Causes and causation in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and modern natural sciences
DiDonato, Nicholas Carlo
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This project traces shifts in understandings of causation from the premodern to the early modern period, focusing on one premodern interpretation of causation as representative of the Neoplatonic period, that of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and comparing this perspective to several early modern thinkers, especially, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Francis Bacon. For Dionysius, formal and final causation have metaphysical superiority over efficient and material causation. By contrast, beginning in the early modern period, efficient causation, the sense that describes how an object acquires a particular shape, begins to be seen as metaphysically supreme. The main historical and philosophical reasons for this shift in perceived supremacy are the affirmation of the primary-secondary quality distinction, and the rejection of Forms and teleology. The primary-secondary quality distinction allows for reality to be completely quantified, and thereby renders superfluous qualitative approaches to reality, such as formal causation. Similarly, the rejection of Forms and teleology leaves formal causation meaningless. After this historical overview, the philosophical hypothesis that Dionysius's premodern understanding of causation is more amenable to those who want to avoid nihilism is defended: purely scientific notions of causation have no means for providing whatness, intelligibility, or determinacy to the world in a rationally defensible manner, and thus, when pressed, a purely scientific view of the world is without whatness, intelligibility, and determinacy, which, by definition, leads to nihilism. By contrast, a world with causes other than solely scientific causes, specifically, a world with formal (and final) causation such as Dionysius's, allows for whatness, intelligibility, and determinacy, and thereby escapes nihilism because whatness requires Form, intelligibility requires Form and teleology, and determinacy requires teleology (which, in turn, is a supplement to Form). As argued, science studies the world of becoming, and therefore cannot provide the grounds for the world of being (which belongs to metaphysics); to live in a world of pure becoming without being is to have a nihilistic worldview. The epilogue draws a significant implication from this conclusion: the premodern approach invites a necessary revival of natural philosophy because the world of becoming is wider than modern science acknowledges.