Rethinking Descartes in the wake of COVID-19, by Dr. Michael Ivins (guest contributor)

Today’s blog entry is from our guest contributor, Dr. Michael Ivins, whose study of great books and subsequent research surrounding the philosophy of Aristotle have equipped him with a quick eye for the philosophical implications of modern science. Dr. Ivins taught for five years at St. Vincent College (PA) and now teaches at Scottsdale Preparatory Academy (AZ).

If we are living through the first chapters of man’s early biotechnological history, Descartes was prophetic in declaring that the advancement of medicine would be the enduring legacy of his philosophy. Much of the success of modern science in easing the burdens of life has depended on the explicit abandonment of purposive causality in the natural world, while focusing solely on quantifiable attributes of matter.  However, there remains even today some question as to whether living matter can be made intelligible without appealing in one way or another to final causes.

Modern biology has offered a variety of answers to its most fundamental question: What is life?  Erwin Schrödinger suggested that life is a “negative entropy” phenomenon in which a complex configuration of molecules resists the thermo-dynamically inevitable degradation of matter into a disorder.  One might wonder, though, whether this view might surreptitiously introduce something resembling a teleological principle.  In any ordered system, there is always some ‘this-for-the-sake-of-that’ either in the subordination of one part to another or of the parts to the whole, so the question arises as to how, if not by means of an intelligence or some inherent material property, an ordered system could emerge out of disorder.

And if the discipline of medicine can be construed as something more than a sort of ‘applied biology,’ we might phrase its fundamental question as: “What is life for?”, in which case the science of healing further clarifies the need for a consideration of ends to obtain a more complete understanding of nature.  There may, then, be some tension between Descartes’ view that only the quantifiable is knowable and his explicit claim that the aim of his philosophy is the “maintenance of health.”

This tension may be all the more palpable in these strange times. While the immense powers of the technological sciences are being deployed in a world-wide health emergency, the demand for action is precipitating moral and political crises concerning the proper use and administration of those powers.

As educators and as a community of learners, our chief means of approaching such questions is the careful study of the tradition which has given rise not only to the current situation but also the very conceptual framework with which we, consciously or not, discern a just response.

As physicist and Dartmouth Professor of Natural Philosophy, Marcelo Gleiser recently pointed out in his opinion piece “Covid-19 will change us as a species,” the current crisis has prompted new levels of reflection for our species, as “[a] tiny organism is forcing us to revisit our values.”

Dr. Ivins will be offering an Institute-sponsored online course on Galileo this summer. For more information, contact


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