So what, then, is this “Timaeus Principle”? In a word, it is the same thing that De Koninck calls the principle of indeterminism. De Koninck wrote about this on many occasions, but for the most part his writing has been overlooked or ignored. Judging by its reception by many traditional natural philosophers, one might surmise that De Koninck’s writing on this subject were the expression of some sort of private whim, something of minor consequence, not to say outright wrong. But it is, on the contrary, a matter of major consequence, and a central part of De Koninck’s own thinking. Anyone who seriously hopes for an integration of philosophy and modern science, or for a cosmology that promises the possibility of incorporating both modern and ancient thought, as well as religious and secular thought, needs to care about this. In later (perhaps much later) posts, I am hoping to make a case that the principle of indeterminism bears even on the philosophy of mathematics, in ways which have yet to be examined.
Three of the principal essays in which De Koninck wrote on this are Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism, The Problem of Indeterminism, and Reflections on the Problem of Indeterminism. The latter two essays are available in the first volume of Ralph McInerny’s English translation of the works of De Koninck. (Eventually it is hoped that not only these essays, but all of the writings of De Koninck will be available at this new website.)
Well, then: what is the principle of indeterminism? Timaeus and Plato thought that material things could not be known in a truly philosophical way, because they held that matter itself was a source of indeterminacy, and was hence antithetic to philosophical knowledge. It was not, as I have noted before, until Aristotle’s decisive advance, wherein a distinction was recognized between matter and privation, that it became conceivable that even material things could be the object of scientific investigation.
But it doesn’t follow from this that Plato and Timaeus were entirely wrong in seeing matter as a source of indeterminacy of being. What does follow is that material things can have a genuine share in logos, to which matter is not opposed in principle; for even matter itself derives from, and is ordered to, the Divine source of everything intelligible. But what characterizes matter most inherently is its potential ordering to beings of many kinds. While this ordering makes matter able to be a genuine principle of being, and genuinely a part of “what it is” of, say, a dog or a tree, it also involves a certain degree of indeterminacy. The “what it is” of material beings will therefore have a corresponding degreeof indeterminacy. And the form to which matter is correlative is a correspondingly indeterminate sort of principle, which is why it has matter as a co-principle to begin with. Angelic forms, by contrast, have no such indeterminacy.
Failing to understand the character of both matter and form in material beings typically results in a vain pursuit of “the definitions” of material beings after a manner which cannot suit the objects defined. (De Koninck referred to this as “bad angelism” as well as “fixism.” The latter term is connected with the very important bearing this whole question has on evolution, to which we will turn later.) Some colleagues of mine, even to this day, have trouble getting past the idea that there must be a philosophical “genus” and “species” of electron, dog, cat, Tiger Swallowtail, or, say, any of the other 50, 000, 000 or so insects inhabiting the planet…. Years ago a friend and fellow student of mine — now a well respected professor of philosophy at a reputable university — asked me the sort of question that is typical: she said to me, “What’s the definition of culture?” What she wanted was a formula. I mumbled something like, “I don’t know.” Culture, mind you, is closer than many things are to being definable in the way she imagined, because it is human; and human things are indeed closer to immaterial than is, say, an insect.
There are many important corollaries to draw from the principle of indeterminacy, some of which I hope to discuss in the future. I’ll start here with just one, but one which itself has broad implications. Those who are stuck in the traditional mindset I just described typically uphold philosophy over science because they say that science never reaches certitude about anything, and, naturally, they prefer the discipline in which they suppose that we can get certitude about things. The typical scientist, of course, tends in just the opposite way; he sees the “philosophers” as people who have to observe the real action from the sidelines because they can’t do serious science.
The truth about who’s right in this disagreement would start to become clearer if it were seen that it is not only we human beings who are either certain or uncertain, but the things we know are themselves endowed with greater and lesser degrees of certitude and intelligibility as well. If there is a difference between “science” taken generically and philosophy taken generically, it is for just this reason. An enormous volume of thought — much of it semi-neurotic — has gone into whether we can or cannot be certain about scientific hypotheses and theories. But almost none of it has begun by taking cognizance of this fact that the objects themselves have varying degrees of certitude, to which our human acts of knowledge — by which we fulfill the larger cosmic desire for the intelligible — are able to bear, in every case, a perfectly proportionate response. This means that while we may have “less certitude” about, say, the existence of oxygen, than about the existence of the human species, this does not mean that we are uncertain about it.
To be continued….
An apologetic note to readers: I know it is annoying that I write provocative things and then don’t follow up for a month. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time. Readers familiar with the Thomas Aquinas College seminars will have some understanding of why (I’m teaching one this year, as well as an extra class for a sick colleague, as well as six thesis advisees….) Not really the best excuses, I know, but I’ll try not to take so long between posts. At least over the Christmas break….