January 28th, 2009

Captive Dreams

(no subject)

The Commemoration of Thomas Aquinas
Today is the feast of St. Thomas.  Do something logical in his honor. 

There were two minds in history most responsible for the emergence of Science in our modern sense: Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.  Aristotle was the first (and essentially only) person to conceive of the study of nature as a coherent philosophy.  He organized it, gave it a name, expressed its subject matter (and limitations).  Aquinas reconciled the philosophy of nature with religion.  He insisted that truth was one, and science and faith could not be in contradiction.  He insisted that while reason ought to be applied to Questions in theology, revelation could not be evoked to settle Questions in philosophy.  In a very real sense, science failed to come to birth in China and Islam, the two other civilizations that came closest, because Islam never had an Aquinas; and China never had an Aristotle. 

Cardinal Schoenborn of Vienna once said that St. Thomas is the only person ever to be recognized as a saint solely for thinking. 

Aquinas not only reconciled Aristotle's philosophy of nature with religion, but directly contributed to science itself, to the extent possible in an age when very little could be measured.  For example, he drew the distinction between a form and its quantitative extension, which enables us to distinguish, for example, temperature from heat.  This laid the ground for the Calculators of Merton and their efforts to apply the continuum to forms other than length and weight.  Before on can measure things like color and temperature, one must conceive of them as measurable! 

(It is sometimes difficult for us to grasp what he is getting at because we use words differently than the medievals (whose words were mostly Latin, anyway.)  Even such a simple thing as motion did not mean what we call "motion."  The categories were different.  Our "motion" was their "local motion" or "locomotion," that is, a change in the form of location.)

For Thomas, knowledge in man arises entirely from the senses and moves not from the general to the particular, but the other way round. Sense data has priority in understanding, for "the intelligible species is what is understood secondarily; but that which is primarily understood is the object, of which the species is the likeness."
-- John C. Médaille, Thoroughly Modern Thomas: Faith and Science in Aquinas

Thomas affirmed the medieval belief in secondary causation: that God had endowed matter with natures having the ability to act directly upon one another:
Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.
-- Commentary on The Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268

In Thomas we find inklings of the conservation of matter-energy:
It must be understood that prime matter, and form as well, is neither generated nor corrupted, because every generation is from something to something.
-- De principiis naturae (On the Principles of Nature) ch. 2, sec. 12

And of the modern sense of the tentativeness of an explanatory theory versus the certainty of a fact or law:
Reason may be employed in two ways to establish a point: first for the purpose of furnishing sufficient proof of some principle, as in natural science, where sufficient proof can be brought to show that the movement of the heavens is always of uniform velocity. Reason is employed in another way, not as furnishing a sufficient proof of a principle, but as confirming an already established principle, by showing the congruity of its results, as in astronomy the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not, however, as if this reason were sufficient, since some other theory might explain them.
-- Summa theologica P.I Q.32, A.2 (reply to objection 2

And even of the Einsteinian understanding of time as a property of matter, consequent to velocity:

And if time is continuous and eternal, motion must be continuous and eternal, because motion and time are either the same thing, as some claimed, or time is a property of motion, as is really the case. For time is the measure of motion,
-- Commentary on the Metaphysics, 2491

He even has good SFnal "sensawunda":
Wonder was the motive that led people to philosophy ... wonder is a kind of desire in knowledge. It is the cause of delight because it carries with it the hope of discovery.
Summa theologia, P.I-II, Q.32.A.8.

And, like the medievals in general, he knew the world was round:
Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion—that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e., abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.
-- Summa theologica, P.I, Q.1, A.1, Reply Obj. 2

He has abiding faith in the ability of human reason to perceive truth, even while admitting that reason could be clouded by all sorts of things. 

"The human mind can see the truth by natural light without anything being added."
-- On the trinity

He commented on apparent miracles:
"We marvel at something when, seeing an effect, we do not know the cause.  And since one and the same cause is at times known to certain people and not to others, it happens that some marvel and some do not."
-- On the truth of the catholic faith against the gentiles

On politics:
"If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power reduced by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses his royal power."
-- On Kingship, I:6

Not even Thomas Jefferson could have said it better.....