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Why Modern Physics Does Not Refute Thomistic Philosophy

Today some claim that modern physics evinces that Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy is an archaic myth that has outlived its credibility. They say things like, “If Thomist metaphysics contradicts modern physics, then Thomism is false.”

They make claims against Thomism, citing modern physical theories like quantum mechanics and relativity. We are told counterintuitive things, such as that (1) whole universes can pop into existence from nothing according to quantum mechanics, (2) effects sometimes actually exist before their causes, (3) special relativity entails that time is not sequential, but rather “B theory” says that past, present, and future are equally real and change is impossible, and (4) electrons around an atomic nucleus can be in two positions simultaneously, or “smeared over space.”

Still, on basic truths about the world, natural science and Thomism hold identical positions.

Epistemological realism: Natural scientists and Thomists share the conviction that we immediately sense the external world. Scientists are certain that they are discovering laws that apply to a vast extramental physical cosmos. Still, those who impose a materialist philosophical interpretation on sensation’s science find themselves entrapped in an epistemological nightmare whose immanent logic leads to the false conclusion that all we really know is internal neural patterns of our brains.

Thomism offers an alternate view of sense experience that supports natural science’s realist presupposition. It notes that all human beings have the same noetic starting point. There are three components to every human act of knowledge: (1) the thing known, (2) the act of knowing, and (3) reflexive awareness of the knowing self. In most relevant cases, what is known is known as external to one’s self. While an entire epistemology is not possible here, note that we cannot doubt external reality when it is directly confronted. Doubt arises only when we shift our attention to a judgment about the external object in which what we know is not the object itself. For example, if I close my eyes and wonder whether the lion confronting me is really about to attack me, I am no longer looking at the lion, but at some internal image of it. At that moment, I can doubt the real lion, but I cannot doubt its mental image. Opening my eyes provides a different certitude – as the lion takes its first bite.

Metaphysical first principles: Universal first principles apply to the minds and methods of modern physicists themselves. If there is even a single exception to such universal rules, there would be no logical reason ever to expect such a “broken rule” to apply again. Assuming, for instance, that the whole universe has no reason for existing, but that somehow the rest of cosmic phenomena still must have reasons, is special pleading in the extreme.

The principle of non-contradiction, which says that things cannot both be and not be, is universally applied by every scientist making an observation. Even the smallest phenomena must be read as what it is and not as its contradictory – otherwise, the reading would be useless. Claims of contradictory phenomena, such as wave-particle duality, rely on such observations. If a subatomic entity appears as a wave, that same exact reading cannot say it is a particle. Neither Thomist nor natural scientist could ever reject this principle, since, without it, every judgment could be contradicted.

Science simply cannot be done without the principle of sufficient reason. By “sufficient reason,” I refer, not to Leibniz’s famous definition, but simply the universal truth that all things must have reasons. Long before St. Thomas or Leibniz, Adam knew that all things have reasons. So do all scientists. Every scientist pursues explanations of natural phenomena because he knows they must have explanations. Through Hume’s influence, he may think of causes as “antecedents,” but he never stops looking for them because he believes in the principle of causality. Causes are merely reasons for things that do not explain themselves.

From the time a child begins to explore the world, his mind invariably demands to know reasons for all things. Things’ intelligibility demands that they “make sense” -- either through some external cause or their own internal coherence. “Why?” is the ever-pressing question. Science never researches to discover whether a given phenomenon has an explanation, but rather to discover what that explanation is. If sufficient reason is not universally true, scientists could never be sure that observed phenomena actually reveal the nature of what they study, since no underlying reason need exist. Science would be impossible. The mind’s reasoning process could never be trusted, since no reasons for thoughts need ever be present. Indeed, all the rational connections in the whole of reality depend upon our expectation that reasons underlie everything. And, if the way our mind works does not correspond to reality, science becomes fantasy and we are all, by definition, psychotic.

Even atheist scientists, like Stephen Hawking, questioning the existence of the cosmos, usually assert that it simply explains itself. They may claim that it is the end product of eternal cosmic “bubbles,” arising from “nothing” – which “nothing” turns out to be a “quantum vacuum” that itself turns out to be actually pre-existing active quantum fields consisting of virtual particles! Those who claim that the cosmos has no reason at all for existing are making a philosophical claim that happens to be at variance from both modern physics and Thomism. Thomist philosophy comports with and supports natural science’s universal operating conviction that things have reasons.

Potency and act, matter and form, finality, essence and existence: Most other Thomist principles are so clearly philosophical that natural science properly says little about them. The exceptions would be materialist denials that substantial forms and final causes exist in nature. Still, those are clearly philosophical, not scientific, claims.

What should be made of the types of counterintuitive scientific claims presented at the beginning of this article? To understand, we have to consider the various steps in the process of scientific enquiry. First, we have the target entity to be explained, for example, the actual movement of planets around the Sun. Since concrete solar system conditions are far too complex to “handle” in every detail, scientists create a “model” that abstracts essential elements of the target from less relevant details, such as, the actual shape of bodies, gravitational influence from other stars, and so forth. In the process, the model no longer perfectly fits the actual conditions of the target, and yet, is close enough to reality so as to illustrate an hypothesized explanation.

What happens next is where physicists can surreptitiously introduce philosophical assumptions. For now the scientist will make his own interpretation of the model – sometimes with hidden philosophical assumptions. Note that the “interpretation” is based on a “model,” which is based on the target reality. Hence, the speculative interpretation is two epistemic steps removed from the original reality. While the solar system model appears fairly straightforward, some evident instances of philosophical speculation are found in modern physics.

For example, most people would not realize that there more than a dozen different interpretations of quantum mechanics – many expressive of diverse philosophical assumptions or claims. Such interpretive pluralism alone bespeaks limited empirical evidence favoring one interpretation over another. Still, this philosophical quagmire does not prevent aggressive claims being made for various interpretations -- as if they were fully demonstrated by natural science.

Thomism or any valid philosophy must always comport with experience, for example, by acknowledging the fact of change. Conversely, natural science can never validly sustain claims that violate universal metaphysical principles.

Thomist metaphysics is often claimed to be “disproved” by conventional interpretations of quantum mechanics, also known as the “Copenhagen interpretation.” The paper, “Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”(2011), exposes how such physicists’ claims “are not consistent or coherent in their existential treatment of fundamental particles, their wavefunctions, and physical states.” (Introduction) In its concluding paragraph, it warns, “The great danger in Copenhagen sophistry is not that it will harm physics as a discipline, but that it leads to egregious errors in other disciplines, which accept the Copenhagen interpretation with the authority of scientific truth.” (no. 15)

The number of erroneous metaphysical assertions made today by physicists operating outside their proper field of competence prevents “unraveling” them all here.

Still, drawing upon the same paper (no. 6), consider the following example I offer regarding the claim of “superposition” of electrons around an atom’s nucleus. Rejecting the “old” model in which electrons remained in a single orbit around the nucleus, some claim that quantum mechanics affirms such counterintuitive notions as that, when unobserved, electrons are simultaneously in different positions, or perhaps, even “smeared over space.” Yet, when we “collapse the field” by making an observation, an electron is always found solely in one position or another – never in the indefinite or contradictory positions that are assumed prior to taking the measurement. Since an electron is always found in a single position, the counterintuitive claims should be rejected for clearly violating the principle of non-contradiction. Rather, we must be talking merely about conflicting levels of probability as to where a particle actually is when not measured. Quantum mechanics ought not to be interpreted as violating sound metaphysics.

This same paper offers similar explanations of other quantum mechanics enigmas, including wave-particle duality (nos. 4, 14), Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (no. 9), and the ontological status of virtual particles (no. 13). In these and other instances, it shows that sound metaphysical principles deserve rightful priority over counterintuitive interpretations of theoretical models. It counsels, “Denials of the principle of non-contradiction or of objective reality ought to concern physicists no less than philosophers, as these logical and metaphysical claims are presupposed by physics.” (no. 13).

A 2006 study appeared to support Wheeler’s delayed-choice thought experiment suggesting that an effect could actually occur temporally prior to its cause, thus wreaking havoc on the metaphysical principle of causality. Yet, a published comment corrected this, pointing out that the experimental observations can easily be explained without recourse to claims of reverse causation.

Although both Thomism and modern physics proclaim general “principles” or “laws,” they “get there” in vastly different ways leading to vastly different implications.

Scientific research relies upon an inductive method from many particular observations to universal conclusions that can never achieve logical necessity. Experimental verification of hypotheses entails the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent, remedied hopefully by a perfect “critical experiment.” Negative experimental results can falsify an hypothesis. But, no amount of positive results can ever absolutely prove one is true, since some unanticipated extraneous factor always might have produced the positive result. Competent scientists always admit that the experimental results merely tend to support their hypotheses. Both these logical weaknesses entail that the “laws of physics” possess neither absolute certitude nor guaranteed universality.

By contrast, Thomism and the natural metaphysics of human intelligence discover universal first principles based upon the intellectual apprehension of intelligible being in our very first experience of material things – forming a concept of being that inherently transcends all reality. Since these are principles of existence, not essence, they necessarily apply to all beings – whether of cosmic dimensions or infinitesimally small. Such universal principles are regulative of all physics and philosophy. Unseen philosophical assumptions that permeate the speculative interpretations of modern physics’ models remain subject to the primary universal laws of being – whether physicists know this or not.

Metaphysics achieves universal certitudes; modern physics will get man safely to Mars – maybe.

The rational approach to quantum mechanics given above applies to relativity theory as well. Much of relativity theory may be read as simply perfective of Newtonian physics. One novel feature of special relativity is its denial of temporal simultaneity. An odd philosophical “by product” of this was the “B theory” of time with its attendant hypothesis of “eternalism.”

The “B-theory” of time, proposed by McTaggart in 1908, states that, instead of the common sense progression of events from past, to present, to future, events can be ordered in a tenseless way. “B-theorists” appear to take a “God’s-eye” view of space-time, embracing all frames of reference. This leads them to say that past, present, and future are equally real and that change is an illusion. Some rely upon Parmenides’ ancient arguments against the possibility of change.

Those who follow Parmenides’ (born c. 515 BC) univocal use of “being” to argue that change is impossible imbibe genuinely archaic philosophy. Aristotle (384-322 BC) realized that “being” is an analogous term. Combined with his innovative principles of potency and act, he finally refuted Parmenides’ argument -- demonstrating how change was both possible and actual. Competent philosophers respect reason, but also immediate experience. Even if change were merely an illusion, as Parmenides claimed, it is real as an illusion and, as such, part of reality that must be explained, not denied.

All these peculiar “B theory” claims about time, together with its “eternalism,” are philosophical interpretations of special relativity, which are not empirically verifiable.

Special relativity shows that relativity of simultaneity obtains solely between “spatially-separated” events, meaning events outside each other’s light cone (no light-speed or sublight signal can connect them). Contrary to “B theory” claims, “Relativity does not abolish the objectivity of time as succession, at least not locally. For every physical event, there is an absolute past and absolute future that is the same in all reference frames.” (“Basic Issues in Natural Philosophy,” (2016) no. 14.1.3.)  Such local events are still temporally ordered in the common sense manner: past to present to future. Moreover, “This preserves the succession of causality, where a cause cannot be temporally posterior to its effect (though they might be simultaneous).” (Ibid.) Since all causal interaction is local (no action at a distance), the Thomist principle that the effect must be immediately dependent upon its cause is in no way violated.

Since it is impossible to examine every possible physical theory, it is reasonable to expect that any future claim by physicists that contradicts metaphysical first principles entails philosophical assumptions outside their field of competence.

Physicists loathe being told that they are doing metaphysics – even more so, that they are doing metaphysics badly.

Many competent physicists know the limitations of their science, and therefore, take their measurements, do their computations, and explain their findings -- without misleading the public with problematic speculations, which they falsely claim to be objective or definitive findings of natural science.

Contemporary science’s progressive achievements crown God’s gift of human intelligence. Still, the whole point of this article has been to show that, unlike the inherent logical weaknesses of the “laws of physics,” which prevent them from ever rightfully enunciating universal certitudes, Thomism’s universally-certain laws of being, not only are logically presupposed by physics, but, indeed, supersede any modern physics’ claims that actually contradict them.

No, Thomism is not an archaic philosophy in light of modern physics. To the contrary, Thomist metaphysics is regulative of modern physics’ speculative claims insofar as they contain philosophical assumptions and implications.

Dr. Dennis Bonnette

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Dr. Dennis Bonnette retired as a Full Professor of Philosophy in 2003 from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. He taught philosophy there for thirty-six years and served as Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1992 to 2002. He lives in Youngstown, New York, with his wife, Lois. They have seven adult children and twenty-five grandchildren. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970. Dr. Bonnette taught philosophy at the college level for 40 years, and is now teaching free courses at the Aquinas School of Philosophy in Lewiston, New York. He is the author of two books, Aquinas' Proofs for God's Existence (The Hague: Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972) and Origin of the Human Species (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, third edition, 2014), and many scholarly articles.

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