Nicanor Austriaco: "Recovering a Robust Account of Substantial Form Will Allow Us to Better Bring Science and Religion Into Conversation"

09 Sep 2014

A molecular biologist and a moral theologian at Providence College, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., participated in STI's Experts Meeting "Focus on the Embryo" and recently gave a presentation at the Anscombe Centre for Bioethics at Oxford University.

STI Experts

What did you discuss during your two formal presentations at the University of Oxford?

I spent a month at the University of Oxford as a Visiting Research Scholar at the Anscombe Centre for Bioethics. During my time at Oxford, I had the opportunity to make two formal presentations on my ongoing research on the recovery of substantial form in science, and to hold two research seminars on my work in action theory and on lying. In brief, the notion of substantial form has been integral to philosophical accounts of organismal life since the time of Aristotle. However, as it is universally acknowledged, substantial forms were discarded during the scientific revolution of the early modern period as unnecessary and meaningless realities that have no explanatory power. I am working to rehabilitate substantial forms using insights taken from systems biology. For instance, I think that it is accurate to claim that the substantial form of an organism is manifested in what system theorists call its “state space”, when the organism is understood as a dynamic living network of molecules changing in space and in tie. I think that recovering a robust account of substantial form will allow us to better bring science and religion into conversation.

I gave two talks at the daylong symposium at Oxford. The first was a discussion on the historicity of original sin. This talk was an exercise in faith and reason that tried to make a fittingness argument for the historicity of the fall during human evolution. I claim that we can know that there was a historical fall from grace during human evolution because we lack certain gifts – which I call the preteradaptive gifts – that God would have given us to counteract the negative influence of the evolved adaptations we had inherited from our primate ancestors.

The second talk focused more on my claim that substantial forms can be recovered with insights taken from systems biology. I also proposed that a systems account of substantial forms would allow us to recover an account of those natural inclinations (and disinclinations) that are important in any discussion of natural law in the Thomistic tradition.

How about during your research seminars? What did the participants talk about?

I am completing a doctorate in moral theology at the University of Fribourg that is investigating the hylomorphic structure, i.e., the form-matter structure, of Thomistic moral theology. My interest in recovering a contemporary account of substantial forms is an integral part of my doctoral research.

Two of the chapters in my dissertation deal with how understanding how St. Thomas Aquinas uses hylomorphic language in an analogous manner will not only help us to better grasp his action theory, but also to advance his account of speech acts. I distributed and discussed drafts of these chapters with the participants of the research seminar.

During the first seminar, we had a lively discussion of how to properly describe a human act by properly specifying the object of the act. This has been and continues to be one of the most pressing disputed questions in contemporary moral theology and bioethics. I proposed that those circumstances that are properly the objects of the relevant powers of the soul engaged in a particular human act should specify the object of that act.

During the second seminar, we talked about the nature of human speech acts. For the Angelic Doctor, every intentionally spoken falsehood is a lie because it disorders speech from its unique and proper end, which is to reveal the content of the speaker’s mind. In my pastoral experience, however, the everyday moral intuitions of many faithful believers reject this Thomistic conclusion with regards to commonplace everyday greetings: One is not lying when one affirms that one is well in response to the greeting “How are you doing?” regardless of how one is truly feeling.

To deal with this situation, I proposed that St. Thomas failed to appreciate that human vocalizations have multiple ends in the order of nature, including functions that do not involve signification, a claim supported by evidence from studies of primate vocalization and by evidence from studies of contemporary speech act theory in the philosophy of language.

How is your current research linked to the work that you discussed at the STI Experts’ Meeting in Barcelona five years ago?

Five years ago in Barcelona, I presented my conclusions on the philosophical status of human entities at the beginning-of-life. That work challenged me to think about the role of the substantial form in organizing the human embryo. My current scholarship builds on this work by taking my thinking on beginning-of-life issues and applying it to other philosophical, and now, moral realities. I am still grateful to STI for that opportunity to discuss my ongoing work in Barcelona.