Sunday 23 January 2011

Beyond Physics

The relationship between physics and metaphysics (literally "beyond physics") is a fascinating one. It helps sometimes to remember that we can approach God from the side of philosophy and not just on the basis of revelation. Terry Pratchett, the English fantasy writer who has sold more than 60 million books and once said he was "rather angry with God for not existing", in a more recent interview ventured the view that "It is just possible that once you have got past all the gods that we have created with big beards and many human traits, just beyond all that, on the other side of physics, they [the gods] just may be the ordered structure from which everything flows." Indeed, the Christian idea of God, properly understood, is of something that could not not exist, if the world is to make any kind of sense.

Ever since 2006 in Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken about the need for "broadening our concept of reason and its application". But what
does this mean? In the Christian-Platonic tradition, goodness and beauty possess causal significance because the existence and structure and unfolding of the world as we perceive it is understood -- makes "sense" -- as their expression in matter and time. But the modern scientific revolution reduced causal explanation to an account of how one thing always leads to another, and the mind-body dualism we inherited from Descartes tends to flip into a monism of matter or spirit.

In the ancient view there are four main types of explanation or account that we can give for things: final, formal, efficient and material. The final cause is what they are for, or what purpose they serve. The formal cause is the inner shaping idea that makes them what they are. The first of these types of explanation dropped entirely out of view in modern science, and the second was reinterpreted to refer to a mathematical account of nature. The pragmatic bent of modern civilization was mainly interested in the efficient cause, or what brings something about and makes it do what it does, and the material cause, or what it is made of.

The narrowing of reason to these two or three kinds of account transformed the way we think about the world. We were no longer looking for the underlying idea or the purpose of things, but only for the things into which we could break it down (particles, energy), and the rules that determined how it behaved (laws of nature). But is there a way once again to broaden reason, perhaps by reintroducing final causality, or rediscovering the qualities of form? My book engages that question. But recently the physicist Stephen Barr (author of a forthcoming booklet on Science and Religion for CTS) has written an article in Faith magazine that readers may find interesting. In "The Symbiosis of Science and Metaphysics", he argues that the "four causes" of Aristotelian/ Thomistic metaphysics need to be re-thought, not merely re-introduced, in dialogue with modern science. Physics no longer conceives of an efficient cause as one thing acting upon another, but rather in terms of mutual interaction. Time itself is relative to one's position. Subatomic particles have no individuality. All of this raises interesting questions for theistic philosophers, but they need to be able to speak and understand the language of science in order to engage in a dialogue. They will find, if they do so, much stimulus to the development of their own discipline.


  1. Really interesting reflection. Thanks.

  2. Currently I am reading Karol Wojtyla's play "The Radiation of Fatherhood", written I think, about 1950. He presents the case poetically that the Trinity is precisely a mutual interaction between three, not the one of the Father, but the interaction of the Trinity makes it all work: which makes me think of the physics of it all: the ongoing mutual interaction of parts, which have to agree and complement, rather than the one Guy with the beard up there somewhere.

    What does Unamuno say in his atheist poem to God? "How terrible it would be if You were real, for then I would be real too"

    There's something of an escape in the physics of science, that all is reduced to the play of the parts, which have no purpose, which do have a kind of beauty, but which engender no responsiblity of the part of the observer other than enjoying the show.

  3. final,formal ,efficient and material ..........i thing they r not the ancient ways they are equally applicable now a days ..thanx for providing such a nice info..