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World enough and form: why cosmology needs hylomorphism


This essay proposes a comprehensive blueprint for the hylomorphic foundations of cosmology. The key philosophical explananda in cosmology are those dealing with global processes and structures, the regularity of global regularities, and the existence of the global as such. The possibility of elucidating these using alternatives to hylomorphism is outlined and difficulties with these alternatives are raised. Hylomorphism, by contrast, provides a sound philosophical ground for cosmology insofar as it leads to notions of cosmic essence, the unity of complex essences, and globally emergent properties. These are used as the basis to account for the aforementioned cosmological explananda and to resolve two problems in the philosophy of cosmology: the meta-law dilemma and the uniqueness of the universe. In summary, cosmology needs hylomorphism because it is able to ground cosmology’s efforts as a scientific inquiry. It can do so because hylomorphism philosophically accounts for changing substances and aggregates of substances, the various scales of law-governed behavior measured by the natures of those substances, and how those substances as parts relate to the universe as a whole.

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  1. 1.

    Contra Dingle (1937) and Hawking and Mlodinow (2012).

  2. 2.

    See Rovelli (2018) for a general defense of this idea, and Ellis (2014) for specific defense.

  3. 3.

    See McMullin (1981), and his (1969) is a review of all possible philosophies of nature (Gale and Urani 1993; Leslie 1999; Heller 2011; Ellis 2006, 2014, 2017; Unger and Smolin 2014, p. xvii).

  4. 4.

    We would thus distinguish “philosophy of nature” from “metaphysics” or “first philosophy,” as did Aristotle (see Metaphysics, VI.1, 1026a27–32), although such epistemological bookkeeping need not be accepted by readers in order to follow or accept our arguments.

  5. 5.

    See Tahko (2017); Oderberg (2017, p. 218).

  6. 6.

    Exceptions at the microscopic scale usually include unicellular organism and free atoms, although the latter are debated by hylomorphists as instances of substances in their own right.

  7. 7.

    For recent work on this philosophy of the “middle-sized” or “ordinary” object; see Thomasson (2007), Van Brakel (2013), Boulter (2013) and Needham (2017).

  8. 8.

    The literature on hylomorphism is vast; for the general background to our approach, consider Maritain (1940, 1951, 1995), De Koninck (1959, 1961, 1964, 2008, 2009) and Wallace (1996). Brague (2015, p. 37), expresses our concern: “I take here the word ‘cosmology’ in the meaning that is suggested by its etymology: a logos about the kosmos. Not a description, but some sort of account, an attempt at making sense of it, at deciphering its meaning.”

  9. 9.

    On the schema itself, see Aristotle (2014), Posterior Analytics, I.6, 75a29–37, Aquinas (1958, 1989), Maritain (1951) and De Koninck (1957). To fill out this schema, we consulted Whitrow (1959), Tolman (1987), Harrison (2000), Hawley and Holcomb (2005), and Ellis (2006, 2014, 2017).

  10. 10.

    See Aquinas (1886), In De Caelo, lib. 1, lect. 1, nn. 4–5.

  11. 11.

    Note that Ellis uses “object” here in a way that it names the “subject” of cosmology. An object of our experience can also be the subject of an inquiry.

  12. 12.

    Compare Pruss (2013, pp. 120–121, 132). We further clarify “grounding” in Sect. 2.

  13. 13.

    Another issue that we do not have space to consider in this essay is the question of how mathematics is applicable to the study of nature. However, see the final argument in Sect. 4.2.

  14. 14.

    See Bondi (1990, p. 192), Gale (2017) and Barrow and Tipler (1988, pp. 255–256).

  15. 15.

    See Ellis (2011, 2014), Kragh (2009) and Stoeger et al. (2004).

  16. 16.

    See Oderberg (2009) for a convincing critique.

  17. 17.

    The Everettian thesis does not add anything new to cosmological multiverses as such, but merely extends existing ones into various quantum branches (Tegmark 2003).

  18. 18.

    See Ellis (2014) and Unger and Smolin (2014, Part I, ch. 1, and Part II, ch. 2).

  19. 19.

    One subsequently asks, qua cosmologist, how a multi-domain model is testable.

  20. 20.

    By using this schema we not only gain a broader view of possible alternatives but can usefully juxtapose contemporary views with older traditions. While Aristotle’s schema does not, in places, map neatly onto contemporary ideas, reviving his division and seeing its plausibility will complement our revival and defense of the division’s original theoretical target: hylomorphism. Besides, the usefulness of returning to the Greeks for inspiration has been noted before: “In probing the foundations of any domain of contemporary problems—e.g., of physics—one discovers the same structures that the Greek philosophers discovered long ago, if from a different angle” (von Weizsäcker 2014, p. 136).

  21. 21.

    See Heil (2017), Dumsday (2012), Bird (2007, pp. vii, 97) and Feser (2014, pp. 69–70).

  22. 22.

    See Lewis (1983, 1987, 1994, 2001) [1973].

  23. 23.

    See Harré and Madden (1975), Dumsday (2012); French (2014, p. 232) and Simpson et al. (2017, p. 125).

  24. 24.

    Prominent proponents include Roger Penrose or George Ellis.

  25. 25.

    See Dretske (1977) and Tooley (1977). Armstrong (1983, 1997), claims to avoid the charge of Platonism; see Carroll (1994, Appendix A), Dumsday (2013, p. 143) and Mumford (2004, p. 91); at least Bird (2007, pp. 51–55), and Feser (2014, p. 70), characterize Armstrong’s view about universals as closer to the Aristotelian line. However, insofar as they all fall prey to the third-man objection leveled against Platonism, based upon second-order universals, we consider these views together.

  26. 26.

    As a basis for the ontological interpretation of relativity theory and thus a possible philosophical ground for cosmology, OSR is critiqued—effectively, in our view—by Feser (2017, pp. 47–50). However, since Feser limits himself to special relativity, his critique is also limited. We also must leave aside OSR in this essay, since we do not have the space to do it justice.

  27. 27.

    See Armstrong (1983, pp. 85–86).

  28. 28.

    Similar points are made by Bird (2007, pp. vii, 47), and see especially Heil (2017).

  29. 29.

    See Harré and Madden (1975, p. 80).

  30. 30.

    See Plato, Parmenides 132a–b; Aristotle, Metaphysics 990b15, 1059b5–10. Hence, the problem is generalizable to other versions of Platonism. The other key difficulty is Mumford’s “Central Dilemma”; see Mumford (2004, pp. 143–145) and Dumsday (2012, p. 116).

  31. 31.

    Bird (2007, p. 94).

  32. 32.

    See Groff and Greco (2013, p. 3); see also French (2014, p. 248ff).

  33. 33.

    In particular, the hylomorphist must address concerns of dispositional monism (Bird 2007) or other versions of hylomorphism; for such replies, see Oderberg (2011, 2013), and Koons (2014).

  34. 34.

    Koons (2018a) helpfully discusses the last three issues.

  35. 35.

    See Parmenides, Fragment DK B2.

  36. 36.

    To this a Heraclitean would agree, but object to any implied permanence of those individuals.

  37. 37.

    It would also be granted by Heraclitus, who posits a logos to the flux of being.

  38. 38.

    Here the Heraclitean parts company with us; however, see Aristotle, Metaphysics IV.3–4 and Plato (1997), Cratylus, 439c–440e and 439d on the various problems that result. See Aertsen (1987, pp. 16–31), on the medieval notion of the katallel structure of being, summarized in lapidary fashion by Aquinas (1884), In Phys., III. 5, n. 15: “The modes of being are proportional to the modes of predicating.” (Translations of Aquinas our own unless indicated.).

  39. 39.

    See De Koninck (2008, p. 259).

  40. 40.


  41. 41.

    The following line of argument follows De Koninck (2008, pp. 259–261).

  42. 42.

    See also Oderberg (2017), Dumsday (2010) and Gorman (2014).

  43. 43.

    See Aquinas (1884), In Phys., lib. 2, lect. 1, n. 5: “[Aristotle] adds primarily [to the definition of nature] because nature, even as it is a principle of the motion of composite things, it is not such first. Thus, that an animal falls down is not due to the nature of the animal as such, but due to the nature of the predominant element.”.

  44. 44.

    See Larenz (2013, pp. 495–496).

  45. 45.

    This view claims that one substance has only one substantial form, not many. For various defenses, see Aquinas (1888, ST, Ia, q. 76, a. 4; 1918, ScG, II.58); also Feser (2014, p. 187ff).

  46. 46.

    However, the hylomorphist must have distinct views about the details; see fns. 48, 49.

  47. 47.

    Aquinas (1888, ST, Ia, q. 45, a. 7, c. (emphasis ours)). According to Aquinas, this relationship between forms eventually constitutes the form of the universe as a whole, including quotidian cases: “A mouse is killed by a cat to preserve the good of the universe. For this is the order of the universe, that one animal lives off another” (Aquinas 2018, Super Mat., X, lect. 2, n. 874).

  48. 48.

    As critics and proponents of dispositionalism have noted, conservations laws “deserve special attention and, in any case, extra work is needed for their accommodation within the context of [dispositionalism]” (Livanios 2018, p. 70; see also Ellis 2001, pp. 205, 249; Bird 2007, pp. 213–215; Katzav 2005; Smart and Thébault 2015). Since GEP permits the local ontology of hylomorphic substances to be determinable in part by global conditions, conservations principles as features of the coordinated interactivity of physical objects in the cosmos can be accommodated. We plan a separate defense to show in detail how hylomorphism meshes with least action and conservation principles.

  49. 49.

    A development of the hylomorphic account of the physical continuum, the continuity of motion, and its implications for endurantism and perdurantism is beyond the scope of this essay; on this Aristotelian theory of the continuum, see Hassing (1991), White (1992), and Hellman and Shapiro (2018).

  50. 50.

    We note below where our hylomorphic account must be articulated with more precision so as to incorporate, into a broadly Neo-Aristotelian framework, the various foundational concepts and current difficulties of classical, relativistic, and quantum mechanics. Regarding the epistemological requirements of this framework, see Cartwright (1989, 1999), and Lanao and Teh 2017. Cartwright (1989, pp. 198–199) acknowledges the “traditional metaphysical issues” related to abstraction and the problem of universals at play here; in this respect it is useful to consider whether older theories of abstraction can apply in these contemporary contexts; see Maritain 1995, De Koninck 1957, and Brungardt 2016, 2018.

  51. 51.

    De Koninck (2008, pp. 377–378).

  52. 52.

    Hylomorphism at the quantum scale presents unique challenges. Given the scale of application of hylomorphism that we are focusing on, we must prescind from, while acknowledging, the difficulties that the hylomorphic model faces when dealing with the synchronic structure of substances at microscopic, quantum scales. These difficulties are active areas of research among hylomorphists of different schools (e.g., consider Koons 2018b). Our proposals of CE, UCE, and GEP do not require specific conclusions about the hylomorphism of quantum physics, although it does imply a specific approach, viz., that “ordinary objects” at the mesoscopic scale (e.g., human beings, animals) be taken as paradigmatic instances of substances. We follow Eddington (1933, p. 37): “The twoness of two electrons is not completely like the twoness of two apples.” Quantum non-locality also poses an as-yet unmet challenge to hylomorphism as a “local” ontology of substances unable to act at a distance. Yet substantial form is not “localized” by spacetime points (which are “local” in a mathematical sense); rather, substantial form is ontologically prior to space and time. Various hylomorphic proposals include Wallace (1979, 1996), Smith (1999) and Simpson et al. (2017). See also Kastner et al. (2018).

  53. 53.

    Maritain (1995), De Koninck (1957); see also Franklin (2014) for a generally Aristotelian approach. This view proposes a theory of mixed or subalternate sciences which claims that mathematical principles stand as form to the matter of natural scientific considerations; see Aquinas (1958) and Mullahy (1946). It would require a longer excursion to examine how the manner of conceiving things and (recursively) conceiving concepts influences the foundations of modern mathematics and its physical applications, in this case, regarding the nature of spacetime. Such a conceptual “desedimentation” regarding mathematics is undertaken by Klein (1992), and see Hassing (2017); Klein’s approach is applied to the ontology of spacetime by Cosgrove (2018). Hylomorphic and dispositionalist accounts of spacetime have been proposed: see Feser (2017) and Bird (2017). The theoretical cost adopting a privileged present, contrary to the demands of relativity, is absorbed by Unger and Smolin (2014) (see pp. 183–184, pp. 386–88) by appealing to a “shape dynamics” approach to gravity, one that recovers relativistic mechanics while maintaining a privileged present; see Mercati (2018) for more. It is unclear whether the same theoretical escape route is available to hylomorphism, which typically also defends a type of presentism.

  54. 54.

    Larenz (2013, pp. 496–497).

  55. 55.

    Some unknown factor prevents quantum vacuum energy in the universe from attaining its predicted value that is 10120greater than the observed one, yet that unknown does not eliminate effects of dark energy at global scales (see Peebles and Ratra 2003, pp. 561–562).

  56. 56.

    We grant for the sake of argument that the universe does exhibit law-regime changes.

  57. 57.

    Unger and Smolin (2014, p. 27, and see pp. 245, 301 n).

  58. 58.

    A position akin to Armstrong’s could appeal to higher-order universal relations, however, see Lange (2008) against this; the discussions of Armstrong (1983, pp. 22–23), and Lange (2008, pp. 88–90), suggest that the regularity view of laws could not avoid the meta-law dilemma.

  59. 59.

    Some cosmologists recognize that there are such arguments proper to natural philosophy in this sense (Unger and Smolin 2014), or at any rate arguments that are closer to the sciences on this topic (Ellis 2014, pp. 11–13).

  60. 60.

    See also Juarez (2017) for a similar argument.

  61. 61.

    Compare Aristotle, De Caelo I.9.

  62. 62.

    Aristotle also argues from the causal and physical-topological unity of the universe to its numerical unity (see De Caelo I.8); however, his universe’s topology lacked extensive symmetries (it had one spherical boundary with one center); see Jammer (1993, pp. 219–221) and Earman (1989). However, the spirit of his argument seems sound.

  63. 63.

    This is echoed by many critiques of the multiverse (para-universe) hypothesis; for instance, see Ellis and Silk (2014).

  64. 64.

    Aquinas (1886), In De Caelo, lib. 1, lect. 1, n. 2.

  65. 65.

    See Aquinas (1918), ScG, II.39: “The form of the universe consists in the distinction and order of its parts.” These “parts” are primarily kinds and secondarily individuals; see Blanchette (1992).

  66. 66.

    For instance, see Prigogine and Stengers (1984), Chaisson (2001, 2005), Novo Villaverde et al. (2018), Maritain (1997) and De Koninck (2008).

  67. 67.

    See De Koninck (2008, pp. 284, 297–298, 314), Dumsday (2011) and Koons (2018b, p. 162).

  68. 68.

    See Aquinas (1884), In De Caelo, lib. 1, lect. 19, n. 197. Aquinas argues that the uniqueness of the world could be inferred from the oneness of its First Mover; he argues that its uniqueness follows from its unified order to the First Mover as an end; he argues that, even were God able to make para-universes, this would either be contrary to his wisdom (if they were wholly alike) or the complete set of such universes would itself be the universe (if they each exhibited diverse perfections); and he argues that the essence of the world and its goodness is “more powerful” in its own kind by being one and not many in number.

  69. 69.

    Just such a theistic “quasi-deduction”—the name is from Geiger (1953, p. 397, n).—of the universe from the nature of divine causality is proposed by Aquinas (1926, ScG, III.97).

  70. 70.

    Consider Peterson (1996), Dumsday (2012) and Beltrán (2001, 2016).


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This paper was produced as part of the author’s postdoctoral research project, supported by a grant from CONICYT, FONDECYT, Postdoctoral Proj. No. 3170446. The author gratefully acknowledges this financial support and the faculty and staff of his home institution, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Instituto de Filosofía. Research for this paper was also conducted at the University of Notre Dame, as a guest of the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values and the Jacques Maritain Center, and the author thanks Anjan Chakravartty, John O’Callaghan, and their staff for their support and hospitality during that visit. The two anonymous reviewers also receive the author’s thanks for their substantive and insightful comments, which have helped to improve the paper tremendously. The author also gives thanks to many others for their comments, conversations, and suggestions for this paper and its topics, while retaining all blame for remaining errors: José Tomás Alvarado, Oscar Leon, Fr. Phillip Neri Reese OP, Martin Beers, Fr. Thomas Davenport OP, Ryan Shea, Nicholas Teh, Anjan Chakravartty, Jack Cahalan, Matthew Minerd, Marco Stango, Andrew Seeley, Marina Brungardt, and the attendees of the 2017 IIo Congreso Latinoamericano de Filosofía Científica and the 2017 Meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association for their comments on predecessor versions of this paper. Finally, in thanks for her insights into cosmology that have helped his own thinking, the author dedicates this paper to Dr. Carol Day.

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Brungardt, J.G. World enough and form: why cosmology needs hylomorphism. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02112-0

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  • Hylomorphism
  • Philosophy of cosmology
  • Universe
  • Laws
  • Meta-law dilemma