From James Chastek at Just Thomism:
Metaphysics cannot have first principles, i.e. things it takes for granted as true from which it reasons. This does not mean that nothing is self-evident or that there is no basis for things, but it does mean raising the question whether there is any such thing. On this account, there are two modes of science: those that are never perfectly self-reflective or self-aware, but simply take things for granted that are invisible to them (mathematics, natural science) and whatever inquiry is perfectly self-reflective, such that it can even see and raise questions about its foundations. This is why those of a metaphysical bent can get so frustrated by mathematicians and scientists, who simply cannot do what they do without taking principles for granted that they are more or less oblivious to. The pay-off for this absence of self-reflection is great power, exact knowledge, and progressive advances in the discipline. But the metaphysician will always be bothered by a certain sense that there is a forgetfulness of the most important things in science and mathematics, just as the scientist and mathematician will always be bothered by the inability of metaphysical inquiries (philosophy, philosophy of mind, etc.) to make definitive and widely accepted advances in knowledge.
If we are ever going to make some sense of the recent discussions of the relation between science and religion, on the one hand, and science and philosophy, on the other, we are going to have to sharpen our philosophical skills. Many times proponents of one side or the other in these debates will make statements that they purport to be “scientific,” when in fact they are metaphysical. In a similar way, sometimes a claim will be dismissed as “just philosophical” when in fact it is a claim that can be investigated via the methodologies of science. And in all cases there may be some things that must be taken “on faith,” so to speak, of certain enterprises are to get off the ground.
Chastek’s point above has a long history. The best place to begin thinking this through is at the beginning. And that beginning was more than 2500 years ago in Greece, at the time of the so-called “presocratic” philosophers. It is interesting to note when an era is defined or given a proper name. The “middle ages,” for instance, designates a time between the classical era and the modern period, and this designation leaves the impression that not much was going on during this transitional period (by the way, this “transitional period” lasted over 1000 years, from about 400 A.D. to 1500 A.D. Fat chance nothing happened). In this case, the “presocratic” philosophers derive their name from Socrates (469-399 B.C.), and the thinker who generally gets pride of place for being “first” in the lineage of Western philosophers is Thales of Miletus, whose dates are given as 624-547 B.C., about 150 years give or take, before Socrates. There were many others, among them Anaximenes, Pythagorias, Democritus, Xenophanes, Empedocles, Parmenides, Zeno, et. al., and they produced insights that in one form or another are still with us today (however greatly elaborated). So calling Thales and these other thinkers “presocratics” is a little like calling Civil War generals Grant and Lee “preschwarzkopfians” after General Norman Schwarzkopf of “Gulf War I” fame. (Or “pre-Petraeusians” or something like that, before General David Petraeus.)
In Thales’ day, it was a general idea of the public that everything that exists is made up of just four basic elements: fire, air, earth, and water. What I mean by a general idea is something like a background notion. This proposition that everything is ultimately made of fire, air, earth, or water was not something that I would imagine most people thought about on a daily basis. The idea was just “there” in the atmosphere, so to speak, much like if you were to stop and ask people on the street today what everything is made of they would likely reply “atoms” or maybe “matter”–but they don’t go on and on about it as a rule. It is like the “question” to the “answer” on the game show Jeopardy: Answer: “Everything is made of it.” Question: “What are fire, air, earth, and water?” (or “What are atoms?”) Unless you are on the game show, the issue doesn’t usually come up. You need to know about the four elements to understand why Thales in particular (and philosophers in general) can be seen to be a bit weird. Instead of resting content with the four elements as the fundament of all that is, Thales asked himself a strange question: But what are the four elements made up of? Maybe you had a similar experience in Catechism class or Sunday school when, being a bit of a philosopher yourself, you asked, after being told that “God made everything”: But who made God? It’s just not asked! Once you get to God, that’s it. That’s the end of the line. Well, it was something like that for Thales to ask about what the four elements were made of. In fact, his question is an instance one of the pre-eminent philosophical questions: What is it really? “What is it?” “Well, it is something made up of fire, air, earth, or water.” “Yes, but what is it really? What are the elements that make up this thing made up of?”
We can see immediately that there is something about the philosophical project that is at odds with the received opinions of the many, with the common sense of the polis or the community. In some ways, even before the explicit philosophical question, there was already a tension, let’s call it, between appearance and reality. There appear to be many things, but the reality is that all of those many things are made up of just the four elements. And Thales takes this a step further and says that to the common sense there are just the four elements, but in reality there is but one thing that underlies them all. What makes him think that there is one thing behind the many and to wonder about it is a good question.
What was that one thing that was at the root of the many things that appeared to be? For Thales, the answer is water. For Thales, the four elements were essentially manifestations of just one element. Now how did Thales come to this conclusion? He made some observations: he noticed that water could take on the form of the other elements. When water was very cold, it was hard, solid, like earth. When water was whipped up and became misty, it hung in the atmosphere like air. And when it was very excited, it could burn just like fire. Thales could test this hypothesis, couldn’t he? He could try to see if he could get, say, fire into a liquid state or air into a solid state. To him, it appeared that only water was malleable enough to take on the forms of the other elements. And this inference leads to another of the principal philosophical questions: Why?
There followed on after Thales a string of thinkers who pondered the same question. Anaximines, for instance, drew the conclusion that air (breath–pneuma) was the root of all that is by conducting an experiment of sorts. You can try it, too: Purse your lips like you would do to whistle, and then blow some air against the palm of you hand. What is the general temperature? It is cool…like water (and, if it were even colder, like earth). Now, open your mouth wide like you are going to say “aaahhh” for the doctor and blow on the palm of your hand. What is the general temperature now? It is warm, like fire (okay, a not very hot fire, but still…). Via this experiment, Anaximenes determined that the reason why the basic common sense elements can take their various forms was due to the processes of “condensation” and “rarefaction.” In fact, Anaximenes discovered an insight that is still with us today, namely that quantitative change can result in qualitative change, a principle still fundamental to sciences as diverse as physics and sociology. It is interesting to note here that, for Thales and Axaximenes, the foundational elements and the processes that accounted for them were “physical” or “natural.” It would be going much too far to claim that these presocratics had a sophisticated theory about all this–including what might be meant by terms like “physical” or “natural”–these are really anachronisms. But you can see this point more clearly if you contrast the views of Thales and Anaximenes with that of another presocratic thinker, Anaximander.
Anaximander was much more radical in his thinking. He reasoned that the four common elements had to be made up of something other than one of the four basic elements, for how could water be fire or air be earth? In the end, he thought, all things would have returned to water unless there were something like “opposition” preventing it. It had to be the case that there is something prior to the elements that, when acted upon in certain ways, manifested itself as this or that element. Anaximander called that from which the elements were derived apeiron, the “unlimited” or the “indefinite” or the “boundless indeterminate.” The “force,” if that is the right word, he named “injustice,” or strife that is the clash of opposites. This is a very interesting and important attempt to answer the questions, what are things really? and why? The solutions of Thales and Anaximenes were derived from the “observable” world. We have to put that term “observable” in the scare-quotes because, of course, they never primarily observed fire, air, earth, and water; rather, they observed houses and trees and ships and grape vines and mountains, other Greeks and lots of things besides. But their solutions derived from the observable world in taking water or air as the root element and the basis of all there is. Anaximander’s solution strayed from the “observable” world, even with the allowances we have made for that term. For how would one ever observe something indefinite or unlimited or boundless? Even if you were to look out in the distance and observe an object that you could not identify (which would be, in that sense, “indefinite”) it would hardly be unlimited or boundless. It–whatever it is–would be bound at least by the background in which it is observed. Otherwise, it would so completely blend with or blot out everything else that you could not observe it at all. So while in some sense air or water is a “thing” or a “something,” the apeiron really is no specific thing, no thing at all, even nothing. Even though Anaximander reasons starting from the observables, and even though he seeks a simple explanation, reducing the many observables to one basis (monism), his solution is no longer “natural” or “physical” but now “meta-physical.” I will leave aside all the things we should say about this term “metaphysical”, but for the moment I am just remarking that on Anaximander’s way of understanding reality, there is no possible observable that could be at the basis of all things. Instead, a force of some kind must be at work on “something” that is not yet any thing until the force works on it. And when it does, then things begin to manifest (and not the apeiron).
Now that’s a deep idea but it is reasonable given what was thought at the time. The philosophical–really, the proto-scientific–issue was a question of the deep-structure of reality. Anaximander reasoned that the naturalistic answers that had been proposed were not satisfying, indeed, that they could not ever satisfy the question. You could forever ask what the next proposed solution really was and why it was purportedly able to ground everything else. You say the four elements are really water…but what is water really and why does it sometimes manifest itself as air and other times as fire or earth? Anaximander was thinking that you could never hit bottom if you keep trying to gain a “naturalistic” or “physical” basis (remember: we can’t take these terms too seriously at this point…they are undefined by these thinkers and at this point in time) for nature or physis. “Something” outside of things had to be the ground of things (again with the scarequotes, but you see how hard it is to talk about apeiron).
If I may return to what I think I heard in Sunday school again, there is an analogy here. We were taught that everything that is was created by God (we, I have to admit, did not talk about how God might have done this and whether there might be a conflict with science). But if we were to ask, as I am quite sure I must have, “but who created God,” we would be told that the question really doesn’t make sense. God is not a thing like all other things. Every actual thing is limited in some way (you can tell where one thing leaves off and another starts up). But God is unlimited, both in space and in time. God is everywhere and always. But “something” (see what I mean about the analogy…?) that is everywhere is nowhere in particular, and “something” that was and is and is to come is no-when in particular, and so is not just some thing, not just something, but otherwise, and therefore very hard to talk about in a way that captures what “it” is really.
So we can see two alternative sorts of problems. If you want to be a “naturalist” like Thales or Anaximines, then you will face the problem of the infinite regress of questioning: but what is that made of and why? If you want to be a “metaphysician” like Anaximander (or perhaps like a Sunday school teacher) then you have a technique for avoiding the infinite regress, but you will also find it very hard to say anything definite. (This is the reason why idolatry is the premiere sin, upon which, ultimately, all others rest, and why it is so hard to avoid committing) What can you say definitively about the “indefinite”? Which way is right? Which way do you lean? Even at this point, we can begin to see the battle lines forming for the evolution vs. intelligent design debate that won’t take place for a couple of millennia. When the evolutionists propose only natural causes, those that hold to ID find the answer unsatisfying–the fundamental question remains: but how did it all get here? But if the proponents of ID have to rely on the supernatural to explain things, then those who hold to naturalistic explanations have a good point when they complain that the ID proponents are not saying anything definite or observable or provable or even meaningful.
And this is the reason science and religion usually win out over metaphysics. We have always wanted to understand ourselves and the world around us, but not mainly just because we can. I think we mainly want to understand ourselves and the world around us so that we can do things, so that we can get what we want. Techne – knowing how – is always bound up with nous – knowing what is. Since the advent of modern science, technology has been moving full speed ahead. But there is also our desire know know why things are the way they are and what that means for us, for our desires, our hopes, our fears. So even though its demise had been predicted since the rise of modern science, religion, though not the same as it ever was, is still as strong as its ever been. The purport to bring that questioning to a close with some real answers.
Thus both science and religion (at least for most people) always need to get going, so to speak, which means they need to bring to a close radical self-questioning and self-reflection and start “doing things.” This is easy to see in religious people, who talk comfortably about faith. But it also can be seen in the views of some of our public scientists, such as Stephen Hawkings and Lawrence Krauss. You can easily see their exasperation with philosophy (or, what is the same thing, ultimately, metaphysics). We just don’t “need it” anymore. We just don’t “need” to ask what we mean, in the case of Krauss, by “nothing.” We can, we techno-scientists, go about our business very well without asking ourselves these questions.
True enough. But some of us apparently cannot help ourselves. We wonder — it all begins with wonder, says Aristotle — about your business, both techno-science and creedal-religion, what it’s really for and what accounts for it and where it might be headed and what we might hope for. We are bothered, as Chastek puts it, that something in all your business has been lost or forgotten. Not just, though, in math and science but also in theology and religion. And, perhaps most importantly, we want to know for ourselves to the extent we are able what that might be. Sometimes it appears that we’re given a stark choice: side with the techno-scientists or side with the religious adherents. Perhaps there is a real third alternative: the philosophical life and its metaphysical speculation. The scientists will yawn and the believers will scoff – that is, if they don’t do worse. But we philosophers might live happily anyway, even if we live on the run from scientists and believers, at least so long as the scientists and the believers don’t kill us all in the meantime. Maybe wonder and speculation is our best hope.