Philosophy Meets Science: Novelty in Nature Symposium

July 26, 2019

Washington, DC

Photo: Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. responds to Dr. Bill Smart during a session of the symposium, “Novelty in Nature: Scientific and Philosophical Understanding in Flux and Change in the Natural World” in Washington, DC, June 28.

This summer offered scientists and philosophers the opportunity to dialogue on the natural sciences at a symposium sponsored by the Thomistic Institute. “Novelty in Nature: Scientific and Philosophical Understanding in Flux and Change in the Natural World” was held June 26-30 in Washington, DC. The symposium welcomed a wide variety of chemists, biologists, philosophers, theologians, and graduate students. Aquinas College Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Biological Science Dr. Bill Smart attended the symposium with other faculty from the Dominican Campus.

“Whenever I as a creature realize any actuality, God is also working to realize it,” said Fr. Austriaco, O.P., microbiologist at Providence College and speaker at the symposium. Austriaco and his Dominican colleagues are working toward a model of evolutionary change within a Thomistic philosophical framework. A glimpse of their work is seen at thomisticevolution.org. The website offers “a Catholic approach to understanding evolution in the light of faith.” The June symposium explored the question of evolution by bringing philosophers and scientists together.

Sister Janet Mary, O.P., faculty member at St. Cecilia Academy and former Aquinas College student, was particularly interested in the format of the symposium discussions. “The panelists modeled dialogue for us between philosophy and science, and then it spread to the participants. I will share my theological analogy of water tomorrow,” she said on June 27. Sister Janet Mary teaches science at St. Cecilia. “We were encouraged to share, to enter into the dialogue” with top professionals in the fields of philosophy and natural science.

Novelty in Nature Symposium

Photo courtesy of the Thomistic Institute.

One of the challenges in bringing philosophers, chemists and biologists together for a conversation is the difficulty of defining terms used in the discussion. This weekend started the process, with philosophers thinking and speaking in terms of “essence and existence” and scientists working with concepts and terms of the natural world.

Dr. Bill Smart, who returned for his second conference this year, saw common language as a point of departure. Of the efforts at sharing across disciplines, Dr. Smart said, “learning the vocabulary is the beginning.” 

The conference had even wider implications. “New discoveries in the physical sciences regarding fundamental particles (quarks, etc.) and their properties are defying current attempts to define them,” said Dr. Smart. “Our philosophical presenters seemed unified in suggesting that only via an Aristotelian/Thomistic [philosophical] framework can we adequately define and understand them.” Smart sees the importance of considering the lens used for investigation of the natural world. Scientists need to consider that using “the very strict scientific lens…as the only legitimate lens for all of our investigations is in some respects inadequate.”

 Austriaco has big hopes for the dialogue begun this summer. “Evolution…is not just a biological problem…It’s about the appearance of novelty in science. How do you provide an explanation for the appearance of life? I’m hoping that this conversation, which is truly interdisciplinary, can move us to the next step.”