Aquinas and Modern Science
A New Synthesis of Faith and Science
- ISBN: 9781621382287
- Published By: Angelico Press
- Published: November 2016
Recently, interest in applying Aristotelian philosophy to the study of the philosophy of science has been increasing. Gerard M. Verschuuren suggests that the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas can be understood as Aristotelian in his work Aquinas and Modern Science: A New Synthesis of Faith and Reason. Verschuuren’s book has two objectives: first, to introduce Aquinas’s philosophy to scientists and those studying to become scientists; and second, illustrating to them its relevance in examining the contemporary scientific consensus in various fields.
Unfortunately, Verschuuren has chosen not to use source citations or references. A list of suggested reading is all that is provided at the close of each chapter. This makes it difficult for those who have not specialized in Aquinas to confirm the accuracy of Verschuuren’s interpretations. If Verschuuren had limited his discussion to Aquinas, the lack of citations might not have been problematic. Instead, throughout the book he refers to other philosophers as well as various scientists, but not all are listed with their relevant works at the end of the chapter. Furthermore, there are no references to any primary sources for cited scientists, and this lack of a scholarly apparatus may be an obstacle for some readers.
After an introduction to Aquinas and his place in the Roman Catholic Church, in chapter 2 Verschuuren turns to a discussion of metaphysics. Verschuuren argues that metaphysics is the rational foundation for scientific reasoning as well as any study of the sciences. He uses the concept of metaphysics as a “metascience” to refute scientism, the conviction that “there is nothing more to material reality than what physics tells us” (18). Before elaborating on what knowledge metaphysics is, Verschuuren discusses the harmony between faith and reason, focusing on Aquinas’s claim that truth believed through faith does not contradict truth known through reason. This claim may not be immediately convincing to a non-Christian or non-theist. However, the question of whether Christianity is compatible with science is continually addressed throughout the book.
The focus on metaphysics continues in chapter 3 with Verschuuren discussing the principles of nature, such as cause, act, and potency. As he specifically names De Principiis Naturae, it should be noted that this work actually belongs to the philosophy of nature. Verschuuren does not recognize metaphysics and the philosophy of nature as separate sciences (in the Aristotelian sense of the word) as do many Thomists. Indeed, in chapter 2 Verschuuren identifies philosophy of nature as a part of metaphysics. Verschuuren’s concept of metaphysics is also revealed in his treatment of the proofs for God; he concentrates on the argument from contingency—the “third way”—setting aside the others as just variations. But some Thomists would contend that the first way—the argument from motion (or change)—is a proper argument for the philosophy of nature before it is reconsidered within metaphysics. Why should this matter? Applying a distinct philosophy of nature to an inquiry into modern science (as some Thomists have done) rather than metaphysics (as conceived by Verschuuren and others) may enable scientists to reflect critically on their own principles and assumptions. Nonetheless, Verschuuren’s explanation of the principles of nature is important for clarifying any misconceptions.
Verschuuren examines epistemology in the fourth chapter, initially focusing on skepticism and its refutation, though for scientists who generally believe that they know reality, skepticism may not be an issue. Although Verschuuren’s presentation of Aquinas’s account of knowledge may not be of interest to scientists, he draws our attention to the subjective side of science. Acknowledging that scientists rely on others’s interpretations of observed data, Verschuuren does not inquire into the practice of science as a collaborative effort with its attendant moral issues. One missed opportunity is that the fundamental question of what distinguishes knowledge from belief or opinion is not posed and answered. This would help examine the subjectivity of science, especially with regards to the education and training of scientists. The practice of science often involves opinion or belief on the part of the scientist, rather than knowledge. While Verschuuren touches on reasoning as an act of the mind, he does not explain what constitutes logical reasoning and the forms of reasoning within modern science, topics which would have assisted his consideration of truth.
Chapter 5 examines the development of science during the medieval period and serves as an apologia for Christianity as providing the necessary intellectual environment for this growth. Verschuuren spends the rest of the book to engaging specific topics from a Thomistic perspective: cosmology, physics, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, and the social sciences.
Using the principles of nature elaborated earlier, Verschuuren seeks to clarify various theories or entities. For example, in the eighth chapter he analyzes DNA and his background as a geneticist becomes evident while in chapter 9 he examines evolution and in this discussion of evolution he responds to the theory of Intelligent Design. I appreciated more his handling of cosmology and God as creator in chapter 6, and of quantum physics in chapter 7, as I thought the application of Thomism in those two areas was more effective.
The final chapter is a discussion of sociology, economics, and political science. It is notable that while neuroscience is addressed in the previous chapter, an examination of the modern science of psychology is absent here. Verschuuren may have not included it as it possibly would extend the book beyond what was planned. As the treatment of the social sciences could warrant an entire book of its own, this chapter may be the most unsatisfying in the whole book. Verschuuren only explains certain Thomistic concepts and their relevance to the social sciences. Here, too, a consideration of reasoning and logic from an Thomistic viewpoint could have clarified what sort of reasoning is necessary for a science, and thus, yielded a Thomistic answer to the question of whether the social sciences are true sciences.
Aquinas and Modern Science is certainly useful for those who are already acquainted with Thomism and are looking for a discussion of contemporary science from a Thomistic perspective, even if they may disagree with certain parts of Verschuuren’s Thomism. As for its intended audience, Verschuuren may have attempted too much in a short book, but it does at least provide a good introduction to Thomistic philosophy and its application for those educated in the sciences.
Tedmund Chan is an Independent Scholar and Associate Editor for the Thomas International Center.Tedmund ChanDate Of Review:February 25, 2019