Friday, January 15, 2021

McGinn on the question of being

Colin McGinn is a philosopher whose work I always find interesting even when I disagree with it, which is often.  His book Philosophical Provocations: 55 Short Essays is made to be dipped into when one is in the mood for something substantive but not too heavy going.  And it is accurately titled, since on reading it I was indeed provoked – specifically, by the article on “The Question of Being.”

McGinn characterizes the issue as:

the question [of] …what it is for something to have being.  What does existence itself consist in – what is its nature?  When something exists, what exactly is true of it?  What kind of condition is existence?  How does an existent thing differ from a nonexistent thing? (p. 211)

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Gnostic heresy’s political successors

The Western world is the creation of the Church, and the crisis of the West is always at bottom the crisis of the Church.  This is especially so where the Church has receded into the background of the Western mind – where men’s plans are hatched in the name of progress, science, social justice, equity, or some other purportedly secular value, and make little or no reference to religion.  For liberalism, socialism, communism, scientism, progressivism, identity politics, globalism, and all the rest – this Hydra’s head of modernist projects, however ostensibly secular, is united by two features that are irreducibly theological.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Lawlessness begets lawlessness

As someone who is on record condemning lawlessness and sedition, I am appalled and horrified by what happened today in Washington, D.C.  It is indefensible and inexcusable, and the rioters and vandals ought to be prosecuted.  But then, the rioting and vandalism that occurred in Washington last summer – and in Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and other major cities – was also appalling, horrifying, indefensible, and inexcusable, and its instigators should have been prosecuted.  Yet some of the people who are now talking tough about law and order were then blathering on about “mostly peaceful protests,” “defunding the police,” and other such lunacy.  We are reaping what they sowed.  If you are going to tolerate and excuse left-wing political violence, you are opening the door to right-wing political violence.  But if you rightly condemn the latter, then to be consistent, you must condemn the former.  You must insist that all citizens respect law and order – your political allies no less than your political enemies.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Year-end open thread

Let’s bring this annus horribilis to an end with an open thread.  That annoyingly off-topic comment of yours I keep deleting?  It’s now on-topic, so bring it.  From Richard Rorty to Get Shorty, from Bend Sinister to Yes Minister, from Tanqueray to Ricky Jay… nothing now stands in your way.  Apart from basic blog etiquette, naturally.  Trolls are still kindly invited to get lost.  (Previous open threads archived here.)

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The access problem for mathematical Platonism

Mathematical Platonism takes numbers and other mathematical objects to exist in a third realm distinct from the material and mental worlds, after the fashion of the Forms of Plato’s famous theory.  A common objection to this view, associated with philosophers like Paul Benacerraf, is epistemological.  In order for us to have knowledge of something, say these philosophers, we must be in causal contact with it.  But if numbers are abstract objects outside of space and time, then we cannot be in any such contact with them, because they would be causally inert and inaccessible to perception.  So, if Platonism were true, we couldn’t have knowledge of them.  Yet we do have such knowledge, which (the argument concludes) implies that Platonism is false.  This is known as the “access problem” for mathematical Platonism.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

District Attorney Michel Foucault

In the diabolical new disorder of things metastasizing around us, churchmen subvert doctrine rather than teaching it, and public authorities subvert law and order rather than maintaining it.  To be sure, these cancers have been slowly spreading throughout the bodies ecclesiastical and politic for many decades.  What is new is the sudden ghastliness with which an aggressive heterodoxy and criminality have broken through to the surface, making the reality of the disease evident to all but the most deluded of minds. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

What was the Holy Roman Empire?

According to Aristotelian-Thomistic political philosophy, the state is a natural institution.  It has as its natural end the provision of goods that are necessary for our well-being as rational social animals, but would not be otherwise available (such as defense against aggressors).  According to traditional Catholic theology, the state also serves functions relevant to the realization of the supernatural end of salvation, such as protecting the Church. 

However, while these things are true of the institution of the state in general, they do not entail the existence of any particular state.  That is to say, while the natural law and our supernatural end require that there be states, they don’t require that there exists Germany, specifically, or the United States, or China.  For the most part, the same thing is true of empires.  Nothing in natural law or in our supernatural end requires that there be a British Empire, specifically, or a Mongol Empire.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Augustine on divine illumination


Plato held that the Form of the Good makes other Forms intelligible to us in a way comparable to how the sun makes physical objects visible to us.  He also took our knowledge of the Forms to be inexplicable in empirical terms, since the Forms have a necessity, eternity, and perfection that the objects of the senses lack.  His solution was to regard knowledge of the Forms as a kind of recollection of a direct access the soul had to them prior to its entrapment in the body.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Links for Thanksgiving

What the hell happened to the Drudge Report?  The Tablet investigates.

The rediscovery of hell.  At First Things, Cardinal Pell abandons Balthasarian wishful thinking.

Never mind 2020.  David Oderberg asks: How did Donald Trump win in 2016?

Reading Religion reviews Steven Jensen’s book on Thomistic psychology.

The AARP magazine on the heartbreaking last days of Stan Lee. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Church and Culture radio interview

Last week I was interviewed by Deal Hudson for his show Church and Culture on Ave Maria Radio.  The interview lasts an hour and ranges over my work in general.  You can listen to it here.

You can find links to other radio interviews and the like here.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Tyranny of the sovereign individual

The individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.  But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.

Aristotle, Politics, Book I

At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher interviews theologian Carl Trueman about his new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.  Trueman argues that the collapse of traditional sexual morality cannot be understood except as a consequence of a radically individualist conception of the self that has been working its way ever deeper into every nook and cranny of the Western mind through the course of the modern age – including the minds of many so-called conservatives.  Yet too few defenders of traditional sexual morality realize this.  Trueman says:

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Means, motive, and opportunity

Did Joe Biden win the election fair and square?  Or was there voter fraud sufficient to tip it in his direction?  I won’t be addressing those questions here.  I want to consider the more basic epistemological issue of whether asking them is even reasonable, or instead the mere entertaining of a crackpot conspiracy theory.  At The Catholic Thing, philosopher Mike Pakaluk opines that it is reasonable, and two other philosophers, Rob Koons and Daniel Bonevac, evidently agree.  I think they are right.

Trump’s fiercest critics are hardly in any position to disagree.  For years they insisted with shrill confidence that Trump “colluded” with Russia to steal the 2016 election – even though, as honest lefties like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald vainly tried to warn them, that was a conspiracy theory for which there never was serious evidence.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Pink on Aristotle’s Revenge

In this week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement, philosopher Thomas Pink kindly reviews my book Aristotle’s Revenge.  From the review:

Edward Feser’s Aristotle’s Revenge is presented as a philosophical defence of Aristotelianism in its robust scholastic form, as exemplified by the work of Thomas Aquinas.  This broadly Thomist Aristotelianism, Feser argues, far from being a block to the study of nature, provides a metaphysics that is the necessary foundation for any science of nature, from physics to psychology.  The “revenge” lies in this fact, and most especially in the indispensability of Aristotelian doctrine to the very understanding of science and scientific investigation itself

Monday, November 2, 2020

Perfect love casts out fear


Months of lawlessness have left people on edge and anxious, and their anxiety is unlikely to be much abated by the outcome of the election.  For either the party of lawlessness will win, or it will lose and manifest its fury in further rioting, looting, burning, hounding of political enemies, and attempted subversion of lawful authorities.  There remains much to be anxious about either way, and there likely will be for some time. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

“Pastoral” and other weasel words

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.  If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

Analects of Confucius, Book XIII

But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’  For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. 

Matthew 5:37

“Weasel words,” as that expression is usually understood, are words that are deliberately used in a vague or ambiguous way so as to allow the speaker to avoid saying what he really thinks.  The phrase is inspired by the way a weasel can suck out the contents of an egg in a manner that leaves the shell largely intact.  A weasel word is like a hollowed-out egg, one that seems on the surface to have content but which is in fact empty.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Dupré on the ideologizing of science

Philosopher of science John Dupré, like Nancy Cartwright, Paul Feyerabend, and others, has developed powerful and influential criticisms of reductionism.  Whereas Cartwright is best known for her criticisms of reductionism in the context of physics, Dupré has tended to focus instead on biology (though both have addressed the other sciences as well).  Like Cartwright, his style is less mischievous and polemical than Feyerabend’s was.  Dupré’s essay “The Miracle of Monism” is a useful overview of his approach, and contains lessons especially relevant at a time when science (or at least the use to which it is put in public policy) has become ideologized.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Lockdowns versus social justice

The phrase “social justice” has a long and honorable history in Catholic social thought going back to the nineteenth century, but is now typically deployed in defense of policies that are diametrically opposed to social justice as the Church and its thinkers have always understood it.  And unfortunately, this is true even in the case of many Catholics, who lazily adopt various leftist attitudes and policies simply because they are falsely but relentlessly presented as concomitants of “social justice.” 

Last April, Fr. John Naugle argued in an important article at Rorate Caeli that indefinite lockdowns violate the natural human right to labor in order to provide for oneself and one’s family, and thus are deeply contrary to social justice.  He revisits the issue in a follow-up article.  Some Catholic defenders of the lockdowns are people who, in other contexts, claim to stand up for the rights of workers and to oppose consequentialist thinking.  But as Fr. Naugle points out, their rationalizations for the lockdowns are precisely consequentialist in character – pitting the alleged benefits of lockdowns against inviolable natural rights – and harm workers far more than any other segment of society.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Church embraces Columbus

We saw in a recent post how the Scholastic theologian Bartolomé de Las Casas vigorously defended the rights and dignity of the American Indians against the cruelty of Spanish conquistadors.  Las Casas in no way minimized the extent of this cruelty.  On the contrary, he is commonly accused of exaggeration and overzealousness.  So what did Las Casas think of Columbus?  Did he condemn him as an initiator of oppression?

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Joe Biden versus “democratic norms”


No one who claims to favor Biden over Trump on the grounds of protecting “democratic norms” can, at this point, be speaking in good faith.  They are either culpably deceiving themselves or cynically trying to deceive others.  Packing the Supreme Court would be as radical a violation of “democratic norms” as any president has ever attempted.  It would destroy the independence of the judiciary, making of the court a dictatorship for the party in power.  Yet Biden and Harris persistently refuse to say whether they favor court-packing.  Biden has now said that voters “don’t deserve” to know his position on this absolutely crucial issue before the election – even though he acknowledges that “it’s a great question” and says he doesn’t blame people for asking it!  Can you imagine the hysteria that would ensue if Trump gave such a lunatic answer to a question that momentous?  This is reason enough not to vote for Biden, whether or not you vote for Trump. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Weigel’s terrible arguments

In his article “Truman’s Terrible Choice” at First Things, George Weigel defends the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I respond at Catholic Herald.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Aquinas contra sedition and factional tyranny

As Aquinas teaches, “the chief concern of the ruler of a multitude… is to procure the unity of peace” (De Regno, Book I, Chapter 3).  All other social goods are subordinate to that, because they all presuppose it.  Without peace, no social good is secure.  Without unity – and in particular, without a shared commitment to a common set of laws, procedures, cultural norms, and the like – no peace is possible.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Aquinas contra globalism

In Book Two, Chapter 3 of his little work De Regno (or On Kingship), Thomas Aquinas addresses matters of trade and its effect on the material and spiritual well-being of a nation.  On the one hand, and at the end of the chapter, he allows that:

Trade must not be entirely kept out of a city, since one cannot easily find any place so overflowing with the necessaries of life as not to need some commodities from other parts.  Also, when there is an over-abundance of some commodities in one place, these goods would serve no purpose if they could not be carried elsewhere by professional traders.  Consequently, the perfect city will make a moderate use of merchants.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The rule of lawlessness

As Aristotle and Aquinas teach us, human beings are by nature rational social animals.  Because we are a kind of animal, we need to be safe from violent attack and we need the freedom to acquire food, shelter, clothing and other material goods and to be able to rely on stable possession of them.  Because we are social animals, we need the cooperation of others in order to acquire these material goods, and we also need the warmth of human relationships and a sense of belonging and loyalty to a larger whole – to a family, a community, a nation.  Because we are rational animals, we need for others to appeal to our reason in order to persuade us of their opinions and favored policies, rather than resorting to intimidation and violence.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Scholastics contra racism

Condemning racism (or “racialist prejudice,” as he referred to it), Pope St. Paul VI affirmed that:

The members of mankind share the same basic rights and duties, as well as the same supernatural destiny.  Within a country which belongs to each one, all should be equal before the law, find equal admittance to economic, cultural, civic and social life and benefit from a fair sharing of the nation's riches.  (Octogesima Adveniens 16). 

This suggests a useful definition of racism, which is best understood as the denial of what the pope here affirms.  In other words, racism is the thesis that not all races have the same basic rights and duties and/or supernatural destiny, so that not all races should be equal before the law, find equal admittance to economic, cultural, civic and social life, or benefit from a fair sharing of the nation's riches.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Open thread (and a comment on trolling)

We’re long overdue for another open thread.  Now is the time for you to post that otherwise off-topic comment I’ve had to delete.  From Being Itself to mental health, from Mickey Spillane to John Coltrane, from Dada to Prada, in this post everything is on-topic.  Naturally, the normal rules of decency and civility still apply.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Separating scientism and state

Scientism transforms science into an intolerant and all-encompassing ideology.  Bad as it is when it issues in crackpot philosophy, it can be even worse when used to rationalize destructive public policy – as with the increasingly idiotic and oppressive lockdowns that have been imposed across much of the world.  Now perhaps more than ever we need the corrective provided by the late, great philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994), who argued trenchantly for a separation of scientism and state.  I offer a primer in a new article at The American Mind.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The particle collection that fancied itself a physicist

I haven’t done a “Physicists say the darndest things” post in a while.  People usually ask me to write one up every time a Lawrence Krauss, Sean Carroll, or Stephen Hawking (well, lately not Hawking) publishes a new “gee whiz” pop philosophy book masquerading as a pop science book.  I find the genre extremely boring.  It’s always the same dreary, sophomoric PBS-level stuff: We’re all just heaps of particles, but golly this really increases rather than decreases the wonder of it all, and here’s some half-baked amateur metaphysics and life lessons that even hardcore materialist philosophers would regard as fallacious and banal.  The only variable is whether the crap philosophy in these $30 time wasters is coupled with clueless arrogance (cough, Krauss) or at least presented with some humility. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Russell’s No Man’s Land

In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell famously characterized philosophy as follows:

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science.  Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.  All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology.  But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; and this No Man’s Land is philosophy.  Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. (p. xiii)

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The links you’ve been longing for

At Medium, David Oderberg on the prophets Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury.

3:16 interviews Thomist philosopher Gaven Kerr.

At Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Kerr reviews Timothy Pawl’s book In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology.

Honest criticism or cancel culture?  At Persuasion, Jonathan Rauch on six signs that you’re dealing with the latter.  At The New York Times, Ross Douthat offers ten theses about cancel culture.

If aliens really exist, where the hell are they?  Michael Flynn surveys 34 possible answers.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Popes, creeds, councils, and catechisms contra universalism

One more post on the topic of universalism before we give it a rest for a while.  Whatever other Christians might think, for the Catholic Church the matter is settled.  That it is possible that some will be damned forever is the de fide teaching of the Church, so that the thesis that it is necessary that all will eventually be saved is heretical.  This is why even Hans Urs von Balthasar and Catholics of like mind argue only that we may hope that all will be saved, not that we can know that they will be, much less that it is necessary that they will be.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

A statement from David Bentley Hart

NOTE: David Bentley Hart and I have had some very heated exchanges over the years, but I have always found him to be at bottom a decent fellow.  That remains true.  During our recent dispute over his book on universalism, the one thing I took great exception to was the accusation of dishonesty on my part, and I let David know this privately.  He sent me the following statement to post here, for which I thank him.  I would also like to reaffirm my longstanding admiration for much of his work, such as his books Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Scripture and the Fathers contra universalism

A rhetorical game that universalists like to play is to suggest that in the early Church there was from the beginning a robust universalist tradition running alongside the standard teaching that some are damned forever, and that the latter view simply became dominant at some point and pushed aside the former.  Indeed, they claim, this non-universalist view is rooted in only a handful of scriptural passages, in illustration of which they will quote two or three of the best-known texts explicitly threatening everlasting punishment.  They will then claim that there is, by contrast, a mountain of scriptural passages implying universalism.  Origen, on this narrative, was simply giving expression to what was already clearly there in the tradition, indeed what was perhaps the dominant tendency in the New Testament itself.  This is standard David Bentley Hart shtick, both in his book That All Shall Be Saved and in earlier work.

Friday, July 24, 2020

No urgency without hell

A common argument in defense of the eternity of hell is that without it, there would be no urgency to repent or to convince others to repent.  Call this the “argument from urgency.”  One objection to the argument is that it makes true virtue impossible, since it transforms morality into a matter of outward obedience out of fear, rather than inward transformation out of sincere love of God.  Another is that it adds a cynical scare tactic to the moral teaching of Christ, the beauty of which is sufficient to lead us to repentance when it is properly presented.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Hart, hell, and heresy


Well, yikes, as the kids say.  Hell hath no fury like David Bentley Hart with his pride hurt.  At Eclectic Orthodoxy, he creates quite the rhetorical spectacle replying to my review of his book That All Shall Be Saved.  In response, I’ll say only a little about the invective and focus mainly on the substance.  Since there’s almost none there, that will save lots of time.  And since Catholic Herald gave me only 1200 words to address the enormous pile of sophistries that is his book, I would in any case like to take this opportunity to expand on some of the points I could make in only a cursory way in the review.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The experts have no one to blame but themselves


The Week’s Damon Linker frets about the state of the “American character,” citing an emergency physician’s wife he knows whose friends ignore her frantic pleas on Facebook to take COVID-19 more seriously.  The Hill reports that the “experts” are exasperated that people aren’t responding to their warnings about the virus with sufficient urgency. 

Well, of course they aren’t, because so many experts, journalists, and politicians have, on this subject, proven themselves to be completely full of it. 

Computer campus


As you know, academic life has largely gone online this year.  My own classes at Pasadena City College this fall will be entirely online.

The Thomistic Institute has also adapted to the circumstances with its series of online Quarantine Lectures.  I will be giving one of them this Thursday, July 23, on the topic “The Metaphysics of the Will.”  Details here.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Plato predicted woke tyranny


What we are seeing around us today may well turn out to be a transition from decadent democratic egalitarianism to tyranny, as Plato described the process in The Republic.  I spell it out in a new essay at The American Mind

Monday, July 13, 2020

Review of Hart


My review of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation appears in the latest issue of Catholic Herald.  You can read it online here.  (It’s behind a paywall, but when you click on the link you will see instructions telling you how to register for free access.) 

Here are some earlier posts that explore in greater detail some of the issues raised in the review:

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Other minds and modern philosophy


The “problem of other minds” goes like this.  I have direct access to my own thoughts and experiences, but not to yours.  I can perceive only your body and behavior.  So how do I know you really have any thoughts and experiences?  Maybe you merely behave as if you had them, but in reality you are a “zombie” in the philosophy of mind sense, devoid of conscious awareness.  And maybe this is true of everyone other than me.  How do I know that any minds at all exist other than my own?