Thomism and modern physics

Stephen Barr is a professor of physics at the University of Delaware and a member of the First Things editorial board.  It is possible, given the scarcity of our type in academia, that Professor Barr and I are the only conservative Christians who know quantum mechanics.  I’m always interested in what he has to say.

In his latest essay in “faith” magazine, Barr argues that theologians and scholastic philosophers should pay more attention to modern science.  Sure, one can say that metaphysics should be independent of the results of empirical science, but Barr points out that we all have an imaginative “world picture” that goes along with our abstract metaphysical beliefs, and that picture is definitely shaped by science.  If not good science, then bad science.  An example he gives is the old assumption–never a doctrine–that hell is physically somewhere inside the Earth.  Dropping that idea has clarified our thinking.  Barr also thinks, although he doesn’t put it quite this way, that traditional natural philosophy really is going to have to get some updating.  Scholastics often characterize science as concerning itself only with efficient and material causes, while ignoring formal and final causes.  This isn’t quite true.  The example he gives is the band structure in metals.  This is certainly formal, although metals don’t have the intrinsic teleology or indivisible unity of biological substantial forms.  What we need is a sort of weaker idea of form for this lower order of being, one without teleology.  I’m glad Barr brought this up, because it’s been on my mind for some time as well.  Barr also discusses how modern physics might influence our understanding of divine eternity (in this case, supporting the traditional view against contemporary innovations) and the resurrection of the dead.

3 Responses

  1. Suarez offered a non-teleological definition of form – “The intelligible structure that constitutes a thing in its species.” The stress here is on “intelligible;” to take his analogy, we do no really “hear” a tune – What we hear are sounds (and intervals?), the tune being a pattern or arrangement that is not preceived by the senses, but grasped by the understanding (Aristotle’s intellectus agens). Curiously, it ties in rather nicely with what the analytical philosophers, like Wittgenstein and Anscombe say about the intentionality of sensation You cannot point to a colour, only to a coloured thing; we discriminate colur by doing things with coloured objects, e.g. sorting or arranging them (actually or notionally) by colour, so it might prove quite a fruitful notion.

    Of course, Suarez is rather out of favour with the strict Thomists, but he once exerted great influence.

  2. Hello Michael,

    I consider myself scholastic-Aristotelian, but not strictly Thomist. (We do defend Scotus here from time to time.) I would like to know more about Suarez. Is there any good introduction to him that you can recommend? Thank you.

  3. Francisco Suarez is sometimes considered the last of the Scholastics. A Jesuit and member of the School of Salamanca, he was a systematic metaphysician, who tried, as far as possible to reconcile Thomas and Scotus, while taking account of Nominalist critics.

    In theology, he did noted work on the doctrine of effectual grace and tried to reconcile Molina and Thomas

    It was Suarez’s reading of St Thomas that dominated the manuals used in most seminaries up to Vatican II

    The Dominicans, of course, detested him; for them, the only reliable commentators were Cajetan and, above all, John of St Thomas.

    Nowadays, phiosophers are chiefly interested in rescuing Thomas from his commentators; in effect, going back to the Angelic Doctor and starting over again from there. In theology, Garrigou-Lagrange was ntable for rescuing the Thomist doctrine of effectual and (merely) sufficient grace from what he saw as the Moinism of Suarez and the Jesuit School.

    Disliked by the Modern Thomists and unintelligible to almost everyone else, it is difficult to find a really good modern account of Suarez. The Wikipedia article on him is a rather good summary of Suarez’s principle areas of interest.

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