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Why Aristotle and Aquinas?


Here’s a fair question: Why do I prattle on so much about scholastic philosophy? Of what genuine relevance is it to intelligent design, and how is it of help in our twilight struggle with Darwinism and materialism?

My quick answer (and quite honest) is that I love it. The metaphysical perspective of the great scholastic philosophers — hylomorphism — is the best idea anyone ever had. At least, the best secular idea anyone ever had. There is a deep beauty and encompassing rationality to the Aristotelian-Thomist way of understanding the world. It can be said that Aristotle was the last man to know everything that could be known in his time, and that Aquinas was the last great systematic philosopher — the last philosopher/theologian to put together a coherent system for understanding all of reality. It is a way of understanding the world that is at once true and beautiful (and St. Thomas would say that truth and beauty are really the same thing). And I think that he pretty much got it right.

How does this help in the struggle between design and Darwinian materialism? Do beauty and truth really play a role in this fight in the trenches of 21st century science and culture? I think they do, in a practical way.

The fundamental modernist error is Nominalism. Nominalism, which is a philosophical school that had a foreshadowing in antiquity but fruition in the 14th century, is the belief that universals don’t exist independently of the mind. It is the view that such general things as justice or humanity or mathematics are merely concepts, with no real instantiation in the extra-mental world. Nominalism is the view that universals are just names, without instantiated reality. It is a view in contrast to the radical realism of Plato, who believed that universals existed in perfect Forms in a realm more real than our own, and to the moderate realism of Aristotle, who believed (in characteristically moderate fashion) that universals had an extra-mental reality in this world, but not in the Platonic world of Forms.

The problem with Nominalism is that it detached and eventually isolated the mind from the world, and evolved over time into the Cartesian dualist model of the mind — that man was a composite of two separate substances, mental and physical. Modern materialists simply discarded Descartes’ “mental” substance, and built their metaphysical structure (tottering as it is) on matter — merely a substance extended in space. It is through matter, and matter alone, that materialists try to explain the world. And of course “stuff extended in space” left no necessary room for God, which pleased newly emboldened atheists no end.

Materialism, the witless spawn of Nominalism and Cartesian dualism, provided passable grounding for some aspects of modern science, especially after Bacon discarded teleology as a principle of nature and Newton developed a rather successful cosmology based on the analogy of nature to a machine. Mechanical philosophy, the ideological substrate of materialism, became the default metaphysical stance of modern science.

But an explanation for life seemed beyond the reach of even most passionate materialist. “Stuff extended in space” seemed (to the unreflective atheist) adequate to investigate rocks and such, but living things manifest a breath-taking complexity and purpose that no one in their right mind could attributed to “just extended stuff.” Richard Dawkins got it right: materialism left an atheist intellectually unfulfilled.

Fulfillment came in 1859. Darwin’s “survivors survived” theory put life into the machine of nature, and seemed (if you don’t really think about it) to explain the uncanny adaptation of living things to the natural world. “If they didn’t adapt, they’d die! — that’s how it all happened! The non-adaptive ones are dead, the adaptive ones are alive! Biology is explained!” Atheism’s shiny new creation myth put out pseudopods into science and culture, degrading both in ways painful to examine. Fairy tales became scientific explanations, and they weren’t even nice fairy tales. In the Darwinian myth, man’s highest attributes evolved due to his lowest dispositions. Eugenics was and is the inevitable outcome of Darwin’s sanguinary anthropology.

If we are to defeat this madness, for the sake of science and culture and humanity, we must do more than grind Darwinism to dust, as necessary (and satisfying) as that is.

We must replace it. And the replacement must be something true and moral. Hylemorphism, the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas, is the metaphysical system that Nominalism and Mechanical Philosophy and materialism and Darwinism replaced, yet it remains the one metaphysical system utterly opposed to the idiot and ugly errors of Darwin’s fairy tale.

My hope is that the ID movement can move toward an Aristotelian and Thomist critique of Darwinism. It is the most effective way — I think the only really effective way — to kick out the foundation of Nominalism and Mechanical Philosophy on which Darwin and his children built their fiction.

Photo: Carving of Aristotle, Chartres Cathedral, by Wellcome Images, via Wikicommons.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



AristotleCharles Darwinevolutionhistoryhylemorphismintelligent designmaterialismNominalismphilosophyPlatonic formsRené Descartesscholastic philosophytheologyThomas Aquinas