading Hume on Human Understanding

Realizing that this is ambitious, I'm going to take on Oxford's Peter Millican (click the link above to see his book which I have not read...). I have been listening to a recent pod-casting of his lectures from the course "General Philosophy" which covers the emergence and development of Modern/Enlightenment thought.

Honestly, I have been quite disturbed by his presentation of the critique of Christian and Aristotelian thought by the early moderns. Millican makes a strong effort to associate the Christian/Aristotelian view with a particular, Ptolemaic view of the cosmos. He then argues that the rise of mechanistic view of the universe beginning with Galileo and Descartes results in an essential undermining of the religious viewpoint.

It certainly seems to be the case that Modern philosophy developed in large part due to a reaction against the religious wars associated with the Reformation. In that sense, it was, as Millican argues, largely aimed at finding a philosophy of reason that could stand over and above the competing religious ideologies of the day. At the same time, a more mechanistic view of the universe emerged. Where I might differ with Millican is that it seems the rise of the mechanistic model had less to do with problems with Aristotelian philosophy as with the reaction of the Church.

Let me elaborate: Aristotle proposed a certain cosmological model of the universe, this much Millican has correctly asserted. However, this model is not the entirety of Aristotle's metaphysics. In fact, I would argue (and now I am in conflict with Millican) that the model is nothing more than a particular manifestation of the more foundational metaphysical principles that Aristotle argued for. Those principles, especially the ideas of an empirical basis for knowledge, constancy in nature, etc, played a huge role in the science of the Enlightenment. In fact, the new Astronomy proposed by Galileo, I would argue (against Millican), offers no real conflict to Aristotle's metaphysics, merely to a particular cosmological model that embodied his metaphysics. Unfortunately, the Church had become attached to that model and the ensuing conflict, which was utterly pointless, has led to a great deal more of conflicts between science and religion since then. So essentially, here is my beef with Millican. It seems to me that Millican has adopted a straw man by conflating the metaphysics of Aristotle with his cosmology and arguing that if we lose one, so with the other. I am arguing that this kind of reasoning only works in one direction- if we drop Aristotle's metaphysics, then certainly his cosmology will make little sense. However, the opposite is not true. Aristotle's cosmology is dependent on his metaphysics, but not the other way around. We can drop the cosmology and keep the metaphysics by pairing it with a better understanding of cosmology. Historically, of course, this was not really done.

This is because Modern philosophy ends up parting with ways with Aristotle on at least one point- teleology has been dropped for a mechanistic view of nature. Millican's presentation here is again a bit biased. Millican offers two arguments against Aristotle's teleology: First, that it is tied to a particular cosmological model (we have already seen that this is a straw man argument), and second, that it is redundant. Essentially, Millican argues that Aristotle's teleological explanations are merely restating the description of the phenomenon in question: this object does this because it is striving to do this. This is why Modern philosophy opts for a more mechanistic view, Millican claims. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If we clear up some of Millican's straw man language a little and give a more concrete example of teleology, we can see that that a mechanistic view gives no greater explanatory power. A rock falls, Aristotle would say, because the essence of the rock is to be drawn toward the earth. Later Modern thinkers will say that the rock falls because a unobserved force exists which pulls the rock towards the earth. In both cases, we have described the phenomenon, and in both cases I would argue we have given something of an explanation for why it happens (essence or unobservable force). If one of these lines of reasoning provides no explanation, I would argue neither does the other and Millican has gotten us nowhere. A more plausible explanation for the adoption of the mechanical view over the teleological one is the desire of the Enlightenment to break with religion and exalt the reasoning of man.

It is at this point that I take a great deal of issue with Modern philosophy- the mechanistic view cannot be sustained, I want to argue. Ironically, the mechanistic view, I believe, makes it impossible to escape the skepticism of Hume and causes the entire Enlightenment project to come crashing down on itself. Better to keep with Aristotle in terms of teleology. Yes, the model we use must be updated to reflect more recent observations, but metaphysically this presents no conflict except to those who wish to escape the need of the supernatural and continue to exalt the reason of man.

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